The Big Idea: Femi Fadugba
In creating The Upper World, author Femi Fadugba decided he needed more than the usual levels of inspiration — he needed collaboration. And that collaboration was to come in a most unusual way. It all starts with headphones.
There’s a scene in The Upper World where my 16-year-old South London protagonist, Esso, is running to catch the #36 bus and sees a boy about to get run over. In a split second, he decides to save him. But in the act of pushing the boy out of the way of the oncoming Range Rover, Esso is hit and knocked out. And not just out of consciousness… out of reality as we know it. And into a place called The Upper World. It’s a realm where time appears the way physics describes it. A place where he can see his whole life laid out on a string – from the moment he was born to the moment he’ll die.
I wrote that entire scene with headphones on. And I’m 100% certain that my playlist found its way (at least spiritually) into my prose. So, when it came time to making the audiobook for The Upper World, I was adamant that the same music that inspired the writing should feature in the listening.
What I’m about to share isn’t your typical story about overcoming writer’s block or writerly adversity. It’s a fun story about a time I decided to take a punt on a risky idea that actually worked out. It’s also about how collaboration spawns creativity and the role community can play in it all.
I’ve heard very few audiobooks with musical scores… let alone sick musical scores… let alone drill or afrobeats musical scores (two genres playing heavy in my headphones while I was writing The Upper World). I knew the right sound could add emotional punch to a scene like the one I described above, and maybe even a new dimension to the genre of science-fiction altogether.
There was one tiny problem, though: I can’t play any instruments (well) and have never produced music before. The only way to bring my audio-literary vision to life was by getting help. And as any of my fellow writers who spend their days locked alone in a dusty room will confirm, collaboration feels daunting.
My first call was to Peckham rapper C.S (who went to high school with my cousin). He shared a link to an instrumental by a 19-year-old beatmaker (and Econ major) named Lazzro. A quick listen convinced me that this kid was making better beats than anything I’d heard lately on Spotify. So, I called Lazzro to introduce myself and to pitch the vision.
I was quite nervous: Lazzro didn’t know me or owe me his time. Plus, we creatives are notorious for giving less than our best when we’re not excited by a project. So, when sharing my vision for the audiobook with Lazzro – who was also based in South London – I tried summarising what I thought made the story special in one line.
‘The Upper World,’ I said into the phone, ‘is a story about love, violence and the physics of time travel… that just so happens to take place in Peckham.’
He laughed. Then, (thankfully), said he was keen to help.
One down. But I needed a second collaborator; someone who could put the music into a theatrical format and make sure it ‘multiplied the mood’. On a whim, I posted on Instagram that I was looking for a musical composer and a friend suggested James Maloney (who was two years below me at Uni and, as I soon discovered, now Music Director at The Globe!). We caught up and, to my surprise, what excited James most about the project was exactly what I’d been fearing most: the opportunity to collaborate.
We set up in a dimly lit studio in South London to record. I had my doubts on whether we’d make anything decent. After all, James and Lazzro had never even met each other. And I was asking them to magic up something that wasn’t only useable, but – hopefully – beautiful. In two days.
I’d prepared a detailed ‘Studio Schedule’ which was broken down into 15-minute intervals. But halfway through, my friend pulled me aside and suggested I chill out and just let Lazzro and James do their thing solo for a while. Needless to say, everyone was more productive after that, and we used the extra time to make a third ‘post-classical’ instrumental by James Maloney which went on to become the emotional centrepiece of the audiobook.
The best thing about the whole process was how fun it was. It’s easy as a writer (especially in COVID times) to become isolated in our own thoughts and forget about all that’s out there, waiting to reshape our expectations and outlook. Connection it turns out, isn’t just crucial for life, but for art too. And like young Esso, we must sometimes abandon our fear of colliding for our love of engaging.