Anthony Kanayo Onwordi, widely known as Toni Kan, is such a pleasant fellow. Always there for his friends, the celebrated writer and front man of Radi 8 is married to Wendy and they are blessed with two children – Awele and Chuka. A native of Ibusa in Delta State, the former editor of Hints magazine who was at a time with Continental Trust Bank, Zenith Bank, Bank PHB, Visafone and NEXT newspapers had a beautiful and fruitful interview session with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, on Tuesday, November 26, 2013. This was inside his office in Ilupeju, Lagos. Enjoy…
What makes a good writer?
Reading! If you don’t read, I don’t think you can be a good writer. I think that is the biggest thing that people don’t realize. Because writing, at the beginning, is more like plagiarism – copying what you like that somebody else wrote; I like Azuh’s writing, let me write like Azuh. So, I think that the first thing to do as a writer is to read widely. And that’s my biggest advise to people who want to be writers.
What is the costliest mistake that most writers make?
Not reading and not realizing that writing is a job. It’s not a hobby; it’s a job. There’s this book by Malcom Gladwell where he said that to become an expert in anything, you must do it for 10,000 hours. I will give you examples – Serena Williams and the sister (Venus), they were playing tennis every afternoon for almost 10 years. So, while their mates were sleeping, swimming, partying, they were playing tennis. The Beatles; they left London to go to Germany to play one gig. They got there, the deal didn’t work out, they were stuck in Germany. To survive, they were playing every night for almost 2 years. They used to play every day; they will rehearse in the morning, afternoon and play at night in the club and that’s how they were paying for their rent. They couldn’t go back home. So, by the time they came back to London, they were experts. Expert drummers, expert singers, expert guitarists. That was what happened to me. People were yabbing me. They will say ah, he used to write for Hints. But that was where I did my apprenticeship. I started writing for Hints in my year 2 in the university; from 1992 to 2001. Let’s say I wrote a story every week. That will be 52 stories times 9 years. That will be 450 stories. How many persons in Nigeria have written 450 stories?
So, what got you interested in writing?
My father studied English and he had a very huge library. So, growing up, I used to stammer. I was also very sickly as a child. So, I didn’t use to go out, I didn’t play football, I didn’t do anything. I will just stay in the house and read. My friends will be playing football, I will just sit on the step and be watching them and reading books. So, by the time I was like maybe 10, I had read almost all the 100 books in my father’s library. But none of the books touched me until I was 11. My father had moved to Lagos, so he sent me three books. On my birthday, nobody gives me anything apart from books. So, he sent me three books – Ben Okri’s book; his first book; Isidore Okpewho’s book and one man from South Africa. The titles were Flowers and Shadows, The Last Duty and Cross of Gold. They had just started the Longman series, Drumbeat series. I read the first one, the South African book; it was nice. Then, I read Ben Okri’s own, and I’m sure that I read it in one day. I couldn’t stop reading it. When I finished, I was crying. And I was like I’ve read over 100 books, suddenly one of them is making me cry. What is going on? So, I said okay, one day, I will write a book, then somebody will read it and also cry. Ben Okri was 19 then, and I was 11. So, I was like this is possible. Before, I used to read old people, but now I’m reading somebody who’s like my generation. That was when I said I will be a writer.
What do you like most about being a writer?
I can wear my jeans (Laughs), I can wake up when I want…Two things have happened to me that made me feel like oh, I’m doing the right thing. One was long ago. We were going to Ilesha (in Osun State) and my car broke down – when I was at Hints. So, we pushed it to one house, knocked on the door, the man came out and we said daddy, see o, this car broke down; can we leave it here? He said no, no, no. Move it, move it…So, I was begging. It was getting late; me and my friend were begging. So, a girl came out; a young girl of like 18, 19 and I was saying please, beg your daddy for us. My name is Toni Kan. The girl just screamed, Toni Kan, Hints magazine; daddy, he’s my friend (Laughing). The man was like your friend ke? So, the man allowed us park the car. We came back the next day, and for me that was good. At least, you are doing something that even if it’s not bringing money, it’s impacting on people. Then, when I went for my first bank job; one guy interviewed me and he was like you are coming to work in a bank, what are you bringing to us, what will be your value to the bank? And I said my name. He said what happened to your name? I said I think my name will be valuable to your bank and he said why. I said well, if I say I work here, some people will want to open accounts here. He said why, I said because people know me. I also said ask your sister or your wife; they will know who I am. He said are you sure? I said yes. So, he picked up his phone and called his wife and said I’m with somebody here; his name is Toni Kan, I don’t know if you know him. The woman screamed (Laughs). And the man was like ah-ah, so you think you are a star now? We became friends when I started working in the bank. So, writing has helped me a lot. I go to banks, people are on the queue, I will say my name is Toni Kan, they will say come, come, come… But basically, it’s the fact that I live my life. I wanted to do this. Even working in a bank, working in telecoms, this is really what I want to do. Wake up in the morning and write, go to bed and write. That’s been my ambition in life and I’m happy I can do it for a living now.
What don’t you like about being a writer?
The fact that you can’t go on holiday. There’s no cut off point. I mean, if you are a banker, banks close by 5o’oclock. Even if the president wants money, he has to go to ATM, after 5o’clock; he can’t come to you. Once that vault is locked, it’s locked. Work in telecoms, they close. But for a writer, somebody could call you; my oga has an event on Saturday, do a speech for him. You can’t say ah, oga, it’s Sunday, it’s Saturday. It’s not as if there’s a shop where you want to go and buy the words. It’s in your head. So, that is what bothers me sometimes. There’s no cut off point, there’s no closing hour.
What distinguishes Toni Kan as a writer?
It’s not as if I’m boasting – but I think I can write anything. Apart from maybe plays, which I haven’t tried. But I’m sure that if I try it, I will do it well, or documentaries. I can basically write everything. I can write engineering, I can write pharmaceuticals, I can write oil and gas; I have written an article about Nigeria’s air space before for a foreign magazine, so I think I can write anything. There’s something that Reuben Abati told me years ago – I said to him, Dr., what makes you different? And he said, if you give him a space, he will occupy the space, he will expand the space and he will expand himself and I took it from him that day. I now said if you give me a space; any space you give to me, I will try and adapt and to occupy it. And I think that’s what I have done. I don’t say no to anything, if it’s writing and it’s legit. Once it’s not 419 writing.
You’ve been writing now for over a decade, what will you say has kept you going?
I’ve been writing since I was like 20. And when I turned 40, I remember I said what I think I’ve achieved the most is that I was here when they started Nollywood; all these people that are now old stars, I was there as the Editor of Hints. And I’m still here now working for DSTV, working for others. So, I’m happy that I’ve crossed many generations as it were. I saw these people start – Ramsey Nouah, Kate Henshaw, all of them and I’m seeing new ones come up now. So, it’s funny how time has passed, but we’ve stayed. So, I think I will say I’ve managed to be around. Even when I was in the bank, I didn’t stop writing. I mean, I wrote for Independent for about 4 years; I write for ThisDay for as long as I can remember and I’ve written for Sun now for almost 4 years. So, I haven’t left…I wrote for True Love. Even people who didn’t know me at Hints now know me from all these other things I’m doing. I think that’s what I’m happy about – that 20 years down the line, I’m still doing this thing and doing it well.
Why do most writers attain success, but find it difficult to sustain it?
Because of the way life is. It’s in seasons. And I will say that’s my biggest achievement. I’ve been able to stay successful as a writer. We just came back from the Ake Book Festival and there was this fine oyibo woman I was just looking at. So, I told my friend, I want to talk to this woman. I went to meet her and I just said I didn’t like your book o; you didn’t portray Nigerian men well. She almost started crying. She said she was going to tell me that my book was the best book she read last year; she bought in London. I was like London ke? People will see you and say you are Toni Kan, right? I read your book last year. And those are white people from America, from Canada, from Australia and I think for me that makes me happy because what I’m doing here is actually going beyond Nigeria. I have friends who were Editors when we were all living in Akute that time; they went into banking and they are gone. They stopped writing. But you know, I kept at it because I knew that I was gonna come back to write and teach. I knew from day one that that’s what I will do. All these ones that I’m doing is just to be able to build a house and take care of my family. I knew that my passion was to write and to teach. So, maybe for me, I didn’t forgo my first love. But it’s about time and season; time to plan, time to reap, time to burn the bush. I guess people just follow that season. I don’t think it’s only in writing, I think it’s everywhere. How many musicians that we knew in the 80’s are still playing now, or the early 90’s?
Which of your books don’t you like?
There’s nothing I’ve written that I don’t like. I’ve written romance books, I’ve written biographies and now we get paid so much money to write biographies for people. But I was doing it at Hints for N15,000 a book. We wrote the book on Bill Clinton in 4 nights. Diana’s book sold 80,000 copies then; we wrote it also in 4 or 8 nights. And they paid me N15,000! In fact, the man was so happy he gave us a bonus afterwards. Now, we get paid millions just to write the same thing we were writing before. So, I cannot say that I don’t like that because that was how I prepared for this time. So, everything I’ve written, I stand by it fully.
Do you agree with those who say that books don’t sell because of our poor reading culture?
Completely, I don’t agree!
Because, look inside a BRT bus, almost all the girls are reading something – Danielle Steel and so on. And the men are reading The Richest Man In Babylon, How To Be A Millionaire. Why are they reading those things? My last book came out four years ago; it’s still selling. So, why is it still selling? Who is buying it? Spirits? No! Nigerians. I think that because we’ve been to school, we’ve studied to be writers; many people studying English and Literature, we think that everything we write must sound like Soyinka; it must be literary. But, if I was selling 85,000 copies at Hints, why did I stop? It’s because our books at too expensive. My book is one of the cheapest in Nigeria – N800. My publishers printed it in India, that’s Night of Creaking Bed. It was printed in India and it’s selling. At Ake Book Festival, that was the cheapest book, apart from Kaine Agary’s book at N500. And Kaine Agary’s book has sold almost 15,000 copies. So, you have to ask why are they not buying because they buy bend-down books, N200, N300 and they read it. I bought books at Ake for N2000 and ordinarily, if they were not my friends’ books, I won’t even buy them. So, one; we don’t even see Nigerian books to buy; distribution is very poor. Secondly, the cost is high because the Nigerian government places a huge tax on paper. Do you know that when you print the book outside and bring it into Nigeria, you pay very small duty. But if you bring in paper to print, you pay more duty? That is another problem we have. So, I think Nigerians read a lot, but we don’t write what they want to read.
You rose to become the Editor of Hints magazine. When did you come to that realization that you needed to veer into something else? And what prompted it?
You know my coming to Hints was like God’s plan. I won an award, I was going to London for the first time in 92 and my friend said he knows Kayode Ajala. He told him there’s this his friend, who just won this award, so he was like ah-ah, what do you write? I said I write essays and poems. He said can you write romance stories? I said I haven’t read Hints before, he said okay, take this copy, read it and see if you can write it. So, I went home, I wrote it and brought it the next day. He was like ah-ah, so fast? I said yes. So, he said okay, when you come back, come and see us. So, when I came back, I went to see Reuben and Kayode and that was how I started working for Hints. So, from university, I was already writing for Hints from year 2. I had money. My father was giving me N300, which sounds small now. But I was the highest of all my friends then in school. Suddenly, I was earning N3000 a month. So, I was like a big boy. And they were like, once you finish school, come and work for us. So, I wasn’t looking for job when I left university. When I left school, I went to work for Kayode at Hearts; then he had left Hints. But I finally went back to Hints. I remember the day I came in – my salary was, I think, 3k at Hearts and Hints offered me N11,000. I was like men! I would have gone mad (Laughing). They said they will give me a car, pay my rent and I was like men! People were in banks then but they didn’t have cars. So, I joined all the clubs, all the musicians knew you, all the actors knew you; it was fun for a young 24 year old person. I did it for some years. But from 96, 97, 98, 1999, they made me a management staff. I didn’t have shares, but I was a management staff at Hints. But by 2009, I knew I had to move. I met a friend of mine who was now working for LNG. He said to me, do you earn up to half a million naira a year? I checked, it wasn’t up to half a million naira. He said oh boy, you never start work be dat o! So, I went back to Hints, they gave me promotion, but I was like is this where I will be? I mean, I had a 2:1, I was the best student in my class. My friends were going for Commonwealth scholarship, but because of Abacha, I couldn’t go. So, I just thought I could do more and I was about to get married, my brother was getting into the university, you know, money was now tight for me. I was paid well at Hints, I was paid very well. But I just felt I had to do something more. So, I started applying for job in the banks and I got a bank job. I wanted to keep writing, but the publisher of Hints said no; that we had to leave. So, all of us left.
You joined Zenith Bank from Hints and later Visafone. Why did you leave Zenith Bank for Visafone?
You know that my first banking job was at Continental Trust Bank? So, from there, I applied to Bank PHB, when it was still Platinum, but they didn’t take me. They said I should wait. Then, one day, my boss took me to Jim Ovia’s office and I was just sitting down while they were talking. He said who’s that guy? He said oh, he’s my friend, he’s a writer. But he works in a bank. So, Jim was like ah-ah; he’s a writer and he’s working in a bank? He said yes. He said okay, can I talk to him? So, he called me and gave me one essay to read. I read it. Then, he said what do you think about it? I said well, it’s nice; written by a small girl of maybe 16. I just criticized the essay like that – he said so you can tell that a young girl wrote it? I said yes, it’s possible to tell. He now spoke to the guy in their language. Then, he now called me and said okay, how much do you earn? I told him and he said I should send my CV. It was a Saturday, so I sent my CV on Monday. I was wearing a T-shirt and slippers. I sent my CV on Monday to the secretary, then on Tuesday, I just got a call – they said hold on for Mr. Ovia. I said good afternoon sir and he said is this Tony, I said yes. He said okay, I saw your CV, I like it, how would you feel if you are earning so, so and so? I said I will feel happy. So, he said pick up your letter from the office. I was shocked; then he said I just offered you a job. I said thank you sir. That’s how I moved to Zenith Bank. I worked there for a while. When I got tired; because I was doing research – I was doing figures every day, so I got tired. Bank PHB now came and said they were doing the Intern Show, that I should come and help them do it. So, I went to Bank PHB. But Jim saw me one day and said you shouldn’t have gone. But he still prayed for me. Then, he said I should come and see him. So, I went again and he said I’m starting a telecoms company. I know you never liked banking. Come and work for me and he be my oga now, so I no get option.
Having worked with him closely, what kind of person is Jim Ovia?
He’s a very smart man. I think his success is because he’s smart and he can spot people who are smart. He does not feel that he has to cheat you because he’s your oga. He will pay you what your smartness deserves. And there’s something he told me, which has helped my own business now – he said to me that what you owe your staff is their salary; you must pay it on time and every time. That once you pay that, no matter what happens, God will bless you. And because you help all these people, help your family, their families, God is gonna help you. He had travelled and somehow he didn’t sign for our salary in Zenith. I mean, they could have paid without him signing, but they didn’t. That was the first time they didn’t pay us on 24th – and he was very angry, when he came back. I learnt that from Jim Ovia.
When did you finally take the decision to be on your own and what prompted it?
After I left Visafone, because two things happened – I wanted to teach at 40; I also wanted to write again full time. But I was like where will you write? So, when NEXT came along, my friends were there, they told me oh, we are having problem with marketing, this guy can help us, he has contacts and stuff. It was like 3 months of constant calls, talk, talk, talk… So, I called my partners, Peju Akande and a few other guys. We did a proposal to them, they liked it, but they said ah, come and help us do it. She was working at DDB Advertising, I was working at Visafone, the other guys were working in different places. But after some time, we were like let’s do it for 2 years, then do our own thing. We went there like we had our own outfit in a way. Five of us, different skills, we went to NEXT. When we got there, we found out that they had told us so many lies. Dele (Olojede) had told me so many lies; I can put that on tape. I didn’t know he didn’t have any money. I remember I asked him – you know I have a good job; if I were your brother, would you let me leave my job and come here? He said yes and that was a huge lie. So, when we got there, we killed ourselves for NEXT. Between five of us, we brought in N110 million in 3 months. I’m not sure it has happened anywhere before – advertising for a new company. And the target was N200 million. One day, he called me with some of his friends who would finally stab him in the back and he said to me that the money was too small; that I didn’t meet my target. I said well, before I came here, how much have you made? I remember the first month, I think when we brought in the first N30 million; one of the guys said to me that if we continue like this, in 6 months, we would be out of the woods. So, I told the guy, what are you saying? N110 million in 3 months? It’s not enough for you. So, we started having issues from there. They didn’t have any money! They had bought second-hand machines. One day, we will write that story of NEXT. One day! He had told me so many lies and I was now at a point where I was like I had lost a good job and this is not even gonna work out. I was being asked questions by people who didn’t know what publishing was, who didn’t understand what marketing was, who didn’t know how to get advert anywhere. And it was funny because I will walk into Guaranty Trust Bank , they will say oh, we don’t have approval, but take N1 million; we will go to Oando, Oando will give us N6 million. Even the woman that was there before me, her brother gave me N6 million and she didn’t get a dime from Oando. First Bank gave us N11 million; Charles Aigbe at UBA gave us N10 million and said we should start in 6 weeks.
So, we had money coming in from everywhere, but they didn’t want to calm down. I told them, see, we don’t have to go daily, sack half of the people working at NEXT, keep only Sunday, you are solvent. But, you know, they didn’t see it that way. Dele Oloyede is not a businessman. He’s just a writer, he doesn’t understand business. And people were lying to him and he was listening to lies. Then, one morning, I went to Port-Harcourt; I came back from Port-Harcourt, they had tried to turn my staff against me. But this (Peju) is my friend; 24 years friend; Chidi had been with me, I employed him straight from university; Charles…All of them. So, they were like, do you think this guy is our boss? No! He’s our general, he’s our friend. So, everybody walked out and they were like ah-ah! What’s going on? So, we all met in my house and I was like okay, well, N110 million for another man; how much can we do for ourselves? So, we set up our own company. And when I told my dad, my dad said that I told him that I will have my own company at 40. I did not remember. We said if we can give somebody else N110 million, we can give ourselves at least N10 million. And it’s 4 years now. We are still here.
What exactly do you people do at Radi 8?
Finally, some of the guys left to do their own things. So, it’s just me and Peju now. We were classmates and we had never worked before until NEXT. It’s a PR, advertising, design and events company. And then we do lots of writings – speeches, essays, articles for people and stuff. So, the way it’s structured is, she handles advertising and the design part, I handle events and PR. That’s how it’s broken down. Then, we do the writings together. That’s basically what we do – PR, advertising, design and events. Then, ghost writings, biographies.
How big is the company? What is your staff strength?
Right now, we are 7 in Nigeria, 2 in Ghana. We have a Ghanaian office. It’s a small company. But, of course, when we have projects, we get people on contact. But the core staff, we are 9.
Partnerships don’t usually work in Nigeria, but yours seems tight. As a matter of fact, people sometimes think that you are husband and wife. What has been the secret?
We didn’t come together because we wanted to do business. We’ve been friends for 24 years. We met in 1990. So, I do not know many people that I’ve known for that long in this world and we are not boyfriend and girlfriend. So, it’s a partnership that everybody has his or her own strengths. We don’t say I brought N5 million, what are you bringing to the business – otherwise when that person comes with that job, you will do it yourself. And then both of us have become family friends. Even her parents and my parents are friends. The parents got to know each other years ago, so if I do something wrong, her father will call me and say ah, see what your friend said you did; my mother can call her and say why are you people quarrelling like this? It’s not a business relationship that we have – we’ve been friends for a very long time. So, there’s no fear that ah, he will steal my money and run away. But there are times we don’t talk for like 2 weeks in this office (Laughs). But we know that there’s respect, there’s friendship and there’s trust. Those are the key things that we have.
Away from work, what do you do for relaxation?
When I was younger, I used to club – Niteshift and stuff. But now, if I’m outside at 10 o’clock, I will not go home, I will look for a hotel to sleep. I get scared now; you know some people depend on me – my children are there; if anything happens to me, it’s not only me that will suffer, other people will also suffer. So, I always feel like I’m more careful now. But you will see me at Freedom Park in the evenings and the cinemas. Because of what we do, we watch films a lot. But when we are doing that, somebody is taking notes. Her daughter was telling her that mummy, when would you go and watch a film and not take notes? Because we work for DSTV, they could ask you to do a review of a movie and somebody has to write it. So, it never ends. I think my life is good. I go to a party, somebody is going to pay me for coming to that party; I go to watch a movie, somebody is going to pay for that movie; I go to a book festival, I wanna do a story for ThisDay on it. So, when I’m relaxing, I’m also working, when I’m working, I’m also relaxing. That’s how it is, but I like to swim when I have time. So, it’s movies, music, swimming, hanging out…