A degree in biochemistry is not a common entry on a novelist’s resume. Participation in an MFA program, yes, but advanced math and science? Rare.

Yet scientific training can be a good friend to a writer, says Ghanaian-born author Ayesha Harruna Attah, who earned a biochemistry degree at Mount Holyoke College. To her, one discipline complements the other.

“I’m very methodical about planning,” says Attah, who also has degrees in journalism and creative writing and attended Columbia and New York universities. “Writing is almost like planning an experiment. You’re going to have a hypothesis. You’re going to have an idea of where it’s going to go. But once you do the experiment—once you do the writing—you realize it has nothing to do with where you thought it would go, and then you go back and rework things.”

Attah, who lives in a small beach town in Senegal, is the author of five novels, including Harmattan Rain, about three generations of Ghanaian women; Saturday’s Shadows, about a family trying to survive West African violence in the 1990s; and the historical novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga, a finalist for the 2020 William Saroyan Prize, in which two women’s lives intersect during the days of the African slave trade.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga, which has been translated into four languages, inspired Attah’s first book for young adults, The Deep Blue Between (Carolrhoda, March 1). Set on Africa’s Gold Coast and in Brazil, the novel is narrated by Hassana and Husseina, twin sisters separated after a brutal raid on their family. They escape slavery and end up on different continents. But while Hassana dreams of her twin, Husseina fears a reunion will destroy her newfound autonomy.

Hassana and Husseina were supporting characters in the original book, and Attah hadn’t intended to follow their story. But these young girls—resilient, determined, brave—refused to leave her mind.

“They were haunting me,” Attah says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about them.”

And so their history is now part of hers—and part of what makes her glad she chose writing over science.

“I feel a lot more free,” she says. “As I was studying my chemistry, a lot of it got detailed, which happens when you’re writing fiction as well. You do need those details. But I found that I got more pleasure out of being able to zoom out and have a bird’s-eye view of everything. In chemistry, to see the big picture was hard for me.”

Attah answered some questions about her work over Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

From your perspective as a West African writer, do you feel books by African authors are getting more attention from the global publishing industry?

There have been a lot of books published out of my region in the last two years, but I’m a little worried that it might just be a wave—like right now Africa’s in vogue, and suddenly the lens is going to shift to some other region in the world, whereas it should be everyone’s literature being showcased all the time. The White canon is still considered the norm. Africa and Latin America and the Asian subcontinent, they’re still being positioned with reference to White literature. If interest is ebbing and flowing, it should ebb and flow everywhere. It shouldn’t be pegged to that canon.

What is the most difficult part of writing historical novels set in late-19th-century Africa?

It was getting points of view of people and how there wasn’t a lot of writing left by young African women of the time. It would have been nice to have a true perspective of a young woman growing up in the Gold Coast. I had to dive deep into research, which let me know what the house looks like, the clothes they’re wearing, the food they’re eating. I picture it as connecting dots and lines through these aspects. But it’s a challenge. You want the world to feel true, and you want to have as many facts as you can, but you still have to use your imagination.

How was writing a novel for young adults different than writing for adults?

I didn’t put any rules in my head. All I knew from editorial guidance was that you have to leave younger readers with a message of hope. But [Hassana and Husseina] lived in my head for so long, I wrote it very quickly.

Why did the idea of twins appeal to you so strongly?

Having grown up in a family with a lot of twins, I’ve seen what it’s like for twins to meld into one person. It made me wonder what it would be like for twins not to be attached to another person all the time. [My] last name, Attah, means twin. We have so many of them, and I was so curious about their lives. My great grandfather was a twin, and he and his brother were inseparable. In African society there’s this push for unity, even if you don’t get along. We really push the idea of We should be together as a family. It’s community-based thinking. These characters were living in a precarious time where men were taken away. That could be why the result was: Let’s keep together those of us left behind.

Who are some of the writers you admired when you were a young reader?

Roald Dahl—I read almost everything I could lay my hands on. There was a mobile library, so we’d go there and read The Baby-Sitters Club books, Sweet Valley High, all those. Quite quickly I discovered James Patterson and other mystery and crime writers. John Grisham was big in Ghana as well. When I went to high school, they had this amazing library, and that’s where I discovered Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. For me at 13, Toni Morrison was a bit difficult to access, but I just loved the way she worked with words, so she’s a big influence on my writing.

You followed The Deep Blue Between with a romantic comedy, Zainab Takes New York. Was writing a light novel a relief after dealing with complex subject matter?

It was actually tough! Romance has its own rules. I thought, This is another world. I’ll wade in the waters and just write the way I want to. I might get some push back because it doesn’t follow the rules of the genre. I wrote it because of the pandemic, because I thought, What if I was to die? Why don’t you do something fun? I’ve always loved romantic comedy as a genre.

What are you working on now?

Right now I have this big idea in my head that is still germinating, but I haven’t put a word down yet. I’m hoping to start work on it soon. I’m also running an ice cream shop, a really fun project that I run with a friend on the weekends. I make the ice cream, and she does smoothies and cookies.

How did you go from novelist to ice cream entrepreneur?

I bought an ice cream machine! I just wanted to have good ice cream here because this is a hot country. But also because I had this biochemistry degree. I got into the science of ice cream, and it’s fascinating. So I took that approach to my ice cream as well as my writing.

Connie Ogle is a writer in Florida.