When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Who were the authors that influenced you as a youth, and in what ways?
George Campbell, M G Smith (Jamaican poets in our nascent writing movement). They gave me the excitement about using writing to determine culture and nationalism in the sense of self-realization and reflection of what is real to us, not colonial England.
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience helped me to shape my young thoughts into poetry.
Chinua Achebe gave me the confidence to use my own speech patterns and to reflect the voices I heard around me.
Jane Eyre and Harding’s Tess showed me the wonder of the novel form.
Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso showed me how memoir can be cleverly enhanced by and cross bred with fiction.
How did it feel when you got to hold your very first advanced copy of your book?
For a few hours I had the illusion that I had cheated death.
What was the inspiration behind your book(s)?
My 3 poetry books were just my young embrace of life and beauty and my own truths, very young and meant to be enigmatic.
All my work is inspired by the dead.
The 3 memoirs, the work of my family building a young nation – my grandfather as the father of Jamaican independence, my father shaping that independence for the workers of Jamaica. My grandmother shaping a nascent art and writing movement. I lived with giants whose stories I pilfered.
All now dead.
My novels, the first was my relationship with a poet that I feel had a lot to do with my sticking to writing; Jamaica didn’t have writing schools and one needed a like spirit. He is now dead.
The other was the effect of being submerged as a writer in an organized community of scholars in a foreign American culture. An important theme of that book is a mysterious landlady I lived with for a year who taught me more about her country than anyone else, who, yes, is now dead.
What was your publishing journey like?
My first two poetry books were self-published. The third I was lucky to get Peepal Tree Press, a small English printing press who have been dedicated to Caribbean poetry and writing.
After about six months of frustrating approaches to Canadian and English publishers (they all wanted me to write my memoirs as novels!), I was very lucky that Knopf Canada was run by Graham Greene’s niece, Louise Dennys, who like her famous uncle was fascinated by the Caribbean. She published the first two memoirs.
After that, the fiction question came up again because they felt there would be no market for a third memoir – fair enough. Though it is always a threat to memoir this trying to get a true memoirist to write stories as fiction. I think if the people are real and their contributions are real and that is how the writer responds to the characters, fiction won’t work. It didn’t for me. I tried writing my grandmother’s story as a novel but it failed miserably. So I got an agent who told me to rewrite it as a memoir which I did – its half memoir half biography for I wasn’t alive for my grandmother’s youth. It was published by Key Porter Books but I always thought reading it was like driving a car with a twisted chaise – I could feel all the changes.
I found a new publisher for my novels – Cormorant Press. Honestly, I was lucky – he was a friend of a friend. Sometimes it’s like that. Publishing isn’t easy and it is getting more difficult as the internet has changed everything in this world. Self-publishing has become much more respectable and sometimes, if you find the write outfit, there are great editors and up-fronting the money isn’t necessarily a bad thing for it means more return. But you probably have to do your own marketing.
What advice do you have for aspiring young novelists?
Well, just write one page at a time. If you have a story, remember there are 365 days in a year and most books are under 300 pages, so a page a day isn’t that impossible! Don’t worry about publishing till you get to that bridge. It’s very distracting.
If you could have any superpower, which would you choose?
The one I have. The ability to write well.
Where is your favorite travel destination?
When you’re not writing, what are your favorite hobbies?
Where can people find you online?