Tell us about yourself.
I’m a writer. That’s what I tell border guards—though to tell the truth, I feel a sort of brazen shiftiness as I make sure to look into their eyes and say it. I’ve only published two books, after all, one co-written with my wife Pamela, who has a much longer bibliography across poetry, prose, plays, and literature for children—a real writer.
I’ve told border guards different things over the years, all of them more ‘true’ at time of telling: civil servant, diplomat, journalist, television director, publisher, bookseller, even (when I’m carrying the paraphernalia) photographer.
But I guess ‘writer’ is true at this time: I don’t do anything else.
When did you realize you had a passion for writing?
When I ran out of other options for making money. More accurately, in 2000, when the Toronto Arts Council gave me a grant for a piece of writing I’d been playing around with for 20-or-so years. As a taxpayer myself, I felt (and still feel) an obligation to work hard to complete a project. That one became my first novel, Blue Mountain Trouble (2009). Other grants since then have transferred the sense of obligation to other projects.
I’ve always scribbled. At high school (in England—a very long story) I was blessed—as so many writers are—with two teachers who were passionate about literature, and knew a vast amount about the literatures of England and Europe. With their encouragement, I started scribbling then.
Returning to Jamaica at nineteen, I continued scribbling. A few poems and a story were published in the Caribbean, but I had no real ambition to be ‘a writer.’ Writers were god-like creatures in my life (and to some extent, still are). From childhood onwards I’ve been surrounded by books, wherever I’ve lived. I often say that home is where our books and music are—right now it’s Kitchener, but at different times it’s been Jamaica, Trinidad, Washington D.C., Boston, Toronto.
And wherever I’ve been, even in hotels and temporary lodgings, I’ve scribbled. I don’t know if that constitutes a passion for writing. But the passion for reading—the foundation of any writer, I firmly believe—and for music, remain.
What pieces of writing/authors have had the greatest impact on you?
I’d have to begin with the King James Bible, whose language is the groundation of almost all Caribbean literature in English.
After that: Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott, poets who, in their completely different ways, demonstrate the possibilities for using English—the KJ Bible again, but also the endlessly variegated languages that our histories have engendered—to create literature for and about the Caribbean, which is mainly what I do. (Exile, albeit voluntary and pleasurable, focuses the mind on former things and ways of being.)
For prose, I find Latin American literature inspiring, especially Gabriel García Márquez (who calls himself a Caribbean writer), Jorge Amado (who writes about a part of Brazil that is very Caribbean), and Eduardo Galeano, who writes alternative histories of the Atlantic world. They have been served by superb translators, but I sometimes say that it would be worth the effort to learn Spanish and Portuguese, even at my age, just to read them in their original languages.
But insofar as all reading influences a writer, I can also mention some non-hemispheric authors, from Somerset Maugham, H.E. Bates, and Graham Greene, to Truman Capote, Ursula Le Guin, and John Steinbeck (who, incidentally, began his working day by reading something from the King James Bible), Mark Twain (my desert island author), and Damon Runyon, a favourite of my father’s, who didn’t waste time with Grimm and Mother Goose when reading to his children.
How and when do you find time to write?
I try to do a few hours in the morning, as early as I can start. If that goes well, I’m set for the day: energetic, calm, cheerful—and, as my wife will tell you, I’m not naturally cheerful or energetic. That feeling sustains me through the period of the day when I have to do other things (driving, cooking, snoozing—a must at my age) and leads me to that point I remember Ernest Hemingway saying was his goal for the day: Knowing where you’re going to resume. In his case that meant the next morning; in mine it means the early evening of the same day, which may go on for a few hours. I know that 90% of writing is re-writing, but I don’t do as much of that as I should, until I absolutely have to.
Like right now. I’m re-writing a novel I’ve been working on (scribbling at for near forty years, writing seriously for perhaps ten, from the year of my first Canada Council grant) which is being transformed as I re-write. I tell younger writers who ask: ‘Follow the characters, and the language. Step by step.’ Some completely new thing will emerge.
What has been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a writer?
Making a living. In that I’ve been immeasurably helped and immeasurably supported (emotionally, spiritually and, very importantly, financially) by my wife Pam. Without Pam’s royalties we’d be living in homeless shelters and tapping out our words on computers in public libraries.
The other challenge is confidence. I’m currently revising what sometimes seems to me my life’s work, a historical novel set in 1831-32 Jamaica, dealing with events that have been exhaustively written about by Caribbeans and other scholars and novelists (the former of whom I’ve read some, the latter of whom I’ve avoided like the plague—confidence again). In the novel, I’m coming at some things from an angle, so to speak, and there are moments (several each day) when I feel an abyss of darkness opening under my typing chair. But I press on—I am, I remind myself, a taxpayer funded by taxpayers. And—give thanks—by a wife who believes in what I’m trying to do. In that context the other challenges seem small.
How have you changed as a writer over the years?
I’d like to think I’ve gotten better—whatever that means—at saying what I want to say. In truth, I’d really like to think that I’ve learnt more about what I want to say! But who knows? I haven’t written enough.