Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born on Petit Morne Estate, a sugarcane estate in southern Trinidad which my father managed for the Usine Sainte Madeleine Sugar Company owned at one time by Tate & Lyle. I went to primary school in the nearby town of San Fernando. I went north into the mountains for my secondary school with the Benedictine monks of Mount Saint Benedict. Before leaving Trindad, I had been in a Junior Seminary from the age of 15. I left Trinidad at 19 to go to England to join the Benedictine Abbey at Prinknash in Gloucestershire.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
My father read books like The Ascent of Everest by John Hunt. He had been educated in England at Shrewsbury Public School and was very attached to that story, especially as Hunt was himself from Shropshire. My mother was educated by nuns in Port of Spain and was a pillar of the Catholic Church; however, she read Graham Greene and loved to discuss the controversies over his writing. She particularly loved Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. She was aware of the fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s and a great storyteller herself.
Why do you write? Your advice to new writers just starting out?
I began writing a journal when I was a young Benedictine Monk at Prinknash Abbey, and then I also wrote poetry and read fiction extensively. I studied philosophy and theology and enjoyed the brilliant monastic library. I was introduced to art and psychology, reading Freud and Jung. Introduced to D.H, Lawrence, I had never realised what literature could do before reading the The Rainbow which I read at 19, though I had had the experience of reading George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss eight times as a teenager. The monastic community had a very interesting number of monks like Dom Bede Griffiths, who was taught by C.S. Lewis. He left to go to India to found a Christian Ashram. There was Dom Sylvester Houedard who was a concrete poet of the 1960’s. He introduced many of us to the work of Allen Ginsburg and other Beat poets. Interest in Dom Sylvester’s work has recently been revived. I wrote to express my ideas and feelings at this time. I really only began to write seriously for publication once I returned to Trinidad in the late 1970s and found there the territory for my writing with the island’s history, literature and music. The accumulative experience of this return is what has been the continuing stimulus for my writing. I was fortunate to befriend the novelist Earl Lovelace and to work in the theatre with Derek Walcott in Trinidad. These encounters inspired me.
I would say to young writers be true to yourself and go for what is deeply meaningful for you, ask yourself over and over: What do I want to say? Be as authentic to yourself and your subject as you can be. Write every day.
Are there any other writers in your family?
No. But my wife, Jenny Green is my first reader and has written a memoir of her parents Somewhere Round the Corner.
How do you choose your subjects?
I chose to write about my birthplace, Trinidad, situated off the east coast of Venezuela with its extraordinary landscape, history and cultural mix created by African enslavement, Indian indentured labour and European conquest. It is a world where Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and contemporary secularism co-exist with some tensions, but in comparative harmony.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
I tend to start writing early, perhaps too early, and then I begin to search for what I need for periods I am exploring. But once I have found my voice, my tone, my point of view, I am off. I research and write simultaneously during the first draft and then real writing begins in the re-writing, then more re-writing till it all begins to settle down, or not, and then there is more reshaping. It is an organic approach. I have a plan always, but it changes. I then need new maps along the way.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing? Your views on success?
I have been lucky to have had everything published that I wanted to publish. I feel quite honestly that I have written as well as I can, as well as I could at each particular stage with each book. Success? There are different kinds. My greatest pleasure is being understood, seeing that understanding expressed in an informed piece of writing by a critic, student, or another author and then, of course the responses by readers. I valued and was moved by significant letters I received after the publication of Aelred’s Sin. One of my loveliest pleasures was the endorsement by Derek Walcott for my last collection of short stories Leaving by Plane Swimming Back Underwater which he found “a delight,” and had noticed my development and now found me “accomplished.” I value that hugely. I doubt that I could have written in the way that I have without his work inspiring me over the years. Likewise, the endorsement of my friend and mentor Earl Lovelace has been most encouraging.
When you look back at the books you have written, is there a favourite?
I love them all in different ways for different reasons. I think I have tried to be brave and to go for what I wanted and I have been lucky that I have found editors and publishers to work with me to facilitate what I wanted to write rather than telling me to write something else. My editor at Allison & Busby the late Peter Day was an early champion of my first novel Witchbroom and he also brought out Aelred’s Sin, a brave book which I still think needs to be out there with what it is saying about homosexuality and religion among its other themes which explore aspects of colonialism. I am very fond of Night Calypso, a love story set in the Second World War on a small island off Trinidad, housing a convent of nuns, a leprosarium and an American base. It is also a story of childhood and trauma. I was given a wonderful opportunity when I was granted a fellowship at the university in Trinidad to research French Creole society. The outcome was my novel Light Falling on Bamboo which was inspired by the life and times of Michel Jean Cazabon, a mixed-race artist of the period. My first collection of short stories Ballad for the New World was my apprenticeship so I love many of those early stories, for instance, The House of Funerals which received the Tom-Gallon Award. My latest collection, Leaving by Plane Swimming Back Underwater gave Derek Walcott “delight.” It is a more mature collection beautifully published by Papillote Press, who, this month republished Witchbroom as a handsome, “sexy” volume. I have a soft spot for Witchbroom. I was audacious enough to write it the way that I did. The result of a research project among ex-sugarcane workers on the estate of Golconda, collecting their stories and poems about their working lives in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s was enormously enriching. This is called Golconda our Voices Our Lives which I edited myself with a group of teachers.
Do you write every day; what is your writing process? Do you do many drafts?
I try to write every day. How I allocate time depends on where I am in a particular novel. Poems get written in between and sometimes short stories as well. Each feeds off the other, many drafts, many, many. It all comes together in the re-writing.
What are you working on now?
A novel set in the 18th century.
Your views on book publishing?
It is so important to be able to have a close working relationship with an editor who knows exactly where you are coming from, who can be critical but also loves what you are trying to do, knows the world out of which you are writing and knows then how to access and build a readership. Taking risks is important. I value care with covers and the quality of paper, blurbs and that I am consulted all the way on everything. It’s a very difficult world at the moment publishing, and working together is best. I love the access to an editor that a small press allows. It is of course good to be paid along the way, but the big advance is not everything, or even the medium advance. It’s the book and how the ideas are presented. I want what I am saying to be read.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
No, I don’t read ebooks. I am happy to have my work published in that format. The new technology helps with advertising. I think it is word of mouth that works best. Technology allows word of mouth to spread more quickly and widely.
Your views on social media?
As I was saying above, I prefer to leave that to publishers and publicists rather than do any of that myself. I do not want the interaction with readers except at readings. I do reply to anyone who writes via my publisher or agent.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I am happy where I am in my back room in North London. I always need to go back to Trinidad. I love Italy, Spain and France or being in the countryside of England and South Wales. But here on my “swan’s nest” that scatter of books and papers in my book-lined small study is best for writing.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I like best my friends I have made over years, like family, friends with a history of being friends, friends I made through teaching and writing.
Which characters in history do you like the most?
Hmmm … not thought about this like that before. I am intrigued by Emily Dickinson. I sought solitude when I was too young for it, and now I could want it more, but I can’t leave the one I love for it.
Your heroes in fiction? And in real life?
I did and do still love Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, her tenacity as a child, her romantic nature. I loved the Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude. They inspired my characters in Witchbroom; Antoinette in Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea; the McPherson brothers in Kent Haruf’s trilogy Plainsong, Benediction, and Eventide; Triton in Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef, the characters Aldrick and Pariag in Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance.
I admire great poets: Constantine Cavafy, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, W.H. Auden.
Your chief characteristic?
Checking on things.
Your chief fault?
Not thorough enough about technical practical things.
Your bedside reading?
Right now, Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Derek Walcott & Peter Doig (poems and paintings); His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Mervyn Morris, the Jamaican Laureate’s Collected Poems, Peelin’ Orange.
© Lawrence Scott, 9 May, 2017 for The BookBlast Diary.