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Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Talking to Marie-Elena John

Reviewing Marie-Elena John's debut novel in the August 2006 CRB, Jane Bryce wrote: "Although Unburnable is, by turns, a love story, a romantic thriller, and a historical romance, there is a certain point in the novel when the reader forsakes all expectations of a generic 'happy ending', surrendering willingly to the seductions of a well-written, suspenseful narrative with its unexpected twists and unforeseeable outcome." Unburnable won its author much acclaim in the Caribbean and in North America, and was named the best work of debut fiction for 2006 by Black Issues Book Review. Ahead of her visit to Jamaica for the Calabash International Literary Festival, John answered a few questions about her current work in progress, her writing process and the way it has changed, and the ways she balances family life with literary endeavours.

NL: You must be hard at work right now on your second novel. Can you tell Antilles readers something about it? You've mentioned in previous interviews that you hope to integrate more from your work in African women's rights into the second book.

M-EJ: Hard at work yes, but I wish more of it could be on the second book. To be honest, I’m still more tied up than I’d like in the marketing/promotion efforts of the first one. I gave myself till last November to be seriously writing again--but first I had to put up the website. That took me into January. Then I discovered that there were some other angles to the promotion that hadn’t been explored. That took care of February and March. Then I started getting a few requests to write smaller bits for magazines, tourism publications and such. Well, one must eat. So there went April and May. Now the paperback is out, and HarperCollins has a bit of a new promotion happening, with a book club focus. I’ll be in New York and DC for some publicity. June gone. And so it does go.

What I’ve done extensively on the second book is a form of elaborate sketching--not outlining, which I can’t do, but just kicking sundry ideas around with myself on paper, sometimes having to do with possible plot or a thought on a character, but generally not, usually just something that popped into my head, a memory that I’ll elaborate, or a voice that came out of nowhere making a statement. Interestingly, those notes tend to find their way into the story. The old unconscious mind.

But in between the sketching, I do get some real writing done (sort of in bursts, though what I need is to write every single day for things to really roll). It’ll be absolutely impossible for the African women’s rights work to get cut this time round, because the central character lives in Lagos. So far, she’s an Antiguan woman who ended up in West Africa rather circuitously (hmm, sounds familiar...). She’s into all kinda ting. She has a daughter who got dragged around with her in Africa as a young child, now lives in the US and absolutely hates Africa, but who’s reluctantly going to visit her mother in Lagos. While the daughter is there... well, who knows what’ll really happen. Their relationship looks to me like it’s a metaphor for my own internal struggle between wanting to make some kind of mark on The World vs making a mark on my kids....

NL: How is the experience of working on the second book different to the first? Is it easier, because Unburnable cleared a path for you? Harder, because you now have major expectations to live up to? Or--?

M-EJ: It’s easier in that now people actually believe that I’m writing and I get a certain amount of respect when I say I’m writing. Before, they would nod seriously, but once, a neighbour’s gardener said what they were really thinking: “Ah wha you a really do lock up in dey all day--ah sleep you ah sleep?”

But there’s a ton of pressure, definitely, now. Before, I was so innocent/ignorant about what I was doing. I started off writing some very awful, simply bad stuff. But I had no idea it was bad. I was very proud of it. I wrote sentences like, "'Oh,' she said, smiling demurely.'Whyever would you say that?'" (Not exactly, but you get the picture). I just didn’t know any better. I accidentally stumbled upon my “voice” and I understand that some people consider it to be decent. So I’ve lost the freedom that came with being clueless; I have to make sure that I’m now writing “good” writing, which then leads to the worry that I’ll end up sounding self-conscious or forced.

NL: Do you find your style changing or evolving in the second book?

M-EJ: Recently Nalo Hopkinson mentioned that I wrote a lot of Unburnable in “limited omniscient veering into distant third person” which she said can be “wobbly” if not done well (but that I’d pulled it off --thank you Nalo!)--and although I’ve only just discovered the term "omniscient", I do know that I write in a kind of old-fashioned storytelling style, so at some point I would like to consciously break away from that to see what happens, maybe try a first person narrative that’s a bit closer, more intimate. I did start this second book in first person, but felt very hemmed in, so I guess it’s back to limited omniscient veering into distant third person.

And I don’t know if style and voice are the same thing, but the main response my agent got from editors for Unburnable was: “strong voice.” It took me a long time to figure out what was this “voice” business, but now I get it. I used to write letters to researchers in Africa about their proposals--“Here are the questions the panel has about your proposal, and they’d like you to address this, that, the other”--and then after months of faxes and DHLs back and forth--that was before email to sub-Saharan Africa was common--I would finally meet them. They almost always said that they were expecting a physically large woman based on the letters I’d write (some would make brackets of their arms to show what size they expected, and they were clearly looking for a very big person). I think the researchers and the editors were responding to the same thing. And when I read what I’ve done on the second book, I’m getting the same vibe, the same general sense--I now recognize what I sound like on paper. So I think that overall, I’m solidifying my style with this book--I don’t think it’s evolved, not yet anyway.

NL: The "room of one's own" question: how do you balance a writing career, and a certain need for privacy, space, and time, with family life? How do you negotiate this?

M-EJ: Ah, the question of questions. I do fantasize about going away for months at a time to somewhere like a small cottage in the mountains of Dominica to write all day with nothing but the sound of a nearby river for company--but reality bites.

Before Unburnable was published, I only wrote for the part of the day when the house was empty, and once I picked the kids up from school, that was it for the writing. I didn’t write on weekends, and took vacation when they did. Now that I have more going on and need a longer day, it’s much more difficult to balance things. I was writing yesterday afternoon, when the kids started acting up. So I opened the bedroom door (I write in a small corner of a small bedroom) and used my very, very quiet voice, which scares them no end (as opposed to when I shout, which they ignore). I throw in the word “deadline” and that works sometimes too. With adults, I always say I’m on deadline, even though what I mean is: I’m in a very creative and productive period and although this book won’t be done for another year or more, I do need to stay “lock up in dey all day” staring at the screen and walking around in circles every now and then. But somehow nobody would understand that, so I don’t say it.

When I’m really deep into writing or thinking about a particular scene, I know I’m very detached and day-dreamy--this gets very hard on my husband--and I don’t exactly do well socially, so I try to take small breaks of a few days off between the scenes (for me, it’s less about writing a chapter than it’s about visualizing and then describing a series of consecutive scenes).

I’ve also done some creative things like going to Guadeloupe, Martinique and Puerto Rico with the kids during summer vacations for two week stretches and putting them in language day camps while I stayed in the hotel room all day alone writing, with my husband joining us for the weekends--a hybrid of family vacation and a writers’ colony-type experience.

I’m also about to build a tiny one-room wooden cottage to put in the backyard, which will be my office. I can then leave the house and GO TO WORK. I’m hoping it’ll cut down on the number of times a day I’ll have to do my grade-B horror movie soft voice act with the kids.

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