Questions for Jane Harris

Questions by Harriet

Hi Jane – I really loved Sugar Money (as I did your other two novels). We’re very grateful to you for agreeing to answer some questions. First of all, the thing everyone always wants to hear – how did you become a writer?

Hi Harriet. Thanks so much for asking me to do this Q and A. I’m delighted that you loved Sugar Money. It’s always nerve-wracking when a new book emerges into the world, so to have good feedback from expert readers is reassuring!

As for how I became a writer… I had always scribbled poems and scraps as a child and teenager and I did write comic monologues and songs when I was on the alternative comedy circuit a billion years ago, but I only started writing what you might call proper short stories when I was living in Portugal one summer in the late 1980s.

I was due to start teaching in the autumn term at a language school when I caught some kind of virus. I had no money and nothing with which to distract myself except a pen and some paper. So I lay on the couch and began to scribble a short story. I must have written about 18 drafts of it in total over the next few days. I just disappeared into the world of the characters. Nothing had ever absorbed me so much before. I knew then that I had finally found what I wanted to do in life.

Thereafter, I spent years writing and publishing short stories in anthologies and magazines before it dawned on me that in order to make a living from writing, I’d have to produce a novel. Indeed, my first novel, The Observations, began life as a short story that just expanded. In the end, I gave up on it because I had no idea how to construct a long-form narrative. Ten years later, having stored the pages away in a box (and taken a lengthy detour into writing for the screen), I read over them again. By then, having worked for years as a script and novel reader for film companies, I had a better idea of how to construct a narrative. I was able to work out a storyline for my characters – and the result became The Observations.

What’s your working day like? Where, when and how do you write, and how disciplined are you?

It very much depends on what stage of the writing process I’m in, but I usually keep office hours which begin as soon as I wake (whether that’s 6am or 9am) and continue until the early evening. I try to take one day off a week.

Mostly, I write at home, sometimes at my desk, sometimes in bed, sometimes on the couch. I write directly onto my computer, either laptop or desktop, but there are days when I’m making notes, planning or researching, rather than actually ‘composing’ and on those days I tend to scrawl notes by hand on recycled sheets of paper which are then stored in lever-arch files. By the end of a novel, I have between six and ten of these files, full of notes, research material, experiments with voice, questions for myself, timelines, character biographies, family trees of how the characters are inter-related, maps, photographs, copies of paintings, and so on.

When I’m in full-on writing mode, I’m very disciplined but I do take breaks every hour or so to potter around, make coffee, check emails and social media and so on. Once a book is finished, life becomes a bit different. There’s proofing to be done and pre-publicity obligations, and sorting out the website, and so on. This year, I also moved home and have had a few other commitments. Everything has been a bit chaotic, so I haven’t yet been able to start work on anything new. I’m absolutely longing for the time when I can sit down and address what I’m going to write next. It’s very exciting.

Sugar Money is set in the Caribbean, in the 18th century. How did you happen upon the idea for the novel?

The novel is based on a little-known true story which I read in a history of Grenada, written by Jamaican-born Grenadian academic, Beverley Steele. The true story constitutes just a few paragraphs in her book but I was immediately intrigued by what I read and struck by what an incredible tale it was.

Basically, a group of French surgeon-monks based in Martinique decided that they needed to ‘reacquire’ a group of enslaved people that they had left behind, several years earlier, in the island of Grenada. These poor slaves laboured at the hospital and plantation that the Fathers had once managed, until the French authorities expelled the mendicant monks from the island, following a series of scandals.

To complicate matters, the British had since invaded Grenada and now controlled the island, including the hospital plantation. Initially, the monks attempted to recover their chattels by various means, without success until, in the end, they sent an enslaved man (called ‘a mulatto’ in the history books) with instructions to recoup the slaves. This man – this ‘mulatto’ – had no choice and had to follow orders. He haunted me, and I wanted to explore this courageous character and also figure out the detail of what might have happened and why. This enslaved man became one of the main characters in Sugar Money and I called him Emile though, in the original sources, he remains nameless.

Obviously a tremendous amount of research has gone into the novel. It would be fascinating to hear how you went about this.

Well, the research was very wide-ranging so I won’t give an exhaustive account here, but I began with history books by Beverley Steele and Raymond Devas, among others, and literature on the Atlantic slave trade in general, along with more specific (and often horrific) accounts of plantation life in Martinique and Grenada. The personal narratives of enslaved people were harrowing to read but illuminating. One of my touchstone books was Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies, which is full of detailed descriptions of the islands, and conversations rendered in Creole.

For original sources, I visited the archives at Kew, London and in Aix-en-Provence, France, to study the few old documents which mention the true story – just a handful of letters, really, written by local officials to the Governors of the islands, along with some plans of the hospitals in Grenada and Martinique. In addition, I collected images and maps and pored over these, to work out where the main locations would have been and what routes my characters might have taken as they travelled about. Eventually, I amassed about eight lever-arch files of research notes, as well as what I have accumulated in digital form.

In addition to non-fiction, I undertook extensive reading of novels about the slave trade, too many to mention by name but including The Book of Night Women by Marlon James and The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Also, because – in a sense, this is a quest story – I immersed myself in quest narratives and, in this respect I found the work of Robert Louis Stevenson helpful.

With the aid of a grant from the British Council, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit both Martinique and Grenada and was assisted greatly by local historian John Angus Martin, who was at the time Curator of the Grenada Museum. His collection of images and his personal knowledge of the island’s history were invaluable.

Another very important part of that trip was a trek I undertook with Telfor Bedeau, a veteran hiker and famous local guide. He helped me to trace a possible route that my characters might have taken across the island.

Once I had a decent draft of the novel, I consulted Scottish-Caribbean historian, Dr Stephen Mullen, who read through my manuscript with a view to alerting me to anachronisms and errors. He did question that this enslaved man had been allowed to travel from Martinique to Grenada without the supervision of his masters – which was something that, at the start, had also bothered me. However, the original sources and history books all imply that the man was sent from one island to the other and this gave me an early clue as to how much ‘freedom’ a trusted enslaved person might have been given in those islands at that time – perhaps, partly, because (as I explore in the novel) there was virtually nowhere to escape to.

Slavery, and the treatment of slaves, is an important theme in the novel. How much of this were you aware of before you started work?

Before I began this book I probably had a slightly generalised notion of the horrors and injustices of slavery and the treatment of enslaved people. Of course, most enslaved people had no voice, with the result that the majority of surviving contemporary records were written by white people. My research took me to some very dark places, for instance, in the letters and diary accounts of some planters, French and British, who seemed happy to itemise the unthinkable punishments and physical, sexual and psychological abuses they carried out on their slaves. Most people are probably aware that whipping and rape were commonplace, but many planters were also even more hideously inventive in the ways that they meted out punishment.

The research also showed up something unexpected in that, although life for enslaved people was, of course, inconceivably grim, there was also often a certain quotidian element to the existence, a sense of just getting on with it. If you displeased your master or overseer, you might well have been punished in any number of ways. You might have spent much of your life in chains and slept in cells under lock and key. But, surprisingly, there’s also evidence that some slaves were allowed to carry firearms and other weapons, and had the freedom to travel around the islands on the business of their masters. Freed slaves sometimes became slave-owners themselves. European planters and overseers entered relationships with enslaved women, women who bore them children and, sometimes, these same white men paid for their women and children to be ‘freed’. I came to realise that it was a very complicated and multi-layered system of oppression.

I know you visited the Caribbean in the course of your research. How necessary do you think this is for a writer?

All writers should visit the Caribbean! Seriously, though, it would have been both difficult and foolish to attempt this novel without having visited the islands. I was fortunate enough to be able to spend eight weeks there, in total, over the course of a few years. That’s not long, but it was enough (I hope) to help me immerse myself in the place such that I could paint an accurate picture in words.

Of course, I tend to disappear inside my characters, particularly my narrators, and everything in my novels (thus far) is told from their point of view. I have to think about how the character sees, feels, experiences their surroundings and what’s happening to them. So it becomes a very subjective account.

I do know of writers who haven’t visited the places that they are writing about and I think that’s fine, if you can carry it off. Indeed, in my first novel, I didn’t actually visit the location of most of the action until after I had finished the book. But, in that case, the place was only about 30 miles away from where I grew up, so I was on more familiar territory. For Sugar Money, I felt it was essential that I explored the locations where the action really happened in Grenada and Martinique.

As with your other two novels, the most brilliant feature is the narrative voice. Could you say something about how you achieved this?

Voice is a complicated process for me, usually, and this was no different. I had to look at the location, of course, and the life experiences of Lucien – Emile’s younger brother, who tells the story – and the era, and the time of life at which he writes the account, since it is recorded after the events took place. Lucien’s voice is many-layered because of all the influences on him over the years. In early life he would have spoken Creole, in the main, but he also learned English from a Scottish nurse (which would affect his vocabulary) and French from his masters, the monks.

Moreover, he is an autodidact, more or less, and there is some evidence that people who are self-taught tend to use more sophisticated vocabulary. Without giving too much away, there are also later periods of his life that would have influenced his voice.

Basically, I knew that he had to have a mixture of Creole, French, and English, with a smattering of Scottish words and phrases, plus some other quirks of vocabulary and style acquired in later life. To help figure out how he may have sounded, I listened to Creole speakers online and used glossaries and dictionaries of Caribbean language, particularly of Martiniquan Creole. Hearing Telfor Bedeau relate his many stories was also a big help. And, once again, I made use of Captain Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a great collection of street language from the 18th century, collected from sailors, pirates, criminals and the like. From this hodgepodge of influences, the voice of Lucien emerged and I began to hear it in my head.

When the time came to dive into the novel, I tried writing a few chapters as an experiment and showed them to a couple of trusted and expert readers (fellow writers) for their feedback. Based on their reassurance that I was on the right track, I carried on. The voice developed and refined with re-writing, of course.

Your two previous novels were domestic dramas, while this one is a page-turning adventure story. Is this a genre you’ve always admired?

Although I do know exactly what you mean, I’d hesitate to call this an adventure story. The subject matter is much too disturbing for it to be a true ‘adventure’ so I tend to think of it more as a quest novel.

Also, I feel that there IS something ‘domestic’ about the triangle of characters at the heart of the narrative: the narrator Lucien, his brother Emile, and Celeste, Emile’s former sweetheart. Character and relationship are everything. For me, the best ‘big canvas’ books focus on a small story played out against the background of the larger picture and this is what I was trying to achieve in Sugar Money. Ultimately, it’s a story of love, sibling love, and rivalry, even though there are weightier themes in play.

Finally, what books have you read recently that you’d recommend to our readers?

Having loved The Long Song, I’ve just begun Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon and am thoroughly enjoying it. Springfield Road, the recent memoir by Salena Godden, is a wonderful evocation of growing up in the 1970s. And I highly recommend the latest work by Jacob Ross, The Bone Readers, which is the first in his trilogy of crime novels set in Grenada.

Harriet reviews Sugar Money here.  Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jane Harris, Sugar Money (Faber, 2017). 978-0571336920, 400pp., hardback.

BUY Sugar Money from the Book Depository.

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