What can you tell us about the book Long Time Walk on Water?
Long Time Walk on Water is my most precious work and a Thank You present to my grandmother. It all began in the summer of 1989 (public transport strikes, heat waves rippling up from the tarmac. I remember it well). I had just completed my postgraduate training as a language teacher. Up till then, I sincerely believed, like most, that dialects were the ugly step-sisters of the standard variety; the wart with the hair that had to be plucked or at best covered up (and the shame I felt when a little Cockney or Jamaican nonetheless trickled out; like poopsing in public). Becoming a language teacher dissolved such prejudices, so when I fell into an armchair at my gran's place after work, in her over-heated, over-furnished council house where the telly was almost always on, and in between my gran would tell stories, I started looking at her anew. I discovered a singer. I looked closer. Saw the warrior. Looked closer still, and there she was; the heroine. Once she told me about this English man at the bus-stop who fancied her. It was out of the question. She never mentioned it again. But my mind seized upon the potential of a Rose Thompson, Emily to her friends, and a James Dunbar (they call him Jack, from the 7th floor) unimpeded by the values transmitted by their respective cultural backgrounds. Long Time Walk on Water was born.
The most recent review describes the novel as one that 'weaves love, self-discovery, race, class politics, immigration, and the British postcolonial imaginations into a beautiful tour de force. A moving account of black sojourners' day-to-day in a new alien land as they tumble forward for a better life and belonging.' I'm glad to see that the public loves the book, both the plot and my literary style:
'words dance, breathe, rejoice, titillate, pulsate, quiver in this brilliantly crafted volume of what may be her best-loved novel. Couldn't put it down...'
'Intelligent, humorous, tragic and sensual. Contemporary British literature at its best.'
Why did you decide to set the book in two countries?â¨
Setting the book in Jamaica and England allows me to represent the communality of experience in addition to the effects and rewards of rupture. Returning to Jamaica is important for developing Rose as a protagonist with a bitter-rich past over-shadowing her search of a future in a new country. It allows me to use various forms of Jamaican English; the Jamaican used in Rose's letter-writing, for example:
'I settle down more or less in London now and got a job can earn a little money. I know one or two girls from work and we go to the same church. I feel less lonely in London now I got my work and must do something but I miss Jamaica and my children.
I never know you could get so much soul food in England! Did you know the English also used to walk about barefoot over here in this cold? Is so Miss Brown tell me. So you see, not much difference between the two a we after all. This double-decker I told you about, I ride with it every day, you know! I go upstairs and sit at the front can see all of London! But they don’t play no music in the bus like back home. Everybody just sit there like a long drink of water and don’t say nothing.'
What is the appeal of writing a love story for you?
I think all human relations arise out of a similar longing for warmth and acceptance. In this novel, none of the relationships are ideal; a young girl's initiation into the world of love leads to an unwanted pregnancy, a wife hauls her overnight bag to the pissy phone-booth round the corner to ask her friend if she can spend a couple of nights, she needs a break from her husband (who unbeknown to her is very busy trying to get another woman to go out with him). We're all on the lookout for warmth, for affection, and in many ways you could say that the love story between parent and child, or between friends, is just as central, and brittle, in the novel. I try to write about my views on love, on what it could look like, in a realistic, as opposed to pessimistic way, for despite the potential for grime and disappointment, I show that humour is never far behind. Left on the table by Monica on her way to that pissy phone-booth round the corner, a note for her husband, Jack:
I’m fed up with this mess, it said. Need a change. A good one. A bloody long one. Near the bottom: Monica. And below that: dinner is in the oven.
The novel is not a typical love story where you know how things will end even before you've finished the first page. I promise, you won't! Not until the very last words. And it's more than a mere love story. Long Time Walk on Water is about faith; it's about loving the life you see ahead of you, in your dreams. And allowing no one to take it away from you.
The book is very gritty, so why did you want to show the 'fuzzy end of the lollipop' for some of the characters?
It would be unfair to proffer one-sided characters given that I personally don't know of any in real life. It is true that some of the scenes I depict are brutal, but I do my best not to judge. I seek to share, to understand, and in seeking I always find redeeming features in all my characters. The husband who cheats on his wife, the father who drags his son to the toilet, forces him to drink his own urine then flushes his head down the loo, the mother who will starve her daughter into submission... I dare to suggest: keep looking; you will see more than a mere brute. The mother who will whip her child's feet at night, thrashing till the child leaps into the air is the same mother who will barefoot the hour and a half to school to defend her daughter when Schoolmistress takes out her ruler to do the same. One reviewer comments: 'Strands of fate magically interwoven to give you a reggae-type experience full of pain, sweat, suffering, pride, poise and grace'. The pain, sweat and suffering are at the fuzzy end of the lollipop, as you so nicely put it. And yet I insist; there are no losers in Long Time Walk on Water. Not even the most brutal of my characters. I see the vulnerability caused by need and I honour those who seek a way out. I hate stories that whine on about a miserable childhood and the like. Why should I spend my spare time reading something that pulls me down? Long Time Walk on Water can be harsh at times, but it's ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.
What is your writing process?â¨
I'm a pluralist by nature. In this novel a key aim was to show history as a phenomenon told, crafted, simultaneously within and across multiple time frames. This is also how I write; mixing temporal references and literary styles whilst taking care to ensure that each work of fiction I write is not a re-run of a previous one. I might work on a particular character for a while, then put him/her aside to work on another passage. Sometimes I'll write a section without knowing where I want to put it. I simply know that it will be woven into the plot. I rarely start at the beginning and write systematically until the story is finished. This piecemeal way of writing worked well for Long Time Walk on Water, which consists of several shorter stories linked together as character change names like garments and Time shifts like the plates of the earth. I also keep a logbook in which I document all my thoughts relating to a work-in-progress, as this helps me to see which ideas are emerging, but also to get back into my work after longer periods of inactivity. Many writers will advise you to write every day, preferably first thing in the morning. I can't. Not always. But I am constantly thinking about my work. Even in my sleep.
How important was it to you to show how a black immigrant is affected in a world of white working class people?
I know that there's a fair amount of pushing and shoving on that rung of the ladder, on every rung in fact and whilst I frequently allude to the tension between the black and white working class, my chief aim is not a political one in the sense of depicting how hard it was for black immigrants to find their place among the white working class. My chief aim is to convey the internal dynamics of each of these two communities, and to show how friendships, and more, result.
Rose, my female protagonist, has to learn to adapt to the English way of living. No one told her about the dog shit on the pavement or that she needn't learn the national anthem by heart. No one told her how the English live underground (in basement flats) and get up to work in the middle of the night. She comes to the Motherland with a suitcase full of soul food and a head full of preconceptions. And she is open-minded enough to see that she was wrong, even though there is still no end to all the 'foolishniss' of 'di Hinglish' that she can write home about. Nor is it only the black immigrant who has to adapt to the new environment. The English have had to adapt, too. Some make more of an effort than others. Jack Dunbar, my male protagonist, makes a very good job of it.
Sunday Gleaner said that you are a 'wordsmith par excellence'. Does this come naturally or do you work on this to perfect it?
This novel was ten years in the making and one reason it took so long is because every time I sat down to continue writing it; I found things I wanted to change. I'm very sensitive to what I call the inner music of a sentence and I will file away at it till I am satisfied with its pitch. Sometimes a sentence was perfect right from the start, but mostly the final version is the result of countless editing.
How important is it to you to connect with your readers?
Very! I run a website and Facebook Author Page - which I hope you will all 'Like'. I make postings on a fairly regular basis and I welcome exchanges with my readers. I have a Twitter account (@JoanBSimon) and although I do not automatically follow those who follow me, I do answer direct messages. I plan to recite more and am currently contacting bookshops in the UK who are willing to collaborate, so I look forward to connecting with my readers even more at such events, where I also plan to recite from my erotic novel, [email protected]
As far as Jamaican English in Long Time Walk on Water is concerned, I've provided footnotes for the trickier terms and have even revised the novel in response to the reactions of a number of readers. In the meantime, even non-native English speakers say that by the end of the novel they're well into the lingo and loving it.
What is next for you?
Next on my agenda is a PhD in Creative Writing, which will also culminate in a novel that I plan to publish a few years from now. I've wanted to do this PhD for as long as I can remember and am, fortunately, now old enough and confident enough to go ahead with it despite the fact that most people don't understand why I should want it so badly. Of course you can write good novels without having a PhD in creative writing. But I also know that my writing and my appreciation of fiction in general, has become far more refined, more critical, since starting the PhD and learning more about literary theory.
This PhD will be my last big academic project. By the time I've finished, I would like to have found sponsors for turning Long Time Walk on Water into a musical and my erotic novel, [email protected], into a play. In the not too distant future I would also like to have my works translated.
There's another item that has been on my To Do list for a long time - nothing to do with me being a writer: I've always wanted to drive a HGV through a city centre without flattening a single signpost. I would, however, also settle for a double-decker brandishing my books on its flanks along with a neat 5-star one-liner.