Chatting writing and publishing in the Caribbean with Diana McCaulay

If you’ve been here before, you know that I am Joanne C. Hillhouse author (most recently of Oh Gad!) and Wadadli Pen founder. If this is your first visit, welcome! I am… (and) It’s lovely when my passion for reading ‘n writing intersects with this blog’s mission, beyond promoting Wadadli Pen, to celebrate the Antiguan and Barbudan, and by extension the Caribbean, literary arts and share insights to the worlds of writing and publishing especially when you come from an island in the sun/a small place. This virtual chat between me (in Antigua) with Diana McCaulay (in Jamaica), one contemporary Caribbean woman writer to another,  is one example of this. I enjoyed and related to so many of her responses; I hope you do too. Read on.

JCH: Tell me a bit about yourself and your books to begin.

Diana McCauley at the launch of her first book Dog-Heart with renowned Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris. (Photo courtesy Diana McCauley)

DM: I’m a born yah Jamaican, Kingston born and grow, wanted to write from I was very young, was more or less convinced by others this was a futile idea, but wrote all my life in secret, until the Gleaner gave me a newspaper column in 1994.  Enough people told me they enjoyed my columns to make me think, perhaps I can write after all.  I’m an environmental activist in the other half of my life – the CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust.  I’ve written two novels – Dog-Heart, which came out in 2010, and Huracan, launched a week ago, both published by Peepal Tree Press.  Dog-Heart is the story of a middle class Jamaican woman who encounters a boy begging in an uptown plaza and tries to help him and his family – and the difficulties of their relationship.  Huracan is more ambitious – part historical, part contemporary, loosely based on my own family history – the story of a Jamaican woman who returns home in her 30s to try to make a life here, and learns about her ancestors, the secrets in her past.

JCH: Diana, this interview request was prompted by your win (Regional Prize for the Caribbean) in the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story competition with the Dolphin Catcher. You’ve since released your second book Huracan (congratulations!).

Diana at the Huracan launch at the Mona Visitors Lodge and Conference Centre at the University of the West Indies with Professor Edward Baugh. (Photo courtesy Diana McCauley)

Is there a difference between how you approach writing a short story as opposed to a novel?

DM: Thanks.  The only difference in approach is I do more planning for a novel, because it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  I learned that it’s best to have idea where you are going with a long work, in order to avoid writing pages of prose which eventually don’t fit into the novel and have to be zapped.  I do more thinking for a novel too.  In the case of The Dolphin Catcher, an image came to me of a boy sitting on a wall beside Kingston Harbour in the rain.  Nothing else, not why he was there, or who he was.  I sat down to describe this image and the rest of the story kind of came to me.  If I were making this into a novel, I would start writing down things about the main characters, the storyline, possibly an outline of chapters, before just writing.

JCH: There’s a sentiment that you can’t judge art, it’s all subjective; what’s your view on this and what value do you place on contests like the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and other awards for which your new book will no doubt contend?

DM: No, I think you can judge art, it’s just that the judges disagree!  In the case of written works, readers being much of themselves to the page, and this is why you get such different reactions.  And there are different kinds of art as well. I think the main purpose of art is to make us feel something, to make us think, to see things in a different way, and if a work does that, it has succeeded.

I greatly dislike contests  – I don’t like the way they make me feel, anxious before the prize comes out, envious of those who win when I don’t, I don’t like the entry process, asking your publisher if your work has been entered for this or that prize, nothing about it really.  Well, winning is okay, I suppose!    But you just move the goal posts on yourself, you know?  At first you say, all I want is a longlist.  Then it becomes, all I want is a shortlist.  Then a regional win is not enough, you want the overall prize.  Then the prize itself is not high profile enough.  It’s a really corrosive aspect of writing for publication.  BUT – no question – it makes a huge difference to sales and your career, if you are in search of a writing career.   You’re talking to me because of a contest, right?

JCH: Do you write to the competition, or do you just write and then if a competition suitable to what you’ve written comes around take your shot? If you do write to competition, how do you get yourself into the necessary mindset?

DM: I don’t write to competitions at all.  The Dolphin Catcher was a commissioned short story with a deadline, so it did have to be completed by a certain time, and with a certain brief – it had to be located near or on Kingston Harbour.    Interestingly enough, it was rejected in the end by the editor who commissioned it.  A good reason to keep rejections in perspective.  Anyway, my years writing newspaper columns to deadline has stood me in good stead  – you just have to sit down and write and stop telling yourself that you don’t have anything in mind.  I do try to have what I call a story bank – stories that I write because they come to me, and perhaps I send them to one or two places, they’re rejected, I put them in my story bank, because one day the right place for them might emerge.

JCH: You said in a recent interview in Susumba, “it is a very sobering thought that the best thing I can do for my books is migrate.” As a Caribbean writer who’s written three books (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight and recently Oh Gad!) from the Caribbean and knows what a struggle it can be, yet resists the idea of migrating, this jumped out at me. Could you expand on this idea of why you think it may be necessary for a Caribbean writer to relocate?

DM: Because it is so very difficult to promote your books while you live in the Caribbean, and you HAVE to promote your books.  The days when a writer could be a mysterious recluse are over.  Not enough people in the Caribbean read – and even promoting your books in the Caribbean is hard and the travel is expensive.  If you live in a major literary market, there are so many opportunities that you can take advantage of – readings at libraries, going to book fairs, being part of a vibrant literary scene – and you can do this year round, without the costs of an air fare.

JCH: What has publishing first Dog-Heart and now Huracan taught you about, first about the publishing industry and, second, because these two are not the same thing, about writing that you could pass on to our readers?

Diana with Andrea Dempster of Bookophilia where Dog-Heart was launched. (Photo courtesy Diana McCauley)

DM: No question, the publishing industry is tough right now.  I think we are going through a revolution with e-books that is akin to the one caused by the invention of the printing press.  Considering that publishers no longer print large print runs, therefore they take much less risk on their authors, I think it’s time royalties were revised upwards.  Authors earn too little from their work.  But publishers have their challenges too – the competition from e books, the costs of shipping and warehousing books, the very favourable credit policy and return policy that booksellers get , and booksellers have to pay their overheads and are facing declining sales due to competition with e books – it’s a really tough industry all round.

I make a distinction between writing and writing for publication.  I have always written and I will always write – it’s how I make sense of the world.  Writing for publication is a different thing, it means taking your work and hammering it into shape, going over it, and over it, and over it, it means listening to an editor and making changes if you think those changes are appropriate, and saying no if you don’t.  When you are hungry for publication, this is hard to do.  It means all the marketing and networking and talking up your book or your story.  It means handling rejection.  So if you want to publish, you have to be up for all that.

I’ll tell you something about my first international book tour in New York earlier this year.  When I used to dream about “being a writer” I would imagine the book tour, and I would think about a room full of enthralled people, hanging on my every word.  It’s not at all like that.  You might get one or two full rooms, but mostly it’s long days on public transport, getting lost, missing your train, waiting around, late nights, small audiences, problems with book orders, tiredness, either bad hotels or staying with friends who get pressed in helping you get around a huge city with which you are unfamiliar, bad weather, maybe even getting sick and losing your voice – all of which I did in New York.  It was one of the hardest trips I have ever done and I have travelled a lot for my environmental work.

So if you want to be a published writer – know it comes with a lot of work, disappointment and challenge.  The writing is the easy part.

JCH: One of the things we try to encourage at Wadadli Pen is writing with a Caribbean sensibility – writing that’s reflective of our unique consciousness and journey as a people; this is not meant to be genre limiting but to reinforce the idea that great stories, the landscape against which they’re set, the characters that populate them, the the imagination that drives them, and so on doesn’t just exist out there, somewhere else, that these stories live in us, that we can produce great literature too. Can you speak a little bit to how your sense of being a Caribbean person informs your writing and, if it does, do you find this limiting in any way or as I think it can be, liberating?

DM: I’m definitely a Caribbean writer.  Sometimes, like now, when I’ve just launched a book, and I’m thinking about what next, I think about whether or not to write another book set in Jamaica.  And I find myself floundering immediately.  It’s partly because my books and stories have a very strong grounding in place, and I think I would have to go and live in another place, at least for awhile, to do that place justice.  But I want to fight against the notion that the Caribbean is not important – what did Naipaul say?   “Nothing was created in the West Indies.”  Anyway, I want to fight against this idea that we have created nothing, are nothing, apart from a few small islands, really just playgrounds for tourists, I want to talk about the love I have always felt for Jamaica, about what it means to be an island person, about the very real challenges of our societies, but also of our vibrancy and resilience.  I think the Caribbean is fascinating.  Once a Peace Corps Volunteer who worked with the Jamaica Environment Trust said ; “Jamaica is all the problems of the world writ small.”  I like that and thought it was true – the problems are so close to us all.  I want to hold up a mirror to our societies, I want readers all over the world to see into our islands, our people, I want them to be fascinated and moved.  Of course we can produce great literature.  But we need more readers.

JCH: Here at Wadadli Pen we also recommend books, stories, poems, articles that we like; can you share with us some of what you’re reading right now or have read in the past year and why you like it. Any overall favourites?

DM: I’m reading Kerry Young’s Pao right now – I heard her read at Calabash and thought she was fabulous.  I’m about half way through and very much enjoying a look into Chinese Jamaican society.  The best book I read recently is The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh, which kind of weaves together my environmental concerns and interests in other places.   Wish I had written it.  On writing, I like a short piece by Terry Tempest Williams called Why I Write, I carry it with me in my briefcase and look at it on those days when I think – and why am I doing this again??

JCH: You’re stepping into a workshop room, you are the facilitator, all eyes turn to you, what do you hope to impart to those who’ve come about the writing process?

DM: Well, I’ve not done much workshop teaching, although I would like to.  You know, my father sent a short story I wrote at 16 to Morris Cargill, a well known Jamaican newspaper columnist and writer, and Morris came back with this bit of advice – tell Diana to write.  It is only by writing that one becomes a writer.  Easy to say, and I remember it was unsatisfactory to hear at the time, but that’s the beginning and the end of it.

I think sometimes people want to be writers without doing the actual writing, and everything that comes with it, the submission, the rejection, the revision, the editing.  I do think you have to work at your craft, I do think you have to read widely, you have to think, you have to observe,  and talent, an affinity for the written word, will help you, but nothing is more important than just – writing.    Just getting on with it.

JCH: What do you think is your strength as a writer and how is this manifest in your work?

DM: This is going to sound strange, but I think I write in a very simple way, so my work is easy to read.  Carl Stone once read an early short story of mine and said, “Well, it’s very easy to read.”  And I knew he did not mean that as a compliment.  But writing newspaper columns taught me that there’s no point writing if all people are going to read is the first paragraph, so I think a writer must strive to be read.  Of course there are different audiences.  I want to write books that are simple, but not simplistic, that are literary and accessible to a recreational reader, that have a good storyline and a strong metaphorical field, that are particular to the Caribbean and universal in theme.  Tall order, eh?  I also think I have a good eye for detail and a feel for narration.  Dialogue – not so much, I have to work at dialogue, read it out loud and revise revise revise.

JCH: How do you work on the areas you may consider you’re not as strong in – is it all just inspiration or do you work on developing your craft and improving on your first and second and third draft – since part of what we strive to do here at Wadadli Pen is developmental talk a bit about that process.

DM: I do think about craft, and I do try to improve.  I have lots of books on craft and style and I re read them.  I think it’s hard for a Caribbean writer to do justice to Caribbean speech patterns, while making them accessible to readers, so that’s something I think about and try to improve – although I think I did a better job in Dog-Heart than in Huracan, so …  Definitely I go through several drafts – Dog-Heart had four or five drafts, and Huracan, well, I didn’t count, but NUFF.   At a certain point, though, you need a few good readers, people whose judgment you trust, to react to your writing as readers, and tell you that this bit doesn’t work, they don’t believe in this character, whatever.  But not too early – I think writers sometimes make the mistake of sending out their first draft.  You need to let that first draft sit awhile, and then read it again and make sure it is ready for readers. 

JCH: Let’s talk about the support systems and networks for and among writers in the region – how do you rate them, where would you like to see improvements?

DM: Say what?  Support systems?  Sorry, I mean no disrespect, I know people like yourself have worked very hard on setting up those systems, mostly through on line salons and so forth.  I have to say I feel like I write mostly alone and often wish I had someone to turn to for advice, particularly on the business side.  I have had great advice on the writing itself from my editor Esther Figueroa at manuscript stage, and from my editor, Jeremy Poynting at Peepal Tree Press.  Again, the geography is against us – hard to move around the Caribbean, expensive, hard to get together with other writers in an informal way.  Plus most writers have a day job so we are all crazy busy.

JCH: The eternal question, I get it, I know you get it from young writers, “how do I get published”?

Diana knows what it is to be a published author, twice over, as this scene from the Huracan launch illustrates. (Photo courtesy Diana McCauley)

DM: You do your research, you buy those expensive writers market books, you pore over them, you make a list, you do Google searches, you make another list, you look at who publishes or agents books you admire or think are like yours, you add them to the list, you make a good query letter, you send it off to the people on your list, you work your connections, you keep a record of your submissions and the rejections, you keep track of what the rejections say in case there is a common thread, something you need to take on board, and you do a lot of waiting.   No short cuts, no magic wand.  Requires stamina and patience and plain old doggedness and most of all, a thick skin.

JCH: You’ve remarked that you were a closet writer for many years, what finally pushed you out of the closet?

DM: I’m not really sure.  Perhaps knowing that I was getting older.  Maybe a realization that if I heard I had a terminal illness, it would literally be the only thing I regretted about my life.  Just one day I decided I was going to write a novel to the end – I had several unfinished ones – and revise it, and send it out, and not be undone by rejections, I was going to keep sending it out, and that’s what I did.  Dog-Heart was rejected 12 times, which I know is a lot less than some other writers, but was still a lot to me, and with every one, I wanted to give up and put the manuscript away.  But I didn’t.

JCH: What’s been the favourite thing a reviewer or reader has said about any of your writing since it went public?

DM: On the aforementioned New York book tour, I did a reading on radio from Dog-Heart, and I read a scene about the protagonist, Dexter, going to collect water with his brother.  And a man called in and said, “You told my story, you wrote about my life.”

JCH: What did you dream of as a child with respect to your writing?

DM: Oh the works, fame, fortune, critical acclaim, to write the Great Jamaican Novel, to do justice to the Jamaican experience, to the land itself.  To move readers in the way other people’s writing has moved me, to create worlds that draw readers in and change them.

JCH: Has that dream come true?

Well, no.  Certainly not the fame and fortune part.  I go back and forth re the management of expectations – sometimes I feel that Caribbean writers need to be more realistic about their expectations, given that we are not a major literary space, that we don’t have a reading culture, plus be realistic about the odds, about how many people write books and publish them, how hard it is to get your book to be noticed, no matter how good it might be.  Other times I think, you have to believe in your work, you have to think it is worth success and recognition, because if you don’t, who will?

JCH: What’s been your happiest moment since becoming a published writer?

DM: I don’t think I will ever forget the day I first held Dog-Heart in my hands, my novel, with my name on the cover.  Sometimes I am sad that the first book experience is forever behind me.  And another moment I loved was when several of my friends walked in to the launch of Dog-Heart wearing T-shirts with the cover on the front – they said they were the Dog-Heart fan club.  That was just wonderful.

And it was wonderful, getting a chance to ‘chat’ with Diana and explore some valuable insights, many of which resonate with me, about writing and publishing of the Caribbean, from the Caribbean.  I hope you’ll check out her books, like her on facebook, and all that good stuff. This is all about Caribbean authors supporting each other.

Now, here comes the obligatory copyright notice:

As with all content on, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

1 Comment

Filed under Caribbean Plus Lit News, Literary Gallery, The Business

One response to “Chatting writing and publishing in the Caribbean with Diana McCaulay

  1. Pingback: Workshop Space | Wadadli Pen

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