Writer of the Month
Kerry’s first novel, Pao, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, East Midlands Book Award and the Commonwealth Book Prize. Join her at Lyric Lounge Leicester, Thursday 3 October, 10.30am – 12.30pm where she will be discussing finding an authentic voice and recreating a sense of place and time through fiction.
Kerry Young was born in Kingston, Jamaica, to a Chinese father and mother of mixed Chinese-African heritage. She came to England at the age of ten. Kerry’s background is in youth work where she worked both locally and nationally, and has also written extensively. She has Master’s degrees in organisation development and creative writing, and a PhD in youth work. Kerry Young is a Buddhist in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. Her interests include Tai Chi, weight lifting and golf. She also loves jazz and plays alto and tenor saxophone.
Your second novel, Gloria, is set in Jamaica in 1938. How has your very interesting background affected your writing?
I was born in Jamaica and I love Jamaica. So ‘Pao’, ‘Gloria’ and the book I am currently writing, ‘Fay’, are all set in Jamaica. I think Jamaica is often misunderstood so I wanted to tell Jamaica’s story and say something about why the island has had the troubled and sometimes violent path it has. My take on it anyway – trying to understand our present, in the context of our past. Just like the Karl Marx quote at the beginning of ‘Pao’ – “People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”? This is something I believe about life and all our lives. That we meet the circumstances we meet and try to do our best. That as human beings we are complex, and conflicted, and flawed. And completely redeemable. So that love of Jamaica and my own personal/family history told me that there was something I wanted to say about the human condition that could be seen at an individual level as well as at the level of a nation. Also, in my previous work in youth work, I was heavily involved in work around the issues of race, class, gender and sexuality so I wanted to explore those themes as well – but through fiction. My PhD, which focused on values and ethics in youth work, and my commitment as a practicing Buddhist are reflections of my preoccupation with virtue and what it means to be wholesome and have a wholesome life. So when you put all those interests together you get a perspective that is historical, political, social and personal. In other words you get ‘Pao’ and ‘Gloria’ and in a little while ‘Fay’.
Gloria features in your first novel, Pao. What was it about her that made you decide to go on and tell her story?
I always knew there was something about Gloria but I didn’t know what. She had a deep inner conviction and strength even though it was obvious she’d had a hard time, or maybe because of that hard time. Everyone who read the drafts of ‘Pao’ fell in love with her and wanted to know more about her. So even though she only appeared in ‘Pao’ about half a dozen times, she’d captured people’s interest and imagination. And so the second book had to be ‘Gloria’. For me, when I finished ‘Pao’ I missed him, and all the people I’d lived with for seven years. So in a way, ‘Gloria’ enabled me to re-invent Pao and spend more time with him. But as the book progressed Gloria took on a life of her own, not just her relationship with Pao seen from a different perspective, but a whole different life entirely. And as she came into being I began to realise what a truly amazing character she is.
Does writing a novel set in the past, and in a very different environment, present any particular challenges to you?
Well, there’s a huge amount of research that has to be done (particularly with books like mine) to get right all the historical, social and political events to make sure all the dates and so on are correct. Accuracy and authenticity are two really important things to me. So there is always a lot of reading, internet work and conversations with people, especially my mom and other members of my family, to capture those tiny details about life in Jamaica at the time that you wouldn’t necessarily find in any book. Of course, I was born in Jamaica so I had my childhood memories, but I also made three trips to Jamaica while I was writing ‘Pao’ and they were invaluable for soaking up the atmosphere and being reminded of the sights and sounds. So it’s challenging. And then it you decide to write in (a hybrid) Jamaican patois it gets even more so. The acid test for me though was reading in front of a 2000 strong audience at the Calabash Literature Festival in Jamaica in 2012. After the incredible reception I received there, I had no more worries about either voice or authenticity.
Can you tell us about your writing process? What do you find to be the most difficult part, and why?
The most difficult part? I don’t know really. Perhaps settling down to actually put pen to paper. Once I get going things seem to work out ok but I have a lot of diversionary activities that can keep me occupied for hours. Truthfully, I’m pretty disciplined from years of working as a self-employed consultant in youth work. I kind of decide what I think, in general terms, the next chapter is about (the broad sweep) and then I just let it flow. I write long hand and edit as I’m typing up. For me, the most important part is getting inside the head of the narrator. Once that happens I just let them tell their story and I write it down. So for the most part I don’t really have much of a clue about what’s actually going to happen next. I let it unfold.
Who, or what, has had the biggest influence on your writing and why?
Life. Everything I experience or think about. All the things other people tell me about their life, experience or reflections. That includes what I observe, read, watch [tv/film] and hear about. It all ends up in a book somehow. Never exactly as it happened or is told to me but in some re-constructed form. Why? Because I am obsessed with what it means to be human. And especially what it means to be a good person. My most important literary influences include William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Hermann Hesse. For writing history as fiction, Han Suyin. My most important philosophical influence, Aristotle. My most important spiritual influence, Thich Nhat Hanh. My most important personal influence, my mother.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
A very long time ago, when I was a participant on a writing course the tutor said to me. “You obviously have a way with words. But do I see any talent? No not really.”?
The best compliment? When ‘Gloria’ was published someone said ‘Kerry Young gets better’ which was nice. ‘Pao’ being shortlisted for the Costa, East Midlands Book Award and Commonwealth books prizes was also hugely complimentary.
Has your break through and recent success affected the way you see yourself, or the things that you do as a writer?
Yes. I see myself as a writer now. Not someone writing in their spare time, which is how I felt before. Especially since ‘Gloria’ was published (in April) and I am no longer a one hit wonder so to speak. I think it’s given me a lot of confidence to realise that I could do it a second time and have two books so well received. Although it hasn’t stopped me feeling scared about the prospect of doing it a third time even though ‘Fay’ is progressing well. The things I do as a writer haven’t actually changed that much – readings, literary festivals, meet the author events, interviews, etc – but being invited to read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica in 2012 and the Caribbean Literature Festival in Trinidad in 2013 were enormous highlights because my work being well regarded in Jamaica and across the Caribbean is very important to me. I’ve also been invited to join the panel of judges for the 2014 SI Leeds Literary Prize for unpublished fiction by Black and Asian women so that’s a huge honour as well.
Can you say what you’ll be working on next?
I’m currently working on ‘Fay’ (Pao’s wife). So that would make the trilogy – Pao, Gloria and Fay. The deadline for the manuscript is March 2014. So ‘Gloria’ goes to paperback in April 2014 and ‘Fay’ will most likely be published (by Bloomsbury) in spring 2015.
Join Kerry at The Lyric Lounge at 10.30am on Thursday 3 October, as she kicks off a day of FREE workshops, talks, films, poetry and much more, to celebrate National Poetry Day!