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An Interview with Maeve Clarke

What prompted you to first pick up the pen and start writing?
I've always written ever since I was a kid, so anything that came into my head, I would start writing it down. When my sister had her children I started writing stories for my nephews and nieces, except I never finished them because it was always, Ill tell you the next bit tomorrow. It just started like that, a desire from the moment I could write to actually make up stories because I just loved reading so much. I think if you enjoy reading you enjoy writing as well. It doesn't always work that way, but it did in my case. There were long gaps in my life when I didn't write anything, and then five years ago I thought I feel like writing again, and that was that.

Which other authors have you felt inspired by in particular?
Ill read almost anything. Obviously, I've read a lot of black American authors and I really like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I like Terry McMillan as well and I'm waiting for Norman Samuda Smiths book to come out again Bad Friday Revisited because what I've read of the revised version so far is really exciting me! I read stuff for adults, for young learners, and teenage cross-over fiction. I think you can find inspiration in a lot of different things. There have been authors that I have read and re-read again like Ben Okri and The Famished Road is one of my favourite books. There are lots of writers who have different things that I like, so, its not just one writer, there are lots of different ones.

What specific subject really excites your passion to start writing?
One of the things I like is the link and possibly the conflict between tradition and culture, so sort of being born Black British. When I was a kid, I grew up in Bearwood. There were about five or six other black families and the minute I stepped out of the gates of my house I was English and in England, and the minute I stepped back into our house I was in Jamaica. It is this combination of all the traditional things that went on in my house, and all the things that were going on in England. When I went to Jamaica for the first time lots of the expressions that my parents use to use, suddenly made sense and had a real context. It wasn't just about Mom going on about something; I was like, yeah, now I know what that means. I'm always interested in that crossover and what we can learn from the older generation, all their expressions because they all have sense; its all got a meaning.

I'm also interested in parallel dimensions; like were sitting here talking now, but there is nothing to say that in another dimension we haven't already had this conversation, or that we are just about to. So those are the things that interest me. Whether I can actually start writing about it in a way that makes sense to anybody else is another thing. But yeah, black history and black traditions, because as I'm sort of researching it I'm learning as well and I think that's important because at school, in my days, and I'm not that old, we didn't have any lessons about black history or black traditions or black culture, nothing. And its writing now and through talking about it with my nephew and nieces, they are learning through me.

What inspired you to write Letters A Yard?
Its probably the short story, which I've written, which I like the most. I think it just came straight from the heart. I just remember my mom and dad when I was a kid writing letters to their parents and all my other friends parents were always writing letters too. Its not just a story of Jamaican immigrants it could be any immigrants story. You go to another country to save money to send money back for your family to make a better life and you somehow get trapped in the country you've gone to. So although you do save the money, sometimes you don't always make it back home and you don't always tell the truth while you're away. You don't say when things are hard because people back home don't want to hear that. I don't know whether that's good or bad because there are some things they need to know, (people back home), money doesn't just come out of the wall, you have to work hard for it. So it just reminded me of lots of things. For example, I live in Italy now. So if something is going wrong in my life I'm not writing telling my mother that. I will tell her the bits I think she will like and what will stop her from worrying.

Tell us about your book 'What Goes Round'
What Goes Round is a semi humorous tale about Franks return to Jamaica after 20 years in the UK. He's accompanied by his teenage daughter, Jewelle, who has never been to Jamaica and doesn't want to go and his sister-in-law, Aunt B, who doesn't take nonsense from anybody. When Frank gets to Jamaica, he is pursued by Rose, an old flame who is still convinced their destiny is shared. She's determined to get him back no matter what it takes. Jewelle, despite hating her Jamaican chores is charmed by the island. And realises there's a mystery about Franks past which She's determined to uncover, but Aunt B is equally determined to keep Jewelle's nose out of big people business. Its a bit of a mystery, thriller and romance which keeps people guessing right up to the end.

What do you enjoy most about writing?
I like it when you first get that idea. It could be a sentence, a phrase or an expression, you put that down on paper and suddenly you've created a conversation and then the character comes out. I like when you've written lots of different pieces that are all disconnected and the suddenly its like a jigsaw puzzle, you start putting all the pieces together. I like editing and cutting things out. Its like playing with paint, putting something on paper and watching the picture develop and grow.

What do you least enjoy about writing?
Making myself sit down and write that's the hardest part. When I'm looking at a blank computer screen and nothing is coming out and I'm trying hard not to play games on my computer because I cant think of anything to write. But I enjoy almost all of it. Or maybe I haven't written long enough to not enjoy it!

How has growing up in Birmingham and being of Jamaican parentage influenced your work?
With What Goes Round there are more references to Jamaica. There are lots of things I remember when I was a small child, lots of memories. And its the same with Letters A Yard. There was a church scene and that was my church basically. The next book I'm thinking of working on is going to be much more influenced by where I grew up. It will be based on a black British girl, somebody like me, who grew up in England, in Birmingham, in the seventies. So it will be influenced by what it was like for my parents to find a house and how difficult it was for them. And what it was like for me and my brothers and sisters to go to a school where there was only one black person in every class, and a couple of Yugoslavian people and a couple of Irish people, and how things have changed. I was in Bearwood today and so it was quite interesting seeing the shops that have changed, the faces that have changed, there is more of a multicultural feel to it.

How difficult is it for black writers to get their work published?
I think I was very lucky. I wrote the short story Letters A Yard and Tindal Street Press accepted it and it got published. So when I was sending out chapters form What Goes Round, I thought Id send it to them because I know they like that style of work and they seemed to be actively willing to promote Black and Asian writing. In that sense it was quite straight forward but I know other people who have written books and they keep getting rejected for one reason or another. For us, it is hard because most things still are hard and I would be lying if I refused to see these things. But I think we have got a lot of talented people and Black people are saying I can do it just as good as any other and I'm not going to take no for an answer.

Tell us about you're forthcoming book?
One possibility is a sequel to What Goes Round, the other one is the one about growing up in Birmingham in the late seventies early eighties. There a lot of people who can identify with that upbringing, the good, the bad, the positive and the negative, and the funny bits as well. There are lot of funny things in there. Hopefully, I want my writing to appeal not just to adults but to young adults as well and that it might stimulate them to pick up a black history book or something else that's related to our history and culture. It doesn't have to be a piece of fiction it could be something else. But its a trigger. I really like when my nieces and nephews turn round and say Aunty Maeve that was really brilliant, I really liked it. Can you tell us another one? So I think this one is going to be for them.

This interview was recorded at Handsworth Library in July 2003 as part of an author visit organised by the Black Family Readers Project