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Steffanie Edward on Her Debut Novel, “This Other Island

Interviewed by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson

Tuesday, August 24, 2021.

Steffanie Edward travels and lives between St Lucia where she was born, and London, England, where she grew up and worked for many years. She writes mainly fiction, and her news stories have featured in several newspapers and publication. Three of her short stories have appeared in in anthologies Darker Times Collection Vol 2’ and  ‘Hocus Pocus ’14’

This Other Island is her debut novel - which like the writer narrates events either side of the Atlantic. Dramatising a family’s experiences in England and St Lucia, the story was longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary prize. 

Here Ms Edward shares her thoughts on her writing life, juggling a novelist’s vocation with everyday life, and getting published after several years of trying. 

How long have you been writing and what sparked your interest in literature, in fiction?

“Like a lot of writers, I’ve kept a diary since my teens, but [I] started writing ‘stories’ and even poems, in my twenties. I was the only one reading them at the time.”

“As a child in St Lucia, older family members often told us stories, including Crick Crack and Anancy stories, especially at night before going to bed. These were all oral. Some were scary, about devils and mysterious happenings. My interest in literature started in my teens when we had to read set books for our exams. I especially remember To Kill A Mockingbird, probably because of the racism and the child’s voice.”

Amongst your writing peers who influences you, what are the writing styles and genres that you favour?

“I can’t say I have a favourite genre when it comes to fiction. Except I do not like horror. Not even in films or TV. I’m not a great lover of fantasy or Sci Fi either but having said that, one writer whose work I admire greatly (she sadly passed in 2006) is Octavia E Butler, whose writing is categorized as Sci Fi. Octavia E Butler’s work always had a black woman as the protagonist and I loved that. I also love Toni Morrison’s work and her focus on the Black experience in America.”

What are your thoughts on Caribbean literature?

“I don’t think I am qualified to talk extensively about the development and progress of Caribbean literature in an informed manner, but it is clear that the Black Lives Matter movement, combined with the light being shone on the publishing industry exposing the tendency for it to be white and middle class heavy, have had a great impact on opening doors to Black writers and others in the publishing field. That is changing the terrain and enabling the work of more Black writers to get out there.”

“One of the things I would like to see is the availability of actors (for reading) in the variety of dialects/languages spoken in the Caribbean. Currently it’s easier to find actors with Jamaican accents to read for the audible market, but the other islands are under-represented. Also, the lack of standardization in spelling when writing Caribbean languages caused me to struggle a bit when writing ‘This Other Island’. 

Recently Windrush type stories [from ER Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love to Andrea Levy’s Small Island, including recent titles dramatizing post World War Two migration to Britain from the Caribbean] have emerged as genre writers exploring this period of history.  What is different about This Other Island

When I set out to write This Other Island, that was the furthest from my mind. It was all about characters and story for me. One of the main aims was to give voice to older Caribbean people, whom I feel are often left out as main characters in modern day novels. I am also interested in identity and how relevant it is in the small and big picture of life. …Too few people understand why some of the people they consider as ‘foreigners’ are in Britain, what brought them there and how making that move has impacted or affected their lives. I hope I have managed to more than touch on these issues in This Other Island.”

This Other Island was published after you had accumulated several years’ experience in life and in writing – what have been the advantages and disadvantages, what advice would you give your younger self?

“I was born in a poor agricultural family in St Lucia, and brought up in a working-class family in a working-class area in London. When I was young, the idea of being a writer was totally off my radar. That was for white middle-class people, who, in my eyes mastered the English language in its written and spoken form. I certainly didn’t see myself fitting into that bracket. Neither did I see myself being an author, until in my 30s. By then I’d read lots of published works. Some I considered good, some poor. That led me to thinking maybe I could write something good too, so I started to think about writing seriously and wrote short pieces [that] I thought were short stories, but later realized didn’t fit that bill. After taking a writing course, I learnt to master that craft and started getting my short stories published. But life takes hold, we have jobs to do and careers, bills to pay, children to take care of. I was almost forty when I attempted writing my first novel, which got rejected by all the twenty plus agents I sent it out to.”

“I’d say the main advantage of becoming a published author at a later age is life experience. Not just your own life, but people you know, things you’ve lived through, seen, learnt. You’ve also read a lot too and taken writing courses, if you’re sensible. If you apply all of that, stay motivated, you should begin to see successes. Becoming a published author is, like life, a course in itself.”

“Having brought my children up, I am now fortunate enough to be able to focus on myself and follow my passion for writing. It’s exciting to have the ultimate career, I’ve wanted for so many years.” 

What has been the experience of getting the novel published? Has the relationship with your publisher been straightforward or complex?? What have been the highlights and what if anything would you do differently?

“Getting to the stage of being offered a publishing deal, especially by a major publisher and a two-book deal to boot, was wonderful. I’d submitted and been declined by so many agents. It really felt like a door was locked shut to me and when it opened, I felt like I was being welcomed into a world [that] I’d wanted to belong to for so long. But it’s fun because you’re doing what you enjoy. 

“I don’t like the business side of being a published author, but since I don’t have an agent, I have to learn to understand it and work with it.”

“One of the wonderful parts of all of this is that you know that what you are writing will go somewhere out there, be available to readers.”

“Again, my publishers are pretty good. My closest relationship is with my editor and with the publicity team. I get a weekly update on sales, which I try not to panic about and am still plugging away at book number two. There is always a small Ms Negative wagging a finger at me, saying ‘Will anyone want to read this second novel? Will it be as good as or better than the first?’ I try to bat her away and stay focused and positive.”

How do you organize your writing life – as a passion and hobby or as a vocation and profession?

“I make it clear to people in my life that I am working, even if I am at home. I have deadlines to meet and have to produce. After writing the first draft, which is the easiest to write because you’re mainly putting ideas to paper, I usually write for around 6 hours a day during the week and maybe 3 to 4 hours on Saturdays and Sundays.”

“Since the offer of publication from Bookouture, writing has become a career for me. I see myself as being self-employed, doing what I love and enjoy.” 

Staffanie Edward blogs from: saedward.com and tweets from: @EdwardsaEdward

This Other Island is available across digital and print platforms, and from bookshops and online retailers. 

Steffanie Edward’s This Other Island is published by Bookotoure [2021] ISBN: 978 1 80019 362 8

Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine’s Deputy Editor, an activist, writer, and father. He lives in Trinidad and Tobago. 

Steffanie Edwards on Her Debut Novel, “This Other Island”

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