Another in my infrequent series of conversations.
This time, with dynamic writer, Bernardine Evaristo, who has recently reissued her verse novel Lara with Bloodaxe.
I love this novel for the deep exploration into family lineage. And the new edition spreads this theme even more widely.
Sarah Hymas: After slowly moving away from writing verse through verse-novels and novels with verse to a straight prose novel I wondered how you found the return to verse with this new edition of Lara?
Benardine Evaristo: I wasn't sure at first that I could get back into the spirit and craft of a verse novel having spent a few years writing prose fiction. But reading through the original text was a good way to get back into the flow of it. I did discover that my narrative voice is more cohesive and pronounced than it was in the original LARA. When I originally wrote LARA I was firmly rooted as a poet, now I see myself as a storyteller using whatever genre suits a particular book. It was also a bit of a challenge initially to not write sweeping great paragraphs instead of short, concise lines of poetry and to return to building up the story through small units.
SH: I imagine this return to writing poetry having an influence on how you tell your next story. How much does one idea develop as you're finishing the previous one?
BE: It varies. I'm working on a new novel now which will be a prose novel, but I love the idea of making it a very poetic prose novel. I do love writing the verse novel form and I enjoyed returning to the snapshot sequences of LARA having written my first prose novel BLONDE ROOTS. I don't usually know what I'm going to write next until I've finished a particular work and then, when the manuscript has been delivered, my head is clear to embark on the next project. Although, having said that, sometimes I do get a sense of the territory I'm going to explore next but I don't think too deeply about it.
SH: What prompted you to include the Irish side of the family in this new edition of Lara?
BE: I was never that curious about the Irish side of my family initially, my mother's relatives. I think that when I began writing LARA I was much more interested in discovering the unknown side of my family history, the Nigerian and Brazilian ancestry. An academic once approached me at a reading and asked me why I hadn't written more about my Irish heritage, especially because of the colonial experience of Ireland and how that would draw comparisons with, for example, the Nigerian colonial experience. I was shocked to realise that I hadn't really thought about it and decided then and there that should I ever re-issue LARA, I would add the Irish past. The German side of my family history, also on my mothers side, is also a new addition to the book. So whereas the novel initially spanned 150 years into my father's history, it now spans 150 years into my mother's history too.
SH: You switch narrators (including an omnisicient narrator) a lot. What is your starting point for finding the right voice for each character?
BE: It varies. Some of the characters are based on people I know well, like myself - so I just have to be true to my voice. Not as easy as it sounds, I think. Others are based on my parents and grandmother - all of whom I also knew/know well so I tried to hear their voices in my head - their vocabulary, intonation, the ways in which they expressed themselves verbally. It was a listening job - to my parents voices as they materialised inside my head, and to my grandmother's voice as she was when she was alive. It also helped that I interviewed both parents at length on tape recorder, so I could play their voices back and listen to them with some degree of objectivity. My father's English was quite broken and I was not aware of this until I heard him on tape. With the unknown characters - the family members I never knew - then I used photographs where possible to try and imagine character - once I got a sense of who they were I began to write and then magic takes over - they start to speak through me.....whooooo.....bit spooky, huh?
SH: And to end with, a short roll call of some of the people who influenced the writing of Lara:
Thank you, Bernardine, for your time and permssion to use the photos.
If you're interested in booking Bernardine for a reading then this where to go