Wednesday, 16 December 2009

In Conversation with Bernardine Evaristo

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

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