Andrea Levy's fifth novel, The Long Song, is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She talks here about her initial reluctance to write the book, the research that fired her imagination and the importance of reading aloud
PJ: After Small Island you've said you began to wonder, "What were my parents doing in the Caribbean in the first place?" which led you, inevitably, to slavery. Yet you were reluctant to go there. Curious and reluctant?
AL: You needed a deep curiosity to write this book. I was scared of this story. I thought, it's a story no-one wants to hear. I can remember myself not wanting to read books on slavery. I didn't watch Roots. It's upsetting, miserable, not a pleasant subject. I knew I'd been reluctant to read that kind of story, so to write one seemed ridiculous - why do that?
PJ: How did you come to write it?
AL: After Small Island - as you do when you've finished a novel - I was pulling at threads and I found a book: Domestic Manners and Social Customs of the White, Coloured and Negro Populations of the West Indies, by Mrs Carmichael. It was a white woman's account of her life on a plantation. She was an apologist for slavery: "You know, the working class in Britain have it harder than these slaves." She told you how the slaves had a lot of food, because they stole it, that sort of thing. As I read between the lines I could hear a different story. I began to see not a victim society but people who were making the best of the circumstances under which they lived. And, we were in the Caribbean, not America. In the Caribbean white people were by far the minority. It was a different kind of power structure. I thought: this is interesting, this is different.PJ: That research changed your perception of how slaves had lived?
AL: I'd learned the history - the Middle Passage, people brought from Africa in chains, on to Wilberforce and abolition, but I began to I realise that this was over 300 years, slavery had existed for 300 years, therefore a society had grown up. I was interested in people who'd made lives for themselves under such a 'social' system. What sort of society came out of that? This was a big, broad subject. Those people are my ancestors, part of me and part of how the Caribbean has developed. Suddenly it became the most interesting story in the world to me.PJ: So you were already working on a novel when you attended the conference where the young woman spoke of the shame she felt about her slave history, and set you thinking, "Could a novelist persuade this young woman to have pride in her slave ancestors through telling her a story?"
AL: Yes, I'd started the book. I was going to write something that started in slavery and got out quickly, I was still nervous of the subject. But her question made me think: this is not only an interesting, big, broad subject, it's also essential. There are a lot of people who don't know this story. It's part of British history and it needs to be told. I knew what people would say when the book came out - "we've had books on slavery, we've 'done' slavery." How can you can take 300 years of human history and maybe in ten or twenty novels say it's been done? Yes, there are some novels about slavery but hardly anything on Caribbean slavery.PJ: Did that woman's question, her sense of shame, change the writing for you?
AL: Only in that I wanted to write a book that she would want to read. I didn't want to write a misery fest. I wanted to write a book that had hope and that showed the humanity of the people involved. It's important to write books that are entertaining, that aren't essays, that aren't dull.PJ: Do you plan research beforehand or leap in and let one source lead to another?
AL: I leap in and let one source take me on a trail. I will use what I find, rather than go looking for something I think might be there and can't find. I find things I enjoy and that feed the story. For example, it was in Mrs Carmichael's book that I read about the bed sheet being put on the table instead of a tablecloth. You pick up detail that allows your imagination to start. I was always reading between the lines, I was looking at it from a different perspective to Mrs Carmichael.PJ: What kind of notes do you make in research - factual or do you begin to sketch scenes?
AL: Mrs Carmichael's book was a great source for details of daily life but it was in the rare books section of the British Library. So there you are, you have a pencil and whole book. I wanted the whole book; I wanted it at home. I searched for a copy to buy but no chance. In the rare books section there is also a music area with booths to listen to music, so I went into a booth and read the book into a recorder. They didn't know what do with me; I kept having to get out to let people listen to music. But it was the only way I could get what I needed.PJ: As you research ideas must be bubbling up all the time - do you remember anything in particular?
AL: Attitudes are what I remember. Trollope's mother wrote a book about her travels through America and she recalls an incident at a friend's house where a slave girl, aged about 8, had accidentally eaten some rat poison so they made the girl sick. The girl was hurt and crying. Mrs Trollope took the girl into her lap. The girl had no mother. All the family laughed at Mrs T for being so sentimental about this slave. That really stuck with me, the image of a child with no parent, going though the most traumatic experience and having no one to comfort her. How could you not see a human being? That sort of attitude - they weren't human - was so prevalent. It's profoundly shocking. But that's how we work, we human beings, we make other people into demons.PJ: It's that kind of research that allows you to imagine a powerful scene, such as the one where John Howarth feels Kitty's legs as if she were an animal.
AL: When you read about the attitudes it's akin to them talking about animals; the idea that they weren't dealing with peoplePJ: Getting back to the concrete detail - the bed sheet used for a tablecloth - that piece of research seems to have allowed you to grow the section on the contrasting Christmas celebrations - slaves, big house - but the section also ends with a real historical event - the Baptist Wars. How does it all come together?
AL: I wanted to show the slaves living a life, show them doing their job, serving Christmas dinner to Caroline and her guests, but also their celebrations. They are real people. Some of them are better dressed than others and they have their rivalries. I've always got an eye to illustrate what life might have been like, wanting to show people are people. I've always got an eye to driving the story, all of that goes along together. It's happy happenstance that the Baptist uprising was at Christmas. It's such an unconscious process.PJ: Research also took you to Jamaica. At which point - once you had characters and a few scenes, or was location research vital to getting going?
AL: I was quite well into the book. I knew I wanted to see a plantation, to get an idea of the geography. Thank god I did! I would never have figured that out in Crouch End! The vastness of it was amazing to me, just to see the relationship where the works were to the fields, where the great house was to the slave village, how the cane came through, where the river was, how it all worked. I had a tape recorder to say what I saw and I took loads of pictures.
I stayed on this fabulous plantation. I remember having dinner one night in the great house just me and my husband, Bill. In the kitchen out the back, there were 7 or 8 black Jamaicans getting our dinner. I could hear them. We're sitting at this rather grand table waiting for them to serve us dinner and I thought: what's different? I was in the 19th Century; that's the sort of thing that is an emotional research. You sit there, and think, I can feel what this is like.PJ: You could be both Caroline and July?
AL: Yes, because I had to be both, I had to understand them both.PJ: You took 6 years to write The Long Song - how much of that was spent on research and finding the form/characters?
AL: It's hard to say now. There's initial research to find a story. I found a story and I knew where to find detail if I needed it. So things like the Baptist Wars, I had to go and read a first-hand account to get an idea of what happened, but I knew that was there when I needed it. Most of the The Long Song, was me imagining it. Really thinking myself into it. Into a country I don't live in, in a time I've never lived in and in a language that is not ordinary. You need detail to give it sense of place and time. So getting that detail is the thing I go back to research for. When Caroline sends July into town for a pair of gloves I have to know what kind, so I research - oh yes, yellow kid with a Bolton thumb. I almost don't know what I'm talking about. I live in fear of a historian saying, yeah well, they didn't have a Bolton thumb at that time!PJ: We know Thomas and July are out of slavery, as the book is narrated from a position of freedom but did you know how far back July's story would go?
AL: I wasn't sure what the arc of the book would be. The story took it's own shape. I'm an intuitive writer. I let the story take me. I see how it feels when I read it back. I wanted you to have a narrator that you knew was comfortable - you knew she was all right, because as I reader that's what I wanted. As a writer I enjoyed playing with narrator addressing the reader.PJ: Did you always have July as first-person narrator?
AL: I started off in the third person, the language was a bit more, not patois, but stronger than it is now. That was difficult. I didn't think I could sustain it. So I wanted her to write in standard English. Someone at a reading said, "Well, that's not how my mother speaks." No, but that's how my mother writes. It isn't a spoken account, it's a written account. When you write you do tend to be more careful and formal.PJ: What was a typical writing day once you'd started the first draft? How did that change as you got into the middle and then on to the end?
AL: I write in chunks. First I write longhand in the library. A rough idea of what I will cover in that section. I wouldn't show that to anyone. Then I work it up to quite polished before I go on to the next bit. So by the end of the book I have a lot of polished pieces. It's 90% is done. I will have been reading as I go along, making notes noting where there is a hole - so I'll go back and perhaps move things around, but I don't tend to change a character, or do something fundamental.PJ: So, as you go from chunk to chunk you're building, structurally, from scene to scene?
AL: Yes, I'm very careful with structure. I spend a lot of sleepless nights on the structure and how it's going to fall and will it work as a story? I really lose sleep over that. I always have a notebook by my bed for the bits where I struggle to keep the story going.PJ: You're working intuitively, keeping track of structure but you don't plan the whole arc - how much ahead are you seeing?
AL: I have a rough idea of what comes next because it's not only a book of stories it's a book of ideas and wanting to explore those ideas. So the Christmas sequence is wanting to explore the daily life of being a slave and the relationship between the big house and the slaves. After that, moving into the Robert Goodwin section, I wanted to explore what slavery can make of a decent human being, how it can turn you into a brute quite easily. So I'm moving the story on, but I'm moving the ideas on, ideas about slavery and what it does to people. There are so many strands that you pull in. It's such and unconscious process. I wish I could say, it's like this, or like this... What I'm thinking about when I write is getting into the scene, it's incredibly intense - I can see each scene. I don't see words, I see the scene.PJ: When you spoke at Goldsmiths you said, you didn't trust yourself to write for more than two hours a day.
AL: Two hours a day is from a blank page to something written on it or from a pile of rough draft to a polished piece. I like to think a lot about what I've written. So I give time to come back to it fresh. If I'm editing polished stuff or researching then 16-hour days are not unheard of.PJ: You've talked before about reading work out to you husband, Bill, your first reader. That's part of the process for you?
AL: I read aloud to Bill once a section is polished enough. But I always read out loud as I write. I do it all the time, every minute. I type and I say it back to myself. I always hear it. When I came to do the audio book it was second nature. I knew it backwards. I write by speaking it. So if it doesn't sound right I change it. Sometimes I think: I need another beat there, the rhythm's not right. I have to get the rhythm right. It's very important to me how it sounds.PJ: You've played with storytelling, giving several versions of the same event, implying gossip or eyewitness or memory. This allows you to spare us being present at some distressing moments, such as Kitty's final confrontation with Tam Dewar. We hear speculations on what might have happened, and it's all the more powerful for that. How did this evolve?
AL: That bit I can remember writing quite well - the riot. Very hard to write a riot, to give that some convincing momentum. So it started with other people telling it and that was a Eureka moment, that July could narrate what other people said they saw. I probably did write the scene directly, initially, but when I wrote it through the other character's eyes, I realised that I'm telling you something about the humanity of the other people around and what they had to go through. That kind of happenstance - finding a way to narrate, I love that.
I remember writing a line that said they saw Kitty standing up like Nanny Maroon, even now it makes it makes me cry, it's a powerful emotion, that someone would endanger their lives for their child. I can't stand sentimentality but I also don't want to write naked misery.PJ: You give us plenty to laugh about too.
AL: A lot has been made of the humour - it's upset some people that a book on slavery isn't a misery fest, as if you're not taking it seriously enough. Whereas I think humour is part of the human condition. This is how human interactions work, you laugh and you're serious. But if you laugh doesn't mean it's not a serious book.PJ: Most of your characters are neither all good, nor all bad. You've been careful to deal each one a fairly even, let's say, realistic, hand.
AL: I think very carefully about characters. What would they do? And in order to do that I have to think, what would I do in a certain situation? What would somebody I know do? That's very important, getting that right - how would someone act? It has to be something I could imagine a real person doing. The have to be human beings.PJ: Thomas's ending packs a punch - did you always have that in mind?
AL: I knew that from fairly early on. Once I'd got Thomas I knew he would bookend the story. There is also a link to Small Island. I'm not going to tell you what it is! I put it in for the careful reader to find! It gave me a great deal of pleasure to have that link between the The Long Song and Small Island.PJ: What are you working on at the moment?
AL: I'm having a bit of a rest. The Long Song was a very difficult book to write. The hardest book yet. When I got to the end, I was so relieved. I'm looking forward to spending time on 'receive' instead of 'send,' - going to galleries, museums, travelling.PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
AL: Mainly non-fiction. I've just read Bill Bryson's At Home - very informative.PJ: What would you say to someone about to begin a first novel, particularly one that depends largely on historical research?
AL: Run! Run like the wind!! No, really. If it isn't tough you aren't doing it right. It's hard work, a lot of hard work. It can be incredibly enjoyable, I love the intensity sometimes, but I also like to put my feet up.Find out more about Andrea Levy and her other books, here.
More on The Man Booker Prize, here.