Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Pamela Mordecai

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Pamela Mordecai

Pamela Mordecai is an award-winning poet and children's author whose first novel, Red Jacket (Dundurn Press), has just been published.

Red Jacket tells the story of Grace Carpenter, a young girl growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Chris. Despite a loving family, Grace has always been puzzled about her identity because while she has copper skin, freckles and reddish hair, the rest of her family is black.

As the novel unfolds, we begin to learn about Grace's birth mother, and the story behind her adoption by the Carpenters. As Grace comes of age, the mystery surrounding her birth and heritage continues to haunt her as she yearns to understand who she truly is.

Today we're speaking to Pamela as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Pamela tells Open Book about the role destiny plays in Red Jacket, the Raymond Chandler quote that challenges her imagination and the kinds of stories that draw her in.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Pamela Mordecai:

My new book – and first novel – is called Red Jacket. That’s not the name it started out with, but that’s the name on its birth certificate. I like to think it’s a story in the manner of Wilson Harris, a distinguished Guyanese writer, who proposes a novel with multiple protagonists, a sort of community of heroes and heroines! It does focus on the life story of a woman named Grace Carpenter, who is a development planner who ends up working at WHO, and a West African priest who is clairvoyant. It’s set in multiple locations: an imaginary Caribbean island called St Chris, Toronto, Ann Arbor and a fictional West African country called Mabuli. And it covers a couple generations...


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


The book raises all kinds of questions, but the central one perhaps concerns the extent to which we are in charge of our own destiny. Do we direct our lives, or are we the victims of a fate handed to us, over which we have little control? Are our lives determined by where we are born, the circumstances of that birth, who our parents are, the quality of our education, the opportunities life offers us and so on? I wouldn’t say I had that question in my mind when I started. I had a vague idea that I wanted to put the female protagonist through the wringer, to see how she’d endure the battering, but I think the Big Question emerged in the writing.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


I have many, many versions of this book! If I collect all the time I worked on it, it took perhaps five years in all to finish writing, and then to complete revising in fits and starts. Over that period, a span of fourteen calendar years, I wrote and published a collection of short stories, two books of poetry and a play, so my focus wasn’t on the novel all the time, by any means. The novel changed when it started being read and considered by publishers. For one thing, it was very long and, as you know, that is a publishing no-no, so there was a lot of paring and rewriting.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I am fortunate enough to earn a living exclusively from writing, and I’m always at work in the same office. The physical location has changed since our move to Kitchener four years ago, but the fact of working consistently in one space hasn’t changed. I now have a much smaller office with shelves of indoor plants beside me, but when I was writing most of Red Jacket, I looked out from my third story office in our Toronto townhouse at a glorious panorama of the city that spread almost 180 degrees in front of me. Sunsets and sunrises and moonrises were gorgeous. As for instruments, I write straight onto the computer, something I never thought I’d be able to do, and my husband is the cook in our house, so I’ve no worries about food. Rituals? I work late into the night, and I hurl myself at whatever I’m doing. It’s very undisciplined and hard on body and spirit! My husband Martin, who is also a writer, and who is my very best reader, is far more orderly in his approach.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I’m hardly ever working on only one project. Plus, I begin by being a poet, and I write for adults and children, so there is always some kind of poetry to stray into for relief. I find writing poetry more forgiving than prose, since I have no expectation of ever being "done" with a poem. Even if I were to succeed in doing that, the process is less demanding in the sense that one expects to go back to a poem, and go over it, and then go over it again, and again. It isn’t that poetry is easier to write. By no means! It’s just that there’s no thrust forward, no hurtling towards an end, a winding up, with writing a poem. One can keep circling around, blundering through its haze, or poking through its dusty corners, however one wants to conceive of the process.

From a practical point of view, though, if I get stuck in narrative, I look to my husband’s frequent citing of Raymond Chandler’s advice: “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns!” That’s always a challenge to the imagination. And there was one more thing with writing this book. Martin and I were a part of an online writing group that was hugely supportive. It was initiated by Nalo Hopkinson, and at first it was just she and I, but it ended up with our being joined by some brilliant people: Hiromi Goto, who was working on Half-World, Larissa Lai, my husband, Martin, who was working on Blue Mountain Trouble, David Findlay and Jennifer Stevenson, a wonderful spec–fic writer from Chicago who more than anyone helped Red Jacket into being.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I don’t ever define, on principle. Definitions tie things down. I prefer descriptions. They are open-ended and so leave room for development, growth, filling out into the true self of whatever the thing or concept is. That having been said, I love a good story that has characters that are believable and language that goes down easily, so that I don’t feel that I’m fighting my way into the book. I’m not a big fan of writing that draws attention to itself. I like writing that serves the story and the characters. They may be as idiosyncratic and weird talking as they wish. But it’s the people in the story and their struggles and triumphs that draw me in. I’m a big Jane Austen fan. I must have read Pride and Prejudice five or six times. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a great book. Earl Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance is a Caribbean classic. Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys are great epic narratives. As you can see, I’m also a spec-fic fan.


What are you working on now?


I’m working on three projects. I’m trying to finish a book of poetry called de Book of Mary, arrive at a satisfactory draft of my second novel, The Tear Well, very different from this one, and round up my second collection of short stories.

Pamela Mordecai was born in Jamaica. She has published many textbooks, five collections of poetry, five children’s books and an anthology of short stories. Her writing has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Award for Poetry, the Bridport Prize (poetry) and the James Tiptree Award for Speculative fiction. Other awards include the Institute of Jamaica’s Centenary and Musgrave Medals and Jamaica’s Vic Reid Award for Children’s Writing. Pamela lives in Kitchener.

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