5th Oct 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Monique Roffey
Monique Roffey was born in Trinidad but now lives in the UK. She has published three novels, the second of which, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, was nominated for the Orange Prize, and an intimate memoir, With the Kisses of his Mouth.
She also teaches creative writing and writes short stories and poems. Her third novel, Archipelago, which is set in the islands around the Caribbean and the Galapagos, is out now.
Archipelago is quite an angry book in parts, especially when it comes to man’s effect on the environment. Are you an environmentalist? What is your relationship to nature?
I’m not an active environmentalist and I wouldn’t describe myself as angry. Like many of us, I am concerned about the planet, though. Climate change has directly affected a member of my family.
Four years ago, my brother’s home was badly damaged by floodwater. It was a catastrophe to him, and it was caused by a combination of climate change and poor planning laws in Trinidad. His whole neighborhood was devastated in a few hours a week before Christmas in 2008. Many of his neighbours had to move away.
Until this happened, climate change was a sort of theoretical and distant problem; it did not feel close to home. Now it does. One of the themes I set out to explore in Archipelago is how do ordinary hard working people square up to a world which is changing so fundamentally.
The planet is warming up, the banking systems are melting. Financially and ecologically, the old models are no longer reliable. How do we live with these long-term changes? Gavin escapes to gain perspective, to buy himself time to negotiate these existential questions.
You have travelled to the Galapagos yourself – how much of Gavin’s experience of them is taken from your own?
I had never visited The Galapagos until last year. As research for Archipelago I made most of the same journey undertaken by Gavin and Ocean. I boat-hitched on yachts and flew most of the route, finding myself in The Galapagos a week after the massive earthquake which devastated the town of Sendai in Japan.
The same tsunami wave travelled east around the world and had passed through The Galapagos. When I arrived, they had cleared up most of the damage, which wasn’t substantial. The Galapagos islands are amazing.
What I didn’t expect is to find so few tortoises left. In the 18th and 19th centuries whaling ships carted off hundreds of thousands of these defenceless creatures; they were mostly eaten by sailors.
Only a few thousand are left and they cannot mate until they are 25 years old. So breeding them is slow and painstaking. Thousands are currently being bred, but it will take another 100 years for stocks to replenish.
Reading the book, I felt extremely emotionally invested in the characters, were the events that happen to them hard to write?
Not at all. I took most of the trip myself and so writing about their trip and the events was a pleasure. I really enjoyed writing this book; it gave me lots of real-life adventure and I returned with many stories to treasure.
Some of these adventures I have used in the book, others are simply memories. I had a few accidents while travelling too. I guess I’m a writer who likes to get out there in the world. I like to take risks.
I boat-hitched out of Chaguaramas, Trinidad one Friday afternoon in late November 2010, me and a lone skipper who was a complete stranger; we headed out to open sea in a 37-foot yacht. We did not see land for four days and nights.
I was sea sick most of the way, but it gave me what I needed to write about; I could not write about the experience of being at sea, in so much wide open water, about being in such wonder and peril, without putting myself in Gavin’s position.
There was only one way to connect with Gavin emotionally on his voyage – to make the same trip and experience his highs and lows. I had to go out and meet the sea, la mer, that massive feminine element.
Your books are set in your home island of Trinidad, set for the most part in the present day. When we read White Woman on a Green Bicycle as a book club, we all agreed we would love to visit the island based on your descriptions of it. How are your books received by your fellow Trinidadians?
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle has generally been well-received both commercially and critically. It has been studied by academics at the University of the West Indies and here in the UK too.
Trinidadians are my closest readers, the readers I care most about. I’ve just come back from launching Archipelago in Trinidad, a tough gig on home ground, but the launch was well-attended.
It’s much too soon to know what Trinidadians think of Archipelago, but fingers crossed they will like it. My erotic memoir is now being sold in Trinidad too; I’ve had some feedback from people there; it seems that has also been appreciated.
You explored your sexuality in an incredibly open way in With The Kisses of His Mouth. Do you believe that attitudes to female sexuality are changing? Is the current rise is erotica and sex writing a fad, or a revolution?
I have just written a big essay for The Independent discussing this recent sex book zeitgeist. In the last year there has been several sex books written by women, including mine.
There have been memoirs, non-fiction and the whole E.L. James phenomenon, and these books have been written by all kinds of women: authors and tantrikas (like me), academics, social scientists, mothers, single women. I think the Era of the Sex Book is upon us.
Finally enough women, women of all types, are sexually liberated enough to take the bold step of writing about their sexual life. They are making a contributing to women writing about sex – and these books have formed a varied and substantial body of work.
Over time this body of work needs to be critically appraised, but for now, we are in the midst of this phenomenon. It deserves to be celebrated.
Sadly, I received quite a hatcheting by one newspaper; other woman in the past have been derided, outed and shamed. So while there is a new wave of sex writing by women happening, these books still meet with conservative forces. Sex is a shadow-subject.
You were nominated for the Orange Prize in 2010, do you feel it is a relevant institution? How do you think the change of sponsor will affect how the prize is viewed?
The Orange prize has been hugely influential in the literary world. It has both introduced and encouraged new female authors to the mainstream, such as myself, but it has also levelled the playing-field in relation to men and male authors. I was short-listed in 2010, its 15th year.
In that short time, a decade and a half, the prize significantly altered the way female writers are viewed; as a result we now see many more female novelists on other prize lists too, case in point being the Man Booker.
I am sure the organisers of The Orange Prize will do everything they can to find alternative sponsors who will continue the great work.
You teach creative writing and have run a writing centre. With the influx of fanfic and self-published books on the market, can writing as a taught craft survive?
Writing is underpinned by craft. If you read a lot of fanfic you will notice just how badly written most of it is, Fifty Shades of Grey being a perfect example.
The traditional system of finding an agent, selling to a publisher, undergoing rigorous editing and production, puts in place a stringent system which ensures quality control.
In this current traditional system, poorly crafted writing doesn’t really stand a chance. So the short answer is that serious writers need to learn the craft of writing and always will.