The PEN Ten: An Interview with Leone Ross
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I’m most interested in expressing authentic emotional truth—an obsession with finding the right words to express intense, momentary experiences. I am always fascinated with “dark” emotions (violence, rage, shame, guilt, addiction) but also the very real challenge of expressing “positive” emotions in authentic and interesting ways (joy, love, sex). Fiction gives me an opportunity to express emotional truth by creating composite characters—bits of myself, inspired by other people, combined with made-up histories and newspaper headlines—and hoping readers relate deeply.
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I don’t write every day—sometimes I don’t write for months. I find it incredibly hard to immerse myself, but once I’m there, I am gone for days, so I like putting aside long, intense writing periods. I used to be an academic, so I’d use summers for class prep and writing. I like writing in public spaces, especially cafés, but swimming pools are also good. I used to be a journalist, so I quite like the hum of people around me. I cannot write at home, so lockdown in London has been no good for creativity.
I benefit from repetition and habit. Get up at the same time, brush my teeth, wash my face, pick up the bag with everything already in it, and GO. Sit in the same place, have the same breakfast, work the same hours. It becomes muscle memory—I have become inordinately irritated when someone else takes “my” seat, and café staff have been known to reserve it for me. Throughout a writing session, I have music on and off, depending on what I’m doing. I listened to a lot of waves and storms and night crickets while writing Popisho, as well as the sounds of Jamaican religious music—kumina and nyabinghi drums. Eighties Janet Jackson, I find, is very good for editing.
“I’m most interested in expressing authentic emotional truth—an obsession with finding the right words to express intense, momentary experiences. . . Fiction gives me an opportunity to express emotional truth by creating composite characters—bits of myself, inspired by other people, combined with made-up histories and newspaper headlines—and hoping readers relate deeply.”
It took me 15 years, give or take, to write Popisho, and there were times when I was in utter despair. It isn’t always that way—I wrote my first two novels in six months and 18 months respectively. I can write the first draft of a short story in a few hours. But there was something about Popisho—by the time my agent found me, I was exhausted and about ready to shelve it. I think it was sheer stubbornness that kept me going, and an abiding belief that I might as well do it, once I started. I have published everything I’ve ever written, and wasting 15 years seemed unbearable.
3. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I just finished Niven Govinden’s Diary of a Film, a tender, crystal-clear examination of the creative process, told from the point of view of a film director sharing his latest work with the world. I am also near the end of the deeply important More Than a Body by Lindsay and Lexie Kite.
I have finally returned to reading novels; in the last decade, I practically stopped reading them and stuck to short stories—Denis Johnson, Eley Williams, Sarah Hall, George Saunders, Alexia Arthurs, Rob Shearman—and nonfiction. I find it almost impossible to maintain my own novel voice when reading someone else’s. I’ve set a goal, though: I’m going to read at least 10 short novels in the next three months, very carefully and rapidly. It’ll include Helen Oyeyemi, Yoko Ogawa, and Max Porter. I’m also really looking forward to Invisible To Invaluable: Unleashing the Power of Midlife Women by Jane Evans and Carol Russell. Have to sneak some nonfiction in, especially relevant and inspiring to my fifties!
4. What advice do you have for young writers: both those young in age and those who might be older, but young in the craft?
Prioritize, organize, and acknowledge the small, regular progress. Take a deep breath, look at your life, and ask when you will be writing. Schedule it. You can’t just wait to be hit on the head by inspiration. That won’t work. You need to make it important and organize ways to make it easier to do—get that good chair, pack the kids off to grandma, get up earlier, disable WiFi.
“There was something about Popisho—by the time my agent found me, I was exhausted and about ready to shelve it. I think it was sheer stubbornness that kept me going, and an abiding belief that I might as well do it, once I started. I have published everything I’ve ever written, and wasting 15 years seemed unbearable.”
Count the small steps and victories. Some people gauge the day’s writing success on word count, some on how long you got that butt to stay in the seat and just do it. Others do it scene by scene. A novel is not made up of chapters—it’s made up of sentences. A sentence is made up of words, and each one of those suckers is a decision you made, each one has its purpose and rhythm.
Make sure you put aside different times to write new material and to assess and edit. New writing involves trust, hope, openness, exploration, curiosity, determination, authenticity. Editing written material that already exists puts emphasis on measuring, quality control, clarity, checking directness, detail, specificity, questioning, improving—a very different headspace. If you try to do both things at the same time, you risk getting stuck.
Do everything you can to reign in your internal judge: the one that leaps up to tell you the work is wrong, bad, cliched, will never get any better. Have a conversation with the judge voice, and try to understand it. It usually originates in perfectionism and worry, and is really your fear voice, however aggressive it may seem. I found it helpful to give my judge a deep, long 10 minutes to complain at me, every day, then turn back to the work. Read If You Can Talk, You Can Write by Joel Saltzman, who introduced me many years ago to the phrase, “Progress, not perfection.”
5. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
British Nigerian short story writer and novelist Irenosen Okojie (Speak Gigantular and Nudibranch) and Jamaican poet, novelist, and essayist Kei Miller (his latest is Things I Have Withheld). Both are fearless and beautiful and brave and flawed and dark and utterly glorious. Guyanese Canadian writer Tessa McWatt (Shame on Me), who has the most precise and tender voice and is a writer who lots more people should know about. I am also dying to see what Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton) does next. Musa Okwonga (In The End, It Was All About Love) is also an astonishing writer. So many to choose from.
“We need stories in order to examine ourselves, to look at things that are complicated and painful. We also need stories to not feel alone. How many times have you read a book made amazing not least because you are relieved to see yourself, your perspective, your experiences, those ideas you worried only you had?”
6. Why do you think people need stories?
We need stories in order to examine ourselves, to look at things that are complicated and painful. We also need stories to not feel alone. How many times have you read a book made amazing not least because you are relieved to see yourself, your perspective, your experiences, those ideas you worried only you had?
We need stories for a sense of community, for connection. And similes. Lots of similes. What’s better than a simile?
7. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I worked out very early that the language of sex had tremendous power to make people uncomfortable. I remember reading Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle maybe at age eight—its loving, clear, and body positive descriptions of how sex works, and then trying to explain my delight to other people, especially adults. My immediate family were really positive, but everyone else was appalled. I think it was about then I got determined to write just as lovingly and unapologetically about sex as Mayle! People are still wriggly seeing sex—especially female desire—on the page. I was doing a live reading the other day and kept slipping on the word “clitoris” not because I was bothered, but because I could see other people wincing!
8. Popisho is an expansive story about food, family, politics, and love, drawing on the tradition of magical realism to combine fantastical elements with real, emotional stakes. What can magic teach us about reality?
Magic illuminates and amplifies reality. I use it as a way to punctuate, bring attention to, have fun with, satirize the reality of relationships and the complexity of social dynamics. Everyone in Popisho has a magical ability or “cors” that they are born with, and a whole organization of “obeah women” whose job it is to identify the magic and help them find mentors to enjoy it and use it well. Many are inspired by their own magic, but still others create hierarchies, use it to make money, or are disadvantaged socially because their cors is judged as small or useless. People get put into boxes or limited.
Additionally, cors is given by the gods as a gift, and so, you can’t exactly ignore it or toss it away because it’s part of a religious duty! This is just one example of the ways that magic realism can encourage us to think about the ways our human community works—or doesn’t. We come to Popisho on a day when the very earth is restless and causing strange things to happen—a collective dreaming, a sudden plague of physalis fruit. It’s the land’s reaction to the increasing threat of capitalism as the magic is beginning to be sold for profit.
9. Which aspect of this story did you develop first: the plot, the setting, or the characters? How did you approach worldbuilding?
The first thing that comes to me wanting to explore and express a big feeling—it was madness and the effect of sexual assault in my other two novels—in Popisho, it’s addiction and the different flavors of love. Characters come next, as a vehicle for the emotion. They talk to me, and I genuinely feel like I know them, that they are somebody real. The male protagonist, a famous chef called Xavier, drove me mad. He would NOT talk to me. Then I realized that he’s actually very private. As soon as that occurred to me, I knew how to talk to him respectfully, and he began to tell me more about his longings and feelings and mistakes.
“Magic illuminates and amplifies reality. I use it as a way to punctuate, bring attention to, have fun with, satirize the reality of relationships and the complexity of social dynamics.”
Anise, who is a healer, a woman who has ironically suffered four miscarriages, is so tangled up and confused about what’s going on with her. It took some time to sit down with her and work out that even more than Xavier—who is the love of her life—she needs her girlfriends to help her face and heal a lot of pain. Character creates plot for me—the other way vaguely horrifies me. You risk contrivance and coincidence and superficial characterization if you create characters only to serve a plot. But everyone does this writing thing differently.
It took me a long time to work out the primary and most important constraints—that the novel would cover a whole day, but with nested flashbacks for context, and that all four protagonists are journeying across the archipelago. For novel number four, I will work out timeframe immediately!
The worldbuilding was the easiest and perhaps most organic task. I opted to go very light on research and to create my own rules, history, mythology, culture, music, simply grabbing at ideas that amused me. Parts of Caribbean culture; the language of Jamaica, but twisted or discarded at whim; the mischief of the multiple Greek god pantheon; the songs are often a yearlong because of a lyric in a Prince track. I let myself be free and amused. Although I did read a lot of books about food and being a chef, and watched a lot of cookery shows. I also visited the Isles of Scilly several times, an archipelago in the Gulf Stream off the coast of England, in order to walk across it—like my characters are traveling back and forth across this fictional archipelago.
10. Was the novel’s titular setting, the archipelago of Popisho, named after the Jamaican patois term “poppy show?” My family is Jamaican, so the similarity immediately stuck out to me; however, other readers who are unfamiliar with patois might not notice. How do you approach writing work that will resonate with those who share your cultural background as well as those who do not?
Yes, that is the etymology of the U.S. title and the collective name of the islands. The entire novel is stuffed with Jamaican in-jokes for those in the know. It is also designed to work just fine if you don’t recognize those cultural reference points, because Popisho is at the same time for everyone and specifically for Jamaicans. I’m not worried about some people not getting that layer—the book is about love and addiction and duty and community, and that’s a lot to be getting on with, happily. Not everything is for you.
Leone Ross is a fiction writer and academic. She was born in England and grew up in Jamaica. Her first novel, All the Blood Is Red, was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and her second novel, Orange Laughter, was chosen as a BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Watershed Fiction favorite. Her first short story collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway, was nominated for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and Jhalak Prize. Ross has taught creative writing in London for 20 years and worked as journalist throughout the ’90s. She lives in London, but intends to retire near water.