The gorgeous novel BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE from Martin Mordecai debuted to rave reviews last year. Kirkus gave it a starred review, Booklist called it “rich in characterization with a beautifully realized setting”. Publishers Weekly noted that “the author captures the rhythm of the children’s daily life and effectively conveys their hopes, fears and family love as they look toward the future and learn secrets about the past.” BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE was just recently named an Ontario Library Association (OLA) Best Bet — one of their top 10 Canadian novels for children. Mr. Mordecai was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, far from Top Valley, where his novel is set. Martin’s professions have included television, radio, journalism, and the foreign service, but he has written all his life. Martin now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Pamela.
In BLUE MOUNTAIN TROUBLE, intrigue and a sense of romance are intertwined with the daily realities of the twins lives, and the life of their community. Do you consider your book a fantasy tale? How do you see the concept of ‘magic’ playing a part in your work? In readers’ lives? How have you seen the ‘magic’ of literature in your own reading life? In your readers’ today?
I think perhaps that the ‘romance’ is in the tone of the writing, which is deliberate — BMT started life as a bedtime story told to a child. And it’s a fantasy only insofar as there is the element of the ‘duppy Goat’. I think the ‘magic’ is really just the goat and the sense of wonder it brings to the lives of the twins. Much of the rest is very reality-based.
For me there is definitely magic to be found in literature, and it saddens me to see and hear people who do not read or “have no time” for books. The magic in books, even in non-fiction, is a shared magic between the author and the reader,— it’s interactive. You bring yourself to the author’s and character’s selves, and something quite alchemical can happen. When you watch television you’re merely observing someone else’s magic — and in many cases there’s no magic at all!
How and why did you choose twin characters? You’ve mentioned that Pollyread was ‘hogging the best lines” — how did you uncover Jackson’s voice and story? How much do the twins’ external and/or internal lives reflect your own at age 11?
As I said, this started as a bedtime story to a child. Unless I’m sitting in front of a keyboard I’m not very imaginative, so after I began the usual way, Once upon a time…I said, there were twins . . . figuring two characters gave me more options than one. Likewise the duppy goat. Pollyread got all the best lines because once I started actually writing the story I had a ready template for her: our daughter, who’s bright and lippy and has been known to be devious. Jackson took more thought and effort. I took some of him – his gift with mathematics and plants – from our eldest son, but otherwise he is, I think, himself, and I kinda like him.
I can’t remember what I was thinking and feeling when I was 11! But I know I wasn’t as smart or as confident as either of the twins.
You’re a very descriptive writer — how does your photography influence your work as an author? What were the stories that transformed your childhood? Are there any contemporary authors or works of children’s literature that are particularly powerful to you?
The photography: Probably a lot. I have to ‘see’ a scene, usually with a line or two of dialogue, before I can start writing. And it was a photograph I took one morning in the mountains that solidified Top Valley for me, the physical aspects of it.
Our house, when I was a child, was full of books and records, of all kinds, so reading was not a remarkable activity for any of us – or music for that matter, most of us learnt an instrument at some time or another. There were fewer books for children at that time, so you read whatever was to hand. I remember some of the stories of Mark Twain, which were fantastic in all meanings of that word, and those of Damon Runyon — my father had lived briefly in New York and loved Runyon, as do I. And from quite young I loved history, historical stories, and still do. It was perhaps fated that I would try to write a historical novel myself.
Among contemporary writers for children, I’ve really only started reading them (a bit) since BMT was accepted for publication. There are some fine ones I’ve found, but what’s enjoyable about them brings pleasure to me as an adult. Which confirms my wife’s conviction that BMT is not really ‘a children’s book’.
You were born in Jamaica, and now live in Canada, where you’ve said that you arrived and “did many different things, as immigrants have to”. What were some of those many things? Can you elaborate on your observations of immigrant lives in North America?
I can’t generalize, each immigrant has a unique experience. I will say, however, that immigrants, especially those from the so-called Third World, bring to their host countries, particularly the U.S. and Canada, a toughness of will and a breadth of vision and experience that those mainstream societies can only benefit from, and ignore at peril to their own future vitality.
For myself, and my wife, Pam, what we did had to do with books in one way or another. My wife’s a well-published author, and without her royalties my own trajectory would probably have been the more archetypal one of the PhD driving a cab — except that I don’t have a PhD; I do however know the streets of Toronto pretty well. But we imported and exported books, published books, edited books, and in the early years did a little consulting.
How did this story come to you? How did your plot evolve? Are you more of a character- or plot-focused writer? Or neither?
I’m not bad with plot ideas for other people’s stories, but hopeless with my own. I follow the words. I make discoveries about the people I’m writing about, and derive plot-points or whatever, from listening to the words in my head or that appear on the screen, and letting the ideas sparked by the words lead me into the light. That’s one reason why I’m a very slow writer. Because the words can lead you into blind alleys, and you have to go back and find the word(s) that point in a new direction.
A review of BMT mentions your use of patois, adding that “Mordecai pays us the compliment of respecting that readers have more than one way of understanding a word and a concept.” How did you make decisions about what to define or not define in the process of telling your story? Why was it important to you to tell your story in the way you did?
I think that review, in a Canadian journal, is the most gratifying of those from North America, and that comment typifies it. I didn’t make any decisions about ‘defining’ or ‘explaining’ words. I’m not a speaker of deep Jamaican Creole, so that language wasn’t available to me, so I just wrote what I heard in my head. Fortunately, Rachel Griffiths, my editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, took the decision against a glossary; I appreciated that.
Tell us a bit about your path to Arthur A. Levine Books, and the factors that made this pairing a success. What was your debut year like? Were there any surprises along the way? What was most gratifying for you? What do you wish you had been told? What would you tell new authors today? Do you have any best/worst moments to share?
I’m embarrassed to say that I’d never heard of Arthur A. Levine Books before my agent, Margaret Hart, told me about Arthur. And Margaret was absolutely convinced that AAL was the ‘right’ place for BMT. She was correct. (She sent it to other publishers, but wasn’t too upset when they turned it down.) What was most gratifying was the respect with which Rachel and Arthur treated the manuscript, and their conviction (far stronger than my own) that it was a worthwhile project to publish.
The best moment for me was when they called one day shortly after publication last year to tell me that BMT had received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. They were so very pleased for me. That was nice.
Another great moment was a ‘review’ from my 9-year-old grandniece, whose mother reported that she had to wrestle the book away from her in the shower! All the words of praise in journals can’t match that.
There have been numerous discussions of the value of ‘multicultural literature’ — what does that term mean to you? How has the Caribbean literary tradition played a role in your reading and writing life?
I’m not sure what the term means at all; I’m not familiar with it in Canada, though we pride ourselves on being ‘the most multicultural country’ in the world. In Canada it’s pretty much all ‘Canadian literature’.
The Caribbean Literary tradition, such as it is, is only, for English-speakers anyway, about 100 years old. For me what it means is that we have stories to tell that people want to hear, and that we are the best people to tell them. People like CLR James, Sam Selvon, John Hearne, VS Naipaul, Sylvia Wynter, Vic Reid – these people gave scribblers of my generation and later ones the confidence to dream about writing books. For myself, the excitement has been more in the use of language, by writers like Reid, Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Olive Senior, and my wife, Pam. Younger writers are building on this and taking the ‘tradition’ in new directions.
In the area which BMT occupies, literature for children, the ‘tradition’ is less old. There were stories from the forties by Eddie Burke, a social worker who became a clergyman and established the rural setting as the ‘heart place’ of childhood; Vic Reid, who gave our history the clarity and resonance of childhood; then books written and edited by Jean D’Costa and others, meant for schools but with much original writing. And always, giving delight to children and adults, the poetry and stories of Louise Bennett. BMT is a modest addition to that venerable library.
In a post on Geoffrey Philp’s Blog Spot, you talk about your online critique and support group. Why do you think it worked so well? What were its benefits in comparison to an in-person group? What advice do you have for other authors considering the same?
I think the online writer’s group worked for two reasons. First, all of us knew at least one, maybe two other members of the group. Only Nalo Hopkinson, a marvelous Caribbean-Canadian writer, knew everybody, all six of us (seven eventually). So there was a certain shyness, but also an element of discovery and anticipation about the exchanges. And, like all the best friendships – because we were not just mostly strangers but also writing totally different stuff – it started slowly.
The second reason was that it was non-judgmental. The only thing required of you, so to speak, was a word-count for that day. You didn’t have to ‘show’ anything if you didn’t want to, and when you did there was no obligation for anyone else to comment And if you didn’t write anything for that day you didn’t have to explain why, unless you wanted to. When you’re meeting relative strangers – which is what we were – in the flesh, at a coffee shop or someone’s home, there’s often an unspoken obligation/anticipation dynamic at work: ‘What have you got to show? Why don’t you?’ And you feel you have to make some comment, preferably enthusiastic, about your colleague’s work.
Writing is such a personal thing, so much of your personhood is invested in it, that you are instinctively careful about exposure. Online – ironically, because we hear so much about the nakedness of the online person – provides a filter, a firewall.
But that’s me. Pam is more relaxed about showing her work to other people for their assessment – people whose judgment she trusts, of course. But I don’t. She and my children are the only people who saw any of BMT, until the online writing group started. Different strokes for different folks. But BMT would not have been written without them. And without the grants provided by various arts funding agencies here in Canada. Give thanks for new friends and taxpayers.
What do you do for fun? What do you wish people knew about you? What do you wish an interviewer would just ask already?
Fun? Writers aren’t allowed to have fun – except when they’re writing. The blood, sweat and tears constitute fun, the delete button is our rubber ball!
But I listen to music, talk to my wife, my children and our grandchild, and read a lot, mostly, at the moment, history.
I don’t wish people to know anything about me except what’s in my books or in the author’s profile. That’s why I’m not on Facebook, I don’t Twitter, Buzz, or any of those things. I’m developing a website, but I don’t intend to go further than that. My life is pretty boring anyway — and nobody’s business.
Thank you so much, Mr. Mordecai — this interview has inspired me in many ways.