25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Olive Senior

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Olive Senior

Olive Senior talks to Open Book about her newest children's book, Birthday Suit, how writing non-fiction is a bit of a challenge and her top three tips for creative writers.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new children?s book, Birthday Suit.

Olive Senior:

Birthday Suit is a picture book, the story of a little boy who doesn?t want to wear clothes and the efforts of his parents to get him to do so. So it?s a story about growing up but also one that resonates universally, since just about every adult who has read the book or heard the plot has told me that there is just such a person in their family! There is a lot of fun and word play in the narrative and the illustrations by Eugenie Fernandes are a joy to behold. Each painting not only depicts the antics of naughty Johnny and the frustrated adults but also the setting in a tropical seaside village. It is teeming with life and colour and enough funny creatures in and out of the water to engage little ones and parents for hours on end.


Was there a specific chain of events that encouraged you to consider writing for children?


Not really, I have always been interested in exploring all forms of writing, including writing for children. This is my first published book in that genre, I have a second accepted for publication and I have written other poems and stories for children ? so far unpublished. This is something I will continue to explore because I really enjoy myself with this kind of writing, I feel that I can be playful and silly. In many of my adult stories I do assume the child?s point of view, but they tend to be stories of lost innocence as children confront the hypocracy of adult behaviour. Some are heartbreaking but others are actually quite funny as I like little people who ? like Johnny in Birthday Suit ? find ways of challenging authority on the road to autonomy.


You started your career out as a journalist, what prompted you to take your writing beyond newsprint and explore other facets of the creative process?


I decided to be a writer at an early age. I only became a journalist because I was totally ignorant of how to proceed and all the famous writers in Jamaica at the time wrote for the newspaper so I thought this was the route one had to take. Although I enjoyed my foray into journalism and learned a great deal from it, for me it has always been a means to an end: establishing myself as a writer of fiction and poetry.


When you first started dabbling in fiction, non-fiction and poetry, did you have any inhibitions about crossing genres?


I guess I didn?t have any inhibitions about ?crossing genres? as I have never thought about it that way. As far as poetry and fiction are concerned, I have always done what comes naturally which is to allow the material to determine the form. That usually is a decision made by my unconscious. Non-fiction is a bit different as much of what I have done was commissioned work. But I have also followed my own interests and vision in creating some of my non-fiction books such as the Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. The research and writing was something I chose to do and it gave me a great deal of pleasure. In turn, a lot of that work fed into my fiction and poetry. So I tend to see everything I do as interconnected, part one great loop.


What genre are you most comfortable writing in and what genre do you find challenging?


I feel equally at home with whatever I happen to be writing. It is either working or not working. Non-fiction is probably the most challenging to me because the demands are more technical and the criteria usually established by others. I also find writing for children challenging because to be published you also need to be aware that this is a very demanding audience and there are technical and other requirements to be met. I have been trying to write a play and that has been a very humbling experience because I am realising there is just so much I don?t know. I don?t know if I?ll get anywhere with it, but I like the challenge.


Having crossed a number of borders, how has geography impacted your writing and your state of mind?


This is hard to answer. I don?t know how border crossing affects my writing because what really matters is what?s inside my head and that I can take with me anyplace. Travel has certainly broadened my outlook and reinforced my thinking globally but even as a small child I had a curiosity about the world. The sense of place in my fiction remains Jamaica because that is the landscape that I absorbed into my consciousness from an early age. My poetry is wide ranging in theme and subject matter but also rooted in a tropical landscape as the backdrop for digging deeply into historical experience.


You?ve worked as a creative writing teacher. What are your top three writing tips for budding creative writers?


No. 1 always is: Read! It?s amazing how many would-be writers don?t read. But reading as widely as possible in your chosen genre and studying the craft of established writers is still the best way of learning to write.

2. Step out of yourself. Explore other voices. Put on different hats. Assume other personas and points of view.

3. Think small. Many writers are overwhelmed by what they have to say, by their emotional connection to the subject or the sheer volume or weight if it. Instead of trying to write it all, find one small key element in your material and focus on that. It could be anything ? a snapshot, a phrase, a gesture, a symbol. Often it will provide a key to unlock the rest.

Olive Senior was born and brought up in Jamaica and educated in Jamaica and Canada.

She started her career as a journalist and later entered the world of publishing. She was editor of two of the Caribbean's leading journals: Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies and Jamaica Journal, published by Institute of Jamaica Publications (of which she was also Managing Director). She left Jamaica in 1989, spent some years in Europe, and since 1993 has been based in Toronto.

The Caribbean nevertheless remains the focus of her work, starting with her prizewinning collection of stories, Summer Lightning, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, followed by Arrival of the Snake-Woman and Discerner of Hearts. Her novel Dancing Lessons was published by Cormorant Books in 2011. She has also written a children?s book, Birthday Suit, to be published by Annick Press in Spring 2012.

For more information about Birthday Suit please visit the Annick Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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