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Tuesday 21 May 2019
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Claire Adam: On the write track

Over 30 years ago Claire Adam was introduced to a “real” writer – one of the many people who was influential in her becoming a writer and one of the experiences that has stood out among her days growing up in TT.

“Michael Anthony won't remember me, but he very kindly talked to me about writing many years ago. I was 13 or 14, I think, and I must have expressed an interest in writing to either my parents or my teachers, because someone arranged for me to go and talk to him,” the author of Golden Child told WMN. Adam’s début novel from Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint, SJP for Hogarth, is set in Trinidad and follows a family as they try to navigate their way through a life of scarcity, and struggle with loyalty and love.

“My family was living in Federation Park at the time, and I think Mr Anthony must have been nearby, because I have a memory of walking to his house…Anyway, he was very kind. He was at a desk by a window, barefoot, wearing short-pants and a T-shirt, and although I don't remember any of the words we exchanged, I still remember something of what it felt like to see a ‘real’ writer,” she said.

“He had been working, and my arrival broke his concentration; I remember him putting down his pencil and turning to look at me, and reluctantly letting go of whatever had been in his mind. He gave me his full attention for 20 or 30 minutes and talked to me about writing and books.”

Although it took many years before it happened, Adam said writing was the path she always knew she wanted to follow. “It sounded like a nice career – sitting at a desk in some beautiful location, surrounded by books, writing, writing, writing. The picture I had in my head was glorious!”

She soon learnt, though, that a writer’s vision is, for the most part, nothing like the reality. “First of all, I don't have the beautiful writing space I dreamed of – I have a rickety Ikea table with screw-on legs that's squeezed into a corner of a bedroom. Every morning I have to clear away things that people have put on top of it – folded laundry, bills to pay, loose change.”

And then there are the many things that get in the way of actually sitting down to write. “There is so much pressure NOT to write: there are so many other things on my to-do list each day that seem so much more urgent than exploring or creating a new story. I feel a lot of frustration when, for whatever reason, I'm not able to get my work done. To be honest, the vast majority of my writing life is frustration! But with a lot of effort, and patience, the words do eventually appear, and very, very occasionally, there are moments when I look up happily from my computer and think, ‘Yes! This is exactly what I wished for.’”

Adam left TT when she was 18 to do a degree in physics at Brown University in Rhode Island, USA. She subsequently moved to Europe and although she has never forgotten her homeland, the escalation in criminal activities has deterred her from visiting as frequently as she would have liked to.

“I came back about once a year for a long time; gradually that became every other year, and then every couple of years. I would have come back more often if I hadn't worried about the crime. Once I had children, I was much more reluctant to bring them to Trinidad because of the crime.”

The last time she visited was about three years ago. Her next visit will be in May, when she will participate in the Bocas Lit Fest.

Claire Adam. Photo by Tricia Keracher-Summerfield

Adam said the TT she knew has changed somewhat, but she remains a Caribbean girl at heart. “I've been in London for 18 years now, and I suppose I've acclimatised, although I wouldn't go as far as saying it feels like home. I'm married to a New Zealander, and we have two children, and live in a flat in south London. Life in cities isn't easy – it's common to spend a lot of time commuting, everything is very expensive, people are polite but very reserved... I often miss being in the tropics.”

Golden Child is a work of fiction, but Adam said some of the characters may have been inspired by people she had met along the way. “They're fictional, although of course writers necessarily draw on their own life experiences even in the creation of fictional characters.” She said Clyde Deyalsingh, the father character, walked into her mind fully formed.

“I could see him physically, I could see how he walked, how he stood up and sat down. And I could see his family circumstances, his two children, and the terrible choice he would have to make. I knew straight away that it would be a huge challenge to write about this character: this was a character that was going to have a world of judgement upon him – he knew it, and I, as the author, knew it – but he was willing to bear that burden, to do what he believed was the right thing. I had huge respect for him, and sympathy.”

She had to write to discover the other characters. “Paul, the boy who goes missing, was the last one to properly take shape, which I thought was interesting. Clyde doesn't see this child clearly – Clyde doesn't properly know his own son – and I was so locked into Clyde's mindset that for a long time, I didn't either. But I found Paul in the end, I'm glad to say.”

She explained that although the novel is dominated by male characters, the masculinity theme was not intentional. “I had no grand ideas about masculinity as a theme when I was writing. I've heard it said and I think it's good advice, that the author's primary job is just to ‘get out of the way’. This is what I tried to do. I kept my thoughts focussed solely on the characters, and I tried to get out of their way and let them do what they were going to do, and I just wrote it all down. Having said that, it's true that the main characters are all male: there's Clyde, the father; Peter and Paul, the twin sons, aged 13 when the book opens; and there's also an Irish Catholic priest, Fr Kavanagh. It is a very male-dominated book, and certainly Clyde, the father, is a very manly kind of man. Several readers have commented to me that they know many Trinidadian men just like Clyde.”

Adam said although, to a certain extent, violence is inescapable in TT, she was very restrained in how much violence she included in the storyline. “Everyone knows someone who's been affected by something; and because it's such a small and tightly-knit society, it never feels like the violence is something ‘far away’ that happens only to ‘other people,’ it always feels uncomfortably close. Every time you hear about something – some murder, or kidnapping, or assault – you're always aware on some level that the victim could so easily have been you, or your mother, father, son, daughter. So I think it's almost impossible to write about TT without violence and crime coming up – but, as I say, I think I was pretty restrained.”

Golden Child took five years to complete. “There were a lot of gaps, like summer holidays, when the children were home from school, and I couldn't get any work done. And I did several complete re-writes, or drafts. Once the book was picked up by Faber & Faber in London, I did one more draft; then there was copy-editing, proofreading, all that stuff; it was about two years between being picked up by Faber and finally being published. Two years is a bit on the long side, but it's not unheard of.”

Adam is currently working on another novel, as well as short stories and essays. “It's great to feel I have permission to keep writing.”

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