Olive Senior was born and brought up in Jamaica and educated in Jamaica and Canada. She is a graduate of Montego Bay High School and Carleton University, Ottawa. She started her career as a journalist with the Daily Gleaner 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 Lighting which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her novel, Dancing Lessons was published by Cormorant Books in Canada 2011. Visit her here.
NAW- Tell us about your works. What do you like writing, poetry or fiction and why?
I am interested in exploring all forms of writing. My 15 books cover fiction (short fiction and a
novel), poetry, non-fiction, and children’s literature. I’m also trying my hand at writing a play. I like best whatever I happen to be working on.
NAW- Many of your works have focussed on the young and their emotional turbulence. Do you feel there is a dearth of quality fiction voicing the young these days given the fad of young adults novels?
I can’t really speak to this as I am not familiar with a wide range of YA novels. But the emotional turbulence of the young will always be central, regardless of how the story gets told.
NAW-You have actively explored Jamaica and its cultural heritage. How strong an inspiration was the Caribbean culture for your works?
All my work is embedded in Caribbean culture because that is what has shaped me and what I know best.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I travel a lot, work as a writing mentor and feed my imagination every day, even if I am not
actually writing, by walking, reading, talking, sharing with friends and family and taking in the
world around me.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
This changes from time to time so my answer will always be changing. Believe it nor not, I always go back to Charles Dickens. I’m not a big fan of fantasy but I am of Terry Pratchett. And Latin American fiction by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Amado came at a critical time when I was struggling with my own writing and opened new ways of seeing. I also read a lot of poetry – all the time.
NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.
It depends on what I am writing. With non-fiction which is usually based on research I have an
over-arching theme and a rough outline which I will follow. But I am not a scrupulous plotter of
fiction or poetry – I write intuitively, thinking for a long time about my subject and also allowing
my unconscious to work on it until the day comes when it seems ready to be written. I like to get a first draft down very quickly and then I will spend endless time on revision until I am satisfied.
NAW- Are you working on a new book now? If yes, what is it about?
I have just had a new book out – a work of non-fiction which is based on many years of research. It is called Dying to Better Themselves. West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. This year is the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal, one of the world’s great wonders, and I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of those whose contribution was never fully acknowledged. In the spring of 2015, a collection of short stories called The Pain Tree will be out.
These are stories written over a long period of time and published in journals but never collected in book form. I have lots of ideas for what I want to write next but I’m not ready at the moment to tackle anything. The Panama project was massive.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
I’ve been so busy with the non-fiction book that my reading these days is strictly for entertainment – detective fiction and the like. I also like to read poetry as a way of moving my
mind to other spaces.
NAW- Any advice for struggling writers?
Keep at it. Writing is a craft like any other and you get better with practice. Have faith in yourself but dampen unrealistic expectations. Remember that words are your raw material – love them, acquire them, use then, lose them when necessary. Read widely. Question what you are reading.
What works? What doesn’t? How does the author achieve certain effects? This is a good way to learn.