Meet Breanne Mc Ivor. She is from Trinidad & Tobago. Breanne co-founded People’s Republic of Writing (PROW). In 2015, her story Kristoff and Bonnie won The Caribbean Writer’s David Hough Literary Prize. Her work has also appeared in Commonwealth Writers’ adda, Origami Journal, Akashic Books’ Duppy Thursdays series. She has just completed her first short story collection. Twist & Twain decides to catch up with this young and enormously talented writer.
T & T: Your works have been showcased in prominent journals. You won The Caribbean Writer’s David Hough Literary Prize, too. Now, you’re set to bring out your debut short story collection. So, what motivated you to become a writer? Any family influence?
Breanne: As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved words. As a child, I would write “books” and read them to my family and friends. These early novels were often accompanied by painfully bad colour-pencil drawings and were invariably incomplete since, as soon as an idea for a new book emerged, I would abandon whatever copy book I was writing in and move on to the next one. I’ve since improved my tenacity.
My main motivation has to be my mother—she read to me since I was a baby and instilled that love of words in me.
T & T: Your short story “The Boss” speaks volumes about your writing ability. Did you attend any creative writing courses or had mastered the art after a lot of bad mistakes?
Breanne: As a student in primary and secondary school, I got some early coaching in creative writing. As an adult, I’ve been lucky to be part of two exceptional writing groups – The Girton Poetry Group when I was studying at the University of Cambridge and The People’s Republic of Writing (PROW) when I moved back home. Based on feedback from other members of the groups, I’ve really been able to improve my writing (or at least I hope so).
T & T: What is the title of your debut short story collection? Who is the publisher?
Breanne: We haven’t announced the title yet but hopefully soon! Peepal Tree Press is the publisher; they’ve published a lot of Caribbean books that I have loved. So, it’s a dream come true to work with them.
T & T: Many new writers, after facing rejection, opt for vanity publishers or self-publishing. Do you think this is a good idea?
Breanne: I think part of being a writer is accumulating rejection stories. Different writers have different journeys and I’m not about to say self-publishing is bad for everyone. But it wasn’t the path that I felt was right for me. I feel like receiving feedback from publishers has helped to make my writing better. Even when your work is rejected, you can learn something if publishers tell you why they rejected a particular piece.
T & T: Let’s talk about Trinidad. People of Indian-origin make up the largest ethnic group there. It is often joked that Indians open shops wherever they go. Is it the same thing in Trinidad & Tobago too? And which ethnic group do you belong to? Where is your home in Trinidad?
Breanne: People of Indian-origin do anything you can imagine in Trinidad & Tobago. They are doctors, lawyers, dancers and yes… shopkeepers.
Despite our Scottish surname, the Mc Ivors in Trinidad are a truly mixed bunch. So I’m mixed race – many people in Trinidad don’t have all the details on their ancestors because of the ways that our islands were colonized and settled. However, I do know that I have European ancestors – English, Scottish, Spanish – as well as Chinese, Carib (our indigenous people), African, and Indian ancestors. I’ve never thought of myself as more closely affiliated with one particular race and always considered myself mixed.
I live in Diego Martin, which is in West Trinidad.
T & T: How is the English literary scene in Trinidad & Tobago? Are there a lot of new voices coming up? Which topic do Trinidadian authors like to write about most?
Breanne: The local literary scene is buzzing. The annual Bocas Lit Fest has done so much to create opportunities for writers and give us a place to gather annually. There are lots of new voices – Shivanee Ramlochan was recently shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and authors like Andre Bagoo and Caroline Mackenzie write with voices that are so different from anything we’ve heard from the Caribbean before.
I don’t know if Trinidadian authors focus on just one topic. We write about ourselves – our sense of identity and how it’s shaped by our history and our environment – and we write about the ways that our people interact with the rest of the world. We’re very small islands, often heavily influenced by North America and by colonial ideas we haven’t fully relinquished, and many writers examine how we cope with our past as we try to forge a future.
T & T: Are you working or are you a full-time writer?
Breanne: I’m working but I’m very lucky to work in a supportive environment. My boss actually read my story “The Boss” before it was published and gave me some feedback. Several co-workers also read my stories regularly.
T & T: Don’t you feel that writers, rather than holding day jobs, should stay at home instead and focus on writing only? The more time they are at home, the more they can dream and write. Is it not so?
Breanne: By living life, writers get more to write about. So many of my stories stem from tiny details or experiences that only came to me through my work.
However, it is important for writers to have time to dream and write. Writing is not just the time spent in front the laptop. It’s the time spent walking up and down listening to music and getting to know your characters. It’s the time spent plotting and re-plotting. And it’s important to be able to do that without being on a tight schedule or feeling an overwhelming sense of worry. If someone is like me, and they can’t yet quit their job and write full time, I would recommend a job that affords some flexibility so that writing doesn’t become the thing squeezed into an hour here and an hour there.
T & T: You’ve spun a number of remarkable short stories. Won’t you try your hands on novel-writing, too?
Breanne: It feels like you read my mind. After my collection of short stories is complete, I plan to write a novel. I’ve actually started already. Earlier this year I was one of three writers chosen by the Bocas Lit Fest to work on a project entitled Secret Lives: Inspired by the archives. We had to use the archives to produce a new piece of fiction. I was inspired by Derek Walcott’s archives and I felt that what I was writing was bigger than a short story. I’ve now plotted the novel out and hope to sink into it soon. I’ve also written about my experience working on that project here: See here
T & T: Is your writing based on personal experiences or figment of imagination?
Breanne: Both! I’ve never met a writer who is not sometimes inspired by their own experiences. Sometimes I’ll hear a phrase or something will happen that’s never happened before and I’ll save a note on my phone because I know that there’s a story somewhere.
T & T: The late Nobel Laureate, Sir V.S. Naipaul, an ethnic Indian, was also from Trinidad. His novel “A House for Mr. Biswas” remains a classic in English literature. Have you read his books? What is the stature of Sir V.S. Naipaul in Trinidad?
Breanne: I have read and re-read Naipaul’s books. I actually wrote one of my undergraduate dissertations on him. Miguel Street is one of my all-time favourite books and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to know my country better. So many Trinidadians have read extracts of Miguel Street at school and absorbed Naipual as a matter of course.
However, Naipaul’s relationship with Trinidad – and our relationship with him – is complicated. When he died, social media was flooded with tributes and criticisms in equal measure. Some felt that his work transcended his criticism of us— of our country. Others felt the pain of his rejection of Trinidad, his unflinching portraits in his middle novels particularly; and this could not be forgiven or even lessened by the many great books he had written. When Naipaul won the Nobel Prize, he said “It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and to India, the home of my ancestors, and to the dedication and support of my agent.” I was just a child at the time, but that moment has been discussed so often in Trinidadian literary circles that I almost feel as if I remember it myself; he didn’t mention us and, when he died, some said things that amounted to well he didn’t care about us, So, why should we care about him ?
Personally, I feel as if he is incredibly, inescapably Trinidadian. Which Trini has not complained about Trinidad? Certainly none I’ve met. Naipaul remains a great influence on Caribbean literature and, personally, I would not be the writer I am without him.
T & T: Writers love hoarding books. Do you have a personal library?
Breanne: Oh absolutely! I love real, paper books and I am gradually accumulating signed copies of some of my favourites (and often whichever authors I can get to sign my book). Miguel Street has pride of place as well as some of my great favourites: Catch-22, The Dew Breaker (which is also signed), The Tiger’s Wife, The Book of Night Women, A Man Called Ove, East, West and The Girls.
T & T: Some writers hate reading their own stuff. In your case,do you love to read your own stories again and again?
Breanne: Once I’m finished with a story, I tend to let it be for a while. I can get a bit tired of it and I feel as I need space (it’s almost like the end of a relationship). But once some time has passed, I go back to my writing and read it critically; sometimes, I wince at things I would do better now, but sometimes I enjoy it.
T & T: Is it your dream to become a writer or is there something else in your mind?
Breanne: This is the easiest interview question. It is definitely my dream to be a writer !
T & T: Many writers began their literary career by writing poems. How did you take your first steps as a writer?
Breanne: Actually, I was a poet first. My first poem was published in The Trinidad Guardian when I was eight. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was a member and then Co-President of the Girton Poetry Group. Any poetry ambitions have sharply petered out though as I haven’t published a poem since I was twenty one.
T & T: Writing fiction or composing poetry— which is harder?
Breanne: I would have to say poetry. Once I sink my teeth into a piece of fiction, I can just write and write. When it comes to poetry I am such a formalist, so I often get bogged down with versification and rhymes and half-rhymes and the end result is often not worth the effort put in.
T & T: It is often seen that writers born in cities tend to write about city life whereas those with rural upbringing come up with rural stories. In India, writers with rural roots turn out to be the finest writers. Now, which appeals to you more— the city or the countryside?
Breanne: I love a city. I love the things to do: the plays, the cultural activities, the different food to eat, the various ways to exercise, the people, but I have to have greenery. I have to have trees, and grass and even the night noises of animals like the flap of an owl’s wings or the crickets chirping. I feel like I need a mix of both to be complete.
T & T: Have you read any works by Indian writers? Have you heard of the great Indian epics “The Ramayana” and “The Mahabharata”?
Breanne: I’ve read Salman Rushdie—the famous things like The Satanic Verses but also some of his short stories; his story The Courter is one of my favourite short stories of all time. I’m a huge fan of Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Sections of Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day have also been burned into my brain; I studied that book at school when I was seventeen and I still remember an essay I wrote on the role that birds and flowers played in the novel.
When I was in secondary school, the Ramayana was performed annually by members of the Hindu community in preparation for Diwali. Unfortunately, I’m not as familiar with the Mahabharata.
T & T: People say writers are moody, introverted and short-tempered.
Breanne: Haha! Some of us are! I don’t think anyone would describe me using any of those adjectives (although I hope I’m not deluding myself). The writers I know are a pretty diverse group. So, I wouldn’t say that those stereotypes are always true.
T & T: Every writer has somebody favorite, somebody who influenced their writing in some way. Who are your favorite writers?
Breanne: This is one of the hardest questions for me because there are so many writers I love. I would have to say that my favourites are V. S. Naipaul, Edwidge Danticat, Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Joseph Heller. I’ve only read a book apiece by Emma Cline, Colleen McCullough and Téa Obreht, but those books had such a huge impact on me that I have to list them as my favorites.
T & T: Writers need writers. Do you have author friends? How do they help you become a better writer?
Breanne: I don’t know where I would be without my writer friends, but it wouldn’t be where I am now. They help me by letting me read their work, which is often brilliant and inspirational. My friends are also perennially willing to read my work and then re-read my work after I’ve redrafted it and give me their feedback. Many times, they see things that I missed totally; this can range from something as mundane as a typo to my affinity for certain character-types or words.
T & T: How do you get the stories in your head? Do you get random ideas from books and movies or real life experiences?
Breanne: Whole stories don’t often form in my head. Often it will be a scene or an instant that can be the genesis for a story. These can come from either real-life experiences or from other art forms like books, movies or paintings.
T & T: Do you get Writers’ Block now and then? Or can you write on and on?
Breanne: I don’t know if this is Writers’ Block but I can feel as if I’m not doing a scene or a character justice. I know what I want to write but when I read what I’ve written, I feel as if that’s not good enough. When this happens, the best thing to do is take a break, drink some coffee, read a book or watch a video and have another crack at it later on.
T & T: Has your writing journey been a smooth affair? Ever faced flak from your teachers or from any people during your writing process? Is your family supportive of you?
Breanne: Any flak I’ve faced hasn’t been from my family (who are so supportive) or my teachers (who were also models of supportiveness). Flak came from people who thought that ‘bright’ students should be doctors or lawyers, or people who routinely seem to want to point out to me that I’ll never make any money as a writer. Thankfully, my mother and my teachers always encouraged me to do what I love. I have no doubt that I would have been deeply unhappy as a doctor or a lawyer. I’m happy I ignored the naysayers.
T & T: Talking about your family, maybe you would like to tell a little something about your background.Do your siblings share your passion?
Breanne: My immediate family consists of my parents and my younger brother Brandon, who is the co-founder of our writing group PROW and a brilliant author in his own right. My extended family is also very close. My grandparents regularly host gatherings to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries at their home in Arima.
T & T: Back to writing again. On average, how long does it take you to finish a short story? What makes you choose your subject?
Breanne: The time it takes to write a story varies widely depending on the story. Sometimes a story draft can be done in a few days and sometimes I can tussle with the story for months before I get it to do just what I want.
I don’t think I ever consciously choose a subject. I don’t say today I’m going to write about long lost love for example. Once I begin with a first scene, the subject almost chooses itself.
T & T: Good stories are usually adapted into movies. Suppose a movie director wants to adapt one of your stories into the big screen. Would you prefer writing the screenplay and directing the movie yourself rather than leaving it to somebody who would only ruin your work? There are writers who are just not satisfied with the screen version of their stories.
Breanne: I almost always feel as if the book is better than the movie; the exception is The Lord of the Rings, where I much preferred the movies (sorry Tolkien).
That being said, if someone wanted to adapt one of my stories to the big screen, I would prefer to let someone else write the screenplay. I have zero experience with screenplays and I would actually be afraid of ruining my own story.
T & T: If a writing group from another country invites you to their annual literary festival with promise of free food, drinks and lodging, but insists that you’ve to bear the travel expenses, would you still go?
Breanne: I would love to, but I would have to consider the cost. However, I have never regretted attending a writing festival. So, I would try my best to attend.
T & T: When is your favorite writing time? Early morning or late night?
Breanne: I like mid-morning. Ideally, I would get up, have breakfast, and then head to a coffee shop to get some writing done.
T & T: Do you have any particular goal or intention in writing a book, like, say, giving a message to the reader?
Breanne: I don’t consciously set out to leave the reader with a particular message. I find myself returning to certain themes such as class in Trinidad & Tobago, relationships and gender roles, but I often want to explore these ideas rather than end a book or story with a definitive message.
T & T: What do you like to do in your free time? Do you love anything else other than writing?
Breanne: I love to read (I think most writers do!). I also love to exercise; I work out at home and I do aqua aerobics twice a week— I adore being in the water. I also love sports; I support Trinbago Knight Riders, Kolkata Knight Riders and Arsenal F.C.; the Trinbago Knight Riders just won the Caribbean Premier League and these days it’s pretty good to be an Arsenal fan. So, life’s good! It’s also important to me to spend time with the people I love.
T & T: Do you love Trinidad or do you plan to settle in another country to pursue your dreams? If so, which country would you fly to?
Breanne: I do love Trinidad, but I would never rule out moving to another country in the future. I’ve lived in England and Scotland and I fell in love with both countries. I also love Canada. However, I haven’t chosen the country that I would move to if I were to leave.
T & T: Where is your favorite place to write?
Breanne: A coffee shop! There’s something about getting out of the house and going somewhere for the purpose of writing that gets me focused.
T & T: Which works best for you— typewriter, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?
Breanne: Computer all day, every day.
T & T: Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or ask someone to do it for you?
Breanne: I do proofread and edit my work initially, but I always find it helpful to have someone else look over my work after. Fortunately, a dear friend of mine also happens to be an editor and she is brilliant at correcting anything that may have slipped me.
T & T: You co-founded People’s Republic of Writing (PROW). Tell us something about its activities.
Breanne: PROW was founded out of the belief that writing belongs to everyone. My brother and I had recently moved back to Trinidad after living in the U.S. and U.K. respectively and we wanted to create a nurturing space for people who loved to write. My brother has since moved to Japan, but he remains very close to me and PROW has evolved to become a family of writer friends. We host two sessions a month— a Writing PROW that is led by one of our members and that focuses on a particular theme, which may range from postmodernism, to writing about food, to setting and a Reading PROW where we talk about whatever we’ve been reading.
T & T: What advice would you like to give struggling writers? What is the secret to great writing?
Breanne: If you know the secret to great writing, then please tell me! My tips for writers are astonishingly unoriginal:
- Read. And read again. I keep a book where I make notes of what I read—what I liked, what I didn’t like and why.
- Writing is like any other skill. The more you do it; the better you get.
- Don’t let rejection get you down. There will be days when you get a rejection email, you don’t make a shortlist or maybe you do make a shortlist but you don’t win. That doesn’t mean that you’re not cut out to be a writer.
T & T: How helpful is social networking for a writer? Can it be ignored?
Breanne: I think you have to determine the relationship with social media that is best for your mental health and your writing. Social networking is huge; it allows your work to reach to people and places it may never reach otherwise. I mean… I’m doing an interview for a journal in India thanks partly to social networking.
But I think social media can also swallow your time. You may think you’re taking a break to do some social networking, but half an hour later you’re looking at a friend’s vacation pics on Facebook. You need to find the best balance for you so that you can build a network but also get work done.
T & T: It was a fashion for writers to use pen names. That trend has more or less disappeared. Do pen names make sense?
Breanne: A pen name makes sense if, for some reason, you want to distance yourself from your writing. Maybe you’re writing about a true, traumatic experience and you don’t want anyone to know it happened to you.
However, I think that most people want to be associated with their work and so they tend to use their real names.
T & T: Do you keep a diary?
Breanne: I keep a very sporadic diary. It’s almost embarrassing. I literally write a couple entries a year and I’ve been using the same book for as long as I can remember.
T & T: If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
Breanne: A lot! I have read books that haven’t represented the Caribbean well and I sometimes found myself getting irritated and thinking it would have been better if they’d left the Caribbean out of the book than portrayed it inaccurately. I would be very hesitant about writing about a country/culture that is totally foreign to me because I want my work to be authentic.
T & T: Who is the most famous person you have ever met?
Breanne: I’ve met Amartya Sen when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh. When he found out I was from Trinidad and Tobago, he got pretty excited and told me about the time he visited Tobago.
T & T: Do you have a mentor?
Breanne: My mother.
T & T: And last, what is your take on Twist & Twain? Any suggestions for improvement?
Breanne: Twist & Twain has been absolutely incredible! It is a wonderful platform for emerging writers to showcase their work. I would suggest that you keep doing what you’re doing. The experience of working with you has been enriching and just doing this interview has gotten me to think about myself and my writing process in new ways.