Getting your facts right - by Novel Award Judge 2016: Kerry Young

I used to be an academic of sorts, in a past life. Writing research proposals and reports, evaluations of training and programmes, information, resources and briefings for this organisation or that government department. It was fun. But the thing about it? The real rub? The references.

So what makes me smile now, every morning I put pen to paper (yes, I still write long hand) is that I don’t have to rummage through a mountain of scribbled notes to locate that precise formulation of Smith, A. and Jones, B. (2016) The One Minute Writer, Cambridge: Hopeful Press.

The funny thing is, even though I don’t have to, I still do. Not punctuating the text though. Not like that. And friendlier than a list at the end. The copy editor arranges it smoother on the page. Less, dare I say, academic looking. But the truth is, I still trawl through my chapters to make sure I know and can acknowledge my sources. Why? Because even though fiction is, well, fiction, it is positioned. In some particular place at some particular time. It has a context – social and political. Sometimes historical.

So me, writing as I have, three novels set in Jamaica between the late 1930s and the early 1980s had to face that challenge of painting a picture of the island’s contemporary political story. My version of it anyway. Not that I wanted to change history or reinvent the past, but because I wanted to make sure I didn’t. I wanted to make sure I got the facts right. And that, getting the facts right, required research. Macro and micro, from books, journals, documentaries, internet and people, especially those able to talk about the details of life in its ordinary everydayness. Because in the end, I wanted my fiction to have authenticity. I wanted the setting to be real. I wanted the people to be real. Authentic in their time and place. I wanted their circumstances, and their responses to those circumstances, to be real. I wanted their predicaments to matter. Not only there and then, but here and now. Seeing their journeys as a part of the bigger journey. The human journey. 

That is why I create my characters and their circumstances as I do. In their context. Not as a backdrop, for colour and scenery, but as central to the very fabric of the story. Because how can fiction be convincing without an understanding of how people come to be who they are? Psychologically and emotionally, sure. But contextually too. In terms of their personal circumstances and them as products of their time and place.

So basically, what I love is fiction that recognises the contexts of the characters. Fiction not set in a vacuum. Personally, socially or politically. Fiction with both politics and Politics.  And that takes research. The care, attention and discipline of which, I absolutely love. Always have. In fact, Han Suyin once wrote that we Chinese are history-minded. And the world knows that we Jamaicans are politics-minded. So how could I write a single word without first attending to my beloved research?   

Kerry Young

March 2016