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Interview with Ingrid Persaud

Ingrid Persaud, credit Russell Watson.jpgView larger
Ingrid Persaud. Photograph by Russell Watson

Wonderfully, you won the BBC National Short Story Award in 2018 with The Sweet Sop, which was said to be the first-ever short story you ever wrote – was a surprise to win or did you have a quiet assurance that the quality of the story would be recognised?

Okay – this story had already won the overall Commonwealth Short Story prize, so I knew it wasn’t bad. But don’t count egg in fowl bottom. Every prize jury is a subjective collection of readers, and the BBC NSSA could easily have gone to any of the five finalists. I was lucky, lucky, lucky. A different set of judges and I would still be an unknown writer living on a small rock.

The story is literally mouth-watering – it drips with references to chocolate and sugar. Set in Trinidad, it's about a father’s final days as he attempts to reconcile with his son. What inspired the humour and gentle heartbreak in it and was it difficult to get the balance between the two?

We all going to dead, not so? But I kept finding all these stories where people dead from eating chocolate. The best one was the alleged killing of a Palestinian leader by Mossad – who apparently fed him poisoned Belgian chocolates over a six-month period. I shouldn’t laugh, but I did. Next thing I know, the son in my story was delivering forbidden chocolates to his estranged father. Dealing in chocolate. I had a lot of fun writing that. As the father’s health deteriorated what could this son do to help? Again, chocolate was the answer, only this time nobody was laughing. Take off your shoes and walk softly because it’s true what they say: laugh and cry does live in the same house.

What would be your top, fool-proof (ha!) tips for other writers who are hard at work writing, editing and polishing short stories, who dream of getting a similar kind of recognition?

Top tips? Gird your loins for rejection and keep working. Send your work to every journal that is a potential fit. Enter plenty of writing competitions. Somebody has to win and it could be you. I hope it’s you.

It apparently only took you three weeks to write The Sweet Sop, which is quite impressive in terms of turnaround – how long did it take to complete your debut novel, Love After Love? What made you want to turn your hand to a full-length novel after all your short story success?

True talk – which unknown writer has lashed the literary world with a debut collection of short stories? It just don’t happen so. But really, I wanted the challenge of a longer work. It took a year to get the voices right, and I only had 20,000 words to show for my effort. But that was enough to get taken on by a fantastic agent, and after that I sat at my desk and didn’t get up for three months. From start to shopping it to publishers took 18 months. But have mercy, I don’t know if I could do that again. Makes me tired just thinking back on it.

Tell us more about the process of writing that novel – why will readers, especially those of us who already love your short fiction, connect with those characters and that story?

The novel is set in Trinidad, and it follows the lives of an unconventional family – Betty, a widow, her son Solo and their lodger Mr Chetan. You know why I’m sure sure you’re going to love them? Because I loved them. I let them do all kind of stupidness, but I always treated them with respect and empathy. In spite of all the madness we, like these characters, are all just trying to live our best lives.

You've been described as an author who came to the world of writing “late” in life (you worked in law as an academic for many years). How do you feel about that phrase and all it implies? Should age be a factor when it comes to writing?

I reach the party so late I didn’t even realise I wasn’t invited. All these lists of ‘40 Under 40’ or ‘Best of Young Novelists’ had already passed me straight. Most prestigious prizes are only scouting for young blood. I am part of the new blood, but even on an excellent, botoxed-day nobody would call me a youth. My children are finally big enough that I thought I could run away to a little residency. Sadly, many don’t want a woman over fifty residing. Why these arbitrary barriers? The only relevance of age to writing is that the longer you live the more knocks you’ve had. Hopefully that just helps you write with greater humility, courage and empathy. In my next life I’ll start looking for an agent as soon as I can spell my name.

What are the primary joys of being a writer, for you?

Language is everything to me. Spending part of every single day in a world of words is a privilege. I love the routine, the solitude and the problem solving. Hand on heart, I’m real happy – home at last.

What are the elements of the writing process that make you wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, or want to throw in the towel and go back to law or fine art (or at least hit the delete button repeatedly)?

Plot. You know how many times I wake up all two in the morning wondering if I will ever find a plausible plot? Or sometimes I have a plot, and I dream of all the black holes readers are going to find. One day I hope to create a story with a plot so exquisitely crafted that the reader is barely aware of being led through it.

Can you talk about one rejection that you've experienced in your career that was particularly formative, and how it may have changed your outlook or attitude, to give the rest of us hope...

After I finished my masters in law, top of my year, I thought I was a big thing and applied for banking jobs. Back then banking looked seriously glamourous, and it seemed like a quick way out of my student debts. I got rejection after rejection. One major institution wrote that they did not have a job for someone with my CV and they would never have a job for someone with my CV. I had to laugh. They were right. I would be a crap banker. I tell myself – girl, you know you like hanging around universities. Apply for jobs there.

What would be your desert-island short story – if you could only read one ever again, which would it be and why?

I would be happy for a long time if I could read any short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’m going to cheat slightly and go with Chronicle of a Death Foretold – #averylongshortstory. Ease me up, nah man. I’m stuck on a desert island.

Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love (Faber & Faber £14.99) is out on 2 April

Interview by Sophie Haydock

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