It's Black History month. Who’s an inspirational figure to you?
I feel as though I should go somewhere deep with this question, but instead of saying any one person, I’m going to go with all writers of multicultural and interracial romantic fiction.
For decades, an entire demographic was overlooked. Publishers and Agents would cop out with the excuse ‘There isn’t a market’ or even more insultingly, ‘We don’t know how to market you.’ I’m sticking two fingers up at them and praising all those authors who forged their own way, creating their own publishing companies to give an entire generation, novels to read.
You were born in Derby but moved back to Jamaica…
Neither of my parents had any memories of Jamaica when they left, so in the early 80s we decided to go on a six week holiday to the island, as my grandmother had recently returned. It was September and I’d started the autumn term at Spondon Seniors, in Derby. I was looking forward to my first family holiday overseas, but also had plans with my friends on my return.
In Jamaica we toured the island and met tonnes and tonnes of relatives. We stopped off in Annotto Bay, a small fishing village on the North Coast, that my dad, whilst standing in the market, the open sea on one side, a busy coastal road on the other and surrounded by market vendors selling exotic fruit, looked around and said ‘Let’s stay’ and we did. Two simple words changed my life.
My mother returned to England alone. My dad got a job and we rented a house in Kingston and I started school. To this very day, I will always maintain this was the best thing my parents could have done for my brother and myself at that time in our lives. We were children of the 70s, living in Spondon as the only black family. I only had one other black person to keep me company and that was my brother and he’s three years older than me. In England, I always felt overlooked in some way. There, but never seen. Never in a mean or unkind way, just, insignificant. In Jamaica I fit right in. I went to an all girl’s school called Queen’s and for the first time in my life, there was an expectation to succeed. To be somebody.
But you eventually returned to England…
Can you believe, I really wanted to take my sunglasses off! There is such a richness in the Caribbean. It’s so intense. The smells, the tastes and the colours, everything is louder, sweeter, but of course, the pace is slower. You can’t just nip into the bank in Jamaica, it’s an all day affair and after a recent visit, it hasn’t changed.
As an adult, now married and with two small children, I felt the need to ‘speed up’ as it were. It was a hard decision to make, who wouldn’t want to continue living with days filled with brilliant blue skies? I also realised I was missing out. The cousins I’d grown up with in England were getting married and having children, another generation of family and I didn't know any of them. You have to remember, although I had extended family in Jamaica, they didn’t share the memories of Bonfire nights and sneaking upstairs to open the tin of Quality Streets on Christmas Eve. I missed that. My parents still live on the island and I return there as often as I can.
How have the years you spent in the Caribbean shaped you as a writer and person?
Where do I start? From the moment I descended the steps from that British Airways flight on 12 September and smelled the air, I knew this country with its vitality, was going to change me. The whole place literally bounced underfoot to a reggae beat and I was only 12!
School was a major focal point. I was way behind my peers and had to catch up. The discipline with the schooling was something I’d never experienced before. It was as though the moment I’d walked through the school gates, someone had pulled me by the scruff of the neck and told me to learn. You are going to learn. Failure was never an option.
From a very young age, I kept a diary, and dabbled in poetry, but actually, it was being an exchange student, with AFS (American Field Service) in Kenya for a year, that I paid attention to the words I would use to capture every aspect of my time there. I had several diaries going at a time. I remember being on a bus going through the Rift Valley to the lake town of Kisumu, that I wrote a short story and an article. It was on my return to Jamaica that both works were featured in the local newspaper. I was 18.
You write romantic fiction and are perhaps best known for your diverse range of characters…
I’ve travelled extensively and have lived in Nairobi and Toronto. I have friends all over the world. To me, writing isn’t only about ensuring my readers enjoy my story; it’s about sharing a culture, even if it isn’t my own.
I also like to use my work as a platform to highlight certain illnesses and disparities that plague the African/Caribbean community. Because of my visability in this area, earlier this year I was asked to be a spokesperson for Public Health England, Department of Health England and NHS England to highlight the effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis within the African Caribbean and Asian communities.
In Call Me Royal, my main character Della, is a mature Rastafarian woman, (the first full length romance to feature a rasta woman) living in Nottingham. She works in a Call Centre and has an older son called Isaac, who suffers from Dyspraxia. Another main character in that novel is Spencer. He’s a white Jamaican from a wealthy family. The entire novel does not conform to the run of the mill romance genre. I write Happily Ever Afters, but I do give my characters, everyday problems to work through.
Call Me Royal became an Amazon best-seller…
Felicity ‘Fliss’ Pecora in Call Me Lucky, is a foul mouthed, mixed raced character who lives in Hyson Green. She is very popular with my readers and one I particularly enjoyed writing about. I again broke convention, and gave her two love interests, one being Latvian. I can’t go into too much detail as it’ll ruin it for those who haven’t read the book. She is so popular, I’ve been asked to write a follow up and I myself, have not been able to let her go yet either, she has a cameo in my latest novel The Cat Café.
Which is about…
The Cat Café was inspired by a walk I took to clear my head one day. I’m not a shopper, so for me to veer off the Broadmarsh - Victoria Centre foot train, is an accomplishment. I spent an afternoon really appreciating the architecture, cafés and small independent shops in Hockley that I had to set The Cat Café there. Hockley seeps with nostalgia.
Quite a few of your books are based in Nottingham and are particularly popular in the USA. Why do you think this is?
I’ve lived in Nottingham 15 years now and love this whole region. It was a natural progression really. I believe the Americans, especially the African/American community, appreciate that I write strong multicultural/interracial characters that they can relate to, even though they are so different culturally. I received an email from a reader saying how much she loved the word ‘kerfuffle’ and another liked how polite my characters were, even when they were using swear words!
You've self-published some books. What advice would you give aspiring black writers thinking of doing similar?
Self-publishing is not for everyone, you need to be prepared to work even harder once the book has been completed. I’m fortunate as I already have a loyal fan base. But I don’t stop there. I’m constantly looking for new angles, new markets and new readers to entice. Even before your book is finished, whatever the genre, you have to start marketing. Amazon pre-orders is a great tool and helps drive rankings. Join Facebook groups in your genre. Host and go to Facebook parties. I really enjoy hosting these and have become a bit of a social Facebook butterfly when I’m launching a title.
Find your niche. What makes you or your work different from all the thousands of other books wanting to be read? Live loud. You can’t write a book and expect it to be found. I run the Multicultural Interracial Book Showcase page on Facebook and have an array of writers and readers. We talk books, inspire each other, share and promote. But most importantly, I am my brand. A British Caribbean author who writes multicultural and interracial romance. I not only market my books to mainstream romance readers, I also (by default of Amazon because my characters are diverse) tag myself for the African-American romance market too. When I’m doing blog tours overseas, I always highlight my nationality. It sets me apart from all the rest.
Caroline Bell Foster and other writers listening to Pitman Browne talk at New Art Exchange
Write Black To The Beginning was a great event, and the whole initiative to document and celebrate the black community is wonderful. Being such a small community, more often than not we are overlooked in mainstream media. To ensure we don’t disappear we have to be our own cheerleaders. I’m smack bang in the middle of writing two novels and was recently ill, but there was no way, as guest speaker, I would miss the event. It is my duty as a successful author to share my story and hopefully motivate others not only to write, but to be disciplined and create their own path.
And part of creating your own path is to represent your own culture…
I grew up in a world where the characters in books looked nothing like me or my family. They didn't go to their grandmother’s house on a Saturday, knowing that Saturday was soup day, in not only her house, but in most other Caribbean households. I grew up in a world, where the few black novels seen, would only come out and be dusted off every October. I have to be part of a change. But most of all, I hope a day will come where we don't need to use the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #WeNeedDiverseRomance
You’re certainly not an author who can be pigeon-holed to one month. Let's have a peak in your diary...
Next year I have several titles coming out starting with a Valentine boxset, called Valentine Pets & Kisses, alongside several USA Today Bestselling Authors. The Feline Fix is the name of my novella. Early spring, Distracting Ace will be released. This novel is set in New York and a little fictional village in Derbyshire. Autumn, I am again part of a boxset and finally somewhere between then and Christmas I’ll release the follow up to Distracting Ace, tentatively called Convincing Kyle.