Dionne Peart is the author of the novel Somerset Grove, which takes place in Jamaica and Canada. She lives in Washington, D.C.
Q: Your novel focuses on three generations of women. How did you come up with your three main characters, Ruby, Angelique, and Carmen?
A: I knew I wanted to write a multigenerational story. The first character that came to me was Angelique. She’s a compilation of many women I’ve known—she’s savvy but she keeps people at arm’s length…
Growing up in Winnipeg, there were a lot of first-generation Canadians there. A lot of people came without their parents, or their parents came and left them in their country of origin. Some of the girls I grew up with had distant relationships with their mothers.
[Angelique’s daughter] Carmen is the character many people identify with. She’s a first-generation Canadian, and is inspired by a lot of the people I’ve grown up with—trying to walk the line between a new life in Canada and connecting with their culture.
[Carmen’s grandmother] Ruby was not supposed to be a main character, but about two-thirds of the way through, I knew I needed to bring in another main character, and Ruby was in the background screaming and protesting that she needs to be a main character!
She turns out to be one of my favorite characters. She’s a typical Jamaican mother—they want to be sure you don’t shame them. She starts out hard at the beginning—people don’t like her…until they read her story.
Q: I was going to ask you if you make changes as you write, and it sounds as if you do—but did you have the ending in mind as you started writing?
A: I didn’t. Again, about two-thirds of the way through, because there were so many conflicts, I knew I couldn’t wrap it up as a happy ending. I needed something to bring them together, and the idea of tragedy came to me—[that’s] how the three women came together.
Q: Somerset Grove is set in Jamaica and Canada. What do you think those two countries mean to your protagonists?
A: My story is that my parents grew up in Jamaica and went to England to finish high school, and after they were married and had [children] they moved to Canada. Jamaica is a former British colony, so a lot of people [move to those countries] and a lot of people could identify with that. There’s a large Caribbean population in Canada.
Q: So some of this was inspired by your family?
A: The journey. Picking up when you’re in your teens, and going to another country by yourself. It’s a very common theme for a lot of Caribbean families….
Q: You’re also a lawyer. How does your legal training fit into your work as a writer?
A: My legal training has really helped me with technical writing, how to analyze story and characters. I did a lot of litigation…and was fortunate to work for a partner who was very meticulous. You would write a 30-page brief and he would find the one typo! He also taught me that you have to tell a story…to convince the judge to rule in favor of your client.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to write fiction?
A: When I was very young--creative writing was my favorite class in elementary school and junior high. Then they stopped offering that class, and I put it on the back burner. A few years into my practice…the idea of writing a novel came to me.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: Toni Morrison was probably the first African-American author I discovered--I loved The Bluest Eye. And Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. With Toni Morrison, I loved the way you have to read at her pace. I love the way she can make something beautiful out of something tragic. Recently I’ve started to enjoy Marlon James…and Edwidge Danticat.
Q: I saw that you’ve finished your second novel and you’re working on your third?
A: Correct. The second one is called Butterfly, and it’s about an attorney in the middle of a personal and professional transformation…she starts to look at things in her private life, and examines her relationship with her best friend—and discovers something that could derail the friendship and her career.
Q: Can you say anything about the third novel yet, or is it too early?
A: It’s called Blackheart Man, and it’s based on a Jamaican legend. It was supposed to be my second book, but I write on a Netbook, and I put it on a flashdrive…and I lost the flashdrive. It was a real tragedy for me! I tore up my house, my car, every coffeeshop I visited, and I couldn’t find it. I tried to start writing it again, and I couldn’t. Only since my trip to Jamaica was I inspired to write it again.
Q: Anything else we should know about Somerset Grove?
A: I like to read books that explore a time, space, and culture. Somerset Grove did that for me when I wrote it, and [for people who also like that] it’s one that will take you there!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb