Fiercely original Jamaica Kincaid on her first novel in a decade.
Her life reads like a fairy tale: Born to a poor family in Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid was sent to Scarsdale, New York, by her mother at 16 to become a nanny. Then she moved to New York City, where she was befriended by The New Yorker "Talk of the Town" writer George Trow, who gave her entrée into the pages of the magazine. Its legendary editor William Shawn became her champion and eventually her father-in-law.
Kincaid and Shawn's son Allen had two children and settled in Vermont, while her critically praised books (Annie John, Lucy, et al.) established her as a literary force. Kincaid and Allen divorced in 2002; she now splits her time between Vermont and California. This month she releases her first novel in ten years, See Now Then (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a provocative interior portrait of an interracial Vermont couple who seem unable to stand each other. A roman à clef? O books editor Leigh Haber inquires.
Q: You once said, "I write out of defiance." Don't you worry about pleasing an audience? JK: I used to write for William Shawn, but I wasn't writing to please him; I just wrote the best I could. Now I don't have anyone in mind when I write—I just hope that when I'm done the world will like it.
Q: The new book is a novel—but is it also autobiographical? JK: It is true that some parts, maybe the entire book, resemble parts of my life, even my entire life. But this book is in no way my autobiography. I aspire to a fair amount of high-mindedness and so sought to make a work of some distinction, something new.
Q: The protagonists are Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, but they're not...sweet. JK: That was the point! There was a man who used to pick up our trash in Vermont whose name was Mr. Sweet. I thought, "How funny it is that his name is Mr. Sweet and he picks up the garbage."
Q: Did your mother influence you as a writer? JK: I have a sense of destiny because of my mother, who was an extraordinary person but a terrible candidate for mother. She was like the god Cronus, who gave birth to his children in the morning and then ate them at night. She was this gigantic person—more like a man—though she was very feminine and very beautiful.
Q: She helped instill in you a passion for reading. JK: When I was 7, she gave me The Oxford English Dictionary for my birthday. I'd read all of it twice and the Bible in its entirety by age 13. There were parts of the Old Testament I didn't like, but I always liked the creation story, the Garden of Eden.
Q: Is that where your love of gardening started? JK: I think so! I teach literature in California, and my garden is back in Vermont. It's probably in the same condition as an unfinished book. When I'm writing, I think about the garden, and when I'm in the garden I think about writing. I do a lot of writing by putting something in the ground.
Q: What do you know now that you didn't at the start? JK: I didn't know it was possible to be successful as a writer, so I wasn't afraid to fail. I had no aspirations or ambition—I just wanted to write well. On the other hand, I changed my name [from Elaine Potter Richardson] in case I did fail—I didn't want my parents to laugh at me.
Q: Was this your "starving artist" phase? JK: I was living in an apartment in Manhattan, and the only furniture I had was a desk, a typewriter, and a chair. I didn't even have a bed—I slept on the floor on top of newspaper.
Q: From early photos it's clear you had a distinctive style—hats with brims, penny loafers and bobby socks, crisp white blouses—sort of Annie Hall–ish. JK: I wanted to look like the type of African-American girl I saw in the pages of Ebony magazine in the '60s. Like a sexy church lady—proper, but not docile.
Q: You've undergone some major transitions in the past few years. Has change been good for your writing? JK: People don't make changes because things are wonderful. Now that I am in California, seeing mountains and deserts that used to be underwater, I've had the chance to rethink the notion of time. In the book I struggle with the question, what is time? I would never have understood it in the same way if change hadn't forced my hand.