Delhi Noir Editor Hirsh Sawhney Interviews Anthony C. Winkler on The Family Mansion
Anthony C. Winkler’s latest novel, The Family Mansion, is a work of historical fiction set in nineteenth-century colonial Jamaica. The Family Mansion, which Library Journal calls a “powerful and deeply moving tour de force,” continues Winkler’s exploration of colonized Jamaica that began in God Carlos.
To celebrate the release of The Family Mansion, Hirsh Sawhney, editor of Dehli Noir, asks Winkler about his writing process; what he thinks should be required reading for people interested in the Caribbean; and why writing screenplays is so different than writing a novel.
Hirsh Sawhney: You’ve written novels as well as screenplays—which process do you enjoy more?
Anthony C. Winkler: Screenplay writing is childishly simple in contrast to writing a novel. The mantra of moviemaking is that it is a collaborative work, which is true. Many examples can be cited of memorable lines of dialog that came about through the back-and-forth exchanges among writers, producers, and directors—“Round up the usual suspects” from Casablanca is probably the most striking example. Yet screenwriters get scant respect for what they do. Until recently, the writer was typically barred from the set during filming. Being on set did not mean the writer was free to intervene if he saw something that was egregiously wrong; it only meant the writer was tolerated as a mute observer. For many writers, this was an impossible situation, and one that nearly resulted in a Writers Guild strike on several occasions.
When I first started working on films, I asked a veteran producer, a man with forty-seven films to his credit, why the cards were so stacked against the writers. His reply was that the use of sound and voices in the movies was the last major innovation in the technology of moviemaking, and so, in a curious way, the writer was still seeking respect.
The first time I sat in a on a script conference, the head writer welcomed me by saying, “Oh, but you’re a real writer, aren’t you?” I was the seventeenth writer hired to rewrite this particular screenplay. After slaving over it for over a month, my version was rejected by the studio on the grounds that it “was too fresh.” When I asked for further clarification, the message came back saying that there were keys that I wasn’t hitting. All of a sudden, my writing desk had been transmogrified into a piano I was stubbornly refusing to play.
The critical difference between writing a movie and writing a novel is one of control. The movie writer has little or no power over the content of the script. The novelist is, for the most part, in control of what goes in and what comes out of the written product. Editors take control at some point in the developmental process of writing a novel. The editor, who represents the publisher’s point of view, is usually the one single authority that the writer must respond to and satisfy. With film writing, the case is much more convoluted. Everyone associated with the production thinks that it is open season on the script. Sometimes a producer or director will become smitten with the opinion of a friend or colleague and will instruct the writer to pay particular attention to that person’s point of view. When I was working on the script for The Annihilation of Fish, nearly every morning we found waiting for us at the studio a list of suggested changes. After some digging, we traced the suggestions to the frustrated night janitor who had ambitions of being a screenwriter and thought revising our script was his way to break into the business.
The plasticity of the screenplay format encourages a buccaneering approach to endings that defy probability, common sense, and logic. Many movies have endings that are absurd and stretch the credulity of the average audience member to the extreme. The culture of script writing is usually to blame for the stereotypical effect of the cavalry’s arrival at the eleventh hour.
HS: Did your recent two novels—God Carlos and The Family Mansion—require different skills and techniques than your earlier works did? What kind of historical research did you do to prepare to write these books?
AW: Research is research, and once you have mastered the techniques of digging into the past, the application to a particular subject or era is self-evident. Writing God Carlos and The Family Mansion did not require any unique research.
HS: Which was a better place to live, nineteenth-century London or sixteenth-century Cadiz?
AW: Both Cadiz and London were stratified societies ruled by monarchs. Neither society was particularly charitable to its indigent population. The level of health care was poor; education was reserved for the few “haves”; and illiteracy was widespread throughout both kingdoms. Infant mortality was a universal catastrophe.
HS: What about nineteenth-century Jamaica vs. sixteenth-century Jamaica?
AW: As for Jamaica in the sixteenth century and the nineteenth century, the differences between the two were slight. In the sixteenth century, the mortality rate for new immigrants was unimaginable. Yellow fever was a scourge of unknown cause, and periodic insurrections of the enslaved population added to the terror of the plantation owners and overseers. Jamaica in the sixteenth century was an incalculable treasure, as its potential as a sugar cane producer was not fully realized until the nineteenth century. By the late eighteenth century, Jamaica was beginning to make its mark as the most profitable plantation island in the world, but it had acquired a reputation as being a graveyard for newcomers. I think that, given the choice, I’d choose sixteenth-century Jamaica.
HS: Your character Cuffy is a rebel slave who wants to learn how to be a proper English gentleman. What does this desire tell us about slavery and colonialism?
AW: Cuffy longs to be an Englishman because he’s learned that the Englishman is the pinnacle figure of the Jamaican plantation society. This longing tells us that the powerful icons that have come from abroad have destroyed Cuffy’s own culture through colonization.
HS: Can you talk about the process of creating a character that is an Arawak Indian (in God Carlos)?
AW: To create an Indian character, I begin by picking an Indian name for the person after deciding on his or her gender. I try to imagine what the character must have looked like (I cribbed most of my specific details from the descriptions of the Indians Columbus recorded in his diary). Once I have a physical description, I next concentrate on creating a scenario that dramatizes the worldview of my character.
HS: What are three books that are required reading for those interested in the Caribbean?
AW: The Journal of Christopher Columbus; Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison; Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805.
HS: Who’s the funniest author you’ve ever read, and why?
AW: Chaucer. He has a heightened sensitivity for the ridiculous.
HS: What does humor bring to the writing of history?
AW: Humor brings a brief flash of relief to the remorseless march of history.
HS: You’ve written a series that candidly portrays the cruelties of the colonial world. Are you any more hopeful about the postcolonial world?
AW: The West Indies as a whole is a better place to be today than it was during earlier years.
HS: Why has Jamaica, such a tiny island, made such a huge creative and cultural impact on so much of the globe?
AW: The answer is hybrid vigor: the spurt of energy that appears when wildly different populations are intermixed.
HIRSH SAWHNEY is the editor of Delhi Noir, a critically acclaimed anthology of original fiction published by Akashic Books and HarperIndia. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Tehelka, and various other periodicals in North America, Europe, and Asia. Joyce Carol Oates selected his short story “A Bag For Nicholas” for her recent anthology of New Jersey writing. Hirsh is an advisory editor at Wasafiri Magazine, a journal based out of the UK’s Open University, and a contributing editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He teaches fiction writing at Drew University and is completing his first novel.
ANTHONY C. WINKLER was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1942 and is widely recognized as one of the island’s finest exports. After being expelled from Cornwall College for refusing to submit to corporal punishment (which entailed being beaten with a cane), he eventually made his way to California where he attended Citrus College and California State University, earning a BA and MA in English. His first published novel, The Painted Canoe (1984), received critical acclaim and was followed by The Lunatic (1987), The Great Yacht Race (1992), The Duppy (1997), Crocodile (2009), Dog War (2007), God Carlos (2012), and The Family Mansion, among others. Trust the Darkness: My Life as a Writer, his autobiography, was published in 2008. His writing credits also include film scripts and plays. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife Cathy.
Posted: May 16, 2013
Category: Akashic Insider | Tags: Delhi Noir, Jamaica, Anthony C. Winkler, The Family Mansion, Hirsh Sawhney, God Carlos, Caribbean, Chaucer, Christopher Columbus, post-colonial, colonization, England, Spain, Casablanca
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