What questions do you dread that I'll ask?

“What’s your most embarrassing moment?” I’ll NEVER answer that! Only two other people were there; one was my best friend, and the other the stranger who witnessed the dreadful thing. As a result I’ll never forget this stranger. It happened on an ocean liner, I was 16, and that’s the only thing I’ll reveal!

Name some things that make you smile.

Cute babies, puppies and kittens. The ocean, a starry night, roses, mountains, the full moon, a tree in full blossom… you get the picture!

What excites you about writing?

Creating characters out of nothing, making them come to life, finding their stories and letting them live on the page.

What's it all about, Alfie?

The short answer:

I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.

The long answer:

OK, I’ve thought about it some more and decided I can’t leave it at this; it’s far too impersonal. So I told Poet to hold on to the interview so I can elaborate on the “Alfie” question.

If I’d been born to normal modern parents today, they’d probably put me into therapy. I could sit for hours doing nothing, and I refused to talk to anybody but my parents and close relatives. Once an aunt actually (Horror!) heard me speaking ) (I’d forgotten she was sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car!) and it seriously freaked me out! The only things that interested me were books and animals, though I did have a few close friends. When I sat all alone gazing at nothing or curled u[ in a corner I was actively thinking deeply about myself and my place in the world. I was trying to figure out things like “what are thoughts made out of?” and “what is in the space between two thoughts?” and “what makes me separate from other people?” but I found no answers.

Later I read all the books on philosophy and psychology I could find but I got no answers there, either. I’d been raised atheist so I got no answers in religion. So I decided to be cool like other girls my age, and became a party girl. All that happened was that I was far too square and insecure for boys to like me, so I ate too much to compensate for not being liked, developed a eating disorder, and got very fat. Boys called me the “Brown Bomber”, which didn’t help. I also smoked and got drunk a lot. My mother (she raised me alone) was very permissive so I could do anything I wanted, and all my friends who had strict parents thought I was lucky. But I was very unhappy.

By that time I was working as a staff reporter for the leading Guyanese newspaper, and they used to send me out to interview interesting foreigners who came to the country. One of these was a Yoga teacher from Switzerland. Long story short, I began going to Yoga classes and the very first class turned me around. I left it feeling as light as an air bubble, and in the weeks following as I kept up the practice I dropped all my excess weight as well as stopped drinking and smoking. And then I began reading the philosophy books related to Yoga, and they answered all my questions I’d had as a child; they were more concerned with the practical side of self-discovery, self-knowledge and self-improvement, rather than theoretical philosophical questions on the meaning of life, so it was right up my alley.

Another long story short, in 1973, aged 22, I left Guyana and travelled to India. I had no money but somehow that sorted itself out. I went via Switzerland, where I met some friends and worked for a while, and we all went together overland via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. We arrived in India on a day when the war with Pakistan had ended (or at least a ceasefire had been agreed upon). And at the India-Pakistan border there was a red carpet laid out for returning soldiers and everyone else, and people were cheering and throwing flowers on us and blowing trumpets. That was how I entered India.

The place I went to was in the south, in Tamil country, and it was a journey in itself down from the north, but I made it and it didn’t disappoint. The following year was the happiest in my life. I lived mostly in a tiny hut at the foot of a hill ,without plumbing and electricity, living on very little, but I was gloriously happy. Back then the place was undiscovered (though famous in Indian antiquity) and there were few people, and they were all like me. I made some lifelong friends, Indians and Westerners. Now, the place has unfortunately become popular and it’s overrun with hundreds and thousands of people, especially at full moon, and had become all touristy with all the negative issues that brings. It still remains special to me, though, and I go as often as I can. It’s my home.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

Back in my school days, we studied a new Shakespeare play every term, and from every play we had to learn at least one speech. We learnt sonnets by heart, as well, including this one. That doesn’t happen in schools today; at least, my children didn’t have to do anything of the sort. It’s a damn shame. When we learn such superb writing by heart our minds align with the greatness behind it, takes on the very shape of greatness, if only for a moment. It’s the very best training for a writer, both in terms of writing skill, and in terms of reaching out for grand ideas. The yearning for permanent love, permanent beauty, permanent fulfilment is perhaps the driving force in my life. Something beyond the ephemeral. Maybe I caught it from Shakespeare.

Is there a dream that used to flash like twilight lightning for you, but hangs limp in memory now?

I remember sitting, as a child, maybe seven years old, on a sunny Caribbean beach at Blanchisseuse, Trinidad, and being overwhelmed by the grandeur and vastness of the sea before me. It was a feeling of perfect, exquisite happiness, complete in itself, and I’ve carried that moment around with me ever since.

It doesn’t hang limp in memory at all, I can recall it at any given moment, and it’s as real and alive as ever. I’ve always wanted to return to Blachisseuse, and even investigated the price of property there recently! I don’t believe that it’s a dream that will come true, though, and it’s wrong to tie it to a particular place; the truth of that moment was that happiness quite literally is inside one.

"For the most part, people are... " what?

“…people want to be loved and respected, no matter who they are. Scratch beneath the surface, and that’s what you’ll find.”

How do you like your narrative voice to come across: what emotion, manner, outlook - what type of person - do you convey in that voice?

Most of all, writing is a manner of expression for me, a way of communication. As a child I was always a shy, withdrawn person, awkward and silent, too introverted to be understood. I desperately wanted to have a voice; at times I felt I was brimming over with things to say, but no words or medium of expression. I felt there was a huge space between me and everyone else. A lot of the time I felt stupid and inferior to others, especially popular people who always had such brilliant things to say, who were funny and eloquent and natural; that was what made them popular, after all! And I was just a wallflower. Writing was a way of bridging that gap. I found I could tell stories, and everything I ever wanted to say came out in that form. I was able to come across as strong and adventurous and even witty.

Is that person a reflection of you, either in reality or in some ideal or alternate persona?

It’s asif, when I’m writing a story and am caught up in the magic of creation, the shy, insecure me vanishes and the real person stands up; as if the writing me is the real one, and the everyday one a fake.

If you were to remain one age forever, what age would that be?

For a long time I’ve looked forward to being 80. It’s an ideal age for me. I believe that life is about learning and growing, and I dearly hope that when I turn 80 I will have reached a degree of wisdom and compassion that will allow me to live forever, a calm, wise, gentle old woman who people turn to when they are troubled! I wish I could just skip the intervening years, as I think they will be tough. That kind of ideal doesn’t come easy.

Does 'being a writer' effect any changes in you, any expectations of yourself in terms of character or manner -- anything other than writing itself?

Well… when I was first published I had to do all sorts of things to which I was totally unsuited: meet and impress industry people, give readings, talk to journalists, give radio interviews and once a TV interview, and once or twice, a workshop. So I was forced to come out of my shell, and I did try very hard to be that public persona. It’s important, I think, not to put on an act in such cases, but simple speak from the heart, which is the course I took. Most times it worked. But I will never be that perky, witty chatty person so beloved by today’s media. I guess I’m too serious, incapable of small talk. I’m more of an ivory tower sort of person, and would dearly love to change that.

What are the characteristics of a writer - the way you'd like to be seen and remembered as a writer?

I just want to write books that move people, books that live on in their minds, and if possible even change them into better humans. I’d like to write novels that people remember and pass on to others. I’m more eager for my characters and their stories to be remembered, than to be remembered myself.

But it might be over. Since finishing my last novel (sixth!) earlier this year I haven’t felt the least urge to write another. I don’t even feel as if I should be writing another: no guilt. I look back and everything seems trite and inadequate. Maybe all my stories have been told, and I need to go in a different direction. Non-fiction appeals to me, and Hindu mythology. Maybe it’s just that I am weary, as at the moment I’m carrying quite a few loads that have nothing to do with writing.

Are there any reading experiences you've had (emotions, epiphanies, impressions, etc.) that have shaped your conception of how you'd like your readers to react to your own works?

When I was about 19 I read a great book called The Book of Mirdad. It was one of those “What’s it all about, Alfie?” books; written by Michael Naimy, a Lebanese writer and intellectual who was a close friend of Kahlil Gibran. It bowled me over, both by the beauty of the language and the wisdom of its content. In a nutshell, it taught me that “we live that we may learn to love. We love that we may learn to live. No other lesson is required of man.”
The last lines of the book suggest that there is room for a sequel. The greatest thing for me would be to write that sequel, one worthy of its predecessor. Till then, it’s just scribbling.

Do you finish books you don't like? What do you get from them?

No. Life is too short. I throw them against the wall with a scream of torment.

Describe your favorite or ideal writing mise en scene -- that is, how, where, when you like (or would like) to be situated when you're writing.

An octogenarian, sitting on a wicker chair in a beautiful rose garden in India, under a honeysuckle pergola, with my favourite mountain in front of me.

You're a multiple-published novelist. What inspires you to switch gears and write in other forms?

One of my next projects is an autobiography of a famous politician from my country, Guyana. I know her, and I have her permission. But I do find switching gears very difficult indeed. I tend to want to dramatize everything, add my own salt to her already very spicy life, but I get the feeling she would not like that. She’s a very pragmatic kind of person, and I am not. So before I even start I have to kind of strip down to the bare essentials and just concentrate on the facts of her life. It’s not going to be easy.

Of the questions that you hoped I'd ask but didn't, which would you most like to answer? (Go ahead, then!)

This will sound like treachery, but if I had the choice to be a different kind of artist, I would take it… and I’d be a musician. I’d play the violin, or in a far second be a singer, and I’d play the most exquisite music ever heard on earth. For me, music is an even clearer self-expression than words; it’s direct speech, straight from the heart, without the need of interpretation through the brain. Just exquisite!