Q&A with Anthony Winkler
In an interview with the Wheel’s editor-at-large, Stephanie Minor, Anthony Winkler, the renowned Jamaican novelist, screenwriter and author of textbooks discussed his writing, his inspirations and his newest book, God Carlos. And after meeting Winkler, one thing is certain, nearly 20 years of suffering from Alzheimer’s has done very little to quell the spirit, the wit and the endearing passion of this fiercely quotable, though slyly irreverent island artist.
1. I read that your writing talent was first noticed by one of your teachers at Cornwall College. Is that when you began writing, or had you already started?
I was probably 11 years old — in my first year at Cornwall College — and my teacher, his name was Mr. Findlay, gave us an assignment. We were to write an episode about anything with the theme of “trapped.” I went home … and I decided I would write about being trapped in the Yukon, where I would be a bear hunter. So I went into the woods with my gun, and I stepped in one of my bear traps, which caught my ankle. The gun fell just out of reach. And I was fighting this trap — scratching with all my heart and soul to try and get away. Then all of a sudden, out of the woods emerged this pack of wolves … A couple of days later, Mr. Findlay said, “I want to see you after class.” I thought I’d done something wrong, but he said to me, “Winkler, have you ever seen snow?” I said, no sir. So he said, “Winkler, have you seen a real-life wolf?” No sir. Then he said, “How can you write about these things that you haven’t seen, and haven’t experienced, and never will experience unless you leave Jamaica?” And I said, I don’t know sir. But he said, “Winkler, you’re going to be a writer.”
2. When you’re writing a book, how do you begin? Do you outline, or do you just jump in?
Jump in. But first I get an idea — like The Lunatic, probably my most popular book. It began when I was driving through Kingston, and I came to a stop sign. At the time, madness was coming to Jamaica, with mad people wandering up and down the island. [By “mad,” Winkler means mentally challenged.] There was this mad man dancing up and down the road, talking to himself. All woebegone with baggage, he looked like a spectacle. My heart went out to him, so I went home and started to write … Every time I got stuck in the story, something would come flooding up.
3. Are your characters based upon people in your life, or are they completely fictional?
4. Your first novel, The Painted Canoe, was published after 10 years. What advice would you give to new writers who may face similar circumstances?
Keep on truckin’.
5. Are all of your works based in Jamaica? Why?
Not all of them are set there, but they are all about Jamaicans. [He smiled slyly.] Write about what you know. And feeling is a way of knowing.
6. Who are your favorite writers?
E. M. Forster. He wrote A Passage to India — and Victor Reid, the Jamaican writer. His, probably, most famous book is The Leopard. It’s a story about the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya. His writing is poetic, and it’s passionate … For instance, I was driving to the airport one Sunday morning to see a friend off. I turned on the radio, and there was interview with Vic Reid. The interviewer asked him, do you think you can be a writer in Jamaica without going abroad? And [Victor] said no. You have to go abroad to get the sense of contrast. To really understand your subject, you have to go abroad and see something ‘other than.’
7. What inspires you?
My wife. Sex. And if you have to ask why, you’ll never know.
8. Do you ever get writers block? What do you do when it strikes?
I don’t believe in it. If you want to be unblocked find the thing you believe in, and write about that. You’re never blocked.
9. How is writing a textbook different from writing a novel? How do both compare to writing a play or screenplay?
If you’re writing a textbook, you’re a good writer, and it can be an inventive exercise. But it’s never going to be a creative one. Writing a screenplay is something that comes naturally to me, I don’t know why. I can sit down and write plays with no hesitation, preparation or formulation. But writing a book, novel or short story engages a side of you that is both visible and invisible.
10. From what I understand your newest book, God Carlos is a satirical historical fiction that delves into 16th century colonialism of Hispaniola. Why historical fiction?
Why take a shit? You have to. [He chuckled.] No, no. It’s compelling. You don’t want to write the same stuff over and over again. You need difference.
11. Marlon James (author of The Book of Night Women) described you as Jamaica’s Mark Twain. Thoughts?
Marlon James is a friend of mine. But in my opinion [Twain] is not that great a writer.
12. Your writing has been described as vivid, irreverent, with beautiful prose and a method of storytelling that slowly unfurls. How did you develop these skills? How did you hone your own voice?
These skills came naturally. If you want to write for the ages, you have to have a vision — a way of looking at things that are uniquely your own. And don’t believe what people tell you about your writing.
13. What are your plans for the future?
I want people to think I’m the best writer they’ve never read.