A Conversation with Thomas Armstrong, Part I: From Canada to Barbados

I met Tom Armstrong January 2009 in the Grand Salle at Frank Collymore Hall. He had an unpublished manuscript called Of Water and Rock and I had one called Redemption in Indigo, both destined to be published in 2010. Besides the debut novel experience, I knew we had a few other things in common: Bajan roots (mine by blood and birth, his by marriage) and an appreciation of West Indian literature. To my surprise and pleasure, I later discovered that he also loves speculative fiction, and we both majored in physics at the University of Toronto.

Tom, who is still based in Canada, came to visit last month, and I asked him if he’d agree to a conversation. Not a review, nor yet an interview, but just two people talking near a microphone in the hopes that something interesting might be said. We ended up chatting and laughing for almost an hour. This week’s posts are the result.

Today’s post is the first part of the conversation, where we discuss Tom’s background and his connection to Barbados.

11 Dec 2010

First question: tell us about yourself!

I was born in Toronto in 1952, October 22nd, so I’m fifty-eight now. I went to high school in Don Mills which is a suburb of Toronto – it’s now kind of in the centre of the city, but back in those days it was on the outskirts. It was actually a planned community, so I’m a baby boomer. There were all middle and lower income families in there, and the sense was that their children could do anything. We were thinking along the lines of activism … it was part of the time … community involvement, social issues. But generally speaking I was into science and mathematics. One of the reasons was to avoid writing.

(laughs) How well that worked out!

Yeah, well it worked out well for about fifty years! I always loved reading, though, especially the supernatural stuff. I did a degree at U of T in maths and physics and I was a computer programmer and designer of software back in those days. It was card-punching machines, believe it or not. My first programs were bubble cards. I’ve always been intrigued by problem solving, but I never did well at literature. I was reading comic books. I hadn’t yet read the classics.

Comic books. We’re talking like … X-Men? Stuff like that?

Even earlier. This is Spiderman, Hulk … Marvel Comics.

Some of those stories were very well crafted.

Oh, yeah, when you look back on them, with a few short words they convey a lot of information. They’re very economical and powerful. As a young teenager I’d be reading that. And then later the stuff that I would read would be historical … modern history. But literature I didn’t really read too much of until later. I got married in ’80. My father was running a small printing business so I left computing and went to work with him. It’s not something I would have done if I hadn’t been married, I think. It was high stress, and I don’t like stress. Eventually I got out of that business at the age of forty … I think forty-two … when my children were in their late teens. I wanted to get back into the computer science area so I told Denise [his wife] I either do this now or I’ll end up going to school with my kids, which isn’t good. (laughs) So I went back to university at York and got another degree in computer science in a couple of years because I had previous credits. I became a consultant for banks, writing financial software, which I still do on and off, but I would say half the time I would be writing full-time and the other half I may have to go back and make some money. Unless this book sells a million copies and gets on Oprah.

Yeah, that sort of sounds like my game plan. (we both laugh)

I know she has a house here, so … just throw a few copies over the wall …

Tempting! Just stroll nearby casually, fling them over …

… hope the dog doesn’t chew them.

(we gradually sober up and stop laughing)

Do you want to get into why I got into writing?

In a way when you say you were always reading, that just seals the deal for me. If you’re always reading you tend to fall into writing at some point, I think, even if it’s on a casual basis, so that doesn’t surprise me in the least. But it’s the Barbados connection – how did we manage to steal you away? That’s what I want to know.

I came to the island with a St Lucian friend, and I distinctly remember stepping off the plane, because I came in late winter and it was like … if you’ve seen the movie The Wizard of Oz … it was like Dorothy stepping out of her Kansas house after it landed in Oz, I swear! Because the film goes … it’s black and white up to that point, and then suddenly – colour, and that’s exactly how I felt about Barbados, from the very first. There was something about the island: the aged coralstone walls that we passed by, the derelict windmills, the feeling that the distant past lay close to the surface. Whereas in Toronto, my sense of it is that it’s constantly attempting to reinvent itself. The history is ploughed under the ground.

You mean it’s modern all the time?

Yeah. But Barbados, it reeks of the past, in the good ways and bad ways. The island talked to me when I arrived.

Did it become your muse, in a way?

(laughs) I guess so. I mean, I became interested in things West Indian afterwards. I met my wife, actually, on that trip (I didn’t realise she’d be my wife, but …). And the people, I’m always amazed at people who don’t have a lot and are so gracious. The coralstone … I could see coral rocks scattered in a field in the middle of the island. It’s pretty amazing. It’s there with its fossils, its history, sitting there. So yeah, I have a certain sense of the place that I’ve never lost.

It definitely comes out in the book, because when you read the book – and I’m not giving away anything! – but when you read the book you really do get a sense of, as you say, the earth, the rock. You mention the limestone caves; you mention the sea. And the thing is, the way you mention the sea is not in terms of being on the beach but just the way the salt water, the salt spray comes to you. And the sun, the colours … the same way you described stepping off and being in a new Technicolor world … you describe that as well. And even the heat! The way you describe the heat, and (laughs) sweating.

(laughs) My old friend, the heat.

For me that’s actually what’s completely missing when I read books that try to deal with Barbados or deal with the West Indies. You’re reading it, and you’re kind of thinking ‘this person just passed through, didn’t really connect, or they read about it somewhere’. It’s just missing. It doesn’t feel like home at all. But with yours, there’s a complete sense of home, a complete sense of … the rootedness is there.

I’m happy to hear you say it, because when I was writing it I was desperate to have some affirmation or authentication from Barbadians. You don’t want to write something that … I mean, it might be well-written and it’s an interesting story, but if it doesn’t ring true to the people who are actually on the ground, then it doesn’t work. It fails completely.

A part of your challenge must have been that not only did you write about Barbados, but you wrote about a past Barbados. I can talk about how it connected for me on a ‘geographical’ level, but did you find yourself having to speak to people of that generation to say, ‘is this the Barbados you recognise’?

Denise’s mum was such a source of inspiration. It’s dedicated to her, and she is full of stories, which I would listen to and just absorb – like the trip to the railroad, which doesn’t exist anymore. The fact that ‘the sea has no back door’, and someone died down at Martin’s Bay – these kind of stories. In a way she and her husband Joe were my access … my window to the past was through them. And the stories that the family had to tell, because Barbadians are great storytellers. (pause, laughs)

(laughs) I have always felt so.

Really. And told in dialect, too, which took me a while to get used to, but I love the language.

Well, you did a very good job with the dialect in the book.

Which surprises me! (laughs)

I’ve seen it done badly. I’ve seen it done badly by Barbadians, but you really did quite a good job. It’s distinctly Barbadian. It’s not psuedo-Jamaican, it’s not quasi-broad West Indian, it’s very distinctly Barbadian.

I’m really happy to hear you say that, because I rendered it really the way I hear it. There are many examples of other treatments of dialect, from Lamming to Sam Selvon to Austin Clarke. Jeannette Layne-Clarke has a certain way of doing it which is hard for me.

It’s very hard for everyone, I think. (laughs). Because you want to have the cadence right, you want to have the sound of the phonetics right, but you don’t want to change it into a completely different language when the person has to read it. So there’s always that balance, I think.

I wondered at times who the audience of the book was – was it Barbadians or Canadians.

Because that would make a difference as well.

Yeah. I had some comments that … ‘you know, this is not that easy to read’ … this is by people who do not know the West Indies, who have really no exposure to it. But the bulk of the response was positive. In fact, I even had West Indian authors tell me that it was too heavily dialect, and I thought to myself, really I’m writing it so it’s authentic to me and I’m not going to change it. I think that’s one of the strengths of the book, that authenticity it has.

[END of Part I. ‘Part II: A Classic West Indian Novel’ is available here.  Part III is here.]