01 May 2012

A cupboard full of ideas

WHAT'S it like putting your work, with all its intimate aspects and introspection, up for critical consumption?

"It's probably the psychological equivalent of stripping off your clothes and running around naked," answers Yvvette Edwards, author of 'A Cupboard Full Of Coats'. And yet the Hackney-proud writer, who 'died a thousand deaths' each time anyone read her first draft, had little to worry about: the acclaimed debut novel was placed on the 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist, turning her from part-time housing worker to a rising literary star.

The book charts the story of a woman riddled with guilt over the brutal death of her mother. Years later, an old family friend returns to revisit the events that led up to the murderous night. It was inspired by a friend of Yvvette's who herself managed to escape a violent relationship. The friend was lucky: her former partner tragically killed his subsequent girlfriend.

"For me it was mind-blowing. There were so many possibilities that played out in my head for years - if she didn't leave him, would she have been the person I had read about?" she muses. The ex had a close friend, triggering Yvvette to question how two such opposite people could be so close. This became a key theme of the book.

'A Cupboard Full Of Coats' is also a window into Montserrat life and being the child of a West Indian parent. "The mantra is 'write what you know'. I grew up in Hackney and have a Montserrat background; I hadn't read that much about second generation Caribbean people in London. But the issues in the book don't just explore the Afro-Caribbean experience, I just used my background to make characters more authentic," she says.

Despite being a lifelong avid reader and 'pretty much living in Hackney libraries', she began building her prose in quite an unusual way. "When I was young I had a lisp - there were all sorts of words and sounds I'd avoid, like 'Ths' and soft 'Gs'. So I made a thesaurus in my mind of words to replace them with.

"I meandered through life, never fully committing to a career. But I did take up short writing courses - I was the short course queen! I would practise, practise, practise, with part of me always thinking 'any moment now I'm going to be a novelist'.

"Then on my 39th birthday, it was as if I'd discovered I wasn't immortal, so I gave myself a choice: either write and see it through, or give it all up to commit to my job."

Fortunately for booklovers, Yvvette chose writing. The Man Booker Prize nomination, an annual award for the best original full-length novel written in English, gave her the confidence boost she needed.

"Being on the Booker Prize longlist was an enormous honour; I was completely overjoyed but also terrified. Just having my book published put me in a state of shock. Now looking back it was the best thing that could have happened to me as it put me on the literary radar. Lots of people have enjoyed the book and that sustains me as a writer," Yvvette says.

She names Toni Morrison and Joanne Harris among the authors that most influenced her. "I'm sure every book I've read has shaped and changed me. Reading a book is like going on a journey, and every journey changes us, even if we don't recognise it. So hats off to all writers I say," she adds.

Curriculum Vitae: Yvvette Edwards
    •    1966 Born in Barnet
    •    1967 Moves to Hackney
    •    1982 Leaves Edith Cavell School
    •    1992 Wins Acer young black writers award
    •    2011 Publishes 'A Cupboard Full Of Coats'
    •    2011 Long listed for Man Booker Prize for Fiction
Author Yvvette Edwards said she was honoured to be listed for the Booker prize

Author Yvvette Edwards said she was honoured to be listed for the Booker prize

Author Yvvette Edwards said she was honoured to be listed for the Booker prize

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