When faced with the question, “Do you think readers enjoy the stories of main characters who are less like Greek gods and more like mortals?” Trinidadian-British writer Monique Roffey answers immediately. “Novels,” she states firmly, “should be about the people we know.” As part of her preparation for writing her most recent novel Archipelago, published in July by Simon and Schuster, Roffey reread Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Archipelago is a tale of unexpected adventure, a story of what happens to a good, yet unremarkable man when he feels that escape is his only option. Roffey found Odysseus to be a boring hero: a man incapable of making terrible mistakes, one who “conquers every bad-john.” This Greek superhero is unable to fail, she adds, which makes it the kind of story she’s not interested in telling. “I think failure is part of the human condition,” she affirms, sharing that writing about how we fall short can be just as satisfying as any other.
Roffey, who launched Archipelago at Paper Based Bookstore, The Normandie, St Ann’s, last Thursday, is no novice to the world of fiction. The holder of a PhD in creative writing, she teaches writing courses at the Arvon Foundation in England and the Writers’ Lab in Skyros, Greece. Archipelago is her third novel, and has already earned a stream of glowing reviews in London, where she is based at least half of the year. She spends the remaining months in Trinidad, which is home to her in a way that other places cannot quite capture. Indeed, it was essential for her to write Archipelago while here, to be, as she fondly puts it, “amongst people speaking the language, reporting the news of the day, capturing the sights and sounds of the country.” The writer becomes quietly thoughtful as she muses, “It is my hope that local readers feel my close and intimate connection with the region, particularly to Trinidad. Trinidad is my home.” Archipelago’s first draft took six months to write, and two years in total from beginning pages to its final proof stages. The spark of this extraordinary story had its genesis in a flood: the 2008 flood that badly damaged Roffey’s brother’s home in Perseverance, Maraval. It’s chilling, too, to consider that her book is being launched on the heels of the floods that devastated Diego Martin and environs not more than a month ago. “Global warming and climate change affect us all, even on our islands,” she grimly notes, remarking that our sense of security as Trinidadians and Tobagonians cannot protect us from what is occurring everywhere else.
The process of writing Archipelago took her, very literally, to the open sea, where she charted the sailing journey that her protagonist undertakes in the novel. She describes the trip as vital: a “No amount of research could have stood in for the real thing.” Roffey is equally free of regret when it comes to the subject of her scandalous erotic memoir, With the Kisses of his Mouth, published last year by Simon and Schuster. Hailed as groundbreaking writing, and widely touted as “incredibly brave,” it isn’t a memoir one is likely to see gracing most local bookshop shelves. (But check Paper Based Bookstore for your copy, where it is in stock.) The writer admits she thought long and hard about the consequences of exposing this aspect of her life to the world. In the end, she says, she decided not to wait until she was 70, until a potentially “safer” time. The result is a work which has drawn people closer in the desire to share their own experiences and longings, forming unexpected fellowships and bonds across the globe. At work on another novel, Roffey appears committed to pursuing this ideal: of telling stories without shame, whether they take place in the bedroom or on the open seas. Having those experiences, she urges, is key: “A writer needs to go out into the world. There aren’t that many things that can be written about on your own, in isolation.”