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Jacob Ross: 'Narrative Craft is not only about passing on techniques... it is also about boosting self-belief'

BY Katie Smart
16th Dec 2020

Jacob Ross is an award-winning author, his crime novel The Bone Readers won the inaugural Jhalak Prize in 2017 and his collected short fiction Tell No-One About This was listed by the 2017 Bocas Literary Prize among the best Caribbean fictional works. His most recent crime novel Black Rain Falling was published in spring 2020. We are delighted to welcome Jacob as a new member of the CBC tutor team. He is a tutor mentor for The Breakthrough Writers' Programme our new outreach initiative that supports under-represented writers. He will also be one of the tutors on our upcoming, advanced Finish Your Novel course.

We caught up with Jacob to talk about his approach to crafting fiction, teaching creative writing and the advice he has for aspiring authors...

Hi Jacob, we’re very excited to welcome you to the CBC tutor team, you’re going to be teaching for us. What is the most rewarding part of teaching creative writing?

It gives me immense pleasure when a writer I’ve worked with over the years wins a major award or book deal. Over the past five years in particular, I’ve seen this trend increase. For me, teaching Narrative Craft is not only about passing on techniques and writing strategies; it is also about boosting self-belief.

As well as being a novelist you are a short story writer – is there one form that you prefer over the other?

For many years, the short story was my most natural mode of self-expression in fiction. I’ve always found it a very demanding discipline requiring the same kind of economy and precision that one finds in poetry, for example. I think of the novel as an elaborate cocktail and the short story as a single shot of vodka, taken neat. It can be just as challenging as the novel and could take just as long to complete. Writing short stories has helped enormously in refining my approach to developing novels. This is my experience anyway.

Your crime fiction is critically acclaimed, The Bone Readers won The Jhalak Prize in 2017 and your latest novel Black Rain Falling (published earlier this year) has been extremely well-received. These novels combine thrilling plots with stylish prose. Do you have any tips for bringing originality to crime fiction?

My approach was simply to read extensively with a view to understanding the basic understructure of the crime novel: somebody gets killed in puzzling circumstances; someone sets about to solve the puzzle; eventually the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the crime is unraveled through a series of escalating challenges. But there is so much more that can be done with interrogating and manipulating the key building blocks of narrative – character, storyline, setting (which includes the period in which one chooses to set the book) and process.

For example, one asks oneself, why does a male protagonist in a crime novel have to be macho or masculinist? I chose to deliberately subvert that trope. My male protagonist is sometimes so deeply affected by events, he cries. His partner is not a ‘sidekick’; she often leads the investigation and is probably more intelligent than he is, although he is more knowledgeable in the area of Forensics. So there is a lot of innovation that can be made with that approach.

By process I mean the stylistic choices the writer makes when s/he writes a book. In thinking through my approach to the Camaho Quartet, I asked myself: what’s wrong with writing a crime novel in carefully crafted language, with the same forensic examination of character that we expect in a ‘literary’ novel? That kind of interrogation often leads to fresh and interesting approaches to, not just crime novels, but any kind of fiction.

You are also an Associate Fiction Editor at Peepal Tree Press. Can you tell us a bit more about your work with this independent publisher that specialises in Caribbean and Black British writing?

Peepal Tree Press was established in 1986 by Jeremy Poynting and has since become the world's leading publisher of Caribbean and Black British writing. This is not a boast; it is a fact.

It’s a small press (with two core members of staff) that punches way above its weight. For example Roger Robinson’s, A Portable Paradise won the TS Eliot Prize in 2019, and was only the second book of poetry to win the Ondaatje Prize in May 2020. As we speak, Monique Roffey’s,The Mermaid of Black Conch is shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel Award. My work consists of reading submitted manuscripts, identifying those that meet the Press’s high standards and flagging them for the Managing Editor to make a decision. I also do my share of hardcore editing as well as teaching a group of Yorkshire-based writers attached to Peepal Tree Press.

What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

I get up at 7 a.m and read other people’s manuscripts. I stop at 1 p.m. to listen to the news. Then a walk in the local park before settling down to my own work. I stop at 5p.m. – again for the news; then some music and socialising with friends and family online, and on the phone.

What advice would you give writers preparing to submit their work to The Breakthrough Writers’ Programme?

The Breakthrough Writers’ Programme is a fantastic opportunity. It’s absolutely worth making a strong case for yourself and submitting your best work. It might be worth getting someone to proofread your submission before sending.

Ignore last-minute self-doubts. Send in the work. Good luck with it.