‘Put your character up a tree – and then BURN that tree down!’
This is Jacob Ross’s advice to budding writers in his dynamic and engrossing creative writing workshops. He focuses on the importance of telling a gripping story – of grabbing the reader by the scruff of the neck and not letting go. A compelling story needs the reader or listener to care deeply about the outcome of the central protagonist. For Jacob, that protagonist must be challenged to overcome a serious difficulty in their lives. It is in the struggle to survive that exhilarating stories are made; your character reveals themselves in the way they respond to a crisis. Reading about a comfortable and routine life – where is the excitement in that?
Jacob has been described as ‘a writer of formidable technical range and emotional depth’ and his talents are many; he is a novelist, a short story writer, an editor and creative writing tutor as well as being Associate Fiction Editor at the world-famous Leeds-based Caribbean publishers Peepal Tree Press. Peepal Tree function from an office in a very unassuming red brick terrace house in Burley in Leeds – and yet they publish numerous winners of prestigious Caribbean literature and poetry awards. Students on the English Literature and Creative Writing degrees at Leeds Beckett currently benefit from our partnerships with Peepal Tree Press in opportunities to carry out work placements with these impressive publishers.
Jacob’s crime fiction novel, The Bone Readers, won the prestigious inaugural Jhalak Prize in 2017 – a prize designed to create a much-needed platform for writers of colour in the UK.
Jacob describes his first novel Pynter Bender (2018) as his best book, which was published to much critical literary acclaim and shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Regional Prize, yet this novel has not enjoyed the same success with audiences as the The Bone Readers. ‘It was a more ‘writerly’ novel’, he explains. ‘People love crime fiction, and it sells.’
I asked Jacob if there was a turning point in his career as a writer – a ‘big break’. I was interested to know when he started calling himself a writer by profession. Jacob said the story of his writing career began when he was just a schoolboy. He grew up on the small Caribbean island of Grenada, on the southern end of a chain of island called the Grenadines. Like many Caribbean islands, Grenada may look like a tropical paradise to tourists, but it suffers from the long-lasting legacies of slavery and colonialism and has faced continued political upheaval and poverty since independence.
Jacob described an experience in 1974 when the island was experiencing deep political turmoil and a strike shut down the country. The government imposed a curfew with the threat to shoot anyone on sight who ignored the crackdown. Jacob, then a schoolboy, wrote a story in response to the curfew which was read on the radio, much to the displeasure of the authorities. He explains that it was after the radio broadcast of his story that he realised that writing was his power. His school teacher told him he should aim to become the nation's writer; 'I got serious then', he explains. Grenada needed writers with a 'social mission’. ‘I'm gonna be the one,’ he told himself.
Jacob constantly challenges stereotypes of Caribbean masculinity in his work. His main protagonist in The Bone Readers, Digger, is a handsome young black plain clothes police officer who sets out to solve a series of sinister and complex murders on the island. Digger is charming and much admired by women, yet he doesn’t involve himself in numerous sexual encounters but forms profound, respectful and sensitive relationships with the women in his life and often turns to them for guidance. Bernardine Evaristo, in her review of the Bone Readers (Guardian, 2016) writes that Jacob ‘excels at creating empathetic female characters.’
While some of Digger’s relationships with women are sensuous, they defy what many readers might expect from the crime fiction genre and a young Caribbean male policeman protagonist. Jacob was raised by women who had a profound influence on him ‘as a human as well as a writer'. He explains that; 'the backbone of Caribbean society is its women' – it is women who hold Grenadian society together, raise children and work hard to ensure their families survive and, hopefully, thrive.
What makes a great story and the fundamentals of gripping storytelling are key concerns for both Jacob and staff and students on our English Literature and Creative Writing degrees. We all agree that the key to being a brilliant writer is the ability to analyse fiction. In our classes, our students drill down and unpick narrative techniques to lay bare the bones of excellent storytelling practices. As a result, we have absorbed Jacob’s storytelling secrets and we can identify and understand them. Yet all this analysis never gets in the way of the sheer joy of totally immersing ourselves in a thrilling read – and we await Jacob’s sequel to The Bone Readers, Black Rain Falling, which will be published in March next year, with bated breath.