Photo Credit: Latifah Abdur

Tracey Baptiste was born in Trinidad, where she grew up on jumbie stories and fairy tales, and decided to be a writer at the wise old age of three. It took a few more years to get her first publishing contract though. Her debut, a young adult novel titled Angel’s Grace, was named one of the 100 best books for reading and sharing by New York City librarians. Tracey is a former teacher, textbook editor, ballerina, and amateur librarian who once started up a library in her house in the hope that everyone would bring their books back late and she would be rich! You know, like other librarians. She is now a wife and mom and lives in New Jersey, where she writes and edits books for kids from a very cozy office in her house that is filled with more toys than she can count. The Jumbies is her second novel.

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Author Q&A

1. Favorite books/authors who inspired you

I had a large, beautiful copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales when I was little. At age three, I was certain I’d grow up to be a writer and have a book filled with my own stories just like it. When I was eleven, I read V. S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street at school in Trinidad. My copy was a hand-me-down from my brother, and I read it so many times that it simply disintegrated one day. (I swear!) After I moved to the United States at age fifteen, I read Rosa Guy’s novel The Friends. The main character is a girl from “The Islands” who has recently moved to New York. It spoke directly to me and made me think about writing novels instead of short stories.

2. What’s your writing routine?

If I don’t get some writing done first thing in the morning, it just might not get done. It has to be the first thing I do, usually while eating breakfast. I work for about an hour, more if I don’t have to log in to work (I work from home) or get the kids to school. Occasionally I will also write in the evening. My daily goal is about one thousand words. But a lot of the time there are only about one or two words worth keeping, words like and and the.

3. What part of your book was the most fun to write?

I loved describing the mermaids. I wanted to have mermaids that looked like the women I know in Trinidad: bright, beautiful, and with meticulously cared-for hair. All the mermaid parts—especially their attitudes—were super fun to work on. And then there's that encounter with a giant squid...

4. Which part was the most difficult?

This was my first time writing a sequel so a lot of it was hard. I can't pinpoint one thing that was really difficult. It all felt painful at times. But the most emotionally difficult was the scene when the mermaids discover the slave ship and begin to remember who they were before. It was gut wrenching and took me weeks to get through.

5. Is there one particular character in your new book that you most relate to? Why?

Mama D'Leau is complicated and has an interesting (though obscure) backstory. It's not clear who she is or whether she's really good or really REALLY bad. Her moods change on a whim and she needs to be approached with caution. Like Mama D'Leau, I can be very mercurial at times and hard to figure out. (At least that's what my family tells me.)

6. What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Take a writing class. As an editor, I meet a lot of people who want to write books but have no idea what good writing is. I get manuscripts that writers think are close to final, but they are still in a very rough stage. The only way to get good feedback on your writing is in a class with a lot of back and forth. And while there are a lot of great freelance editors out there, it’s more economical for beginning writers to take a class. After that, the next best thing is to read a lot. You learn loads from other writers just by reading their work. I still do.

7. Cats or dogs?

Dogs.

8. If writing weren’t part of your daily work, what career would you like to have?

Is world-class lazybones an option? No? Then ballerina. I have always loved ballet and still occasionally take a class, though I stopped dancing for the most part when I was pregnant with my first child. It was also the last time I did pointe work. I still have my last pair of pointe shoes on the bookshelf in my office.

9. Which author would you most like to spend the day with?

Rosa Guy. She passed not too long ago, and I had so wanted to meet her. I think our mutual love of literature and shared Trinbagonian heritage would have given us a lot to talk about.

10. What is your secret superpower?

I have amazing intuition about people. I have actually never been steered wrong when I followed my gut instincts about someone I’ve met. Because of this, I can read people really well, which would probably come in handy during a negotiation, or playing poker. But since I don’t do either of those things, I use my intuition to make really good friends—and to steer arguments the way I want them to go! Handy! I am also eerily disciplined. Once I make up my mind to do something, no amount of cajoling, bribing, or distracting can turn me away from it. 

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