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?

The scene with Corinne on the cliff was great fun. It was actually part of another novel I had written and abandoned, but I liked it so much that I put it in this story.

4. Which part was the most difficult?

Before this story, I had never written a villain, so Severine was really tough. I had a hard time figuring out what her motivation was for doing the things that she did.It was many, many drafts before I fully understood her and why she truly believed her actions were the right thing. Severine also briefly mentions a slave ship. I agonized over whether this was an appropriate topic to broach in a novel for this age group, but I finally left it in because it’s a subject that doesn’t get enough discussion. The truth is, that is how a lot of the Caribbean was populated, and that is how many native peoples were pushed out.

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

OK, this is weird. The character that I feel most connected to isn’t even in the book. Not really, anyway. It’s Nicole. She dies long before the story ever starts, but her spirit colors everything that the main characters do. Corinne, Severine, and Pierre are all influenced greatly by Nicole’s death, and her legacy of growing things and being unafraid. Maybe it’s a mom thing. I certainly feel the influence of my own mother in many of the things I do, even though she lives very far away, and I’d like to think that when I’m not around my kids, they still feel the weight of the things I’ve taught them.

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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