You’ve just published Take it Cool, a bio-historico-musicological-memoir, about your search to find out how your surname is shared with a reggae star. Having married a man from Caribbean descent and acquired the surname Sterling a few years ago, I was also curious about how British the family surname seemed – and a dark history soon revealed itself. So it’s interesting to see the other side of the coin.
Would you change your lineage if you could?
Short answer: no. Longer answer, part one: I like to think that as far as possible we should make our own destiny based using whatever cards we’re dealt with and avoid relying on our ancestors to do the work for us. Longer answer, part two: in any case, whatever went on in the past went on in the context of what was known at the time and the prevailing constraints and opportunities, so I’m happy to leave my ancestors to it, warts and all.
What made you want to tackle such a hot potato of a subject?
It didn’t really start out as a hot potato, because it was originally just about trying to find Dennis Pinnock. It was only when the whole slavery angle turned up unannounced that it started to stray into more sensitive areas.
In some ways, that was precisely the point at which it became really interesting – especially when it struck me that it was really a story about two people with a shared surname, whose parents had both crossed the Atlantic in opposite directions in search of a better life. One of them took part in a trade that blighted the lives of millions while the other has made some rather fine records that have added to the sum of human happiness. And that struck me as quite a powerful message to take away, especially in a political climate tainted with way too much mindless ranting about the evils of immigration.
A man after my own heart! So, how did you feel about going from fiction to non-fiction?
Actually, I started writing this book in around 2005, so I was constantly switching back and forth between fiction and non-fiction. I think my style of non-fiction is pretty close to my fictional style anyway, and one of the things I’ve learnt is that to get the best out of a non-fiction project you need to apply everything you’ve learnt as a fiction writer.
A man of many talents it would seem. I see on you’ve also tried your hand at writing music? Did writing Take it Cool make you want to take it back up?
Ha, no. I’m quite happy to leave that to people who know what they’re doing.
Shucks! No CD releases then. Shame. Is it true that you tried to be a cartoonist once? They’re amazing (guys check out his cartoons here) Is there anything you can’t do Jonathan?
The problem with cartooning is that I can’t draw, and that is always going to hold me back.
I beg to differ!
The thing is, though, I’ve never felt that lack of talent should necessarily stop you from trying something. If you’re a creative sort of person, you can’t help but try every possible medium to find out what works best for you.
However, if you’re not careful, you can end up spreading what modest talent you have very thinly indeed, so you also need to recognise where your strengths lie.
So where are you taking your talents next now that Take it Cool is out into the real world?
That is a very good question. There are many projects I’d like to get stuck into. For example, I have four or five ideas for non-fiction projects of a similar nature to TAKE IT COOL. I also find that a new idea for a novel seems to pop up every other week or so, only to dissolve into nothing when I try to commit it to paper. I’m still writing short stories – especially as I have some particular favourites that despite every attempt remain unloved and unpublished.
I’ll be waiting for those!
Despite being three or four (depending on how you count it) books into my writing career, I still don’t have a clear idea of where I’m heading. Which at least keeps things exciting.
Thanks Jonathan for coming over, and if you’re desperate for a little more, you can read the first chapter of Take it Cool for free.
Do you have any family secrets you’ve uncovered that have inspired you?