It is with great pleasure that I introduce a new book and Audible recording, Plenty Mango: Postcards from the Caribbean by Sarah Dickinson. This is a very special one for me as Sarah was my first ever proper ‘boss’ after I graduated from University – aged 22, she offered me a role as a radio producer at her company Ladbroke Radio. The full story of how I met Sarah and what I learned from her as a female business-owner way back in the mid-eighties will form Part Two of this feature. But in the meantime, let’s dive into the interview and find out more about this tale of life on Montserrat and living through the volcano years.
Sarah, when I was in my early twenties, I remember working on your first book ‘How to Take on the Media’ as your researcher. How do you remember the experience of writing that book?
And a very good researcher you were! The abiding memory is of acute physical pain. I’d slipped a disc and could only get comfortable either by standing upright or flat on my back, so the physical act of writing was challenging, to say the least. But the thinking, mapping and ordering of the content was exhilarating.
I knew I ran the risk of being labelled ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’, as I was revealing the tricks in a journalist’s arsenal. But I genuinely believed then, as I do still, that an interviewee has a right to know the so-called ‘rules of the game’.
Apart from being verbally mauled by Melvyn Bragg on Radio 4’s Start the Week show, the gamble paid off.
In those days, I mainly knew you as my boss, a businesswoman and a radio producer/presenter. But have you always been a writer?
From about the age of 6, I have always wanted to write. My first favourite author was Monica Dickens (no relation sadly) whose witty series ‘One Pair of Feet’, ‘One Pair of Hands’ made a big impact. Won a few writing prizes at college, but then had to earn a living, a need which occupied me, as well as bringing up a family, for many years. It’s only in the last ten years that I have the luxury of time to write continuously.
Your new book ‘Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean’ tells the story of your experience of the Caribbean island of Montserrat – how did your relationship with that island begin?
As with so many things that change the course of our lives, it was serendipity.
One summer, many years ago, I was driving through Northern France with my husband John. We were on our way to Switzerland and at one with the world. It was one of those typical straight French country roads with white ringed poplar trees on either side. Nothing coming the other way, I signalled to overtake two cars in front of me. All was well until I was alongside the first driver who decided to overtake the car in front of him. There wasn’t room for the three of us, so I ended up hitting one of the poplar trees while they drove on. John somehow got me out just before the car exploded. He saved my life.
Despite being grateful for being alive, come that winter, we couldn’t quite get over the enormity of what could have happened. So, to cheer the soul and warm the body, we headed for the West Indies, unknown to both of us, eventually finding and falling in love with Montserrat. So much so that John, who is an architect, decided to follow a dream and find some land on which he would build a group of contemporary West Indian style villas. We did find that land, 27 acres of tropical hillside overlooking sea, beach and mountains. We re-mortgaged everything we had to pay for it.
We only needed to build one more house to almost break even. And then the island’s volcano re-awoke after 400 years …..
That was in 1995 wasn’t it? I assumed everything changed for the island?
I can tell you the exact date .. Tuesday, July 18th. I remember it was one of those glorious tropical days, bright sunshine, cooling breezes, our two teenage boys glued to their Walkmans, working on their sun tans. I was dozing on a sun lounger when it suddenly felt as if someone was trying to tip me out of it. I shouted at the boys to back off. When they looked up at me from the other end of the pool, I realised my mistake. Something very strange was happening. I learnt later that I was experiencing a tectonic earthquake, one of the indicators that a volcano is ‘waking up’.
I devote quite a few chapters in Plenty Mango to the devastation caused by the volcano and the impact that it has had on the economy and the lives of Montserratians. Tragically 19 people lost their lives, more than half the island’s population (5,000) left and those who stayed had to endure years of uncertainty.
Today, albeit very slowly, life on Montserrat is returning. I’d like to say ‘returning to normal’, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. I still jump when the 12 0’clock siren rings across the valley, and the especially adapted radio tuned to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, in case of an emergency, is never turned off. But, and I include John and I, we’re a resilient lot and we all still say of our precious little island ‘still home, still nice, still paradise.’
How did ‘Plenty Mango’ come into being?
For 40 years I have written a Christmas report on the activities of the Renton family during the past 12 months. Not surprisingly, Montserrat had a starring role. It wasn’t until about 3 years ago, when I was invited to give a series of illustrated talks ‘Living Under a Volcano’ on one of Fred Olsen’s cruise ships, that I dug out the letters. And what a valuable history they provided. At the end of each talk, I read directly from some of the letters and was surprised and gratified by how well they were received. ‘You should put them in a book’, several people suggested. So I did! Obviously, Plenty Mango is very special to me, but I think what gives it an added attraction are John’s wonderful, quirky illustrations. We have this catch phrase between us ‘I do the words, he does the pictures.’
What’s the essence of the book?
I suppose Plenty Mango is a kind of love story, between two people who share a love for a tiny island in the West Indies which, despite the ructions of a volcano, is home to about 5,000 people who care about each other and are proud of their heritage. Incidentally, it’s astonishingly beautiful.
I’ve structured the book as a series of illustrated postcards – word portraits about its history, traditions, myths and, most importantly, its people.
I believe you still live part of the year in Montserrat? How has your experience of the volcano affected your life and relationships there over the years?
There’s that quote by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.’ As I think I was trying to say just now, the hardship has brought us all closer together and made us more determined to make Montserrat a real tourist destination. John hasn’t given up on Isles Bay Plantation and hopes, one day, to build some more villas. The British Government seems to be still hanging in there, providing much-needed aid and more and more people are returning. Of course, we’d all like things to move much faster, but we know we’re still dependent on the whims of the volcano.
It’s the characters, of course, that we remember after reading your stories …
And they are all people I know! I’ve changed the names of one or two, but not many. I’m relieved that the book has been very well received on Montserrat.
I’m often asked, do you have a favourite? Of course not, but I am forever grateful to a lovely old man, never seen without his white wellingtons, who is a dab hand at clearing storm drains. I was waiting for John who had gone in search of a particular type of screw (no mean feat on a small island) when the old man came up to me and said ‘I jus seen your Daddy, an I tole him I clean dem drains soon.’ Who needs botox with compliments like that?
Do you see the book as journalism or creative non-fiction or short stories. Did you think about ‘genre’ when writing?
I really dislike this pigeon-holing ‘genre’ thing but, if pushed, I suppose it would fit into ‘travel’.
What made you self-publish?
How long have you got? Despite knowing lots of publishers and agents and receiving some very encouraging feedback to Plenty Mango, that depressing conjunction BUT kept appearing. ‘We’d love to publish it, but travel is such a tough market’, ‘Love the text and the illustrations, but all that colour would make it expensive to publish.’ Those are from people who bothered to reply; there were an awful lot of who didn’t. So, self- publish it was.
What has the experience of self-publishing been like compared to traditional publishing?
It’s much harder! You need cash, time, determination and, in my case, a technical guru. First of all, John and I set up a small publishing company called Tamarind Press (just in case we needed it later on). Because my media background is as a reporter/presenter, I decided, initially, to record all the stories and try and get them played on radio or on some of the airlines flying to the West Indies. It meant finding a producer and hiring a radio studio but, as I’d been in the business for some time, that wasn’t difficult. I’d also heard of an organisation called ACX who operate as an intermediary for Amazon’s audio imprint Audible and iTunes. There is no upfront charge and, once satisfied with the quality of your submission, will add it to their catalogue. ‘Look no further,’ I thought. Another lesson to be learned. Always read the small print.
What I’d failed to notice was that Amazon won’t publish an audio version of your book until it is available either as a paperback or in Kindle – which leads me to the Kindle Direct Publishing site which urges you to ‘Self-publish e-Books and paperbacks for free with Kindle Direct Publishing, and reach million of readers on Amazon.’ Sounded good to me and because my technical guru was right by my side, I didn’t have to worry about such things as JPEGs, or page and line breaks. My job was to proof read the final manuscript before pressing SEND. You know, I swear I spotted every ‘typo’ and slightly confusing edit but, (there’s that but again) as I suppose is inevitable, I have spotted a few since reading the published version.
The great thing about publishing with Amazon is that it’s a ‘just in time’ outfit. Someone orders a copy and, if it’s an e-book or audio, it’s instant, if it’s a paperback, could be with you the next day. No remainders this way.
How have you found the marketing side? What advice would you give to others going this route?
I compiled a data base of about 400 people and e-mailed them all INDIVIDUALLY, letting them know about Plenty Mango and the formats in which it was available. I kept the price of the e-book very competitive. The paperback version, which had all John’s coloured illustrations, didn’t offer me such lee-way, and Audible charges a fixed price. I have to warn you that the royalties are pretty small.
Word of mouth is, I’ve found, the best marketing tool and, to this end, I have become very active on Facebook. It’s quite hard work, as I’m not one of those people who post photographs of my last meal, so it tends to be news, at the moment at least, about the book.
I’ve also got a website sarahdickinson.net – which is proving to be a useful communication tool.
I’m thinking of commissioning a PR specialist as well, but haven’t as yet done so.
The book, I’m happy to say, is doing well. Not ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ – well, you understand, but well enough.
You recently took part in a literary festival in Montserrat – what was that like?
Hard work, but great fun and it’s a wonderful experience being asked to sign copies of your book. Have written a piece for the book’s sequel
‘PLENTY MORE MANGO’.
When we met recently, you told me about your regular journaling and that was very inspiring. How has writing regularly changed you as a writer?
It’s like exercise, the more you do, the easier it gets. I write in Moleskines – good size for carrying around and protected by a hard cover. Anything and everything goes into them – funny things our grandchildren say, rants about politics, the beginnings of stories. A word of advice – always date everything.To-day’s entry will be about this interview!
‘Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean’ by Sarah Dickinson is available via either Amazon.co.uk/books or Amazon.com/books in paperback, Kindle, Audible and iTunes formats.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience Sarah – I can’t wait for our second interview about our early days, though I’m slightly nervous what you’ll say about the younger me…