Interview: Andrea Levy, writer

After the success of Small Island, Andrea Levy wanted to dig further into her Jamaican roots. The result is The Long Song, a powerful indictment of the slave TRADE

Three hundred years. Throughout our conversation, Andrea Levy keeps coming back to that, as if she is trying to grasp it more fully, to shoe-horn it into her head and mine. The slave trade in the Caribbean went on for 300 years.

That's millions of lives bought and sold, she says. Or just being born into and dying in enslavement. Millions grafted on the plantations of the empire, whose names were not even recorded. A dead end where the majority of black Britons who try to trace their family tree run aground.

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The genealogy TV show Who Do You Think You Are? counts Levy among its fans. "I love it. I'm addicted to it," she says, cheerfully. "But when anybody of Caribbean heritage is on it, they go back, they get back to slavery and that's where it stops. It's like a big hole in history."

Levy, who came to fame with her bestselling, multi-award-winning 2004 novel, Small Island, recently adapted by the BBC, finds the same black hole in her own family's past. "I'm pretty sure, anecdotally, that my great-great – a few greats – grandmother was born a slave. I think the chances are that on both sides at some time there is slavery.

"Most people (with Caribbean heritage] have enslaved people in their background."

Her new novel, The Long Song, explores that history. For her, it follows quite logically from Small Island, which tells the story of Jamaican Windrush immigrants in London in the 1940s who find the country colder and less welcoming than they expected. It is loosely based on the story of her own parents, who came here from Jamaica in 1948.

"Once I'd finished that, I asked myself, why were they in the Caribbean in the first place? And if you go into the history of Jamaica or the Caribbean, you keep bumping into slavery. You can't help it, that was the reason that they were there. I suppose with all my writing, it's me trying to explore my Caribbean heritage, and wanting to show how much that heritage is part of British life."

Levy speaks in a soft alto and her deep warm, laugh punctuates the conversation, sometimes when there is something to laugh about, often when there is not. In uncomfortable moments, she laughs softly like a kind of balm. The success of Small Island in her late forties transformed her from a respected but marginal black writer into a mainstream literary success story. She speaks with the depth of someone who has been on that journey.

Born in 1956, she grew up on a north London council estate where hers was the only black family. Her parents were middle-class Jamaicans who found themselves unable to get professional jobs in London, though her mother did an Open University degree and retrained as a teacher. She herself studied textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic and worked in the wardrobe departments at the BBC and the Royal Opera House.

In her twenties, she began to read avidly, discovering the work of black American women writers such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Looking for the equivalent in British writing and finding none, she attended a writing class herself. But when she approached publishers with her work, she found she was classified as minority interest.

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"There was very much the sense that if you were writing a story which had a black character then only black people would want to read it. And people would say: 'Well, you know, black people, they don't really read much, we're not going to sell enough books.' The idea that a black person could carry a universal story – it was thought that can't happen." Unsurprisingly, she challenged this. An early interviewer describes her as "angry".

Now, nothing could be further from the truth. The success of Small Island, which swept the board, winning the Orange, Whitbread and Commonwealth prizes, brought not defiance but gracious acceptance. Stepping up tearfully to the podium to accept the Orange prize, she quipped that this was her "Halle Berry moment" and cheerfully admitted she'd left her speech in her handbag.

"I think that attitude (which sees black stories as marginal] is still with us – perhaps in the film industry it's even stronger. But the success of Small Island just blew me away. I was just hoping some people would read it and feel it had something to do with them. I've been amazed by the breadth of people who have seen that as their story, regardless of the fact that two of the main protagonists are black. So I thought, yes! Black people can tell a universal story."

The book is now reaching a legion of new fans thanks to the acclaimed BBC adaptation last autumn starring Ruth Wilson, David Oleyowo and Naomie Harris. Was she watching? "Of course! I thought it was a lovely piece of television. Had they asked me to adapt it, I would have made it 28 parts with lecture notes, but I think they did a wonderful job."

It's clear that Levy is still enjoying the glow of that success, posing patiently and good-humouredly for the photographer. So how was it, after such adulation – Small Island received great public acclaim and huge sales, as well as prizes – to sit down and start writing the next book? Did she wonder how she could follow it?

"Yes, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a bit of that. But I'm so thrilled with Small Island, and the whole thing was such a nice experience, that I refused to make it a bad thing in any way. To sit there saying: 'Oh no, what do I do, it's been so terrible having such a huge hit!'" she mimes a wiping of an anguished brow, laughing. "I'd have loved to have a hit, and I got it and it was great, and then the next book – well, you've just got to bite the bullet."

She wanted it to be very different, and it is. The Long Song takes us into the world of July, a feisty old woman at the end of the 19th century, writing the story of her life. Born a slave, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white slave driver in the sugar plantations of Jamaica, she has lived through the tumultous years of the slave uprisings.

It has many of the hallmarks of Small Island: colourful, complex characters, a lively story, gentle but incisive humour, the soft music of Caribbean speech. She has woven a beautiful story from an ugly time in history, and this makes her uneasy.

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"I wanted there to be joy in this book, fun, as well. I had to tread a fine line. It was never going to be 'Carry On up the Plantation', but also I didn't want it to be just so harrowing that nobody could read it. I wanted a book that everyone could read and everyone could enjoy.

"It's a fantastic and unique history, it's like nothing else that humans have done on this planet. I found it disturbing but very, very interesting. It wasn't like researching for Small Island, which was just a joy from beginning to end. Sometimes I really, really didn't want to do it. I was in this place where it's shockingly brutal, and horribly racist."

Her solution was to use her writer's imagination to stand in the gap in history. The enslaved people left little behind them, almost no written records: "The shackles have come down, but not the cooking pots, the pictures, the songs". But she found that she could look at the numerous accounts written by white people in Jamaica and read between the lines.

"I found I could see through to these negroes who people were always complaining about, who were indolent and feckless and rude and obstreperous." Through these complaints, she sensed small, silent acts of rebellion, the day-to-day way in which the slaves defied their loss of freedom. She writes, for example, about the black musicians who played deliberately badly for their white masters.

"I found white people saying, 'Oh, these negro musicians can't play very well,' and I thought, 'Oh yeah?' I reckon they're quite good, I reckon they just couldn't be arsed. I began to see this vivid picture.

"I didn't want anything mythical about slavery. These were people like you and me. Imagine yourself as a slave, how would you cope if someone was making you do something and you didn't want to do it? They are not people who could endure this any better than we can now.

"Those were my building blocks, that I wasn't looking at downtrodden victims, I was looking at people who were surviving as best they could under the most incredibly difficult circumstances. Because of that it felt like a real story of human spirit."

And as she went along, she gathered more building blocks: visiting a former plantation in Jamaica to learn the geography of the buildings, studying the day-to-day tasks of tending and harvesting sugar, including back-breaking, stomach-churning tasks, like manuring.

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"It did shock me, the manuring. I really felt I needed to do that in my imagination. Go over to that pile of manure, stick it in a basket, place the basket on your head, walk three miles with this stuff dripping down your face, work all day putting this in the ground, go back get some more, have your dinner while being disgusting with manure. This was a woman like me doing this. This was one of the jobs she had to do."

While she was writing The Long Song, the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 propelled the issue into the headlines. Tony Blair was praised for expressing "sorrow and regret" but criticised for not making an unreserved apology. It was clear that few rested easy with the past.

"I remember somebody – a politician, I think – talking about the abolition of slavery and how it made them proud to be British. And I thought, right, that's just a little bit selective. What about the rest of it?

"Britain did spend a lot of time stopping other countries from exporting slaves, but that was mostly because they didn't want anybody else gaining ground on them, by other countries still having enslaved people working sugar plantations when they had to pay theirs. I think there's a lot to be looked at.

"It's a very touchy subject. It's not something that Britain can be proud of. There are a lot of people with a heritage from the Caribbean who need to know a bit about it, need it to be acknowledged. And that it has repercussions – it must do. One of the worst things to come out of that experience was racism, and the need to justify being able to enslave people. We're still trying to work that one out of the system now."

She learned about the slave trade at school, she says: that sugar went one way and slaves another. That life on the plantations was tough. "But there was always the sense that it was a very long time ago, and you don't really need to look at it. I think there is a sense with both black people and white people in this country and in the Caribbean, of not wanting to go there, it's too difficult."

She is reluctant to talk further about racism; perhaps she feels that this also is reductive. "My books are never just about race," she once said. "They are about people and history." She says that she hopes all readers will feel connected to this story, regardless of race, because "it is about humanity. It is about what we do to one another.

"One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that I was at a conference, and a young woman got up and asked how she could be proud of her heritage when her family had been slaves. So one of the things I would love the book to do is make anybody of that heritage feel absolutely 'Wow, I come from people who survived and thrived through this 300 years of slavery.' They survived and built a culture."

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Like the best fiction, then, universal and specific. The woman in the heat in the fields with the basket of manure on her head. A woman who had to survive. "And she did, by God. And they did. And I'm here to tell their tale."

The Long Song by Andrea Levy is published by Headline, priced 18.99.

• This article first appeared in The Scotsman, Saturday February 13, 2010

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