Claire Adam's Debut Novel 'Golden Child' Shows That No Person Is An Island, Even When Living On One
Debut author Claire Adam talks about the power of books, complicated family dynamics, and how her debut novel, 'Golden Child,' set on a Caribbean Island and centered on a poor but proud family, resonates with people from all walks of life.
March 7, 2019
From the opening chapter of Golden Child, Claire Adam's beautiful debut novel, editor Abby West was hooked. It is peppered with the language and landscape of the wondrous yet complicated Caribbean island of Trinidad, birthplace for both Adam and West, and contains the nods to class and socioeconomic strife that make it a loving, yet clear-eyed ode to this place they both love. But what really makes this debut novel a stunner is the heartbreaking look at twin brothers Peter and Paul--one bright and destined for great things, the other painfully slower by comparison--and their family's fears and hopes in the face of one agonizing decision.
Listen in as Abby and Claire talk about the importance of grounding a story in reality, as well as why actor Obi Abili's enrapturing narration works so well as it bounces between clear British and Trini Creole as he brings Adam's riveting and unsettling prose to life.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi. I'm Abby West, Audible Editor here, and I'm really excited to speak with Claire Adam, author of Golden Child, her debut novel, which I've got to say has landed so deeply in my soul. I first heard about it a year ago, read it about six months ago, and finally got to listen to the audiobook recently, and I think, for anyone who has any sort of West Indian roots, they're going to love this. Golden Childis both a love letter to Trinidad, where it is set in the 80s and 90s, and a family dynamic story as it looks at these twin boys, one of whom is destined for great things and whose family has immense hopes for him, and the other who, shall we say, is on the opposite end for everything. Claire, welcome.
Claire Adam: Oh, thank you. I'm so happy to be here. I'm delighted to talk to you, Abby. And it's so wonderful to hear that you were born in Trinidad yourself, and that you have knowledge and experience of the place, so I'm looking forward to our conversation.
AW: Great! So let's get a little bit more into the story. It's about Peter and Paul. Well, it is about Peter and Paul, but it's more than Peter and Paul, right? It started for you with their father, Clyde. How did it start for you, that Clyde was a central person in this story?
CA: Yes. It did sort of start for me with Clyde. I'd been trying to write before and I'd written two other attempts at books, but they were set in different places. I think one was set in Italy, and one was set in England, and neither of them was working very well. And to be honest, I had been trying not to write about Trinidad, because I had worked quite hard to leave Trinidad, so it seemed a bit counterintuitive to go back and write about it.
CA: But then this character, who is Clyde, sort of came to me fully formed, and I could see him very clearly in my mind. And I could see that he was a very determined and stubborn character -- a very willful character -- and I could see the dilemma that he was going to be faced with. And I just thought it was an amazing story, and he was very clearly a Trinidadian man, and so I kind of got to writing. And unlike the previous attempts, which had been set in other places, when I was writing about Trinidad it seemed to work much better. So I kept on going, and I was sort of showing bits and pieces to people. And at last something was working, so I kept on going with it.
AW: I love that the place was so important for you, that the story was coming together, but it really needed to be grounded in Trinidad.
CA: Yeah, I think so, and that was really surprising for me. I think it's to do with the characters. I think what can make it work or not work is if it all feels real to the reader. And I think because I grew up there, I still knew Trinidad pretty well, just the physicality of the place. What it feels like. What the trees look like. What the birds looks like. Where the sun moves. Exactly where the shadows are. What they eat. Wherever you've grown up, you will know that particular place very well, and for me it was Trinidad. And because the characters moved through the world in a physical way, they touch things, they eat things, they feel things, and I think that just seemed to help. And it was also to do with the way of speaking. That's something which I sort of need to think about a little bit more, because it was very interesting. It's just the Trinidadian way of speaking. When I started to write in that way, it all sort of came forth much more willingly.
AW: Oh, we're going to go back to that when we talk a little bit more about the audio, because that really was something that grabbed me from jump. There were Trini-isms. There was the Creole.
CA: Ah, good.
AW: It felt like I know these people. I know Clyde. You know? When you say you left Trinidad at 18, you said?
CA: I left when I was 18. That's right.
AW: Eighteen, and you [mentioned earlier that you] might wonder if you could still capture everything. And I think you did capture it, because you managed to capture the beauty and the complexity of Trinidad which is something, I think, people from the outside don't often get. That it's both gritty, and there can be, and I might get flack for this, some desperation to get out and desperation to move forward, but there's also a pride and this dichotomous narrative of being a hard worker but also wanting to lime [hang out]. You know?
CA: That's right. That is the sort of Trinidadian characters. On one hand people are extremely ambitious, and so there are many, many people who will work extremely hard and they make huge sacrifices whether it's for education or something good to happen in the future, but then there's also people who like to party. And Carnival is coming up just now, as we're talking now, in January, and Carnival will be due in February or early March, and the whole country is partying. So both those things happen at once, so you're right. It is a very complex country.
AW: And I think that really comes across with Clyde, your opening story with him. You feel the weight of life for him, coming home, even opening the gates, and having the dogs. Everything about that was so visceral for me. The dogs sort of ambling up, the feeling of the description of the house. This is what most of my family ... There's that split of a very basic living. They're living. There's roofs over homes, and everybody has what might feel like common or contemporary technology, but yet you're living quite, not hand-to-mouth, but basically. And then there's another family who's not. So that part got me.
CA: Yeah, that's right. That's lovely to here that it made that impression on you. Yeah, because I think as I was writing I was wondering whether I was giving enough to the reader to help them visualize what these scenes were. Because of course it was all very clear in my mind, but I was sort of trying to picture readers all around the world who may know something about the Caribbean or who may not know anything about the Caribbean. And I was just trying to judge it, and not overdo it, and also just get people enough, so that's good to hear that it was enough for you.
AW: As the boys began to develop for you, talking about both Peter's potential and Paul's place from the beginning of his life, his place in his family, and I think that was heartbreaking from the minute I got to know them to the end where I knew where it was going. I can't say I necessarily knew where it was going, when I started to really feel that this could be where it was going. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to create these two boys, and exploring their dynamic in this family, and then pulling that even out into the greater community. They're established with this community and where they are in terms of the island and then the world. It's just you pull back on many layers there.
CA: Oh, yeah. For me this was a huge ... The book came out at like 75,000 words which is quite a short novel really, but I wrote so much. I wrote several drafts of this book. I'm embarrassed to say how many, but it was quite a lot. I started with Clyde. He was my way in, and he was the strongest voice all the way through. But as I was sort of exploring the space as I was writing, and so I wrote a lot about Peter, and I wrote a lot about Paul, and Father Kavanagh, and Joy, and the family, and the neighbors. I just wrote and wrote, so I kind of knew all these characters inside out, and then it was kind of the hard job of standing back and trying to say, "Okay." Each of these characters sort of has their own goals, and their own agendas, and their own struggles.
CA: There was a point when the whole story got so complex that it was quite hard to see my way through, but I kind of tried to come back to Clyde, and what is this story about, and just tried and keep it as simple as I possibly could. Because as you point out, there are many layers, and there is a lot of complexity, but I was just trying to pull back and say, "Okay. This is about a father with two sons, and the sons are very different. And one son is very gifted, and all the families hopes rest in him."
But the other son, his father, perhaps, doesn't know him as well. He may not be his father's favorite, and he may know that he's not his father's favorite. Paul, actually, was a character who his voice came. It took a long time. It took a lot of work to finally get Paul's voice. He was quite mysterious to me for a long time, and I think that's partly because Clyde was such a strong character in my mind. Clyde doesn't see Paul very clearly, and so it was kind of hard for me to see Paul. Paul was kind of the shadowy character for such a long time. But then when he finally found his voice, I was like, "Right. I got you now," and then so I wrote them all down.
AW: With Paul, his resignation to his status in life, I think, is what, as a mother, breaks my heart. No one seems to get him, or they extrapolate his issues to something irresolvable and set him apart from everyone else so much, and I think that you really make that very clear.
CA: Yeah. I only saw that once I had finished writing, and I pulled back. And I was like, "Oh my goodness. Look at this," because for Paul's part of the story I found it hard to get a hold of him. But I felt confident that I did at the end, and I just tried to keep it very simple. I just wrote down what happened. This happens, and this happens, and that happens. I kept it very simple. But yeah, you're right. I think that when you take a step back you're like, "Here's a child who wasn't really well understood." When he goes missing at the beginning of the book his father thinks all these kinds of things. He could be out at the nightclub, or he could be off causing trouble somewhere around the neighborhood, or he could be doing drug deals. His father really does not know him at all, and that is heart breaking, isn't it? But it's something that then might lead us to ask how well do we know our children or it given from the perspective of us as children. How well do our parents know us?
AW: Right. I was going to say whether they want to be known, but I think it comes across that he does want to be known. Often I felt like Peter was bumping along in life. His internal narrative was different and very much more accepting this is where it's going, and this is what I'm destined for kind of thing. There's also a bit of a push-pull with...the family's Hindu. I'm correct, right? It's been a minute. But the family's Hindu...
CA: Yes, that's right.
AW: ... and sending Peter off to a Catholic school. When you brought in Father Kavanagh I was, maybe from years of American reading, signaling I was wondering if we're were going anywhere else. I was kind of pleasantly surprised because it actually was very true to how West Indians, well, let me not speak for all West Indians, how Trinis would feel that sense of this is the person that's going help us.
CA: Yeah, I know what you mean. Yes, it was a little bit tricky including an Irish Catholic priest. And yes, I was sort of aware that people might kind of wonder, "Oh, goodness. Where's this going?" I hope I'm not giving away anything by saying that the priest is a safe character. He's a force for good, I think, in the novel. He's certainly not like a white savior. I think I was a little bit worried about that as well as I was writing. What is this priest doing here? What's he really here for? In my mind, I think his function was, we have this father and this son, Clyde and Paul, who really it's like an abyss between them, and I think Father Kavanagh maybe was trying to pull these two characters together. And I'll leave it to the readers to decide how well he achieved that or didn't.
But yes, about their being Hindu, I wrote about this before I really understood it. And I think it's based on something which I observed so often in Trinidad which is that we have a huge mix of religions in Trinidad, but people take a pretty pragmatic approach to it. And I think it is to do with the importance of education. I think that people in many cases are willing just to send their kids to whatever the best school is regardless of what religion is running it. During the 80s and stuff, many of the best schools were Catholic schools.
I went to a Catholic school, and there were people of all religions at our schools. And sometimes Hindu people or Muslim people would learn the hymns, and learn the prayers, and you go to Mass. People would kind of just join in. It wasn't until much later that I kind of looked back and thought that was actually a bit unusual, and I think it's all to do with families really being willing to put education at the very top of their agenda, whether it sort of compromises their own religion or whether they turn their back on their own religion at all. Basically in many cases, education is just so clearly at the top that everything else just comes lower down.
AW: Yeah, and it speaks to most migratory patterns. Right? You assimilate as much as you need to, to be able to move forward, and I think that's very, like a defining character in post-colonial West Indies.
CA: Yeah, I think you're right, because we have these many different religions in Trinidad. We have Hindus, Muslims. We have Christians of various denominations, Presbyterian and Anglican, and then we have Catholics. They've all arrived there because the history of how people arrived in Trinidad. We had slavery, and then after slavery was abolished people were brought from the continent of India as indentured labor. I know you already know this, Abby, but it's just for readers who might not know.
AW: Go through it, yes.
CA: So we have a lot of Black people. It was sort of half Black and Indian, and Indian meaning people who originally came from India, and so all these people brought their original religions with them. And then we also have Syrians, and we have Chinese. And to be honest with you, I don't know the history of why all these people came there. But I try to stay with that, because growing up in Trinidad, and you may remember this from your time there, or from people you've talked to, or visits and stuff like that, but we didn't know our own history. We were just like, "Well. Here we all are. We're living our lives and having a good time." So people at that time anyway, it may be a bit different now, but at that time people weren't very interested in history.
So I think that's one reason why either this family who were Hindu, they don't observe all their Hindu practices or even understand some. They have a coffee table which has these carvings of elephants, and they don't even know why it's there. You know, I think that is because we just don't know our own history, and are often not very interested, and often the history is just not available because of slavery and indentureship sometimes the records just aren't there.
AW: Yeah. Well that's definitely the case.
AW: I've often tried to explain to people how many different ethnicities and backgrounds there are in Trinidad, and I think I remember someone surprised that there was also a Chinese person who was also Trini. We were having a moment. They were like, "Really?" Yeah, that is Trinidad. It is one of the original melting pots. Yeah.
CA: That's right. I know. We have everybody here, so it's an interesting place. One reason I didn't want to write about Trinidad and history is 'cause I don't even the history. I don't know anything about history, and one of my writing professors was like, "Well, but your history is our history, because of what happened in Trinidad." And the people who are there now they've been these migratory paths, as you say, people from all over the world landing up here. So it's funny how that happens, isn't it?
AW: It is. It's really important to really capture that mix of language. The Creole is very important. It is a mix of different things, and I'm not really sure that it really differentiates too much across these racial boundaries in Trinidad, that there is that sense of Trinidadianness, that it just comes with the language.
CA: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I think you're right. I haven't lived in Trinidad for a long time, so I could be out of date. But certainly when I was living there, there is a bit of classism. There's a bit of the town people to be more well-spoken, and the people from more rural areas. Who in a very sort of snobbish way, people from town would say, "All the bush people." So there was a certain classism, so I think there would be a more well-spoken, well-to-do accent or something like that from the Port of Spain people.
AW: Speaking in the British Queen's English, yes.
CA: Yeah, a little bit more I suppose, but I mean the language it's like the particular words that we had, and inflections, and so on. They were common to everybody is what I mean. So even the sort of classy people who lived in big houses in Port of Spain, they would be able to talk just the same way as somebody from the bush, so we had that in common. When I say we, we the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
AW: That, again, was an immediate signifier when I started the book and immediately grounded the sense of place, along with the description of the setting, but that really grounded the sense of place, so I can imagine that was very important to you when it came to having the audiobook recorded. What were you thinking when you were first told that it's going to have an audiobook, and what were some of your parameters for it?
CA: Yeah, that's right. I haven't heard the finished audiobook, but I did hear the auditions.
AW: Auditions, yeah.
CA: That's right. Yes. So I hadn't thought ahead to the audiobook, but yes, of course I was really keen just to make sure that we got pronunciations right, and it would've been wonderful to have a Trinidadian reading it, but yes. I have this publisher in the US who is SJP for Hogarth, and in the UK it's Faber & Faber. It was very nice. I don't know whether this always happens to all authors, but they were very keen to make sure that I was happy with what we produced in the end. So we got a fantastic actor to read it.
AW: And it's Obi Abili.
CA: Yeah, Obi Abili. That's right, and he's actually a British actor. So the Trinidadian accent and pronunciation, it's not his natural accent at all. When he did his auditions, he did it in a couple of different ways. And actually the one that I and the producers liked the best was just his natural British accent but in sort of a Caribbean kind of intonation for the dialogue and in certain places, and I think what I liked about it was his interpretation.
He had a real sort of sensitivity and a gentleness about the way he was reading it in the tapes that I heard, so yeah. I'm really happy with the person that we picked. I was going to say I haven't listened to the whole thing, but I've listened to clips. He's not Trinidadian himself, so I think that some of the dialogue is kind of a general Caribbean delivery, but I think that's fine. I think that yes, I'm Trinidadian originally, and yes the book is set in Trinidad, but what I hope for is that people from many places will read it. And of course, they'll hear it in their own way, and they'll bring their own interpretation to it. So what Obi's reading is one interpretation that I'm very happy with, so I was very happy with that. I think it's going to be a great recording.
AW: Well, I'm glad to hear you say that, because I know that I had to have a moment when I first heard it. Because I was reading it in Clyde's voice throughout, and then to hear it. And he does a really deft job of switching between in the internal monologue and his own narrative there into his dialogue and everyone's dialogue, and it's really quite well done, really well done. But it took me a minute, because I was stuck in this other place, "Well I wanna hear it throughout," in that tinge. And I think you're very astute to realize that people have to bring their own interpretation to it, because that's part of the process.
CA: Well, exactly. Exactly, yeah. I think if people know Trinidad already or know Trinidadians, that's great. And I think that that'll only help, but I hope that it's a book that'll also work for people who know nothing about Trinidad. So I think like, with the dialogue and with the speech, as you know, because you have read many books from the Caribbean I'm sure. This is something you can really dial it up and make it really quite "Eh, boy. Whatchu talkin' about?"
You could do that, or you could kind of dial it back, and I thought that the way it's written is mostly kind of dialed back. I think it's quite true to standard English. The reason for that is just the characters are just speaking. And they understand each other clearly, and I wanted the readers to be able to understand them clearly. Yeah, it was mainly in the dialogue that I kind of let them say what they would've said themselves, so there's a little bit. The dial kind of turns up a little bit in the dialogue, but really I just wanted it to be clear to the readers. They could follow what was happening and who was saying what.
AW: Right, so did you realize what a big deal it was to be picked up by SJP for Hogarth?
CA: Well, I think that really was a moment for me I have to say. I wrote this book. Writing a first book is hard, because you don't know if you'll ever be published. You don't know if you're going to finish the book. You don't know if you'll ever be published. If you are published, what reception you're going to get. So when you're writing, it's full of unknowns, but I was very lucky.
When my agent sent the book out it to Faber quite quickly, and I was just like, "Oh my God. This is fantastic." And then it went to Hogarth quite quickly, and I was like, "Oh my God." And then my agent wrangled me, and she said, "Oh, you know." She explained to me all about Sarah Jessica Parker and that she had this new imprint, and she's like, "Yes. Sarah Jessica Parker wants this book." And I was like, "Oh my God." I think that was a huge moment for me, because I don't know. I need to think of some really good way of expressing this.
But it was something to do with the power of books, because here's this book which is set on a Caribbean Island, and here are these people. They're poor people. They're not educated people, and they live in this brick house in the bush, and somehow here's somebody from New York who's like this film star and who lives a completely different life to these people on this island, and yet she was able to find something of meaning in this book. So I was quite impressed by that, because of course I'd read so many books in my life, and many of them had made an impression on me. But now seeing it from the other side, it's like, "Oh. You mean my book could make an impression on somebody," so that was my first moment of realizing that maybe I had written a book that people would read.
AW: Right. Well, I think that's pretty clear from the clamoring that came immediately. But yes, it speaks of the connective tissue that it has, the resonance it has across sense of place as well. I know that during the time that you were writing, you refrained from reading any Caribbean authors or Caribbean works.
CA: That's right.
AW: What would you recommend to other people right now? Anything new or it could be back list or front list, that's fine.
CA: Yeah. I'm eagerly awaiting Marlon James' new book [Black Leopard, Red Wolf]. That's just going be a huge book. I think it's going be quite challenging. I think we're going have to be ready for it. And I think I read in one review, "Be prepared to lose your way a little bit," but I think that's the fun of it. He's written a really ambitious book, so I totally take my hat off to him. Good for him.
AW: If you try to do an African Game of Thrones, you've got to sign on for getting a little lost.
CA: I know, but I think it's great to see here's somebody who was originally from the Caribbean. His horizons have just broadened enormously, and he's writing about these huge, ambitious, multilayered stories. I think that's fantastic. One thing I would say to people who are listening is in Trinidad we have a particular literature festival which is called the Bocas Lit Fest. It's B-O-C-A-S, Bocas Lit Fest, and that's where all the Caribbean authors gather once a year. So I'll be there in May this year, and that's a really great place to check who's around on the scene. Because I'm getting this huge publicity, and it's wonderful, but it's kind of unusual. There are many other writers who are around, and working, and publishing, and yet you'll find them all at the Bocas Lit Fest.
In Trinidad there's an author called Barbara Jenkins who I recently recommended over in the UK. She's Trinidadian, and one of her books that I read recently is called De Rightest Place. And De Rightest Place is the name of this pub that this character runs, and it's so funny, and it's just teeming with life, all these different characters. It's really sort of irreverent. There's plenty sex, and jokes, and it's all real life stuff. There's nothing kind of old time about it. It's kind of bang up to date.
AW: I love that. It's already on my list. It's on my list now.
CA: Oh, great. Good. You'll enjoy it. You'll love it.
AW: That's great. I know you're working on your next book. Could you talk a little bit about that?
CA: Yeah. My UK publisher is Faber, so I have a two-book contract with them. So I would've continued to write anyway, but because I have this contract, I'm definitely working on it. It's a blessing and curse, because on one hand you can feel a lot of pressure. On the other hand, you can feel really liberated, because you're like, "Look. I've already sold my second book." It's a done deal, and you can feel a certain freedom. So Faber, they're fantastic. They've been very good. They're very happy, I think, with Golden Child, and they just want a good book. So I feel that's really helpful, so I don't feel so much under pressure. I just feel like I'm going to work on this publicity now and do my best with it, 'cause it's only going to happen once that I'm doing publicity for my debut novel.
CA: The second book, so far I'm sort of saying it's probably not going to have anything to do with Trinidad. It's going to be completely different to this first book. But I'm sort of saying that, and I'm also kind of thinking about the things that are happening in this book so far. It's hard to talk about, because if you say something you feel like it's...
AW: Locked in.
CA: Yes, exactly. Locked in, and you wanna still have the freedom to move around, but I think I'm saying it's going to be different from the first book. So most likely not in Trinidad, and Golden Child was very sort of male dominated. All the characters somehow are men which was kind of unintentional, so I think the second book maybe a girl.
AW: That was interesting to see that that was the voice that spoke to you the most, and that was the character that needed to come out. And then of course the two boys, so I'll be interested to see. It feels like, potentially, you're moving through your own path in life as well, potentially, at least place wise and setting wise. Because you left Trinidad at 18, and I think you came to the States for college and then moved to London.
CA: That's right.
AW: So maybe a Brown [University]-set school?
CA: Yeah, could be. Maybe I'll do Brown next. That's right. Yeah, I think so. I'm really glad that I've written this book which is set in Trinidad. I feel, maybe, that's something that authors have to do. This book isn't about my life or about my childhood, but there's something that's connected to my life and my childhood. Right? And maybe it's helpful for authors to kind of get that book out, and then you can, maybe, sort of follow the path that the author takes in their own life, could be. We'll see. I'm excited about the next book, and yes. That's the one thing when I got the two-book deal I was like, "Well, that's fine as long as you know it's going to have nothing to do with Trinidad." They're like, "That's fine. That's fine." But now as I'm writing, I'm thinking maybe I should just not make any promises one way or the other.
AW: You definitely should feel leeway to go back and forth wherever the spirit leads you on this one. But I will say that I'm excited whether you go back to Trinidad or not, because the writing is just so lyrical and insightful.
CA: Oh, thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to hear that. This is such a nice part of the journey to hear from readers, because writing is very ... You sit in your room with your pajamas and your coffee, and you write all on your own. And it's quite nice to be having a conversation with readers, so this part is really nice.
AW: Well, I look forward to hearing more from you and even beyond the second book, and I think you're a really fun, welcome, and again, insightful addition to our literary stars.
CA: Oh, thank you so much.