an interview with Jackie Kay      
photo of Jackie Kay

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  Bold Type: What is Trumpet about?

Jackie Kay: A jazz trumpeter, Joss Moody, who lived his life as a man; when he died it was discovered he was a woman. The only character who knew about this is his widow, Millie. The story is told from her point of view, and their adopted son, Colman's, who didn't know. Trumpet is all about the effect that his secret has on various different characters' ordinary lives: the registrar, the drummer, the cleaner, the tabloid journalist.

BT: Whose story did you want to tell through Trumpet--Joss's, Millie's or everybody who was effected by the aftermath of Moody's death and the revelation of his secret?

JK: I wanted to tell a story, the same story, from several points of view. I was interested in how a story can work like music and how one note can contain the essence of the whole. I wanted to write a novel whose structure was very close to jazz itself. So the registrar, the drummer, the cleaner all interested me because they gave the same story a different note.

I started out with two main stories though--Millie's grief and Colman's rage. I only ever wanted to tell Joss's story through the eyes of everyone else.

BT: Why did you write this novel?

JK: Because I read a short news piece about Billy Tipton which intrigued me. His adopted son was quoted as saying, "He'll always be Daddy to me," after discovering his father had been a woman. I was interested in the son's acceptance of his fathers' construction of his identity.

BT: How closely do the events and circumstances of Trumpet mirror those of Billy Tipton's life?

JK: Not at all closely; just about everything is different. The death of Billy Tipton was my initial inspiration, but after that I made it all up. I invented Joss Moody with a wife who knew and one son who didn't. To have three wives not knowing would have been too much for fiction--real life can get away with things that fiction can't! Joss Moody is black and Scottish, and a Trumpet player, not a piano player. I wasn't interested in trying to research Billy Tipton or in writing a fiction about a real person.

BT: Is there a message or lesson to be learned in Trumpet, and if so what is it?

JK: I don't think I ever set out to write with a message in mind. I was interested in how fluid identity can be, how people can reinvent themselves, how gender and race are categories that we try to fix, in order perhaps to cherish our own prejudices, how so called extraordinary people can live ordinary lives. I wanted to write a love story where the reader would become so involved with the story that they too would believe Joss and be calling him 'he' to themselves.

BT: In your opinion, did Joss Moody die a victor or a victim of society?

JK: Neither, really. If I was pushed I'd have to say 'victor' because he lived his life as he wanted to--he blew his trumpet and loved his wife and son. He had the courage to reinvent himself, to live his own fantasy.

BT: In one scene, the writer Sophie Stones ponders possible titles for her book on Joss Moody's life, and she acknowledges the lasting impact of titles. With that in mind, how did you arrive at Trumpet?

JK: I liked all the different meanings of trumpet. The idea of the instrument and the the sound and the idea of Joss announcing himself, Joss blowing his own trumpet . The journalist trying to trumpet her story. An animal or a bird can make the sound of a trumpet, a clear penetrating note.

BT: Do you think this story would be possible today?

JK: No, not this same story. Perhaps other stories similar. Maybe somebody who wants to actually be a man, who has a sex change. It would be possible for Joss Moody to have different choices today. Time would alter the story.

BT: For whom did you write this book; what type of reader?

JK: Everybody: old, young, black, white, gay, straight, ordinary and extraordinary people. More than who, I like to imagine where people might read the book: somebody in bed with the flu, or on a long train journey. The imaginary reader is always there from the beginning.

BT: Is the story exclusive to any one place, such as England?

JK: Well, it's written by me; I'm Scottish, black. It's clearly set in Scotland and in London, but the story it tells originated from the USA and I've just relocated a version in my own time and place. I imagine the story itself to have the kind of local details that can also be universal.

BT: This novel is being published in America, how do you feel about that?

JK: It will be interesting because I do think of Trumpet as being influenced by my way of looking at the world. I don't know whether or not the same novel would have been written in America. I'm aware of a great tradition of black American writers, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman. I'm also aware that America as a society is more driven and defined by race than perhaps the UK is. So here is a book about a black jazz musician whose central story is not about race particularly. But I'm excited about it going to America. The idea of your book getting to travel is exciting because hopefully I'll travel with it!

BT: What kind of music did you listen to while writing Trumpet?

JK: I listened to music all the time. The blues, Bessie Smith; the trumpet, Louis Armstrong and Clifford Brown, Ali Farke Toure, Jean Redpath--a Celtic folksinger. And many of the jazz women Dinah Washington, Carmen MacRae, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald.

BT: What did you read?

JK: Poetry mainly. Hardly any novels. A lot of biography and autobiography, particularly books about Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, George Melly.

BT: Many readers have said it would make a good movie. What's your view on that?

JK: Well, if it was ever made into a movie, I'd sit munching away on my chocolate raisins and be very happy. In fact, I'd allow myself popcorn as well. Seriously, I wouldn't expect the movie to be My Book--I'd hope it would be something else. If, on the biggest wave of ifs, it ever happened, I'd still prefer people to read the book first.

BT: How long does a novel live within the writer after it's published?

JK: All I know is that it is still living within me now--because it still doesn't feel that it has had enough of a life of its own to be able to look after itself. Even although I've finished the characters and the book is published, they do tend to linger. I do find myself asking what Millie or Colman would think of this or that. They linger like benevolent ghosts.

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    Photo credit © Ingrid Pollard