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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Small Island: Q&A with Andrea Levy

Hortense (Naomie Harris), Michael (Ashley Walters) and Queenie (Ruth Wilson)

A Q&A with Andrea Levy, best-selling author of Small Island

How did you feel when you were approached to turn Small Island into a TV drama?
I felt really thrilled, although a little cautious. With film and TV there are always many hurdles to jump before anything finally makes it on to the screen. I was also anxious to know whether I would agree with the producers' vision for the adaptation. Happily they have been great champions of the spirit of the book throughout.

Is it strange to see the characters and worlds you have created being brought to life?
I have a fantasy that one day I will have a party and the guests will be all the characters I have created in my novels. Having Small Island adapted for TV, and the characters brought to life by such superb actors, is the nearest I can get to making that a reality. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remember that this whole story started in my head.

Did you spend any time on the set?
The filming took place in Dublin, Belfast and Jamaica. I had plans to visit the set in Belfast but in the end I couldn't make it. But I did meet the director and the cast at an early run-through in London and that was a real thrill. The producers were great at sending me selected stills and rushes from the filming, so I felt very much in touch as it all progressed.

What was the inspiration for the book?
The arrival of the ship Empire Windrush in 1948 with nearly 500 Caribbean migrants on board, seems to have become a marker for modern Britain's multicultural beginnings. My dad was on that ship, one of the 'pioneers'. That's what first inspired me to write Small Island. I wanted to explore my parents' experiences when they first came to this country from Jamaica, and what it meant to the people they came to live amongst.

How closely does it mirror your family's experience?
My research for the book began with chatting to my mum. From there I read lots of books, talked to my mother-in-law, interviewed men who had been in the services during the Second World War, etc. Some of my family's experiences certainly appear in the book, but other material was gleaned from sources outside the family.

Do you think it important that this story be told through television?
I think television is a great medium for this story. I love the thought that by channel-punching someone might stumble upon this drama – that it might reach people who would otherwise have thought that a story like this was not for them.

Were you surprised at the phenomenal success of the book?
I'll say! Before Small Island there was always the feeling, certainly in publishing, that stories that revolved around black British characters would only ever have a limited appeal. But in the event the novel proved more universal, as it was simply a tale of people getting on with their lives under difficult circumstances.

What do you think appealed most to people?
The book tells a familiar story but from a different perspective. It's a tale of human endeavour, endurance, pain, triumph and, most of all, love.

Did the characters' experience resonate with many of your audience?
I have received many letters from people kindly telling me how the book resonated with them. And all kinds of people, too – young, old, black, white, male and female. That has surprised me the most – the breadth of people who have responded as if this was their story, too.

Have you seen any of the finished drama – if so, how did it feel watching it?
Yes, I have seen it all. I watched it through twice. The first time I was terrified, not knowing whether it would live up to my expectations. The second time I just relaxed and enjoyed it. I think it's wonderful. I'm really excited at the thought that millions of people may see the final version.

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