The Never-Ending Craft: Gemma Weekes on novels, music and poetry


Gemma Weekes is in celebratory mode. Her debut novel, Love Me, has been translated into Dutch and an Italian version is in the offing, widening its potential audience.  Love Me, set in London and New York, has generated quite a buzz since its release in January receiving very encouraging reviews from The Guardian, The Metro and The Independent amongst others [click to read our review].

Yet Weekes is no newcomer to the literary scene. If you’ve even only a passing interest in London’s live music and spoken word scene then Gemma’s name would be familiar to you – she has performed everywhere from the Jazz Café and Royal Festival Hall to The Theatre Royal, Stratford.   In fact she wears many hats; apart from being a novelist, singer/songwriter, musician and poet she’s also a journalist, short story writer and mother to boot.  We’re joined by two-year-old Isaiah who offers quiet intermittent protest at having someone else so rudely take his mummy’s attention.  

We sit in a fast food restaurant near her stomping-ground in Seven Sisters, North-East London.  In the flesh the 31 year old is a svelte, understated beauty with an effortlessly agreeable manner, straight away putting you at ease.  This is a stark contrast to the outlook of Love Me’s protagonist, Eden Jean-Baptiste.  Are there any similarities between the two? “I think probably most novelists will tell you their first book has shards of themselves in but it’s not necessarily in the ways you think.”

Click to buy Gemma's debut novel, Love Me, from Amazon (UK)

“I haven’t gone through everything Eden has gone through, not at all.  But maybe a lot of the questions she has I grappled with in my teens and my early adulthood.  There are probably bits of me spread throughout the characters, not necessarily Eden.  There are autobiographical elements as far as the things I’ve dealt with romantically… but I’m not as bottled as Eden, not by any stretch.  She’s full of all this intensity… very angry.   I’m a lot more hippy-fied and relaxed.  Eden was really interesting to write.  I wanted to write about a particular condition… living in a city and not having that deep connection to your identity and how that would kind of affect you.”

Gemma’s easygoing attitude, however, was put firmly to the test when she was doing some of the research for Love Me over in Brooklyn.

“I spent a couple of months there and just tried to get a sense of the place.  I lost my debit card which was crazy!  It took weeks before my new one came so I was really quite poor in New York and that helped.   It meant I had to really be there and really get bored and walk the street… I met people and just really wanted to absorb the language, the feel and the social aspect of what it felt like to be in New York.”

Gemma’s list of creative influences reflects her variegated interests. James Baldwin, Anais Nin, Rosa Guy, Nas, Kate Bush, D’Angelo, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Ntozake Shange, Milan Kundera…  Nin and Baldwin in particular have had a big impact on her artistry.

“If Beale Street Could Talk [by James Baldwin] – I loved the characterisation.  It really captured the claustrophobia and the energy of the city and also the pain; how things aren’t necessarily resolved… ever.  Anais Nin is just amazing as far as capturing the feminine psyche [is concerned].  It’s very hard to handle sexuality with any class or any real kind of depth and she does it brilliantly… she’s one of the best at that.”  Weekes also has great respect for fellow all-rounder Mos Def; “His writing is passionate.  It’s clever, it’s inter-textual; he references other rappers.  He’s just super-clever and super-passionate and it’s hard to find that, I think.”

With several strings to her bow already, does Gemma plan to add film-making to her repertoire?

“I love 26A by Diana Evans, I would love to see that [adapted for film] but I would not nominate myself to write the screenplay!  There are plenty of books that I love but if you’re going to ask me what I want to adapt it’ll definitely be my own.  I’d love to see Love Me cinematically.  My whole aim with the book anyway was to be really visual and just capture the moment.  I think it’ll transfer quite well cinematically because of that.”

And who would she cast?

“Tyrese, James Spooner, Angela Bassett, India Arie… in her first acting role!”

gemma weekes_crop
One can’t blame Weekes for feeling chuffed about her debut novel.  It was six years in the making with the usual drama of several drafts and re-writes.  With publishing deadlines and editing demands, it’s these aspects that make writing a book analogous to ‘carrying a whole apartment block on your head’ according to Gemma.  Still, the experience hasn’t put her off and she speaks excitedly about her next project.

“The working title of the book is Rainbow Like You.  It’s about one man’s journey before life and another man’s after death following a wrongful killing by the police in a 7/7-style [Charles De Menezes] situation.  I recently read a short excerpt of it at an Arvin Foundation event…”  Weekes continues to speak animatedly as Isaiah wanders off and she chases him around the restaurant. “I’m happy to explore a subject that is not as close to me.  I want to do something more ambitious.  There’s a lot more structure to this novel than the last.”

Despite the obvious overlaps that might exist between prose and poetry writing, Gemma explains that the two are still very distinct disciplines.  All the more so for someone who finds expression in both crafts.

“The people who are attracted to performance poetry are probably a slightly different tribe to the people who are attracted to novel-writing.   I do both but I feel completely split by it.  The desire to go into the lab and be alone and really wrestle with yourself; how everything fits, how the universe fits and how reality fits… that’s a very different impulse than the desire to just reach a room.  A completely different energy.  I find sometimes if I’m out performing too much I really get the urge to just sit in the lab. [Novel-writing] is a lot more dextrous; it’s more about craft… that’s how it feels.  With poetry you can have an amazing, direct effect on your audience but as I said it’s a different impulse.

gemma weekes“I just feel so grateful to be able to do this.  I have so much love for the craft.  You can achieve such an amazing effect with novels that would literally change the course of people’s consciousness, inform and take them to places that no other craft can, in that way.  You read alone, at your own pace… it’s very, very personal.”

Weekes rounds things up with sage advice for all scribes.

“As a writer you have to have that humility, not only for other writers but that understanding that no matter how good you get you’ll never get even close to encapsulating the beauty, symmetry and complexity of our life here on earth.  You’re trying to get to that big ontological question: who are we?  Why are we here?  There are all these situations piled on top and you try to get through the situation and to the root of it.

“It’s amazing, just having that as a life’s work.  I’ll never get to the end.  I’ll die and I’ll still never get to the end… It’s exciting to have that bigger playground and realise you’ll never exhaust it.”

Photography by Steve Rutherford.