Breanne Mc Ivor is an award-winning writer. Her short story collection, Where There Are Monsters, was published in 2019. Mc Ivor holds degrees in English from the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh and has a certificate in Advanced Professional Makeup Artistry. She lives in her home country of Trinidad and Tobago. The God of Good Looks is her debut novel. Visit her at www.breannemcivor.com or on Instagram @breemcivor
The Gloss Book Club: What can you tell readers about your novel The God of Good Looks that’s not included in the book synopsis?
Breanne Mc Ivor: The God of Good Looks was born out of my experiences as a professional makeup artist and as a woman living in Trinidad and Tobago. The book is fiction, but the world of the novel could easily be real. Working in makeup really drove home how much female beauty is commodified in a patriarchal society. As a female makeup artist, my looks were relentlessly scrutinized and criticized because the best advertisement for my own services was supposed to be my own face. I often wondered whether there was a way to enjoy makeup and fashion without subscribing to a system that seems designed to create women’s insecurities and then use those insecurities to sell us beauty products. This book is part of my attempt to answer that question.
TGBC: A few of our readers have read books by Trinidadian authors or books set in Trinidad and Tobago, how important is this for you and what did you hope to impart through your story about the culture and people?
BMI: Seeing Trinidad and Tobago represented in wider cultural conversations is so important to me. I remember once going to see a movie because it was partly set in Trinidad. I was shocked and disappointed when the Trinidadian characters all had Jamaican accents. I think that sometimes people assume there is a sort of homogeneity to the Caribbean. We’re often a region that people identify by a few stereotypes. We’re either associated with the tourist-brochure sun, sea, and sand, and a steel pan playing in the background or with poverty and underdevelopment. Now, sometimes stereotypes are true; I’ve been to many stunningly beautiful Caribbean beaches and, conversely, there are very poor communities here. But that’s not all we are.
I hope that my story can show some readers unexcavated aspects of my country. Trinidad is poised at an interesting place in our history. Colonialism is still a fresh wound; many Trinis have grandparents and parents born into colonial rule and educated under colonial norms. A lot of the population holds conservative, colonial values although some people, particularly the younger generations, are pushing back. However, modern Trinidad is also built on oil and gas wealth and drug money. We’ve got an affluent upper class and a casual acceptance of government corruption. I wanted to look at what it means to be a young person trying to achieve your dreams in such a country. Obadiah Cortland was born into poverty and Bianca Bridge has more links with the upper classes, so I hope that readers can experience the different faces of Trinidad through their twin narratives.
I also hope that The God of Good Looks can be a celebration and a critique of local culture. Masquerading is a cornerstone of who we are as Trinidadians. Carnival has its roots in subversion, protest, and decolonizing our bodies and on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, we literally don costumes and revel on the streets for two days. But there is also a more insidious form of masquerading where people from poorer backgrounds feel the need to wear masks to be accepted into “polite” society. This book examines what could happen if we dared to take our masks off and be more authentically who we were.
TGBC: What is the process like to develop the characters for your stories? Where does the inspiration for Bianca and Obadiah come from?
BMI: Bianca is someone whose path I could have chosen in an alternate reality. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I would sometimes get asked if I would be interested in modelling or pageants like Miss Universe. The men asking me to model often followed a similar pattern; they started out with a bevy of compliments before listing the many physical defects that I needed to fix. The beauty industry has incredibly narrow standards of attractiveness and failure to conform is seen as a moral failing. I remember once telling someone really close to me that I had decided that I wouldn’t try out for the Miss Universe Pageant. She told me, “That’s bullshit. You’re just too greedy and you don’t want to diet and lose the weight.” I channeled all my experience with the beauty industry into Bianca, exploring the ways the industry holds up a blueprint for beauty and chips away at your self-worth when you don’t meet these standards.
Obadiah started off as a composite of many men I knew in the beauty industry. Male makeup artists always seemed to have these intensely cultivated personas; they’d all bought into the idea of the asshole genius and the more extreme your assholery, the more of a genius you were. In beauty, and in general, the loudest and meanest voices are often the most amplified and “nice” can be read as byword for boring. I wanted to explore what was going on behind Obadiah’s beauty prima donna personality and why he felt like cruelty was the best way to succeed.
TGBC: Did any good bits get edited out?
BMI: Yes!! Eric Hugo is the Minister of Planning and Sustainable Development in this novel and his affair with Bianca sets the whole plot in motion. In an earlier draft I had a whole subplot that detailed Eric’s corruption and even his connections to organized crime. The thin paper wall that separates government officials from gang leaders and white-collar criminals is fascinating fodder for a book. However, it was too much of a distraction from my main storyline. Maybe it’s a story for the future?
TGBC: What was the most challenging element during your writing process?
BMI: The most challenging element for me was finding the time to write. This book was partly written in the early days of the COVID pandemic. T&T instituted a long shutdown of all non-essential businesses, and my mother lost the small business that she’d run for over twenty years. So, I was working full time and taking other freelance jobs to help my family out. Writing a book didn’t pay a single bill, so it was often bumped off the to-do list in favor of something that made money. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to write this book I would just have to sleep less. It wasn’t the healthiest solution but it did allow me to finish the book and then quit my incredibly busy day job so I would 100% do it again if I had to.
TGBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess?
BMI: I think a great book is something that you respond to on an emotional level. It blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and you feel for the characters like you know them. Both my writing and my reading process start with characters and they’re pivotal to my personal definition of a great read. I’ve sometimes read books that are technically proficient, and I enjoy them on a cerebral level – I can see how good the writing is – but I don’t care about what happens to the characters.
For me, a great story also has this delicious ambiguity. Characters behave in questionable ways, there could be moral quandaries, or what’s unsaid is more important than what’s said. I love reading books like that because when I finish, I feel like I just have to talk to someone because all these thoughts are bubbling up inside me and I have to get them out.
TGBC: Any advice you can share with the aspiring writers within our community?
BMI: I would advise writers to have a clear idea about your intentions and the parts of your story that you will not compromise. When I was trying to get an agent, I was querying with the manuscript of The God of Good Looks. There were agents who had dynamic and compelling visions of what the book could be, but they wanted me to eliminate essential elements of the story. When you’re a struggling author and an agent takes an interest in you, you can feel as if you’re torpedoing your writing career by not saying yes to all their suggestions. Especially because you don’t know when, or if, another agent will be interested in your work again. But I do believe that changing the soul of your book just to get published is going to be a compromise that, ultimately, will work for no one.
There are a lot of people in publishing whose job is to think about how they will market and package your book. Is it a bouncy beach read? A will they won’t they love story? A crime drama? And that’s super important because, with all the books on the market, every writer wants theirs to have a chance to be read. But you also need to hold the image of your book separate from the machinery of publishing and know which lines you won’t cross.
TGBC: The God of Good Looks deals with double standards in the way men and women are treated – how is this an important theme to you?
BMI: Hugely important! I’m sure that every woman reading this will have at least one horror story of a time she collided with the gender double standards. Bianca and Eric have an affair but, although he’s the one who’s married, older and more powerful, she’s the one who loses her job and is slut shamed by the public. I wanted to examine why women are so often held to higher moral standards than men and then raked over the coals when they fail.
Through Bianca, I also wanted to examine what a woman in this situation can do. Bianca has internalized a lot of the misogynistic, restrictive ideas about what women should look like and how women should behave. This is partly a story of Bianca figuring out how to exist in the patriarchal Trinidadian society as she learns to embrace her power.
TGBC: The title is very catchy, was that a process or did you know the title from the get-go?
BMI: The first draft of this story was written entirely from Bianca’s perspective. Her name was originally Bianca Black, so I called that draft Becoming Bianca Black. However, in the process of redrafting, I realized that this wasn’t just Bianca’s story. I rewrote the book so that it was narrated by both Bianca and Obadiah and, somewhere in that process, I changed her name to Bianca Bridge. However, the title Becoming Bianca Bridge seemed too limiting for this new version.
Obadiah had been calling himself The God of Good Looks since I’d first written him into existence. So, when I was brainstorming title ideas, one idea was The God of Good Looks. It captured that this is a book about makeup and beauty but also about rigid and sometimes restrictive beauty standards. Obadiah believes that the way to be successful is to hand down beauty commandments like an Old Testament deity (thou shalt not smile when blush is being applied) and the new title captured that perfectly. I think the title also alludes to Bianca’s struggle with the tyranny of good looks in her own life and her journey to determine who or what deserves to be called beautiful.