Karen Jennings was recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, for her novel An Island. Here she chats to The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec about how the book almost made her give up writing completely.
Karavan Press, 2020
Jennifer Malec for The JRB: Congratulations, Karen, on your recent longlisting for the Booker Prize. How are you feeling now? Has it sunk in?
Karen Jennings: It is such a strange experience. There are moments that are exciting or intimidating, and there are lovely, warm moments too. I have been receiving kind messages from old friends and from strangers—messages of congratulations or about their appreciation for An Island. These mean a great deal to me, though they are hard to accept. Like many people, I struggle to be graceful when it comes to compliments. My instinct is to curl up and crawl away. That is why it is quite good that I am here in Brazil where nobody really knows or cares, so I am still slobbing around in my tracksuit pants with unbrushed hair.
The JRB: Perhaps it would have been nice to be published by a major publishing powerhouse, but the way things turned out feels like a triumph for small independent presses everywhere. Do you feel proud to have helped put Holland House and Karavan Press in the spotlight?
Karen Jennings: I am incredibly happy for them that the risk they took has been worth it. This is the case so often, that small publishers take the risk where the big publishers simply won’t. Small publishers deserve recognition. Without them, the industry would stagnate.
The JRB: Could you talk a little bit about the process of getting An Island published? After getting so many rejection letters, did you ever feel you would have to give up? Or did you know you had something special on your hands?
Karen Jennings: Well, I suppose it is widely known by now that the novel was rejected many times for a variety of reasons—it was too experimental, too African, not African enough, too literary, would make no money, was too short, too much of a risk. All the publishers to whom it was submitted agreed that it was very well written, but that wasn’t enough to convince them to publish it. For that reason, I was very grateful when it was submitted to Robert Peett of Holland House. He came back within a day—two at the most—and said that it was remarkable and that he would love to publish it. We then agreed that finding a South African publisher to collaborate with would be a good idea as it has always been important to me to have my books available in South Africa. I approached Karina Szczurek who had recently launched Karavan Press and she was also very enthusiastic about the novel. Both Robert and Karina really believed in the book, but there were plenty of difficulties thrown in the way—predominantly the pandemic and then also the difficulty of getting endorsement quotes and reviews. I’ll be honest, it was a very lonely time in my life. Even though the novel was being published, I felt that I had failed—that everybody hated it and that I had disappointed my publishers. In fact, I decided to give up writing and to rethink my life. A number of circumstances (not all related to writing) made me feel disillusioned about my life in general. These circumstances removed all the joy from the act of writing. I lost all enthusiasm for it.
The JRB: And even while you were writing An Island, you have described it as ‘one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do’, and that the phrase ‘This book is killing me’ was repeating in your mind. I must say, this suffering is not reflected in the text, which is delicate and elegant. Why was this such a difficult book to write?
Karen Jennings: There was so much that was difficult about it. Firstly, trying to write a sensitive and nuanced book about a very complex set of topics—to do it without being heavy handed or reductive. Secondly, to write a readable, compelling story in which basically nothing happens! No dialogue, nothing to hide behind. Just the words doing all of the work. Thirdly, I had recently moved to Brazil and was depressed, lonely, isolated. All in all, it was a difficult time.
The JRB: The opening of An Island was published in the Short Story Day Africa anthology Migrations, in 2017. Did it begin life as a short story and then take hold of you?
Karen Jennings: No, it was always going to be a novel, but I thought entering the first section for the competition was a good way to keep me on my toes. Writing an entire novel (even a short one, like this) can take a very long time. Sometimes it can be revitalising to change perspective—to look at a small part, rather than the book as a whole.
The JRB: You’ve said you class the book as literary fiction, and of course it is, but it could perhaps also be described as an understated thriller. How did you manage the process of controlling the level of tension?
Karen Jennings: As I said before, it was incredibly difficult to write a book that would keep the reader turning the pages. It is hard now to remember the process very clearly (I wrote it from June 2016 to June 2017), but I do know that some days—most days—were difficult. I wrote bulkily, clumsily. But then I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote until it felt right. There were moments that made the slog worthwhile, like the moment when I felt that thrill in my stomach and limbs, where even I while reading it thought, ‘Ooh, what’s going to happen?’
The JRB: The focus is four days in the life of Samuel, a reclusive lighthouse keeper, and the man who washes up on his island. But you also explore Samuel’s early years, as a would-be freedom fighter. Was that storyline there from the beginning, or did you develop that strand later?
Karen Jennings: It was always there. I wanted to understand Samuel—what had happened in his life to make him the way that he is.
The JRB: The book touches on themes of trauma, xenophobia, racism, colonialism, corruption. But I wouldn’t describe it to a friend like that. It’s a subtle novel. For example, the giant crabs that visit the island every year until their numbers dwindle to nothing gesture at the ecological crisis we’re facing. Is this muted sensitivity to weighty subjects important to you?
Karen Jennings: Very much so. I am certainly drawn to subtlety in films, in reading, in everyday life. I think it is through subtlety that the greatest impact can be made. No one likes to be beaten over the head with an idea or an emotional response that they are expected to experience.
The JRB: It’s also a timeless book. Until a smartphone makes an appearance, we could be anywhere in the last seventy or eighty years.
Karen Jennings: Despite many of the events and circumstances that make up the background of the story being African, I did also want to give the novel a sense of being able to occur at any time, in any place. At the basic level, An Island is about humans, about our relations with others, about what we will do to protect what we consider to be our own.
The JRB: Samuel is such a fascinating character. He’s bitter, scared, unpleasant. But he’s also gentle, thoughtful and kind. How do you feel about him? Do you like him?
Karen Jennings: I do like Samuel, because he is incredibly human. He is an ordinary man. He has made mistakes; terrible ones. But he is a man trying to find a place for himself in the world, just as we all are. No one is all good or all bad. We are all only trying as best we can to make a home for ourselves in which we feel safe and where we feel we belong. But, of course, this is not determined by ourselves alone. The past plays a role in our identity, as do our economic, social, cultural, political circumstances. All of these things have an influence on us, whether we like to admit it or not.
The JRB: I think some people would describe this as a spare story, but there is some delicious detail. Like the moment when Samuel, calm, not outwardly flustered, turns a tap on too strongly, blasting most of the water out of the cup he’s trying to fill. Moments like that do a wonderful job of signalling thoughts and emotions. Are these observations drawn from life, or sheer genius (as Philip Larkin would say)?
Karen Jennings: [Laughs] Certainly not from sheer genius! No, these are the things that I notice in my real, everyday life. When I am imagining what a character is doing, then things like this come into my mind.
The JRB: Apart from the inevitable and perhaps unimaginative comparisons to JM Coetzee, in this novel at least, I’ve seen you mention Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck as influences. Personally, I found An Island reminiscent of The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna—perhaps her most atypical novel and my favourite of hers. What were the literary catalysts for this book?
Karen Jennings: I haven’t read any Aminatta Forna, I’m afraid. In fact, I have come to realise that I read very little fiction. This is down to a few reasons. One, when I am writing fiction, I cannot read fiction. Two, getting hold of English books in Brazil is not easy. Three, I haven’t been able to afford to buy books very often. Normally I try to buy some from second-hand shops when I visit Cape Town. I do read a lot of poetry though. I think poetry, generally, has been most influential with regard to my writing style. And poetry one can read over and over and never tire.
The JRB: In a recent interview it was mentioned that you still hadn’t held a physical copy of An Island. Have you managed to do that since?
Karen Jennings: Yes, I decided that being longlisted for the Booker was a pretty good reason to dig into my savings (which are meant to pay my PhD fees) and to ask my mom to courier copies of the South African and the United Kingdom editions to me, as well as some rooibos tea. The import taxes were insane. I can’t believe how much money I had to pay just to hold my own book in my hands! But the tea was worth it!
The JRB: Have you regained some joy in writing? The dreaded question, but we must know: what are you working on next?
The JRB: Karen Jennings: Yes, that is a dreaded question! I have a novel that I wrote immediately after An Island—so I think it was in the latter half of 2017 that I started. I finally finished it in 2019. Right now, it is with my agent (I recently signed with one). I also have half a novel in a drawer or a box or somewhere (I write by hand). I do plan on returning to it at some point, but it is on a subject that requires very careful thought and great sensitivity. It also requires a lot of research. I did previously read a lot on the subject, but I feel that I would like to read some more. I can’t say when, but perhaps in a couple of years’ time I might feel confident enough to return to it. In the meantime, I have started a PhD in history, so that must take priority in terms of writing.
The JRB: Why did you decide to sign with an agent now? And how did you manage your writing career without one to this point? (Something most South African writers will be familiar with.)
Karen Jennings: I had signed with a fairly big-name London agent previously, but he didn’t seem to have the time for An Island. It basically sat with him for a year and he didn’t do anything with it. After that, I was not keen to sign with somebody else. However, immediately after the Booker longlist was announced, we (my publishers and I) started being inundated with various emails, many of them about film rights. Robert (my UK publisher) kept saying to me, ‘We don’t own the film rights.’ I thought he meant that he and I don’t own the rights and I wondered who did own them. Then it dawned on me that I actually owned the film rights! I began to see that I needed an agent for that side of things, and Robert persuaded me that I should have a literary agent too—someone to handle everything for me. I was still reluctant, but I met with Lucy Luck and I liked her a great deal and decided to sign with her.
The JRB: Finally, since writers are often great readers, we like to ask authors for book recommendations. What have you been reading recently that you think we should too?
Karen Jennings: Well, I have been reading a great deal of non-fiction for my PhD research. In terms of non-PhD reading, just recently I have been going through South African poet Elisa Galgut’s poetry collection The Attributes of Poetry, published by Modjaji in 2015. I have been reading and rereading her poem ‘Expressive Perception’, in particular.