‘When the Booker longlisting happened, I thought, oh, I’m going to have to start writing again’—Karen Jennings chats to Jennifer Malec about writing, fame and loneliness (Plus: exclusive audio)

Author Karen Jennings was in conversation with The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec at the Origins Centre in Johannesburg recently, as part of Wits University’s 2022 centenary celebrations, in an event hosted by the Wits English Department.

This is an edited version of the conversation.

Jennifer Malec: Good evening everyone and good evening Karen, thank you for agreeing to chat to me about your odds-defying novel and your writing in general. Karen and I first met at the University of Cape Town in 2004, in an MA seminar on early modern women’s writing. I always get very excited when an African or South African writer is nominated for some big prize, but when it was Karen I was especially pleased. Finally, someone who has quietly worked at being a writer—although you were nominated for and won quite a few awards before that Booker nomination—was receiving the international recognition they deserved.

I sometimes wonder whether authors get tired of talking about their books, especially when they are in the spotlight, as you have been. You’re in the favourable and unfavourable position of having spoken about An Island probably more than you ever expected to, but hopefully enough time has passed since the Booker Prize media circus that you can enjoy it again.

I’d like to start with what I think was an excellent review of your book, which I came across on Amazon.com, and it’s by ROGER ADDISON (all in caps) who resides in the United Kingdom, and he gave the book five out of five stars. The title of his review was (all in caps) GOOD BOOK, and he went on to say (all in caps) ‘JUST A GOOD OLD STOREY. NOTHING FANCY, PLAIN ENGLISH AND UNDERSTOOD.’ [sic] Now, you have said you like to use plain language and I imagine you like to write a good story. Does this kind of review please you?

Karen Jennings: I think what pleases me about it is that it’s understood. What is the good of writing something that people are not able to understand, that they have to go and get a dictionary to understand a single sentence, or that they are bashing their head the whole time thinking, I’m missing something. I would like my writing always to be accessible. I don’t enjoy jargon, I don’t enjoy trying to be intelligent or intellectual, I just want to try to have people think, and that thinking is really linked to emotion. So for me, writing is always about trying to understand and make sense of things, but in an emotional way. So, with anything I write, what I would like is for people to carry away some kind of emotion. And there certainly does seem to be quite a bit of emotion in the all caps response, that’s great.

Jennifer Malec: Wamuwi Mbao, interviewing you for New Contrast, had a refreshing take on An Island, a different take from what I’d seen elsewhere. He asked you ‘Would it be fair to say that the novel invites being read as a meditation on solitude and the problem of other people?’

Karen Jennings: That is interesting because I think what I was going through in my life at the time that I was writing it was really about being isolated. I had just moved to Brazil, I was living in a country where I didn’t know anyone except my husband, I couldn’t speak the language, I was stuck on the seventeenth floor of a high-rise apartment building, I wasn’t allowed to go out, I was told it was dangerous outside, so I only had the little apartment that was my life. I’ve always been a loner, but there’s being a loner and there’s being isolated. Being forced to be alone is a difficult situation, and I was able to use that. I suppose Samuel and I helped one another, that sounds so pretentious, but I just mean that the writing of the book and trying to understand him helped me understand myself in some ways and the difficulties of loneliness, and then solitude, which has its own positive side.

Jennifer Malec: Do you feel that Samuel is a real person?

Karen Jennings: Yes I do. I suppose it’s like if you remember someone that you went to preschool with, and you remember that you spent time with them, or you went to their birthday party, you remember them but not in any kind of clear way, it’s almost like a dream or something. That’s how I feel with Samuel, that I got to know him really well but almost very far away or separate from my proper, everyday existence. It’s such strange thing to be a writer because you’re never quite in any world, you’re half in the real world, half in the world you’re creating, half in the world you’re trying to create and can never fully create—how many halves is that?—always feeling a little bit discombobulated and feeling very close connections to people that don’t even exist and that for all intents and purposes you’ve created. I guess there’s also a little bit of incest and narcissism in there as well.

Jennifer Malec: And did you feel close to the refugee character?

Karen Jennings: Not in the same kind of way, because I suppose in a sense I was Samuel, so for me I needed to not have that connection with the refugee, because that would then come too much into my writing of Samuel. So, no.

Jennifer Malec: In the UCT Summer School course you lectured this year, on how social insects are a uniting force between science and literature, you looked at the book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, by the American biologist Edward O Wilson (and I must admit I haven’t read the book, this is taken from the publisher information), which argues that ‘everything in our world is organised in terms of a small number of fundamental natural laws that comprise the principles underlying every branch of learning.’ This for me also had echoes in An Island, which takes something very complex, the history of Africa, and examines it through the lens of four days in the quotidian life of one solitary person.

Karen Jennings: I do always remember, this is a very, very, very long time ago, I remember reading a quote from Darwin and it was something like— ‘the extraordinary secret world’ or ‘complex world of the insects’, and how it’s so tiny and small but complete, happening right there. And I remember reading that and I didn’t particularly think about the insects, I thought, but that’s all of life, those are the things that I always notice. Say I’m in car driving along, and there’s a Coke can on the side of the road, I will notice that and think, who’s left that Coke can, how is that Coke can feeling [laughs], or a single leaf, or a person’s experience in the miniscule, in the small, those are the things that have always interested me, and I think that’s probably what led to that same interest in insects and how people have over centuries been able to look at social insects and understand their own world, whether that’s from a scientific perspective or the literary perspective of love or relationships or society or kings.

Jennifer Malec: And also the idea that the very short story, over four days, of two men on an island who can’t speak the same language can reflect much greater ideas.

Karen Jennings: My publisher keeps asking me, keeps saying to me ‘when are you going to write a story that spans generations?’, and I say well, never. Well, I can’t say never, but it’s not something that appeals to me at this point in time. It’s a lot of effort. It takes me a long time to write. I am working on a novel right now and I’m lucky if I get two hundred words written a day. That’s six hours of writing. So if you want to know when that book’s going to be finished, in the very distant future.

Jennifer Malec: You’ve spoken about how you would like your writing to appear effortless, even though behind the scenes you work very hard at it. This must have been particularly challenging in An Island, featuring as it does just two main characters, for the most part. As I mentioned, they do not speak the same language, so you can’t rely on dialogue. How did you manage to create a pared down story that still sweeps the reader along, that still contains tension?

Karen Jennings: Well, I can tell you that it was endlessly painful, it was horrendous, it was a year of waking up every morning and thinking, oh god, I have to try to work on this again. And it was simply sitting down and forcing myself to write and recognising that that day’s writing would be a failure, and saying to myself every day, you will fail today, but you will still write. So what I did is I would never look back. Let’s say I would sit down and I would write, and maybe I would manage two hundred words, maybe I was lucky and I managed six hundred, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t look back and I wouldn’t think about it. The next day I would start where I left off, carry on, until I had a whole draft. Then I would start from the beginning again and rewrite it. That’s my process when I write, I write draft after draft after draft, and I write by hand, and every single word with every single draft is rewritten and rewritten, trying to get closer to where I think the story needs to be. I know that I will never succeed completely, and that’s part of the torture of it, but it’s also part of what drives one to keep writing, to think well next time I’ll try and do better. And every time I write a book I think, okay I’m getting better. And maybe one day when I’m ninety-nine years old and my however-many-th novel comes out, maybe that will be just that little bit closer to what I wished it could be.

Jennifer Malec: That will be a lot of books. Because you’ve been quite prolific so far. Almost a book a year, I think?

Karen Jennings: This book right now is going so slowly, honestly, I feel like when I was living in Brazil and I had nothing in my life apart from writing it was maybe easier, but that’s also to idealise it, because it was never easy, it was never pleasant. If I look back at my diaries, all the time I was miserable, I’m always miserable! Thinking, this book, it’s going to kill me, I hate it! That’s just my response every time.

Jennifer Malec: Was An Island the hardest to write?

Karen Jennings: No!

Jennifer Malec: This new one is the hardest? So it’s getting harder?

Karen Jennings: It’s worse every time.

Jennifer Malec: So maybe you are getting better.

Karen Jennings: Well … ja, sure. [laughter] Let’s hope so.

Jennifer Malec: One of my favourite quotes of yours, from an interview in The Guardian, is: ‘I tend to hate everything I have ever written. The trajectory is always the same. I write and I hate. The end.’ Do you still hate An Island?—

Karen Jennings: Yes.

Jennifer Malec: But it brought you back into writing after you thought you’d given it up.

Karen Jennings: Well, now you’re making me feel guilty. [laughter] Um. No, I hate it. I hate everything about it.

Jennifer Malec: Even the cover?

Karen Jennings: Well, the cover I didn’t have anything to do with.

Jennifer Malec: Well, that’s one thing then. Three, if you count all the editions.

Karen Jennings: Part of it is that I always feel that I haven’t quite succeeded. The other part of it is because of my process, where I write, and I write and I write and I write until I’m sick, I’m sick, I cannot stand the thought of the book, the thought of waking up in the morning and having to face it, I get sick, sick, sick, sick. And then having to think of that book ever again, having to go back in the editing process and having to read it, it’s because I know it so well. Because I know in my book what I was going through or what I had wanted it to be, or what it was, and how many things it went through to get to what it is now, I just see all the failures.

Jennifer Malec: I feel like we should apologise for making you talk about it again.

Karen Jennings: But that’s also part of it. I went from absolute obscurity to suddenly people wanting to hear what I had to say—it was difficult. And I was going through a very hard time in Brazil, I was very unhappy, I wanted to come back to South Africa and I didn’t know how I was going to do it. And I had in fact given up on writing and decided to become an academic in the field of history, and then when the Booker longlisting happened, I thought oh, I’m going to have to start writing again.

Jennifer Malec: Wouldn’t it have been cool if you just dropped the mic at that point?

Karen Jennings: [laughs] I should have. I would have saved myself a lot of pain.

Jennifer Malec: It sounds like it. Can we talk a little bit about the publishing industry? An Island was the only book longlisted for the Booker last year from a small independent press (in fact two small presses, Karavan Press in South Africa and Holland House in the UK). Which kind of gave us the hopeful impression that the Booker judges were, in fact, doing their job, finding the best books rather than being star-struck. But the book was rejected for publication quite a few times. What was that like?

Karen Jennings: I’d never been someone who was looking for fame and fortune, I just wanted to write and it’s always a bonus to have one’s writing published, but I never expected to be making money out of it, or being in the papers or anything. So my first novels and books were published by a very small publisher in the UK, and then with An Island I had been told many times you need to get an agent, and I mean it’s a lot of effort to get and agent, and I’d heard horror stories about people who’d got an agent and then their careers had stalled, while the agent says rewrite and do this and do that. Then because I was a Miles Morland scholar they said they would introduce me to an agent, and they did, and it was a very big name agent in the UK, and he loved the manuscript, and sent it to the big six publishers in the UK, they all wrote back and said this is amazing, this is wonderful, but it’s too African. Or, it’s not quite African enough, or it’s too experimental. And all of them said it’s never going to make any money. And that was the basic thing. And then the agent didn’t do anything for nine months to a year, and I sent it to one of the big publishers here in South Africa, and they loved it as well, but because of the finance or marketing department, they get to decide what gets published, and they said it’s not going to make any money.

Jennifer Malec: This is surprising for me, because literary fiction never makes any money, really, that’s why publishing houses publish political fiction and book club books, to balance it out.

Karen Jennings: They also said two years before there had been another book that featured a lighthouse, and so they didn’t want to have too many lighthouses. Then by myself I just started looking for publishers, independent publishers, because I didn’t need all the drama of the big ones. So I found Holland House and I wrote to my agent and I said, please can you submit to them? And then I said, well, actually I’ve done everything, you haven’t done anything, let’s part ways. And that was it really.

Jennifer Malec: But you do have an agent now again.

Karen Jennings: Yes, it’s quite a complicated story now. Because An Island was sold to Holland House with world rights, and they have their own agents who sell international rights, so through them I have a US agent and a European agent and a world agent, but my personal agent, for my other books, everything after An Island, she’s my world rights agent, but then I have an American agent as well, and possibly another, I don’t know. They work as a team, there’s so many of them, it’s difficult to keep track. I didn’t know it got this complicated, I really didn’t. I had no idea. I had a very naïve view of the world, particularly with publishing. I just thought, well if it’s good, the writing is good, that’s enough. But the writing being good almost doesn’t matter at all.

Jennifer Malec: The success of this book has enabled you to do a couple of cool things: the Miles Morland Foundation received some of the profits, I believe, as you wrote the book with the help of a fellowship, and those were obviously increased quite a bit by the Booker. You also founded The Island Prize for a Debut Novel from Africa, with Sarah Isaacs winning the inaugural prize for her manuscript ‘Glass Towers’. Perhaps you could talk a little about why you decided to found this award?  

Karen Jennings: This is something that brings me a lot of joy. When An Island was longlisted for The Booker Prize, most people would be excited, but I was initially angry. I thought, well, no one in the world was interested in this book, no one in South Africa has ever wanted to publish me, and now five judges in England say that this book is worth reading, and suddenly people will recognise me, and they’ll say, oh, she’s a South African writer, whereas before no one cared. So I was speaking to my publisher and saying what a frustrating experience it is, not only being South African but African, because the rest of the world have an idea of what stories they want and understand and expect to come from Africa. And they want you to mould your writing to that, so it fits what they want. But then withing your own country, you know, South African and Nigeria are the big publishing countries on this continent. Places like Uganda, smaller countries as well, they don’t have publishing opportunities, it’s very, very difficult. And of course we have the problem of language, and we’ve had to limit the prize to manuscripts written in English, but it’s for everyone from anywhere in Africa, and we’re so delighted, last year one of the shortlisted writers was from Algeria, he’s actually donated his money back to fund a prize for the best submission from a North African country this year. So it’s really exciting and we’re hoping to spread the word to get more writing from all over Africa. We’ve already started looking at submissions, which are open now for the second round. But the most important thing about the prize is not the prize money, which is not great, which is because it was never meant to be about the money, it’s about finding writers from Africa with good stories to tell, with potential, and trying to help them get their foot in the international industry. So it’s not about trying to make them fit the mould of the UK or America, but it’s trying to help them get their foot in the door. Introducing them to agents, or sitting with them and editing their manuscript to the point where it’s ready to be seen by an agent. Or maybe it’s a specific type of book, like a thriller, helping them find the right publisher. It’s been wonderful and I’m really excited about this second iteration.

Jennifer Malec: At the moment you are doing a postdoc at LEAP, the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past, based at the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University. Could you tell us a little about what you are working on there?

Karen Jennings: I find myself in a very privileged but also very odd situation. Last year I started a PhD in history, I already have a PhD in English literature, and after the Booker longlisting I was contacted by Professor Johan Fourie, from the Economics Department at Stellenbosch, and he said, you don’t need another PhD, come and do your postdoc here with me. And I said, I don’t know anything about economics. But what he wanted me to do, he’s very keen on interdisciplinarity and disseminating knowledge. Those who work in the academic environment know how few people are reading your papers, which you work on for months or even years. So last year they had a wonderful thing where they brought in artists and did a whole exhibition of artwork inspired by research being done by economic historians in the department on various subjects. So I was invited to write a novel, and I decided to look specifically at the year 1838, which is when final emancipation of slavery happened in the Cape, but to look at the economic benefit that emancipation had, not for those who were emancipated, but for the former slave owners, because they got compensation money for losing their slaves, and that money was then pumped back into the new town, into building new businesses, banks, entrepreneurial enterprises. So I suppose in one way it’s a story about the city. And it’s quite different to An Island because it’s got three clear protagonists, and I think that’s why I’m struggling with it, to put myself in the mind of three different people.

Jennifer Malec: And you’re also working on another manuscript that you found in a drawer?

Karen Jennings: Am I?

Jennifer Malec: That’s what I read in the many interviews you gave.

Karen Jennings: So, there was a manuscript I finished shortly after An Island. I finished writing An Island in 2017, and then there was all this stalling with the agent, and while that was happening I was working on another manuscript called Crooked Seeds, and that I only finished, although I already had offers for it last year, I decided to rewrite it completely at the beginning of this year—

Jennifer Malec: By hand.

Karen Jennings: Yes, by hand. And I technically only finished it in March this year, even though I already had offers for it. It’s strange. And then there’s another book that I started researching, gosh I wonder when, I was very busy! And that I will be getting back to but I’ve decided to rethink it completely. And I’ve also decided I don’t want it to be my next book. I need to write something else but I don’t quite know what.

Jennifer Malec: So Crooked Seeds, which has just been signed by Hogarth in North American deal and Holland House in the UK and Karavan Press here—

Karen Jennings: And Text Publishing in Australia and New Zealand.

Jennifer Malec: It’s set in the future?

Karen Jennings: Well, slightly in the future. It’s 2028.

Jennifer Malec: In the Southern Suburbs in Cape Town, and there’s a water shortage.

Karen Jennings: I was inspired by the terrible water shortages that they had in the Cape, I wasn’t here for all of that time but I was visiting South Africa, and then also in São Paulo, where I lived for some time in Brazil, we had really bad water shortages, and even right up until when I left in December last year the water would be switched off at ten o’clock at night and then come on again at seven o’clock in the morning.

Jennifer Malec: As a Melville resident, that sounds very familiar to me. And apparently the book looks at how certain South Africans have the idea that end of apartheid, the new South Africa, has held them back, in the present.

Karen Jennings: The main character, Deidre, she lost a leg when she was eighteen, and she’s a very difficult and unpleasant person, she’s probably the most unpleasant person you’ll encounter in the whole of literature, and I love her. She was quite a joy to write, even though also quite depressing, but sometimes it’s nice to write awful people and dip into the secret awfulness that one had inside oneself. This is terrible, when you read the book you’re going to think it’s autobiography but it’s not, I promise! But it’s sort of a comment on how certain white have felt handicapped by the changes that came in 1994 and how they’ve not stood a chance in the country and everything’s been against them, but a big part of that is their unwillingness to participate in community, and that community being local and national.

This is towards the end of the novel. And throughout, urine has played a big role. And Deidre is now reaching the point of being really ill with a urinary tract infection. I will also say that there is one use of a swear word that I would never normally use but it suits her character, and I hope it won’t offend anyone. 

Editor’s note: now listen to Karen Jennings reading from her forthcoming work, Crooked Seeds.

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