There is no dignity in being a writer | Karen Jennings

Karen Jennings was born in Cape Town in 1982. She holds Master’s degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. … You can also read one of Karen’s latest stories Making Challah in the Kalahari Review.

Libretto: Hello, Karen. We are beyond pleased to have you join us.

Karen: Thank you so much for having me!

Libretto: You have spoken in the past about how money and fame don’t motivate you as a writer. With that in mind, what prompted you to become a writer?When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and how did you work towards actualizing the dream?

Karen: There is no one defining moment that I can put my finger on and say, “Yes, this was it.” It is simply a fact that has always been there, even when it wasn’t something that I was actively working at. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and for a long time that was enough. I wrote when I felt like it, waiting for inspiration to strike. But as I got older, I began to see that in order to be a writer, I did actually need to write. That was around 2010, the year I turned 28, and I told myself that I would give myself until the age of 40 to try to “be a writer”. That was when I began working at it every day. I want to be clear that “being a writer” did not mean making money. In my mind it meant, and still does, attempting to write to the best of my ability and to produce work that I value, not out of vanity, but because it has meaning beyond myself.

Libretto: What was the process of writing your first book like for you?

Karen: Let me be honest – I had always been told that I was a good writer and so I thought writing a novel would be fairly easy. Of course, I knew it would have its challenges, but I think I was quietly confident that I would simply know exactly what to do. That was not the case at all! In fact, it is very unlikely ever to be the case. Each time I write a book it is like I coming to writing as a novice. You start from scratch, with new plots and characters and flow and style to navigate. There is no map or guiding star. It doesn’t get easier, nor should it, in my opinion. Once you find yourself churning out something without any difficulty, well, it would seem to me that you will have lost that vital thing that makes one strive towards improvement, towards writing something that can have worth elsewhere than on the page alone.

Libretto: Has there been any radical changes between how you wrote your first book and how you wrote your recent book?

Karen: The most significant change is that in my first book I kept trying to perfect what I had written as I was writing, so I would spend ages on a few hundred words or a few pages. But I was getting nowhere. Since then, my strategy is to write the entire first draft without turning back. It doesn’t matter if I forget a character’s name, or I change the plot or tense, or if it is all a gigantic mess. The most important thing is to get it on paper. Only then do I go back to the beginning and work my way through the entire thing again, no turning back. Then again and again, until I am satisfied.

Libretto: How important is research to you when writing, and in what specific instances has it been a defining factor?

Karen: Research is certainly very important to me, but sometimes more so than in other cases – or, rather, it serves different functions. Take for example my novel Upturned Earth – it is set in 1886 in the copper mining district of Namaqualand in South Africa. That novel required a huge amount of factual research so that the story could feel authentic. Obviously, I would need to know how people dressed, lived, worked, etc back then, otherwise the story becomes unreliable and trust in it is lost, and with that is then lost any hope for the story to have animpact. Then take a novel like An Island, which is not set in any particular place. There the research that I did was not so much about hard facts, but rather about being able to write about complicated issues with nuance and sensitivity so that the import of the novel is not tarnished.

Libretto: What do you think makes a good writer succeed, and what are some of the literary trends and artistic tropes you believe has impacted the thematic essence of the modern novel the most?

Karen: This is too theoretical a question for me to answer without feeling fraudulent. I don’t know what makes a good writer succeed – in fact, I would say that many good writers never succeed in the conventional sense. They are published by small presses, receive only a few reviews. Does that mean they have not been successful? As for trends or tropes – I really have no idea. I have only ever written what I myself would want to read, or what has meaning to me. If I were to concern myself with what is popular, then I would not be able to be true to my own self. It would be a false act – and then I might as well give up writing.

Libretto: Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your writing? What personal experiences have influenced your writing the most?

Karen: I have done that most completely in my memoir Travels with my Father. I wrote about various experiences I have had throughout my life, such as suffering from depression, journeys I have made, and then the death of my father, as well as my relationship with him when he was alive. It was not an easy book to write – there were some truly painful moments – but the act of writing helped me through my grief after his passing.

Libretto: Your recent book, An Island, has been described by critics as an allegorical anecdote of post-colonial South Africa and a portrait of the haunting effects of guilt, loss, and regret, especially within the context of sociopolitical upheaval. Do you consider these claims as a fair assessment of what the novel was intending to achieve?

Karen: In a sense, yes, but really, I was thinking more about the continent of Africa as a whole. I have spoken about this before in other places, but I will mention it again because I feel that it is important. In the 1880s the Scramble for Africa began, and a cartoon from the time depicts all of the leaders of Europe sitting around a large cake (Africa), slicing it up and each taking a piece for themselves. Of course, this is a simplified depiction of what happened, but in that cynical simplicity lies the essential truth of the situation. When I wrote An Island, I was thinking about Africa generally, about how colonization, the fight for independence, the failures of democracy and the rise of military dictatorships have followed the slicing of the cake. I wanted to examine what the effects of these enormous events might have on an ordinary individual. Certainly, this is only one interpretation. I could write An Island a thousand times over and it would always be different. This is not THE narrative about Africa. It is only one attempt to try to understand things.

Libretto: If you were to give yourself one advice before you wrote “An Island’, what would that advice be and do you imagine it would have influenced the story in any way?

Karen: I don’t know that I would be able to do that. I don’t know what benefit there is in looking back and thinking how we might have done things differently if the only outcome is to change the past. We look to the past, yes, but only to move forward and to make better decisions in the future. An Island is done. It cannot be altered. But I hope that going forward, my writing, by which I mean my own sense of my writing, will improve.

Libretto: An Island suffered many rejections from publishers before Holland House picked up the novel. The quality of your writing wasn’t the problem, but apparently, the novel’s subject matter seemed to scare a lot of publishers away. How frustrating was it and did you at any point doubt that the novel would ever be published?

Karen: I don’t know that I necessarily felt frustrated. I think there was a sense of inevitability about it. There is no dignity in being a writer. We put our words on the page and we doubt them and ourselves. Most of the people around us think of this thing, this driving force within us as no more than hobby. Everyone says, Oh, I could write a novel, as though it were the simplest thing imaginable. There isn’t real understanding of the sheer horror and pain that goes into writing a novel. Having completed the writing process, we then expose ourselves to agents and publishers. If we are lucky, we are published, and if we are luckier, we get reviews. But in all of that we are being judged, endlessly judged. That is the unglamorous reality of being a writer.

Libretto: Identity plays a huge role in “An Island”, particularly racial identity. As a white South African living in Brazil, how does your perception and experience of race affect the way you write about characters who have to deal with the reality of race in a manner that you may not be able to relate with?

Karen: In South Africa we are obsessed with race – how could we not be, considering our past? – but it is not necessarily negative. We are aware, let’s say, of where we came from – when races were separated – and so we want to tread carefully, be fair and inclusive. This can sometimes heighten racial differentiation more than anything, but it comes from a place of wanting to improve and do what is right. Race is also an issue in Brazil – a socio-economic issue. Who are the poor? Largely the black citizens, descended from imported African slaves. This means that they are more often involved in crime and more often discriminated against. Yes, race is certainly an issue here. I remember when someone in Brazil was complaining to me about the influx of foreigners (many Angolans and Mozambicans come here because of the shared language) and I said, “Remember that I am a foreigner.” She said, “Yes, but you are white, so that is okay.” It was a terrible moment for me, an eye-opening moment. In fact, it ended the friendship. It really reinforced the extent to which my experience, whether as foreigner or as citizen, is always going to be different (better) because of my skin colour. Now, I can’t do anything about the colour of my skin. None of us can. But that doesn’t mean that I am not an African, not proud of my country and my continent. However, being African can mean different things to different people and one must be sensitive to those differences. It has never been my intention to appropriate any story and use it for own ends, to advance myself. My writing experiment, the eternal experiment, is to understand the world and my place in the world, to be a part of it, not to own it or lay claim to it.

Libretto: If you were to describe Samuel, the lead character in “An Island”, with one word. What word would you describe him with and why?

Karen: Lost. Samuel is someone who, since his earliest childhood, has felt displaced. His every action is really about trying to find a place for himself where he feels safe.

Libretto: Still on the subject of your recent published book “An Island”. How did you feel when you found out it was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize?

Karen: You know, it seems trite to say that it came as a complete surprise to me, but of course that was absolutely the case. The book had received barely any notice at all. Barely sold any copies. Then to suddenly be longlisted for this prestigious award! I didn’t quite believe that it was possible.

Libretto: As someone who has experienced how difficult it is to sell a story that needs to be told but that a lot of publishers would rather not touch, what would you say to other writers, especially young writers, who are going through the same phase or who feel uncertain about going ahead with a story that might be considered problematic or controversial?

Karen: Look, the world of publishing is not kind. There’s no point saying that it is and that if you just hold out enough hope that things will end up going your way. No, that would be untrue. The most important thing, always, is to write what matters to you. Write for yourself, not with thoughts of prizes or royalties or anything like that driving you. If you can write for yourself, then the rest doesn’t matter all that much, because you will know that you have done what is most valuable in your own mind. If the book is published by a big publisher and is nominated for prizes, that will be wonderful, of course, but if it never sells more than a few copies, at least you can say that you have done something that you are proud of and that has meaning to you.

Libretto: You are an accomplished short story writer, a poet, and a novelist. What is the biggest difference you have noticed between the three forms and how do you navigate it?

Karen: Each of those forms requires careful focus and skill. I don’t know that I feel confident in any of them, but I hope always to be improving. I think poetry is the most difficult, because it requires such precision – to convey something immense in a few words. In prose writing there is more room to manoeuvre.

Libretto: Almost every author now writes with the screen in mind. Do you think this hinders the writing process and is there any chance we might be seeing “An Island” at a cinema or streaming service within the next few years?

Karen: I am a very visual writer, in that I see the thing I am writing about playing out in front of me. But I am not sure that I would say that I am working towards an end goal of a book becoming a film. I think it is important to visualise if you write, but if you want to write a film, do that. If you want to write a novel, do that. You can’t be true to two texts at the same time. As for a film of An Island, there has been some interest. I am specifically wanting to work with film makers from Africa and I am hoping that that can happen.

Libretto: So, what are you working on next? What should our readers look forward to from Karen Jennings?

Karen: There are a few things. I have a manuscript that I need to make some changes to and which might be out towards the end of next year or early 2023. Then, I am also doing my PhD in history and so I need to write my thesis. At some point I also need to return to an unfinished manuscript that is sitting in a box (I write by hand).

Libretto: Finally, if you were to co-author a book with any writer from any era, who would it be and why?

Karen: I am afraid I am not much good at working in groups, so I would have to say nobody. Writing is such a personal thing; we each have our own style and way of going about it. It would be a disaster if I were to try to work with someone else!

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