– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m on the ‘An Island’ blogtour, organised by Damppebbles Blog Tour.
To promote this book I have a Q&As post, but before I let you read it first some ‘basic’ information.
About the Author :
Karen Jennings is a South African author. She holds Masters degrees in both English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town, and a PhD in English Literature from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her debut novel, Finding Soutbek, was shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. In 2014 her short story collection, Away from the Dead, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International short story competition. Her memoir, Travels with my Father, was published in 2016, and in 2018 she released her debut poetry collection, Space Inhabited by Echoes. Karen is currently living in Brazil with her Brazilian husband, and last year completed post-doctoral research at the Federal University of Goiás on the historical relationship between science and literature, with a focus on eusocial insects. In September 2019 her new novel, Upturned Earth, will be published by Holland Park Press. Karen is also affiliated with the mentorship programmes run by Writivism and Short Story Day Africa, both of which promote writing in Africa. Broadly speaking, Karen’s interests lie in colonialism, historically and in the lasting impact that it has had on the continent of Africa and beyond. She is particularly concerned with the quiet lives of the everyday people who have been mostly forgotten by the politicians, big businesses and the rest of the world. In this way, she strives to give the ordinary a voice that can be heard and appreciated.
The idea for An Island came to Karen during an afternoon nap at a writers’ residency she was attending in Denmark in 2015. In her sleep, she saw an old man, fiercely defending his island against interlopers. At the time, there was a vast amount in the news about the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which extended to what became known as Europe’s Refugee Crisis. There was a great global outcry against xenophobic responses and calls for humanitarian aid for Syria’s refugees. At the same time, there was almost nothing about refugees from Africa – not about what drove them to flee their nations, or what their dreadful experiences were, nor about their deaths or their futures. Karen chose to explore the relationship between refugee and landowner, but within an African setting, where xenophobia is as rife as in Europe, though it often manifests itself in different ways despite largely being born of colonialism. By reducing the action of the narrative to two characters, Karen felt that a complex issue could be rendered in simple ways that allowed for a focus on individual experiences.
Amazon Author Page
Samuel has lived alone for a long time; one morning he finds the sea has brought someone to offer companionship and to threaten his solitude…
A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history. In this new man’s presence he begins to consider, as he did in his youth, what is meant by land and to whom it should belong. To what lengths will a person go in order to ensure that what is theirs will not be taken from them?
A novel about guilt and fear, friendship and rejection; about the meaning of home.
Published in hardcover, paperback and digital formats by Holland House Books on 12th November 2020.
First of all thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. Here we go! 🙂
Can you, for those who don’t know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
I am South African, but about four and a half years ago I moved to Brazil with my Brazilian husband. It has been a pretty challenging experience, to be honest, but on the positive side, I have been able to write more than ever before. I go to my desk every day and write, which is a wonderful thing to be able to do as I have always wanted to “be” a writer. However, I didn’t realise that being a writer would mean spending quite so much time in my pyjamas with unbrushed hair. It is very far from glamorous, that’s for certain.
As with many people, I was always writing little stories and books when I was younger, yet, as the years passed and I entered my 20s, I wrote very little, almost beginning to fear writing and the prospect of failure. Eventually I managed to gather my courage and write a novel, Finding Soutbek, and was fortunate enough to have it shortlisted for the inaugural Etisalat Prize for African Fiction. Since then I have published a book of short stories (Away from the Dead), a memoir-travelogue (Travels with my Father), a collection of poetry (Space Inhabited by Echoes), an historical mining novel (Upturned Earth), and now my latest novel – An Island.
Which books did/do you love to read as a child/now as a grown-up?
As a child I loved the classics, many of which were gifts from my father. Of course, I loved Jane Austen and the Brontë’s, but my two favourites were Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Both are quite dark for a child. On the other hand, I also loved Asterix comics, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom!
As an adult I have been most specifically drawn to works of social realism. I greatly admire many of the works of Emile Zola, John Steinbeck, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, for example. Such works have had a great influence on me and my desire to write about the everyday, or even forgotten, people and the small details of their lives.
Currently I am reading a lot of non-fiction – historical books and natural history. I will be starting a PhD in History next year and I am reading towards that.
Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
Last year I read the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth century writer. I found him fascinating because of his work ethic. He had very strict rules for himself, such as getting up early every morning and writing something like 2000 words before going about his day. He would write 250 words per 15 minutes and made sure to keep a strict log of his progress. Travelling was no excuse for idleness – no matter where he was in the world, he would write, whether it was on a boat or a train, in a carriage, in the jungle, in the desert. He was “merciless”, that’s how he described his attitude to writing. If, for example, he finished writing a book, but he still had ten minutes of allocated writing time or he hadn’t fulfilled his wordcount, he would just pick up a fresh page and start a new book. Parts of this sound so mad to me, while other parts of it make sense, to a certain extent.
Steinbeck, on the other hand, seems to have been quite the opposite. In his diaries that he kept while writing Grapes of Wrath, he records often taking days off to hang out with friends or to enjoy the nice weather. Then he’d frenziedly work to the point of exhaustion for a few days before lounging around again.
I would like to be able to sit with the two of them and have a conversation about writing practice. I imagine it would be quite fascinating, but likely a disaster. I don’t see the two of them getting on very well!
If you could, which fictional character (from your own book(s) or someone else’s) would you like to invite for tea and why?
I suppose this is a rather strange answer: Harold Skimpole from Bleak House by Charles Dickens (though there are very many characters from Dickens that would be just as fascinating). Skimpole is only a minor character. He is a man who has never accepted life as an adult. He remains a child, unable to deal with money or punctuality. He is forever in debt and lives off the kindness of his friends. I read Bleak House for the first and only time when I was 18 or 19 and ever since then have been haunted by the character of Skimpole. In unkind moments I will tell myself that I am just like him and that I am selfish. This same selfishness is what makes me want to meet him. I want to see what he is like in person and whether I really am as bad as all that. Of course, I could also read the novel again and see whether I still feel that there are similarities between the two of us. After all, it has been twenty years! I’d like to think I have improved just a little. (I must say, though, that I have always been very punctual. I cannot stand lateness, which is too bad for me, living in Brazil where people have a very relaxed approach to time).
Do you have some rituals or habits whilst writing?
I am very old fashioned and still write by hand. I will write a page or two in rough, then write it in neat, then maybe write it out one more time (depending on how much I want to change), then I type it up. I write all of the first draft that way until I have a “complete” manuscript, then I put it aside for a few months. When I come back to it, I will go through draft two in a similar way, but won’t necessarily write out everything by hand again – it all depends on how much rewriting and addition I am doing. Then I set it aside for a few months again, then come back and do draft three, and so on, until I am satisfied with the book.
Where do you come up with your idea(s)? Do people in your life need to be worried? 😉
It’s hard to say. Ideas just pop into my mind. I suppose I can’t help but be influenced by my experiences and what I read. I’m trying to think of a more substantial way to answer this, but the truth is no more than that pop in my brain. For example, I was at a writing residency in Denmark finishing my previous novel and went to have a nap. During my nap the idea for An Island popped into my mind and that was that. I also do a fair amount of research towards a book once I have had the initial idea, so that helps too.
Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow, as a pantser?
With my first novel I didn’t do any planning. I knew how it would start and I knew how it would end, but I didn’t know much else. I can’t say that I really enjoyed writing that way. In fact, it was pretty awful. Now I try to be more organised, but not rigidly so. I do some planning, and a fair amount of research as I have said, but I give myself enough room to be able to still be creative and play around. Planning doesn’t always work anyway. Last year I finally completed a manuscript that took me much longer than it ought to have done. I had planned it quite well before starting on it, but by draft three I still felt that it wasn’t working at all. In the end I took the whole thing apart and fixed it by following my instincts rather than any kind of list or mind-map. I am happy with the end result, or at least I was when I last read it in September. Let’s see how I feel when I look at it again. I always end up hating everything I have written.
Can you give novice writers some tips (do’s/don’ts)?
I am sure that I am not going to win any prizes for originality with this one, but my two biggest bits of advice are:
A) Write, even if you think you’re writing rubbish. You can’t improve it unless you have it written down.
B) Edit, edit, edit. Write each sentence, each paragraph, each story, each manuscript many times until it is as close to perfect as you can get it. So many people think that writing one draft is enough. No, absolutely not. You have to rewrite countless times. And I am not talking about just doing a spell-check and changing a word or a comma here and there. You need to look at each and every word and sentence, asking yourself, “Is that the best way to say this?” and “What is this contributing?”
What are your future plans as an author?
I have a completed manuscript that I hope to get published, but the global pandemic has caused a backlog in terms of publishing. Everything is a mess! I will have to wait and see how things pan out. I have another manuscript that is about ¼ done. I need to finish that. But for the immediate future my focus will be on my PhD in History. Hopefully my thesis will be interesting enough to publish!
Last, but not least : Can you give my readers one teaser from your book, which is featured here on my blog, please?
A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small African island that is inhabited by no one but an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled by the presence of another person, the keeper is swept up in a series of memories relating to his former life on the mainland, a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then take up the fight for independence, only to end up falling under the rule of a cruel dictator. In the man’s presence, he begins to consider, as he did in his youth, what is meant by land and to whom it should belong. To what lengths will a person go in order to ensure that what is theirs will not be taken from them?
Isn’t that a great reason to pick up this book and to find out more?!
Thanks once again for this lovely interview, Karen Jennings.
The Magic of Wor(l)ds
P.S. Are you an author (or publisher) who also wants a FREE interview like this? You can always contact me via e-mail!