/ 23 July 2008

Unlike lightning Poison has struck twice

SA novelist and writer Henrietta Rose-Innes, winner of the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story Poison, talks about bringing home the ‘African Booker’

Tell us what your story’s second win, the Caine Prize, means to you.

Yes, this story has served me well. I’ve had a chance to revise it a few times and read it to several audiences now, so I’ve been able to formulate a little better what I think it means. This is useful when such an intense spotlight is shone on one piece of writing and you have to explain it to yourself and others. Winning the prize, of course, is immensely valuable because it buys precious time for writing.

The recognition and (quite startling) media attention is also exciting and, I hope, will create more international publishing opportunities for me. The prize and the activities around it have introduced me to a network of writers from all over Africa, which I’ve never encountered in South Africa. I hope that the publicity will encourage other South African writers to enter the award and also that it introduces South African readers to some of the writing that’s happening in the rest of the continent.

There is always an element of luck in a prize of this nature — from who gets entered down to who happens to be on the judging panel and what their preferences are. I am fortunate to have been given this opportunity to reach a larger audience. There are many wonderful African writers out there, many in South Africa, and I wish there were more platforms like this to showcase them. I think there is a lot of space for the Caine itself to expand and attract more entries from more publishers and I really hope this happens in the years to come.

What was the originating idea for the story?
I think I always begin with visual images that feel somehow linked. The process of writing the story is really working out what those connections are and why they are meaningful. I think the impetus for this story came from the black clouds of smoke that hung over the mountain during particularly bad mountain fires one year, a cool old Toyota I once briefly owned before it was stolen and the landscape of highway and veld during various road trips (and various breakdowns).

Describe the process of writing and publishing. How long did it take?
I wrote the story for the HSBC/SA Pen short story competition in 2006 and it was published in the 2007 anthology of Pen prize stories, African Pens, published by Spearhead. This series of anthologies has a good track record with the Caine — three out of the five finalists this year were published via the same route, as well as one of the shortlisted writers in 2006 — and it’s great news that the Pen competition is continuing with new funding.

I finished the story while I was on a writer’s residency on Sylt Island in Germany, just in time for the Pen deadline — I’m not so good with deadlines. I ended up on the phone, long-distance to my sister at 3am, editing the story, hysterical. There’s a rather touching image of a frog in the final sentence of the story and unfortunately that night Kermit kept popping up in my mind and now I can’t read the last line at all. Whoops, now I’ve planted that image in the minds of all my readers, too. Anyway, the story squeaked in on time. (Thanks again, Olivia.)

Do you write by hand or use a typewriter or computer?
I don’t think I even have handwriting any more. I’m entirely helpless without a computer.

Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how?
You know, it may sound strange, but I always get a bit squirmy answering this question — the things you read touch you for such odd and personal reasons and there must be hundreds of them. Any list of two or three always ends up sounding quirky and weirdly specific.

Especially if it includes actual living people you might bump into at the supermarket. Somehow you don’t want to give them the rather intimate responsibility (or blame) for being a “major influence”. There are several local writers and people involved in the book world who have been extremely kind and supportive and, yes, influential. I can also say that I quite often notice recycled bits and pieces of JG Ballard imagery floating to the surface in my writing, for good or bad.

What are you reading at the moment?
Nothing! I am taking every opportunity to lie flat on my back in my hotel room and stare at the ceiling. It’s been a frenetic couple of days [after winning the Caine]. But as soon as I get home I’ll continue where I left off in Sarah Lotz’s Pompidou Posse, which I was enjoying immensely and sadly forgot to pack.

What is the purpose of fiction?
I hesitate to try to answer that one in any way except the personal. For myself, I read fiction to transform my perception and I write to make sense of my experience. I’m really not sure if there is any broader social purpose for most fiction, except perhaps to create an imaginative conversation that involves many minds in a way that isn’t possible otherwise.

How do you see the future of South African literature?
There is so much happening — so many exciting new writers exploring diverse new forms; so many new forums, on the net and elsewhere; so much reorganisation in the publishing landscape; so many coming through the creative writing courses. There is a new generation of writers who are extremely talented, internationally ambitious and freed up to write about anything they choose (and who make me feel old). I think they will make a big impact. I also think that South Africa will lose many of them to other countries because of lack of financial support at home. It would make a difference if there was some systematic way to provide funding for more working writers. The Arts Council grants are helpful but not enough and they don’t reach enough people.

Describe yourself in a sentence.

Describe your ideal reader.
Dark, elegant, with sensitive features and an air of wounded decadence. (Oh no, actually that’s the answer to the previous question.)

What has been the effect on your writing of your residency as a fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart?
It’s given me a more international outlook — an awareness of a community of writers and artists who live and work in many different places and who sometimes use the residency system as a means to keep writing.

Meeting all those talented and committed people made me realise that I need to take my writing seriously and perhaps more professionally — and try to prioritise it over the other work that fills my days. And, well, if you’re given a wonderful opportunity like that, you can’t mess it up. One of the things I feel a bit bad about is that I didn’t bring back a crisp new novel from the Schloss — something I hope to rectify.

What are you working on at the moment?
Several things — there’s a novel in the works, but that will still be a while. I’d like to do a short-story collection at some point. And I have two collaborations on the go: one on Table Mountain, which I’m writing with my sister, and one with Diane Awerbuck, Mary Watson and Lauren Beukes. I’m hoping to get both of those done by the end of the year. I also have some on-off collaborations with a couple of visual artists that I met in Stuttgart. And I just wrote a cellphone novel for the “Novel Idea” project! (http://novelidea.book.co.za/)

Creative writing programmes: are they good or bad?
I am quite involved in the creative writing programme at UCT — I’ve taught a seminar there for the past few years and also supervise some of the students. I’ve also acted as an examiner and, in my occasional work in publishing, I’ve seen many manuscripts that have come out of various creative writing programmes. And, of course, I am a graduate of the UCT course myself. I think the courses work well for motivated people who probably have the ability to write their novel anyway, but who benefit from structure, deadlines and interaction to get it done in a more focused way. I think if you are lucky to have a good rapport with your teacher, the course can help you to learn the necessary lessons faster than you would by yourself and avoid the pitfalls.

I do worry that, for some students, the courses create unrealistic expectations of guaranteed publication and when young students sign up for the course straight out of an undergraduate degree I sometimes feel they might be better advised to go out and do some living first, before coming back to write about it. I don’t feel that the university creative writing courses help to broaden the writing culture radically, as they seem to cater mostly for people who would have the resources to write or attend university anyway. Butall in all I think they are helpful and certainly they are instrumental in generating a large number of proficient manuscripts and many new writers in a way that I think is having a growing effect on publishing in South Africa.

Is there anything you wish to add?
I’ve never had so many emails in my inbox. Since the Caine Prize was awarded there’s been an incredible outpouring of support from just about everyone I’ve ever known and a lot of gratifying interest from the South African media too. I am touched — and will get round to answering all those emails personally. Soon.