"I thought I'd be something like Tintin, but with dark hair ..."
Michelle McGrane in conversation with Henrietta Rose-Innes, novelist, editor and compiler of Nice Times! A book of South African pleasures and delights
Born in 1971 in Cape Town, Henrietta Rose-Innes attended the University of Cape Town, graduating with a BSc with a major in Archaeology. She then took Honours in Biological Anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand. She spent some time in publishing and travelled to South America before returning to Cape Town in 1997 to complete her masters in Creative Writing. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in several South African publications.
She has participated in many public writers’ events and festivals, including the Time of the Writer Festival, the LitNet Online Literary Conference, the Celebrate Women Book Festival, Learning Cape, World Book Day, Turning the Page, the 5th Edinburgh Independent Radical Book Fair (2001) and Old World New Images: Conversations on South African Writing (London, 2001). In 2004 she was a guest at the Château de Lavigny Writers’ Residence in Lausanne, Switzerland; in April 2006 she was Writer in Residence at the UCT Centre for Creative Writing, and in 2007 she will hold a fellowship at the Schloss Solitude Writers’ Residence in Stuttgart, Germany.
Henrietta has worked as a scriptwriter for television and film productions. She currently works as a supervisor and examiner for the University of Cape Town’s Creative Writing Masters Course and as a literary editor for various South African publishers. She is writing a third novel, and working on several collaborative literary projects.
I meet Henrietta Rose-Innes at the Double Storey stand at the Cape Town Book Fair. She is sitting behind a pile of hardback books with colourful dust jackets, copies of Nice Times! A book of South African pleasures and delights. This splendid book is a compendium of writing by South African authors, which Henrietta has compiled. Categorised by theme, it contains a diverse selection of writing from legends such as Sol T Plaatje, Herman Charles Bosman, Can Themba and Lionel Abrahams, through to contemporary writers like Ivan Vladislavić, Niq Mhlongo, Al Lovejoy, Zoë Wicomb and Aryan Kaganof.
Henrietta has published two novels, one of which has been described by JM Coetzee as "a welcome addition to new South African literature". Shark's Egg was nominated for the M-Net Book prize and The Rock Alphabet was selected as a Publishers Choice book. Her published short pieces include “Burning Buildings”, which won the Cosmopolitan/Vita short story competition in 1996. Her short story “Porcelain” was included in 180 degrees (Oshun, 2005), an anthology of new fiction by South African woman writers. Recently, “Five Sites” was published in A City Imagined (Penguin, 2006). Henrietta is friendly, approachable and down to earth. Once we begin talking, I resolve to be less reticent about making conversation with authors I don't know.
Henrietta, tell me something of your family origins and what you were like as a child.
I grew up in Cape Town, in the same house in Claremont where my parents still live. I was the youngest of three children. My father is a retired neurosurgeon; my mother is a botanical artist. I was a shy child who spent a lot of time daydreaming and climbing trees. I despised dresses and always wore my hair in two "Red Indian" plaits.
What is your earliest memory?
Staring at the ceiling of our house – lying in my cot, I suppose ... those white-painted Victorian ceiling boards with the line down the middle. I have the same ones now in my house in Observatory. Also sitting in my mother's lap late at night on the rocking chair, my mother rocking to stop me coughing. I had whooping cough.
Was your home full of books? Do you remember when you started reading? What did you read as a child?
It was a big reading household. We all read constantly, including at the supper table, and we didn't have a TV until long after everyone else got one. My mother would read to us every night - Tintin was big. I didn't go to nursery school, I stayed home and learnt with my mother instead, so by the time I got to school I was reading. I remember a rather frightening reader with a dark, liver-coloured cover; there was a memorable story in it about evil little red manikins that capture an old woman in a bag and torment her by poking it. At some point they cut a dog graphically in half, revealing a circular cross-section of some sort of homogenous yellow stuff ... God knows where my mother got this book. I remember the disturbing and eerie imagery from kids' books a lot better than the sweet stuff, but it hasn't done me any harm. I believe that children can take a lot more of that kind of stuff than many modern kids’ books writers give them credit for. I used to spend a lot of time in Wynberg Library, and then later Central Library when I was big enough to catch the train into town.
While you were growing up, what did you believe about your future? Did you want to be famous?
Oh yes, definitely famous, but for what I wasn't exactly sure. For a while I thought I'd be something like Tintin, but with dark hair ... Other than that, the future was hazy, a fog that only really started to dissipate in my late twenties. Actually, I still can't picture the future very clearly, beyond about a year ahead.
Your first pieces of writing were poems. How old were you then?
I distinctly remember composing my first piece of independent creative writing: I was annoyingly banging a tennis ball against the garage door (which I would do for hours) and I came up with the beginning of a poem about an aeroplane crashing. I must have been eleven or twelve. Before that, I had written things for school, but this was completely my own impulse, for myself. It felt like something new and exciting was starting to happen. My career as a writer tailed off after school - I only started up again much later. And then it was prose.
Where was your first piece of writing published?
I was first published, like many local writers, in English Alive, which was and is a great platform for school-level writers. My first grown-up publication was in the now-defunct literary magazine Upstream, when I was in matric.
Did any particular writers influence and inspire you when you started writing in earnest?
I don't remember ever consciously trying to emulate anybody. I was going through my Tolkien phase when I was about thirteen, and I had a long period of devotion to sci-fi, but somehow I knew I didn't want to write like that. I was very affected by Philip Larkin, which now I find somewhat disturbing. I still love Larkin, but he's rather sad reading for a young teenager. I read a lot of things that were probably a bit too old for me, not so much intellectually as emotionally ... melancholy adult worlds, like Graham Greene's.
JM Coetzee was your MA supervisor at the University of Cape Town. What was that like?
It worked very well. He was an extremely thorough and perceptive critic, gave me a lot of space to get on with things by myself, held me to a high standard and prevented me from shaming myself. I wouldn't have done the MA if I hadn't had the opportunity to work with him. The MA, in those days, was a lot less structured than it is now - no classes, no seminars, no coursework or assignments. That was fine by me. At the time I didn't really want to be at university or in a class, but I knew I wanted to get the book done, and I respond well to deadlines.
You travelled to South America in the nineties. What particularly attracted you to that continent? Are you planning to write about your travel experiences?
I have always found the ancient history and culture of the region fascinating, and I had romantic ideas about the jungle, the Andes, the language, the archaeology ... and I was not disappointed. But no, I don't think I will write about it. It is a culture too far removed from my own for me to approach it with confidence, other than as a spectator. If South America ever appears in my writing it will probably be in a symbolic way, not as a deep exploration of the place. I am not really drawn to modern travel writing myself (with respect to the many fine travel writers) – it just makes me restless and resentful of other people's adventures. Historical accounts I do find interesting, though.
When do you find the time to write? When you’re working on a book, do you try to sit down and write at a certain time every day? Do you set yourself deadlines?
It is hard to prioritise creative work when you have several freelance jobs going on at the same time, which is usually my situation. I take any opportunity to have a chunk of time off, just to be free of distractions – hence the writers' residencies. One of my current ambitions is to be able to afford to say no to more paying jobs and to give myself more and more time to write. Every year I try to shift the balance a little more in that direction.
To be honest, I am not the most disciplined of writers, in that I need a long period of faffing around and daydreaming and cups of tea to work myself up to the point of actually writing anything down. It's all part of the process, preparing for the act of writing - or so I tell myself.
I don't write every day, unfortunately - except for a time like now, when I'm on a residency, or when a deadline has become sufficiently frightening.
What is the physical act of writing like for you? Do you write your first draft in longhand or type it on your computer?
I write exclusively on the computer – I don't think I even know what my handwriting looks like any more ... generally I just spew it out as quickly as possible and then edit it later. I don't really enjoy the physical act of composition - I wish it could just be dumped straight from my brain to the screen without having to pass through my fingers (although I also know this is a necessary stage in the process; I think there is a little sub-brain in my hands that subtly alters what comes from my head.) It still amazes me that by this (sometimes torturous) process one can eventually accumulate the tens of thousands of words necessary for a novel.
Then, once the editing begins, it is a whole different game, much less spontaneous, much more obsessive. That part drives me crazy too, but for different reasons: it leads to anxiety about getting things as perfect as possible. Every word, every punctuation mark becomes a decision, and I am not good at choices. But it is addictive: I won't let go of the text, right up until my fingers are being nipped by the actual rollers of the printing press. All in all, I don't find the act of writing pleasant, exactly, but the final product makes up for it.
How does a novel start for you? Do you draw up a precise plan or do you start writing long before you’ve worked out the plot?
I usually begin with an interesting scenario, usually something that I find visually exciting, and then see what kind of storyline this suggests or demands. I am trying to be more deliberate in my construction of plots – in the past I have got myself very tangled up by leaping headlong into convoluted storylines without knowing how they play out. But I struggle with this: when I do try to map out a plotline start to finish, I find the writing a bit deadening and deadened - colouring in instead of drawing. It is easier for me to write “blind”, following a meandering trail of associations, although this sometimes leads to a dead end. I am still trying to find a happy balance between the two ways of working: for the next long work I undertake, I think I will try to have a very broad map of the plot, but to leave a lot of space for invention and surprises within that structure.
Are your characters composites of people in your life, people you know or have known, or are they created from imagination? To which of your characters are you most attached?
Generally they are composites. Physically, certainly, they are bits and pieces of people I've known, usually from my past, mixed up with imagined elements. Psychologically, I am starting to suspect that they are all me. And – perhaps for this reason - I don't think I really do grow attached to my characters, in the sense of thinking about them much after publication. Once a book is written I tend to shed that world and move on to the next.
How much revision is involved, usually?
Oh, endless, endless ... I am very loath to leave a piece of writing alone. Eventually a publication date is what cuts off the process for me; there are, unfortunately, an infinity of ways to make any piece of writing just that little bit better. The stress comes from the knowledge that once it's printed, it's permanent.
Have you ever abandoned a story because it didn't meet your standards?
Oh yes, all the time. Or, rather, if I'm just boring myself with it.
Are there people you feel comfortable sharing your work with when it's in draft form, people you can use as sounding boards? Do you ask your family or friends to evaluate your work?
Nope, not really. At a certain point, when I feel I have brought it as far as I can and it has a degree of finish, I will show it to people, because I do recognise that the writer becomes blind to her own errors and distortions; and there are a handful of people whose opinions I trust. But I won't show anyone while it's still in the early stages. It feels extremely private.
Also, I've learnt that you need to be careful about what you listen to. You have to decide who your desired audience is, and whose comments you can take to heart and whose not. Some people, even if you love them dearly and respect their opinions, will not get or like what you're trying to do; and you have to realise that you're probably not writing for them – you're writing a different kind of book. You can't woo everyone without losing some integrity. On the other hand, if the people you do choose to trust criticise what you've done, then you should seriously consider their comments. This understanding helps one to maintain perspective when confronted with low sales, or with reviews – whether they're lukewarm or gushing. (South African reviewers are seldom downright mean. The smallness of the book world doesn't really allow for that ... and I sometimes think it's a pity that there isn't a tradition of more robust criticism here. Maybe that's coming, with more and more local fiction of varying quality coming into the market.)
What's the most difficult aspect of writing, for you?
Finding time. And then stamina: maintaining belief in and excitement about a project for as long as it takes to finish it.
When you're working on a novel, do you ever think that it may be the last time?
No, not really. I consider myself to be right at the beginning of my career, still learning a lot. And I do want it to be a career - I have plans to keep writing for a long time, if it's possible, and for the moment novels seem to be where my main interest lies.
What is the best part of writing?
Reading over something that you haven't looked at for a long time, that you'd pushed aside weeks or months before because it was rubbish, and suddenly thinking, “You know, this is actually okay ...” That and the book-launch parties.
Your compilation of South African writing, Nice Times!, has been beautifully produced. Did you have any say in the font selection and the page and cover design?
It is a lovely book, isn't it? Hardcover, with endpapers! Very posh. The cover designer, Toby Newsome, is great and I was totally happy with his suggestions, so I didn't give much input. The inside pages are also very handsome; I was allowed to select the fun graphics from a range offered to me by the page designer, Sarah-Ann Raynham.
What was the motivation and inspiration for the volume?
Double Storey Books approached me to put together a book of writing on South African childhoods, but just at that time another book was produced on a similar theme, so I came up with an alternative idea. Pleasures seemed broad enough to allow for a large and various book. Through my work as an editor for several publishers I've been exposed to a variety of local books, and I thought the collection would be a great opportunity to introduce a wider public to some writers who haven't had a lot of recognition, as well as to pick out favourite passages from some very well-known authors. It was also an excuse for me to spend a lot of time in libraries unearthing obscure books, which I enjoyed.
There's something to suit everyone's taste in the book; it would make the perfect Christmas present. Why was it released in June instead of November or December?
June is not a bad month to release a book – it leaves enough time for the book to appear in the shops, for reviews and publicity to happen and for people to start noticing it long before they make their Christmas lists. December is really too late for that. It was also part of a whole flotilla of books that various publishers launched to coincide with the Cape Town Book Fair, which was, of course, a huge success.
What did you enjoy most while compiling the volume?
The power to pick and choose ... I found that simply making the selection was a very creatively fulfilling task, and it tapped into deep-seated stamp-collecting instincts. I also liked being in control of every editorial aspect of the book. I enjoyed finding unexpected commonalities, as well as contrasts, in a variety of different texts from different times and places. Also, it was all so upbeat - the theme of Nice Times! kept me focussed on exuberant and sensually rich writing; not much drabness or sadness. I don't think people generally associate South African writing with delight and pleasure, and it was good to realise how much fun material actually exists.
How did you go about collecting and selecting the pieces? How long did it take you?
A lot of the material was drawn from books I'd read in the past - certain passages had stuck in my head, sometimes for years. I'd also been involved in some way in the editing or production of many of the books I used, and it was great to have a platform to display the work of some favourite writers. Otherwise, it was fun going to libraries and casting about almost at random for interesting excerpts ... I became expert at reading books in twenty minutes, my eyes peeled for anything that seemed to refer, however obliquely, to having a good time. A few of the pieces were recommended to me – Umuzi publisher Annari van de Merwe, for example, put me on to Louis Leipoldt's interest in cooking, which I wouldn't otherwise have known about; Robert Plummer of Struik pointed out some good passages in Acid Alex. My mother was fantastic, lending me a huge pile of her ancient books. Several publishers, particularly Kwela and Double Storey, allowed me access to their back-catalogue shelves, which was very helpful. I suppose it took me about six or seven months to put together, on and off.
The excerpts are collated under the headings: Tastes, Intoxications, Amusements, Parties, Music, Styling, Outdoor Pursuits, Romance, Places and Sundry. How easy was it to decide on themes and then fit the writing into various chapters?
It happened the other way around - I collected the writing, and the material dictated the themes. It was easy, really. I did try and manipulate it a little so that certain categories were not given too much weight – there was a great deal on food, for example. And a lot of the chapters have large overlaps: most South African nice times seem to involve some combination of eating / drinking / dancing / looking good / sex / music / being outdoors. I also tried to find a place for quirky, idiosyncratic enthusiasms. The biggest problem, ultimately, was limiting myself - there were many things that I would have liked to include but couldn't for space reasons, and I could have carried on collecting new pieces forever. There's definitely room for further volumes.
What would you like readers to come away with after reading Nice Times!?
I would like them to feel intrigued, surprised and entertained by the variety of life experiences glimpsed in the book – so many different, inventive ways that people find to create joy and pleasure, often in trying circumstances. The tone of the collection is celebratory, which I think is something of an antidote to our often grim assumptions about how fellow South Africans live. Especially, I would like readers to discover a couple of writers that they weren't familiar with before, track down their books, buy them and read them. That would be the best possible outcome.
Does conflict exist between your work as an editor and your creative writing? How compatible are the two, for you?
There is a strange relationship between the two. I often think the ideal job for a writer is, in fact, something that has nothing to do with words. If you're editing all day every day, the last thing you want to do is come home and put in the hours on your own writing. And there is a fundamental conflict in the fact that you're putting a lot of effort into someone else's work and not into your own. That said, it is work that I think someone like me is suited to, in terms of temperament and skills, and it allows me time flexibility, which is very important. I'm grateful that this job allows me to make a living in the book world. I have been editing long enough to be able, now, most of the time, to choose projects that interest me, and through my editing I have met some excellent writers and made some friends. But ultimately I would like to do less and less editing and more and more writing, saving my concentration for my own work and for certain other special manuscripts.
How has travelling to different countries influenced you as a writer?
I think it's valuable, largely because going away gives you a different perspective on home. As I've said, I don't plan to write about anywhere else, but leaving South Africa clears the mind, extricates you for a while from the whole web of everyday social and practical complications, and gives you new understandings of the place you come from.
You're currently a Writer in Residence on Sylt Island in Germany. Would you describe your life as a "writer in residence"? How are you enjoying the experience?
I am leading a very, very simple life ... wake up, potter about, read, write, eat, go for a bike ride or a swim, potter about, write, sleep. For the first time in probably years I have the feeling that I can fit everything into my day without anxiety. Time is the greatest luxury. A calm, flat landscape of fields and mudflats and sea, gentle rain, light until half past eleven at night ... all very soothing. It's only for a month, and I think by the end of the month I'll be ready to jump back into my CT life; but for now it's what I need and it has been very productive - I've done a lot of thinking and writing. And a certain amount of MTV - and World Cup-watching.
In your recent LitNet Chain interview with Ashraf Jamal you mentioned that you think there is "space on the local scene for more experimentation with story structure". Can you name a few contemporary South African novels which you have found interesting in terms of structure and style?
In terms of structure (although none of these are novels): I'm enjoying Portrait with Keys by Ivan Vladislavić (Umuzi) - a collection of numbered cycles, with an ingenious "itinerary" at the back, tracing different themes; Denis Hirson's memory-fragment books, I Remember King Kong, the Boxer and We Walk Straight So You Better Get Out the Way (Jacana); certain spoken-word stuff – I like Kgafela oa Magogodi's work. I hear that someone is about to publish a book of flash fiction locally, and Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens have written a crime novel together, Out to Score (Umuzi), which is an interesting experiment in collaboration. Stylistically, Jacana Books seems to be publishing some intriguing stuff right now: Ben Oswest's densely poetic The New Suffolk Hymnal; Aryan Kaganof's funny and anarchic Uselessly; Zachariah Rapola's surreal short stories, Beginnings of a Dream. And, in all modesty, I think the project I'm now working on together with Mary Watson, Diane Awerbuck and Lauren Beukes, if we pull it off, is going to be something new. Each of my three co-writers has a vivid and edgy style that is quite unique.
Would you tell me something about the collaborative novel you are writing with Mary Watson, Diane Awerbuck and Lauren Beukes?
I'm actually busy on two different collaborative projects, which is interesting - I've never really considered myself a collaborative kind of writer; it's always been a very solitary occupation for me. But with these two books I've found partners that I can work with and ways of working that seem to be mutually beneficial. The first book is a partnership with my sister Olivia – we're writing a book on aspects of Table Mountain, looking at the role the mountain plays in people's lives in Cape Town; it is quite reflective and autobiographical in parts. The collaboration with Mary, Diane and Lauren is entitled Exquisite Corpse, and it's really four independent fictions that play out in the same time period and place: a mall just before Christmas. There are elements of ghost story and murder mystery. Each of our stories will be written separately, but have overlaps and connections with the others. Both the projects are very stimulating – it's interesting, adapting to different people's styles and ways of working, and I'm also finding it quite reassuring to split the responsibility for a long work.
Do you think there are advantages in being a woman and a writer currently in South Africa?
Not particularly. There are a lot of women being published at the moment, and enrolment in the creative writing courses tends to be dominated by white women. The reasons for this are no doubt complex. But despite this, I do sometimes feel that male writers tend to attract more attention – such as awards – than do women writers. I think that a male writer is still, in some deeply ingrained way, more of a media event than a woman writer; this is a cultural phenomenon world-wide, not just in South Africa – in fact it may well be worse elsewhere - and is not restricted to writing.
You seem to be an eclectic reader: non-fiction, contemporary fiction, and science fiction, murder mysteries. What are you reading at the moment?
Sooo many things – I've got so much time here on Sylt, I'm chewing through a book a day. I'm in a fiction phase. I recently finished Kerstin Eckman's excellent Blackwater, translated from Swedish; Jenefer Shute's queasily intense novel about anorexia, Life-size; and David Mitchell's new book, Black Swan Green, which I didn't find as exhilaratingly inventive as his earlier ones. Now I'm switching between Echo Burning by Lee Child, a kick-ass thriller, and Ivan Vladislavić's new book, Portrait with Keys, which is summoning up Johannesburg for me very strongly. Lined up next is an old Philip K Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I borrowed especially for this occasion. Eclectic, yes, I suppose so. I probably read too much crime for my own good - it's my relaxation reading.
What has been your greatest reward so far as a writer?
Apart from a sense of satisfaction in what I have produced so far, I have benefited most from having created a kind of position for myself in the world, a thing to “be”. Before I was published I didn't really have a career, and that used to disturb me. For me it has been very important to have some recognition as a writer, some sense that this is the direction that my life is taking. It's the only thing that has ever given me a sense of vocation.
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