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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Henrietta Rose-Innes has had two novels published by Kwela Books. Her first novel, Shark's Egg, was published in 2000 and was nominated for the M-Net Book Prize. The Rock Alphabet, published in 2004, was selected as part of Publisher's Choice.
She was born in 1971 in Cape Town and currently lives in Observatory in that city. She works as a book editor and occasional film and TV scriptwriter, and has also had several short stories published.
Mary Watson is the author of Moss (Kwela, 2004), a collection of interlinking short stories. In 2006 she won the prestigious Caine Prize for her story “Jungfrau” from Moss.
       Mary teaches in the Film and Media Department at the University of Cape Town and lives in Woodstock.

Henrietta Rose-Innes in conversation with Mary Watson

  1. One of the interesting things about your short story collection Moss is your experimentation with form: the linked short stories can be read independently but cross-reference one other, share characters and play out in linked worlds. I feel we need more of this kind of experimentation in local English fiction, which is traditionally quite conventional – although increasingly we are seeing writers exploring multiple authors, alternative structures, flash fiction, hypertexts and so on. Is form an important concern of yours? In the novel that you are currently working on, do you also play with narrative conventions?

    I am secretly conservative and feel that experimentation with form should follow some kind of rhyme or reason. It’s that same old story: you need to master the rules before you can break them. I am fascinated with experimental work both in fiction and in film, but really hate undisciplined work that passes itself off as experimental. There are ways of updating story or book forms that are precise and careful and I find that exciting. I don’t think that the story novel (as a friend calls it) is really experimental; it was such fun to find the connections between the stories, to see things as though through a shifted kaleidoscope. I would like to do more of this, test different kinds of narrative structures. My novel in progress has three parts and is fairly traditionally structured but for the story within in the story which is at the heart of the book.

  2. In your beautifully rich stories in Moss you mine themes from myth, faith and fairytale. Archetypal tales of wicked Jezebels, magic gardens, enchanted lovers, strange sisters, healers and cults weave in and out of the known world of Cape Town in unexpected ways, making it mythic and rich and other – often disturbingly. This distinguishes your voice from the realist tone of much current South African writing. Do you think there is resistance, in South African publishing and critical circles, to these kinds of fantastical, allegorical or magical elements? Do you think this is changing?

    What I am really interested in here are the moments where realism is interrupted. I find myself less and less interested in fantasy like Lord of the Rings and more obsessed with the areas where reality breaks down. I think that magical realism has received bad press in the past few years (which I fully understand) and there is a certain tendency to be skeptical. But it attempts to describe a way of writing that works realism in a different way, that encourages a shift in perspective.

  3. It has been said that Cape Town writers are in the process of writing into life a city that does not have a long tradition as a literary landscape – Stephen Watson and Mike Nicol both speak about this. But one of the things I find exciting about your writing is that it animates parts of the city that up to now have not had a strong literary presence – such as Grassy Park – while simultaneously making Cape Town unfamiliar, almost unrecognisably strange. Are you evoking the city, escaping it, transforming it? Do you feel you have to deal with “sense of place”, Cape Town-ness, in your writing?

    I have enjoyed taking familiar Cape Town landscapes and making them strange. The idea that a cult has its headquarters near Red Hill, that you can buy illegal seeds to grow a little girl in your garden in Main Road, Woodstock (but only after dark), seems to me to be an exciting way of writing Cape Town. It’s a bit like tapping into what’s hidden – that these things are potentially there. I remember as a little girl staring into gutters and furiously believing that fairies lived there. I suppose in some ways that hasn’t really changed – while I know that fairies don’t live there, I like the idea that places can hold their secrets. I think that through time and through the people that pass through and inhabit places, they retain some secrets, or become imbued with residues shaken off – they’re never simply neutral settings. Though I am aware that this is me investing meaning into physical landscapes rather than some kind of intrinsic magic. I don’t think that I’m managing to explain this very well. I suppose the bottom line is that I’m very interested in space and I would like to see how writing can explore space in innovative ways.

  4. You were recently short-listed for the prestigious Caine Prize for the story “Jungfrau” from Moss – and congratulations, again, for that. What do you see as the role of literary prizes? Are they important, stimulating, significant to you? How do you think they impact on the local literary culture?

    The Guardian ran an article about how by winning the Orange Prize, Zadie Smith has finally received literary recognition that catches up with her celebrity status – a status which of course began with her infamous advance for White Teeth. In South Africa, it seems like one of the main forms of currency in the literary world is the literary prize; it’s certainly not money. The shortlisting is wonderful (thanks) and this is partly because it feels like I am progressing. Writing is, of course, the only thing that really makes me grow as a writer, but it helps to have external factors like this, like the residency I did last year, like the festival in Vienna earlier this year, that help me feel that I am progressing. Unfortunately, writing something good takes time; Susan Mann once said that a good story needs to bake, and I agree with her, so it’s good to get little external boosts and encouragement.

  5. You’ve spent your career working in the academic environment and have a profound knowledge of both film and literary theory and history. Do you find that familiarity with theory is a tool at your disposal in creative writing, or do you think an analytical hyper-awareness might sometimes get in the way of the creative process? Is analysis something that you can switch on and off? Your writing reads resonantly, but without (to me) the self-conscious referencing that one sometimes encounters. Are there indeed references that a non-academic reader like myself might be missing?

    It’s great that most of my working life is dedicated to stories, one way or another. I think that can only help. My academic work and my stories come from the same place, but they are two very different ways of working through ideas or impressions. Earlier I mentioned an obsession with interruptions in realism. This is something that I explore in my academic research as well as in my creative work. But they come out very differently. I certainly wouldn’t try to load academic ideas into my creative work, but I think that I do unconsciously carry similar things over. Another example is space – I’m really interested in space and film (and literature, as my LitNet Young Writers entry shows) and I’ve found that I do explore this creatively without having consciously decided to do so.

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LitNet: 12 July 2006

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