BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Henrietta Rose-Innes is an award-winning novelist and short story writer based in Cape Town. Her most recent novel is Nineveh (published in 2011 by Umuzi), which followed Shark’s Egg (2001) and The Rock Alphabet (2004). Her story Poison won the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing.
What does “writing” mean?
I had to look this up. Wikipedia says that “The result of writing is generally called text, and the recipient of text is called a reader.” So there you have it. One can apparently do it with clay tablets, bamboo slats, incised turtle shells, knotted cords, typewriters and “various forms of word processors”.
What book changed your life?
My mother taught me how to read from the Beacon Readers series, which had these very funky late-60s cover designs. I’ve only met a couple of people who’ve had this experience, and they are all scarred for life. Especially by Careful Hans. This one sears into tender minds with the disturbing story of the goblin-like Hobyahs and Little Dog Turpie. Among various awful occurrences, this is what is done to Little Dog Turpie: So this book taught me to read and to love reading, but also to fear what books might hold.
What are you working on at the moment?
Rewrites of the manuscript of my new novel, Green Lion, which is due out from Umuzi next year. Fixing and fiddling and filling-in. It’s set in a very slightly alternative-universe Cape Town, where the mountain has been fenced off for the preservation of endangered species. My hero works at the old zoo, which now houses a project to rebreed the extinct Cape black-maned lion. He gets obsessed with a lioness and everything goes horribly wrong.
Describe your workspace.
Messy. Messy. Very messy. I’m going to have to tidy up before I take a picture for you. Psychologically, it’s important to work in maximum chaos, out of which comes perfect order.
This is my desk in my study at home in Observatory. I have hidden most of the mess. There is a defunct slot machine to the left of the desk (the “Inca Chief”), which I feel is a good metaphor for the writing life.
The most important instrument you use?
Toss-up between the computer and the filter coffee machine. People often give me pretty notebooks, but I hardly ever write things by hand and I never have a pen.
What’s your most productive time of day?
Mid-morning, late night. Even if I only work for a couple of hours at a stretch, I like to feel there’s limitless time ahead – the whole day, the whole night – should I need it. I find that reassuring. Also, the last hour before any given deadline.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
When I’m dreading the work for some reason, I’ll do anything to avoid it. This means periods of not-writing, when I’m waiting to feel my way into a new project. Sometimes I’ll try to produce something quite different, like a short story, or I’ll use the time to get other parts of my life in order. I’ll also spend periods reading around an intriguing subject, like lions or extinctions or alchemy, and collect pictures and snippets of information for future use. I think this works out OK, despite the accepted wisdom that one should write through the dry patches, write every day, etc. I’m sure I would be more productive in the short term if I forced myself, but I’m not convinced I’d like what I produced. I’m a slow writer and I’m fine with that. (All my past students, close your ears. You must do your 1000 words a day, forever.)
How do you relax?
I travel whenever I get the opportunity, especially to old places, wild places. Like many writers, I’m a walker and I like mountains. I also like being on my own. But you need to stay a social creature: writing is a solitary occupation, and if you have a natural tendency to keep to yourself, it’s easy to get isolated. Going out, seeing people, talking nonsense: it’s important. Of course there’s a fair bit of messing about on the internet, especially when I have other more important things to deal with; but that probably makes me less relaxed, not more.
Who and what has influenced your work?
I’ve been lucky. Throughout my career, more established writers have been very kind to me, giving me advice and encouragement, reading my work and pushing me towards opportunities. There are many I could name. I didn’t when I started, but these days I have close friends who are writers. We don’t write together but we do talk about writing and reading, and we read each other’s work. It’s good to have accomplices, to gossip and commiserate and occasionally celebrate with. But growing up in a reading house was my primary influence, with my mother’s love of books and poetry and art. Reading or being read to – at times too much – has been part of my daily life for as long as I’ve been aware of words.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“It’s a crapshoot.” I try to remember these bracing words when I feel I’m being sucked into caring too much about the go-round of prizes won and lost and acclaim and rejection and good and bad reviews. I remind myself that nobody else cares about my ups and downs half as much as I do.
Your favourite ritual?
You mean …?
No, I don’t really have any little writerly rituals. My biggest tic involves changing small things at the late page-proof stage, over and over again, and getting very anxious about that. I hate the finality of each little choice at that point. This is extremely annoying for everybody else involved.
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
See previous question: for me, letting go is hard. Also, it’s difficult to see a book that represents years of thought and labour vanish from the shelves – and people’s minds – after a few months. It’s a cruel time for midlist writing. That said, some of my books have gained bonus lives in the form of translations, ebooks, reprints of stories and so on. A reward for hanging in there.
What do you dislike most about yourself?
I’m certainly not going to tell you the honest answer to that. In job interviews, I believe, at this point you’re meant to say: “I am too much of a perfectionist. Too hard on myself.”
What are you afraid of?
Fraudulence unmasked. Self-sabotage. Internal parasites. The void. Hobyahs.
What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?
Oh, I don’t know, this is probably really terrible advice, but I’m in a purist mood and so I’d like to say: don’t be too strategic. Write the thing you are compelled to write, not what you think you should write, or what will sell, or what you imagine people want. The only good motivation is your own desire. Maybe it won’t work out; in fact, that often happens. But if it does work out – if you find your readers – then that’s the kind of uncompromising book I want to read. Easier said than done, of course.
What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?
Writing Nineveh. It’s very personal novel; the swamps and insects and ruins and odd families all have intimate associations for me. I think (hope) I’ve managed to retain some of their sense of mystery and weirdness. At the same time, it feels like the most coherent thing I’ve written. I can talk about what I was trying to do in it, what I was trying to say about cities and history, with a distance I didn’t have as a younger writer. I’m getting better at that, I think.