Author interview: Karen Jennings on An Island

We chat to South African author Karen Jennings about her writing process, working with small publishers, editing, representation, fables, and her Booker-longlisted, award-winning novel, An Island.

Interview topics

  • Inspirations for An Island
  • Academic research and writing
  • The writing process
  • Editing and writing
  • Writing and discipline
  • Prose style choices
  • Short stories as groundwork
  • Working with small publishers
  • Representation and authority
  • The uses of fables
  • Forthcoming work

Inspirations for An Island

Jordan Kantey:
Hi Karen, thank you for chatting to us about An Island, which was longlisted for the Booker and won South Africa’s K. Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award in 2021.

Could you describe the novel’s premise, and what inspired you to write it?

Karen Jennings:
Thanks for inviting me. The basic idea for An Island came to me while I was having a nap.

I was at a writers’ residency in Denmark and had just finished a draft of another novel of mine – Upturned Earth – and I went to lie down for my usual post-lunch nap. I am a great believer in naps, and do my best to have one every day. Even now that I am based at the University of Stellenbosch, I get under my desk with a pillow and a blanket and try to doze for a little while.

I find writing and thinking very exhausting, so I like to give my brain a little break. On the day of this particular nap – I recently discovered an old diary and can even give you the exact date: 15 August 2015 – I had a vision of an old African man on an island beside a lighthouse. He was frowning, angry. The feeling was that he was protecting the island and didn’t want anyone to set foot on it.

That, in essence, is An Island – Samuel, the lighthouse keeper on an otherwise uninhabited island, is living a quiet life and then a refugee washes up and Samuel is unsettled by his arrival.

Academic research and writing

Jordan Kantey:
I love the idea of napping under your desk between blocks of work.

You have a strong academic background in history as well as literature. How do you think this academic perspective informs your writing and vice versa?

Karen Jennings:
I suppose it means that one of my favourite parts of preparing to write a book is doing the research for it.

I take care to understand the historical context and what that might mean for the characters.

I’m particularly interested in how individuals and communities are affected by the past, by politics, by change, and so when I am researching, either for creative purposes or academic, I am always drawn to that, rather than to data or jargon or the big picture.

Don’t get me wrong, those are important, but they are not my areas of interest. They assist me in accessing what does interest me.

The writing process

Jordan Kantey:
Thank you for sharing that insight into your research process.

On the subject of process, at Now Novel we have a strong belief in finishing your work no matter how imperfect it may feel (giving yourself license to write what Anne Lamott calls ‘shitty first drafts’). Do you have any processes that you’ve developed to aid your own work?

Karen Jennings:
I would say that my process is pretty much exactly like that. What you see a lot of in submissions piles is perfectly-crafted first chapters, while the rest of the manuscript is untidy and unfocused.

Worse still is people who have been writing and rewriting the first pages for years and never getting further. I made that mistake with my first novel (though that was for months, not years) and I now write many, many drafts.

I will write a first draft and it will be appalling. But I just get it done – if I forget a location or name, it doesn’t matter, I don’t even look back for those, I keep going forward.

Author Karen Jennings quote on writing first drafts

Once the first draft is done, I put it aside for a week, then I come back and go through the same process again, over and over and over again, until I can’t do anything more. There can be any number of drafts – 10, 20, more.

Editing and writing

Jordan Kantey:
I’m glad you shared that, because writers I chat to are sometimes disappointed to be on their third draft. It’s good to have that comparative awareness of how much others rewrite.

In a tribute to you by your friend, editor Helen Moffet published on Brittle Paper, she describes how you interned at Modjaji Books, Colleen Higgs’ independent press that has the wonderful tagline ‘making rain for Southern African women writers.’

As an editor who finds working with writers constantly illuminating about craft and process, I’m curious to know what being an editor and mentoring has contributed to your own writing? What have been editing’s most valuable lessons?

Karen Jennings:
Editing has been really beneficial because it has kept me looking at my own writing with a critical eye. I’m able to get to the point with my writing where I’m ruthless and can delete whole sections without shedding a tear.

I suppose some of the most valuable lessons I have learnt are really related to confidence.

I think often writers don’t have faith in their message coming across and so they say too much, repeat themselves, hammer home the point. More often than not what is needed is a bit of belief in oneself – and belief in the reader too. Believe that they will be able to notice and understand what has been written, without the need for big signs flashing, “Here, this is it!”

It is also important to take time to determine what adds value to your manuscript and what doesn’t. Why have you written this section? Does it contribute to your intention with the work as a whole or is it just sitting there, looking pretty and serving no purpose?

author Karen Jennings on editing your manuscript | Now Novel

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Writing and discipline

Jordan Kantey:
There is so much good advice in that, thank you. You have said that you are disciplined with your writing. Can you tell us how you structure your writing routine? (if you have one).

Karen Jennings:
I want to emphasize that I force myself to be disciplined. It does not come naturally and I am very easily distracted and always on the point of giving up and throwing down my pen.

I don’t want anyone to read that I’m disciplined and for them to feel that they are failing in some way because they are not. There are different ways to be disciplined. I am disciplined only in the sense that I am strict with myself – but that can take various forms.

When I am writing, I get up and start working at 4am. I am a morning person, luckily, so this is pleasurable for me to do. It is good to have two hours of quiet, uninterrupted time. After that the day can go in any direction, depending on my commitments.

If I have no other commitments, I will go back to my desk at around 9am and try to work again until lunch. This is when I must be strict. If I feel like I’d rather be doing something else, I tell myself to sit there until I’ve written 250 words, or I set an alarm for twenty minutes, then I can get up and cuddle the dog or eat a biscuit or anything I like. Then I come back and do it again. I am certainly not glued to my desk from 9 to 5.

Prose style choices

Jordan Kantey:
Here’s to cuddling the dog and biscuits, I support a writing process including these.

You said that you work hard to make your writing ‘appear effortless’. Can you help us understand the process that you go through to do that?

Karen Jennings:
I think very carefully about every single word. The words must never feel self-conscious, as though they don’t belong there. I use simple words. I don’t try to impress anybody with my vocabulary. These are basic words, words that feel natural to most people.

If I suddenly threw in a word like “quixotic”, for example, that would make the reader pause, the flow would be interrupted, because attention will have been drawn to the artifice of the writing before. I would like the reader to feel unaware that they are reading – if that makes sense?

Short stories as groundwork

Jordan Kantey:
It makes complete sense, many of my favourite authors have that scalpel-like precision in their prose – many were also editors, which is interesting (I’m thinking of Toni Morrison, for example).

I was intrigued to learn via a note in your novel’s acknowledgements that An Island began life as a short story titled ‘Keeping’ in Short Story Day South Africa’s 2017 anthology, Migrations.

What are the benefits and challenges of creating a longer work from a short story?

Karen Jennings:
What happened was that I had started working on the novel and I was feeling a little bit disillusioned. I saw the call for submissions for SSDA and so I did what I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to others – I decided to take the first part of the novel and submit it as a short story to the competition.

I don’t think it made a good short story – how could it? But what it did was help me to refocus my attention on what I wanted the novel to be because I took the time to interrogate why the short story was so unsatisfactory.

Working with small publishers

Jordan Kantey:
I like that. So often a way forward comes out of taking time ‘to interrogate why’, as you put it.

In a thought-provoking interview with Jennifer Malec for the Johannesburg Review of Books, you speak about the gratification of being able to draw attention to independent presses Holland House and Karavan Press.

In the interview you say, ‘small publishers take the risk where the big publishers simply won’t. Small publishers deserve recognition. Without them, the industry would stagnate.’

What would your advice be to an aspiring author deciding between indie publishing, querying small publishers, or aiming for publication by one of the bigger publishers?

Karen Jennings:
It really depends on what the author is looking for.

Getting published with a bigger publisher is always going to be more difficult – you need an agent usually, and you are also likely to be required to mould your writing to suit their particular publishing and marketing needs.

A smaller publisher is more likely to accept the work as it is, without the commercial side at the forefront of their minds. They are also likely to have more time to work closely with you.

Karen Jennings quote - working with small publishers

For this reason, I have chosen to stay with my publishers for my next novel.

Representation and authority

Jordan Kantey:
I love that, I’m sure many writers would immediately leap at the ‘clout’ or bragging rights but working closely together sounds high-value.

In an interesting review of An Island, Eckard Smuts compares your protagonist Samuel and Daniel Defoe’s titular Robinson Crusoe in that these are both island stories that explore survival in the margins of empire/power.

An interesting comparison to add to that is J.M. Coetzee’s retelling of Robinson Crusoe, Foe, which reimagines Defoe’s story from a more postcolonial vantage point.

Where Defoe imagines Crusoe teaching Friday (a captive of cannibals whom Crusoe frees) English and converting him to Christianity in the original story (a so-called ‘civilizing’, paternalistic attitude typical of colonialism), in Coetzee’s version it’s revealed Friday’s tongue has been cut out, making him mute and resisting any similar assimilation.

It raises interesting questions about ethics and representation (who can speak, for whom).

In making your own refugee character less verbal, was this deliberate, in order not to presume to speak ‘for’ or rather ‘as’ the refugee? Or was it more motivated by the story’s needs, i.e. showing how Samuel projects his own narrative or ‘reading’ onto the new arrival (which supplies the story’s central tension)?

Karen Jennings:
There were a couple of interlinked reasons.

Narratives about refugees and their experience are important. They have been told and should continue to be told. But An Island was not the place for that. I was looking at the other side of the story – the person who is not sympathetic to the refugee, the person who wants them gone.

The refugee has his story, but let someone else tell it, perhaps someone who has more of a right to tell it.

In terms of the need of the plot, yes, that was another consideration. I needed to build up tension over the few days of the narrative, and that tension comes from the two of them not being able to communicate. Had they been able to speak the same language, or had they tried to communicate and succeeded, the story would have been a different one.

The uses of fables

Jordan Kantey:
Those are great insights, thank you.

One of the things that is interesting (but also sad) about An Island is how timely/current it is right now due to, for example, the war in Ukraine and many other lingering or imminent conflicts.

In that way the story of a man grappling with how to respond to the arrival of a refugee could feel fable-like, due to its sense of timelessness.

You say in your interview with Joanne Hichens for Litnet, ‘I didn’t set out to write a fable – or, rather, I did not think about it explicitly in those terms – yet I believe that the description is an apt one, to a certain extent.’

There is a sense of caution in this, perhaps an awareness of how ‘slick’ narrative can be in (prematurely) tying up loose ends and leading history to be forgotten, or in being twisted to serve dubious agendas.

This wariness comes through clearly in the story. When the official from the mainland visiting the island after Samuel reports bodies washing up, says:

Once we’ve found the bodies, that’s the time when the healing will begin, for the nation, for us all.

What are your thoughts on fables, and the official’s statement about ‘finding the bodies’? It seems implied that an ethics of confession/forgiveness is insufficient for true healing.

Karen Jennings:
I spoke earlier about how I had the idea for An Island on 15 August 2015.

At the time, as I mentioned, I had been working on Upturned Earth – a novel that examines the exploitative, corrupt history of commercial mining in South Africa, and which, in a sense, is a comment on the Marikana Massacre which happened on 16 August 2012.

What does healing look like to those who were killed during the massacre, what does healing look like to their loved ones a decade on? What does healing look like for the miners still working today? What reforms have we seen in the mining industry?

There is a sense that after something like Marikana, or perhaps more broadly, after something like the end of apartheid and the promise of the New South Africa in 1994, that confession would solve all the problems and everything would be perfect afterwards.

That is not the case. There is no happy ending. Unlike fairy tales, fables have a moral or want to teach in some way. I think confessions have that role too, in one sense. They are telling us a story of what has gone wrong, and we need to find ways to weave those confessions into our lives so that we can move forward and try not to make those same mistakes.

But that comes with work, with awareness, with paying attention, with each person examining themselves.

Forthcoming work

Jordan Kantey:
Absolutely, there is a lot to think about in that (that justice requires ongoing work and paying careful attention).

Thank you again for speaking to us, it’s been an illuminating conversation. To end off, I read that you have a completed manuscript and another half finished. Are you at liberty to share further details about upcoming projects with us?

Karen Jennings:
I have a novel, Crooked Seeds, coming out next year. It is set in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and takes place a few years in the future – 2028.

I have another manuscript (the half you mentioned) but I have put that aside for now as I don’t believe I am quite ready for it.

This year I am working with the Biography of an Uncharted People Project at Stellenbosch University, looking at slave emancipation in the 1830s and preparing to embark on a creative project related to that.

About the author

South African author Karen Jennings

Karen Jennings is a South African author. She has published five works of fiction (Finding Soutbek, Away from the Dead, Travels with my Father, Upturned Earth and An Island – which was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize) as well as a collection of poetry, Space Inhabited by Echoes. In 2022 she commenced a postdoctoral fellowship affiliated with the Biography of an Uncharted People Project under the aegis of LEAP at Stellenbosch University in South Africa

I have been surprised and delighted by my experience with Now Novel. The platform tools have provided a highly effective way to map out the structure of my novel while my experienced, inspiring coach Hedi has provided feedback and strategies that have reminded me that writing is fun and that my stories are worth telling. I recommend Now Novel whole heartedly for anyone who has been carrying a novel around inside, just needing the right nudge to get ‘er done. — Maggi

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By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

6 replies on “Author interview: Karen Jennings on An Island”

Great article and really interesting to hear about the approach and process – especially being prepared to keep writing rather than going back and trying to remember the name of a particular character or place. I found myself going back a few times along the road to completing my own first draft recently. Would I be brave enough to trust that I’d get it right on the next pass or the next so as not to interrupt the creative flow? Not previously but if it works for someone who’s been listed for the Booker Prize, it seems worth trying on my next project!

Thanks Jordan, and thanks to Karen for her time.

It’s a pleasure, Mark! Thank you for reading our conversation and sharing your own writing journey with your recent draft.

Thanks for this interview. It’s an inspiration and a comfort. Writing can be overwhelming in terms of what you want to say, what you should say, and how you can say it. Thinking of the process as such a persistent and layered approach is more like handing off the baton to your future self in a relay versus crumbling alone halfway to the finish line. It’s certainly still a challenge, but maybe a little more hopeful.

Hi Margriet, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I love that image of handing the baton to your future self – absolutely, and it’s a great image of the self-trust such a long and arduous journey requires (as well as periods of rest, of course).

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