For Books’ Sake Talks To: Henrietta Rose-Innes

1st Nov 2012


Henrietta Rose-Innes is a South African writer based in Cape Town. Her novel Nineveh was published by Random House Struik in 2011, following a short-story collection, Homing (2010), and two earlier novels: Shark’s Egg (2000) and The Rock Alphabet (2004).

In 2012, her short story Sanctuary took second place in the BBC International Short Story CompetitionNineveh was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award.

She is currently Donald Gordon Creative Arts Fellow at the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), University of Cape Town.

FBS: All your novels are set in Cape Town, but your award-nominated novel Nineveh has a markedly different subject matter to your previous novels. Tell us, why bugs?

HRI: Bugs! What’s not to like? Insects are beautiful creatures, but usually not in obvious or sentimental ways … they have an alien sensuality that is fun to write about.

I also think a horde of tiny beings infiltrating a housing estate is quite a good metaphor for insidious changes to our environment: the small things that occupy the unseen cracks in the world and then one day break it apart. Insect vermin are also reviled and lowly creatures and my protagonist identifies quite strongly with them.

FBS: Nineveh is suffused with dark comedy. Do you find humour a good tool for making difficult subjects like broken families and homelessness accessible to the everyday reader?

HRI: My writing has a natural tendency to be rather sombre. Ironic humour is a way of lifting and enlivening that tone without losing a fundamental melancholy, which is probably inescapable. This interplay between comedy and gloom is probably quite close to my own private voice.

For that reason, I think, I’ve found humorous writing intimidating in the past: it feels intimate and quite exposing.  But I’m getting bolder about using the comic register.

FBS: In what is otherwise a largely non-religious book, how did you go about choosing a biblical reference as both your book’s title and the location of the story’s climax?

HRI: It’s also a historical reference: Nineveh was one of the very first great cities, famously destroyed, so as a title it has great resonance for a novel about cities in flux and how they rise and fall and rise again. There is a particularly beautiful verse from Zephaniah, which I quote at the front of the book, about how Nineveh’s ruins are inhabited by wild animals – which has obvious echoes in the novel.

In the Bible, of course, this is meant as a vision of utter desolation, and God’s punishment for pride, but I choose to see it as a more hopeful image of the re-appropriation of city space by unexpected inhabitants.

FBS: I imagine that real life female ethical pest control experts are hard to come by – how did you go about developing Katya’s character?  

HRI: I confess that I did very little on-the-ground research into vermin eradication. My loophole was that Katya is an eccentric variety of pest controller, one that I don’t think could practically exist in the real world: her humane approach is to relocate the animals to favourable locations. I was pretty much free to make up the specifics of this rather implausible speciality.

Katya herself is an amalgam of various tough, foolhardy, damaged, wisecracking, contrary people I have known. I liked her prickliness, and to explain it I had to delve a little into how she might have turned out that way – which then necessitated fleshing out her itinerant childhood and the curious semi-abusive relationship she has with her father.

FBS: You’re no stranger to literary awards, having won the Caine Prize for Poison, a short story. Nineveh was also shortlisted for the Sunday Times Literary Award. Your books have also been translated into several different languages – what do you think it is about your books that makes them almost universally attractive?

HRI: Thank you, that’s a lovely compliment – but in truth there have been only a few translations, and I’m still hoping to find international publishers for my novels. So “universally attractive” is rather strong!

I’ve been very fortunate, though, in the critical reception my books have been given, and in terms of prizes and shortlistings. The recognition has certainly helped me to go on, and is important in a publishing environment where acclaim doesn’t exactly come in the form of large royalty cheques.

I’m not sure I can comment on why other people like my books. What I like about them, or one of the things I hope they achieve, is that they create a version of reality that is transformed by redeeming or illuminating strangeness.  If readers can find that in my books, great. If readers find other qualities that I’m not quite aware of – even better.

FBS: What impact has winning these awards had on your career? Have you found they opened doors for you and do you think they have an important role to play in the literary industry?

HRI: Certainly, winning awards, or being nominated for them, helps to keep one’s books in the public eye, which is necessary part of the business. But [prize-giving] is a strange and often artificial process, whereby the tastes of a small group of judges elevate one person’s writing above other works that may be wildly different and equally worthy. I think most writers, in most situations, would prefer to see attention given to a strong selection of books rather than to “the winner”.

That said, it’s nice when you ARE the winner.  Prize money has helped me to live and work as a writer. Prize organisations can also create networks and introductions: the Caine Prize in particular is great for making connections with other African writers, which has been really valuable.

FBS: Each of your novels has featured a female character in the lead – do your principal characters come to you by accident or are they specifically designated as female roles?

HRI: I usually say that my protagonists are versions of myself, distorted to a greater or lesser degree. It is easier to write from a perspective close to one’s own, not least in terms of gender … although that can get dull. I’m becoming more interested in exploring other points of view: ones not a million miles away from my own, but that are at least taking a different tangent.

I have experimented with writing older voices, and the novel I’m currently working on has a male protagonist. It’s required a bit of confidence and experience to try this. I think I’ll probably always invest quite heavily in female characters, though: I am interested in representing unorthodox, underrepresented or just unexpected varieties of female character.

FBS: You are very involved in teaching creative writing. What kind of a role do you think creative writing has to play in the development of a country like South Africa?

HRI: I don’t do much teaching any more, but I have tutored quite a bit at university and online. The creative writing courses that have sprung up over the last decade in South Africa have been enormously helpful: so many exciting writers have come out of them, or at least been helped along the way. (I am cautious, though, about those who may go into a course with the expectation of certain publication at the end of it.) I think anything that helps people to tell their stories is important and necessary.

However, much more needs to be done to bring this kind of help – as well as reading, and books, and publishing opportunities – to those who have no access to such courses.

FBS: The iconic JM Coetzee, one of South Africa’s two Nobel Literature Laureates, has endorsed your work – is he a particular literary influence or are there others who inspire you?

HRI:  I was very fortunate to have JM Coetzee as my supervisor when I myself was enrolled in the UCT Creative Writing MA – many years ago now. He was an ideal supervisor for me: he made me actually consider what I was doing, he didn’t let me coast through on work that was “good enough”, and he was the first person to show me the levels of rigour and sensitivity and self-editing that were required. Invaluable lessons.

FBS: I’m sure you have something very exciting up your sleeve for your next project – would you like to share what it is?

HRI: I am currently working on a new novel called Green Lion. It’s partly about Cape black-maned lions, which were eradicated in the early 19th Century. It has grown out of the work I’m doing this year as a GIPCA Fellow at the Gordon Institute of Performing and Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town – I’ve been writing short texts about animal extinctions. I plan to have the new novel finished midway through next year.

Henrietta Rose-Innes’ books can be purchased here and you can read an extract of Ninevah here.

(Photograph of Henrietta Rose-Innes’ by Christine Fourie)