As part of the book tours that the Etisalat Prize of literature organises for its winner and two runners-up, Karen Jennings—the author of the critically acclaimed ‘‘Finding Soutbek’’ and the second runners-up of the Prize that awards first time Pan-African writers —was in Kenya to promote her book.
She talks about how she writes and her influence.
What comes first, plot or character?
I think it depends on what I am working on. Sometimes for me, certainly with this novel that was short listed for the Etisalat Prize, the plot came first. With other things I have done, it has been character. So I do not have a hard and fast answer.
Describe the main character of the book?
They are a couple of main characters, but I will pick out one. It is the mayor of the town and he is neither good nor bad. He has got very bad aspects of him because he is corrupt and wants to exploit the poor people. He came from poverty and it is something he wants to erase from his memory and life.
He also has good aspects like he wants to be kind and loving to his wife, but he goes about it the wrong way. He wants to help poor people, but only by getting rid of them.
You mentioned that you had a couple of main characters, why pick the mayor?
I spent a lot of time researching in a small town that I based my town on. One of the things I wanted is a character that had that town in the palm of his hand. Someone who had grown up there, but now had the power to change it for better or worse.
What was the most fun thing about writing this book?
The good part is when you are writing. It is painful to write sometimes, but it is more painful not to write.
Which authors do you look up to? And why?
I am very old fashioned when it comes to my taste. Some of my favourite authors are 19th or early 20th century authors like Emile Zola. I am influenced by social realism. Then there are Frank Norris, John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair.
The Jungle [by Sinclair] is a powerful book because by writing that book, he was able to change the laws in the US meat industry. That is what social realism is about making changes.
There are lot of issues of mining in South Africa and that is something I would like to go into, but it is heavily guarded.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished writing a non-fiction sort of travel memoir book. I just wrote the last few words and put it aside, so in about one to two months time I will go back to it and then edit.
I have two novels I want to write, but I am not one of those writers who goes from book to book because then you find that your plots and characters all look alike. I do not want that. I am going to force myself to have a break.
People say that writing is continuous rewriting. How long do you take to get a book ready?
It depends on how good the original is. Sometimes it can take longer, ‘‘Finding Soutbek’’ took many years. But every book is a mystery. It becomes your friend, enemy, family and life.