My Interview with Henrietta Rose-Innes about her new novel, Green Lion

This interview took place online on the Good Book Appreciation Society.

Lisa Lazarus Hello everyone. Hello, Henrietta. How are you?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Hi! I’m excellent. I am sitting in the library eating a chocolate orange.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But I have to be very quiet, so you can’t make me laugh out loud. I have already had my coffee confiscated.

Lisa Lazarus Now you tell me.

Lisa Lazarus Okay, let’s get started.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I’m psyched.

Lisa Lazarus Green Lion is Henrietta’s latest book. It’s both a simple story and a multi-layered exploration of extinction, guilt, loss, and desire. At one level, it tells the tale of the last remaining black-maned lioness in the world and her effects on the people around her. One of Henrietta’s great skills, and of course there are many, is that she is an exceptionally visual writer who captures a moment in a strikingly lyrical way. She also, by the way, takes amazing photographs on Instagram. These things seem connected. From insects to lions, that’s quite a shift. Why?

Henrietta Rose-Innes why thank you! (If anyone is interested, there is a picture of my chocolate orange on Instagram right now).

Lisa Lazarus Animals, animals: we’ll get to those. [See Henrietta’s picture above.]

Henrietta Rose-Innes Partly it is a sentimental, romantic thing. I’ve always been very attached to the figure of the Cape Lion.

Henrietta Rose-Innes When I was a child I was fascinated by a photo of a taxidermied specimen that was in the SA Museum, on of my favourite places.

Lisa Lazarus Do you happen to know if it’s still there?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Also, it is a bit of a self-indulgence to write about lions: they are such sensually and aesthetically appealing creatures.

Lisa Lazarus That’s true. The tones of Green Lion and your previous novel Nineveh are fairly different. Whereas Nineveh is, in parts, humorous, and perhaps more hopeful, Green Lion seems more pessimistic in tone. Would you agree? Has your world view become darker? How did it feel to produce these different worlds? (Answer all, none or some of these questions.)

Henrietta Rose-Innes And in this book I wanted to write about idealised, symbolically potent wildlife – unlike the mundane creepy-crawlies in Nineveh. And you don’t get much more potent a symbol than an extinct lion.

Henrietta Rose-Innes oh sorry, i was running on. I’ve just refreshed and seen your other questions.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Let me catch up …

Lisa Lazarus I think I’ve also fallen behind.

Henrietta Rose-Innes The lion photo is still in the Museum; but the specimen itself is in storage in the Natural History museum in London. I went on a little pilgrimage last year to visit him.

Lisa Lazarus (I want to ask you about research but later on.)

Henrietta Rose-Innes Nineveh did have a darkly funny tone, or at least that’s what I was going for … it was quite jocular. The point of that book was that the world turns regardless, things are built and destroyed, and the natural world lives on, often in strange, tough, not always welcome forms.

Lisa Lazarus Whereas the tone of GL felt much sadder in parts.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But in green Lion I wanted to examine the other side of our relationship with the natural world: the fact that we are also rapidly emptying it of many of our fellow creatures. I wanted to write about how, as we lose these companions, we seem to also revere them more, and give them intense, almost religious or fetishistic significance. Many humans are animal crazy in a way we never were when we actually dealt with animals in our daily lives.

Henrietta Rose-Innes And yes, that is sad to me. I’m afraid the book doesn’t offer much in the way of redemption or relief from environmental pessimism.

Lisa Lazarus Yes, animals are roaring inkblots in your book.

Lisa Lazarus For example: for the animal group, viewing animal videos is compared with people “saying grace”. It’s spiritual / religious. Of course you’re making a point here about the disparity between the inauthentic (“watching videos of animals”) and the authentic experience. But aren’t people also projecting all kinds of things – their needs, hopes, desires – onto animals?

Henrietta Rose-Innes That’s a good name for a band, the Roaring Inkblots

Lisa Lazarus Band of writers, perhaps

Henrietta Rose-Innes Yes, indeed. The main character, Con, in particular: he is a lonely figure because of various personal losses he has experienced; and he projects that loss and the desire for connection onto the lioness in his care at the zoo.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Of course this is terrible choice. You cannot fall in love with an animal that mostly wants to eat you.

Lisa Lazarus Well, reminds me of some guys I’ve known.

Lisa Lazarus Sorry

Henrietta Rose-Innes hmm

Henrietta Rose-Innes I was actually wording that quite carefully to avoid any smut

Henrietta Rose-Innes so much for that

Lisa Lazarus Yes, the relationship between Con and the lion is very erotic. I wanted to talk about that.

Lisa Lazarus The novel is largely about loss, but there is also a strong element of erotic desire that pulses through it.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It is. The book is also quite a lot about desire. And desire as an answer to the fear of death, I suppose.

Lisa Lazarus Can I quote you something from The Tale of Genji? About time we turned to eleventh century Japanese literature.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Con is very sexual. He struggles to connect emotionally, but he falls easily into sexual relationships.

Henrietta Rose-Innes oh ok

Henrietta Rose-Innes But in English please, my archaic Japanese is rusty.

Lisa Lazarus Let me just quickly translate spontaneously.

Lisa Lazarus Compare this from a recent New Yorker article on the eleventh century Japanese masterpiece, The Tale of Genji: “One reason that physical contact between men and women is hardly ever described in “Genji” is that courtly lovers almost never saw one another clearly, and certainly not naked… A male suitor could be driven wild by the sight of a woman’s sleeve spilling out from underneath a shade, or by the mere sound of silk rustling behind a lacquer screen.

Now look at your description of Con feeding Sekhmet, the lioness, her bloody meat: “His communion with the lioness was unpredictable. Sometimes, he was allowed to glimpse only significant parts: a paw, a flank, an eye…he could never see the whole. She’d wait for him to look away, then slip out and snag the meat, pulling it inside or into the shelter of a rock or bush…Sometimes she’d lift her eyes momentarily from her bloody meal to meet his gaze through the glass.”

Lisa Lazarus Can you speak about the erotic in the book and how it seems to manifest in the deeply unfamiliar, the foreign?

Henrietta Rose-Innes nice quotes!

Henrietta Rose-Innes hai

Lisa Lazarus thanks

Henrietta Rose-Innes I like the idea of powerful glimpses … the lion is particularly frightening and magnetic to Con because she is so elusive. A lion barely seen in the undergrowth is much more terrifying than one you can easily locate. And I think desire is the flipside of that: the strongest lusts are for things not completely seen or comprehended.

Lisa Lazarus True. Even I like a lady’s ankle.

Henrietta Rose-Innes The lioness Sekhmet is an illusory desire; Con can never attain her, just as he can’t bring back his mother from death or his childhood friend (who he also desired) from age and physical damage.

Lisa Lazarus But the erotic component in GL seems more than that. When Con has an encounter with Mossie outside the lion’s cage, he describes the effect of the lion – “the spike, the rush, the beating heart” – on both of them.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Sometimes I feel that that kind of rush is the only thing that keeps us going!

Lisa Lazarus The erotic pulse is often equated with a sense of being alive, high, open to the world: the opposite of death.

Henrietta Rose-Innes The rush of desire, of wanting.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Yes exactly.

Lisa Lazarus Yep.

Henrietta Rose-Innes And in this book it is also represented by the very real adrenalin rush of being in close contact with a big, beautiful, very dangerous animal.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Again, not an experience humans have very often these days; it can be addictive.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I am fascinated by people who want to put themselves in close proximity to that kind of danger.

Lisa Lazarus And particularly for Con, who is frequently described as a ghost. (I guess ghosts especially need that thrill to feel a little bit alive.)

Lisa Lazarus How was it writing about a character like Con?

Henrietta Rose-Innes In Green Lion I try to poke a little gentle fun at that desire too, with the club of nature fanciers who meet up monthly to pet an interesting animal.

Lisa Lazarus Ja, that was funny.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It was interesting. I haven’t often written from the point of view of a man before, and never in a novel.

Lisa Lazarus They did get a snake at their last meeting. That was lucky.

Lisa Lazarus Speaking of snakes then, tell us about writing from the point of view of a man.

Lisa Lazarus Did it feel different?

Henrietta Rose-Innes And he is quite a lonely and emotionally numbed character. he needed to be, in order to want to feel something so badly.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But my characters are always weirder and less likeable than I think they are. I am fond of them and find them completely understandable, but people often tell me they’re strange and unpleasant.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I don’t quite understand my own reasons for choosing a male protagonist this time.

Lisa Lazarus Haha. I don’t think Con is unpleasant, but one does want to shake him out of it. At least I felt that way, at times.

Lisa Lazarus Perhaps you can explore the issues at a somewhat removed level. I think it’s quite helpful as a writer to work via a different gender.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It’s got something to do with the fact that a central dynamic in the book is his unrequited crush on his childhood friend Mark. I wanted to write about the intensity of that kind of adolescent longing and desire; and it was easier for me to write about feeling that for a boy. But I also wanted Con and Mark to be almost doubles of each other. So they are both male.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It’s just a temperamental thing too, really. I do find repressed characters much easier to relate to.

Lisa Lazarus This could take us back to your very first novel Shark’s Egg, which included such a powerful evocation of adolescent longing. Do you find that the well of those intense childhood and adolescent teenage years is still deep for you?

Henrietta Rose-Innes sigh!

Henrietta Rose-Innes yes

Lisa Lazarus Good for you. Me too.

Henrietta Rose-Innes you can’t always choose the things that drive you. last thing in the world i ever wanted to write about was high school.

Lisa Lazarus Haha

Henrietta Rose-Innes but it sometimes feels to me that I am sequentially processing my life in my novels. It feels like each one has dealt with the preoccupations of a particular time of my life.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Maybe one day I will catch up with myself.

Lisa Lazarus I want to talk about the fence and it does kind of connect to the issue of adolescence and adulthood.

Lisa Lazarus Might you move ahead of yourself?

Lisa Lazarus And find out what you’ll be up to next?

Lisa Lazarus Martian exploration?

Henrietta Rose-Innes (I don’t really like writing about children or young people even. I would like to get away from it but somehow they keep creeping into the backstories, the little buggers)

Lisa Lazarus Now let’s a grip on ourselves. The fence.

Henrietta Rose-Innes the fence

Henrietta Rose-Innes what about it then

Henrietta Rose-Innes Context:

Lisa Lazarus Hang on. In GL, the ‘fence’ is a potent motif. It rings Table Mountain and it divides your Cape Town into permissible and prohibited areas. No South African can see such a fence without a political reminder of our fraught history. Does it have this kind of resonance for you? Or is it more psychological? One can also see the fence as the demarcating of the id: the wild, the ungovernable. It’s an exciting area. The reader is itching for Con to break through the boundary and go on through to the other side.

Henrietta Rose-Innes In the book, Table Mountain has been fenced off by the authorities to preserve the ecosystem up there. A few wealthy people can buy permits for guided tours, however.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Yes of course, it is a hugely loaded symbol. Impossible, in this city and this country, to write about fencing off land and barring people from access without referencing forced removals and apartheid demarcations. I do try to acknowledge that history in the section of the book where an informal settlement is destroyed to make way for the fence.

Lisa Lazarus I saw that, sure. But for me, the fence felt powerfully psychological.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But although the fence feels powerful, it is in fact revealed to be a bit of a farce, by the end. The mountain is not preserved; the scheme is corrupt and inefficient; it is not possible to control the human and/or the natural world in this managerial way.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Which is also a kind of critique of a kind of bureaucratic style of conservation which tries to remove people from the equation.

Lisa Lazarus Yes. But the meaning of the fence seems to alter. In adolescence, what’s behind the fence is something genuinely terrifying, and tragedy ensues. In adulthood, there is nothing much beyond the fence, and what Con hopes to find there – wildness, perhaps even a roaming lion – is not there. At some level are you making a comment about those life stages, perhaps contrasting the excitement (danger) of adolescence with the dull predictability, and inevitable loss (death), of adulthood?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Although a little girl goes missing, we don’t know why. And I don’t know if there is anything genuinely terrifying behind the fence in the childhood section. I tried to keep it quite ambiguous – we never really are sure if there is a lion on the mountain or not. The real fear is, simply, mortality; and that is what is waiting for Con behind the fence in adulthood too.

Lisa Lazarus You’re a slippery customer, Henrietta. In the best possible way.

Lisa Lazarus Lastly:

Henrietta Rose-Innes But there is a sense too – and I’m thinking this for the first time now – that the fence is a kind of barrier between childhood and adulthood.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Literally: the young, small children can slip through the gaps , and also slip more easily into a world of fantasy and make-believe; once they grow older, the barrier is not so permeable.

Lisa Lazarus That’s interesting

Lisa Lazarus Yet the hunters seems able to slip into a fantasy world, maybe?

Henrietta Rose-Innes They are trying. (There is this group of rather inept hunters who are being taken on safari on the mountain – Con runs into them)

Henrietta Rose-Innes But they are entirely unsuccessful. They are trying to enact the big-game hunting fantasy, but the quarry is just not there any more.

Lisa Lazarus Yes, thanks for the context. They are also engaged in a pretend game.

Lisa Lazarus A kind of Wishing Chair for adults

Lisa Lazarus From Enid Blyton to HRI

Lisa Lazarus Okay, lastly, because we have now run out of time

Lisa Lazarus It’s an Ali G type question

Henrietta Rose-Innes In the end of the book, all that is left is the pretend game. The zoo has abandoned its project to create actual animals, and has fallen back on theatre and art . Grim!

Lisa Lazarus If you could be an animal, what animal would you be?

Henrietta Rose-Innes hahaha

Henrietta Rose-Innes *blank*

Henrietta Rose-Innes i used to always say polar bear, but things are not looking so good for them these days.

Lisa Lazarus It’s a trick question. You already are an animal.

Henrietta Rose-Innes pigeon maybe. They do alright.

Lisa Lazarus I got that from Douglas Coupland.

Henrietta Rose-Innes yes, but not the animal I want to be

Lisa Lazarus Pigeons have a lot of fun.

Lisa Lazarus Henrietta has written a terrific book and we could talk about it endlessly. You peel away one layer, you get another. But time to open it to the floor.

Bea Reader What are you working on next HRI?

Henrietta Rose-Innes Another trick question …

Henrietta Rose-Innes I have started a new book but it’s in very early stages right now. So far the main character is … a bridge.

Henrietta Rose-Innes A concrete overpass bridge.

Bea Reader Hmmmmmm

Henrietta Rose-Innes But very passionate and emotionally engaged.

Lisa Lazarus Hahaha Somewhere exciting? Is it like the Bridges of Madison County?

Máire Fisher Ooooh – what might lurk there … besides trolls.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I am trying to stay clear of animals and children

Máire Fisher Oh, so no billy goats.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I think there are a couple of skeletons, and probably some stone tools.

Henrietta Rose-Innes It’s a kind of archaeological romance between inanimate objects.

Henrietta Rose-Innes This is sounding less and less sexy.

Lisa Lazarus  No characters at all I hope. They just get in the way of things, I find.

Henrietta Rose-Innes ja I might just tell the story entirely on instagram.

Lisa Lazarus So, you’re living in the UK at the moment. Is this influencing your writing?

Máire Fisher Great interview Henrietta and Lisa. Flipping load-shedding now – will catch up on rest later.

Lisa Lazarus Cold, damp milieus?

Henrietta Rose-Innes I wonder that myself. It is having the effect of making South Africa feel removed (obviously) and more abstract. Which is not necessarily a bad thing., but different.

Henrietta Rose-Innes I don’t know if I’m ready to write about England itself, just yet. I don’t have that confidence.

Henrietta Rose-Innes What I do have here is lots and lots of time to write, which is quite a transformative thing.

Lisa Lazarus I understand. I don’t like going beyond Newlands.

Henrietta Rose-Innes Rain is flooding down now. I find rain very good for writing.

Henrietta Rose-Innes But I am not here for long now – will be back in SA in a week’s time, for the M&G festival, and then for Open Book.

Henrietta Rose-Innes You haven’t got rid of me yet.

Lisa Lazarus And with the soundtrack of heavy rain, we now leave Henrietta Rose-Innes, one of South Africa’s most distinguished writers, as she looks pensively onto a drenched, green English landscape, and eats a chocolate orange.

Henrietta Rose-Innes oh the choc orange is LONG gone.

Henrietta Rose-Innes thanks Lisa – it was great chatting.

Bea Reader Massive lion paw-print sized thanks to you both for a fascinating hour dissecting Green Lion. An incredible, layered novel by a phenomenal author.

Lisa Lazarus Good-bye, viewers. Good-bye. Remember, you can experience more of Henrietta by reading her remarkable books.

Bea Reader Our wonderful interviewer, Lisa Lazarus, is a psychologist and freelance writer. She has Master’s degrees in psychology and creative writing, and diplomas in higher education and in information systems. Lisa has co-written three books with philosopher Greg Fried: the novels Paradise (Kwela, 2014) and When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes (Kwela, 2012), and the memoir The Book of Jacob: A Journey into Parenthood (Oshun, 2009). She has written for many publications, including Men’s Health, Femina, Shape, Cosmopolitan, Cape Town’s Child, Psychologies, and Mail & Guardian. Lisa tutors Magazine Journalism, Feature Writing and Memoir Writing for SA Writers’ College.And blogs over here:

Henrietta Rose-Innes Thank you, Bea Reader – it was a pleasure. x

Bea Reader And the fascinating and talented Henrietta Rose-Innes is an award-winning novelist and short story writer based in Cape Town (Currently in the UK). Before Green Lion, Henrietta wrote 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.