On Writing, with Kenneth Bonert
Knopf Random House Canada's prestigious New Face of Fiction program has graduated some CanLit superstars, including Yann Martel, Esi Edugyan and Anne Marie MacDonald. This year the program is offering a single title, Kenneth Bonert's The Lion Seeker, released today. With just one title this year, a first for the program, there's lots of buzz around the book.
The Lion Seeker is an epic story set in South Africa prior to WWII and today we speak with Kenneth about his experience as a first-time novelist, the South African Jewish experience and what Philip Roth had to say about the road to hell.
Tell us about your book, The Lion Seeker.
It's a big, sweeping novel about a Jewish emigrant family who settle in South Africa before the Second World War. The main character is the son, Isaac Helger, who is desperate to fight his way out of poverty and into respected manhood. His mother is just as desperate to get her relatives out of Lithuania as the war looms closer. The two drives eventually intersect in a grueling crisis for Isaac. There's love, hate, secrets, violence, ambition — I tried not to pull any punches.
The best compliment I've received is that the book feels like the true reality of South Africa, even though it's set in the 1930s. I think that's because life in South Africa is so intense, with highs of unbelievable kindness and caring, and lows of the utmost depravity. A country of emotional extremes as well as economical. If I've done my job, the reader should feel that intensity with this book.
How did you get into Isaac's head while writing? What are some of his strengths and weaknesses?
It's all about finding the right voice, the right language. I struggled for a long time, but once I started to use the present tense for Isaac, he launched off the page and became real for me. He's a raw, tough, driven, no-BS kind of character but that's mixed with naivety, sentimentality, passion. I think what makes him real is how he blunders through life, often being his own worst enemy, but also how piercingly he suffers regrets and tries to right himself.
The South African Jewish experience isn't one that's been represented in fiction as often as other areas of the Diaspora. Why do you think that is? And what did you want to share with readers about this experience?
A good observation. I think the struggle against apartheid eclipsed other literary possibilities for a long time. With apartheid buried, there's some new cultural space for other South African stories to come out. Some writers worry there's nothing compelling to write about in South Africa compared to the black/white drama of apartheid. I see it the other way, that now we have tremendous freedom to interpret and explore the South African experience without politics impinging on the work the way it used to. That includes going back and taking fresh slants on old history, re-examining neglected threads. To put it another way: there used to be only one story worth telling in South Africa; now there are a multitude.
The Jewish presence was a big part of white South African life, comprised of an extremely cohesive and highly organized community. I wanted to show these people in literature for the first time and I wanted to begin with their origins in Lithuania, with the first generation. It's rich territory for a novelist to explore because of the moral complexities involved, i.e., Jews being an oppressed people and settling in Africa where whites oppress blacks, yet still feeling precariously vulnerable to anti-Semitism. So I wanted to use that era to create a compelling drama and to capture authentically Jewish South African characters in fiction in an original way. That meant capturing their voices, their slang, in a way that was accessible to outsiders yet still authentic. I wanted to bring into literature a new kind of Jewish character: tough African Jews with their own unique style of doing things.
This book was published as part of the New Face of Fiction programme. What has your experience with NFOF been?
It's a great privilege to be part of such a prestigious program, one that has produced the likes of Yann Martel and Ann-Marie MacDonald. My editor Craig Pyette was great to work with, a real calming, professional presence, with a patient eye for perfection in the details. Anne Collins has been a wonderful champion of the book, and Louise Dennys made me feel so very welcome. The whole book-making experience with Knopf Canada has been a profoundly happy one for me. I feel lucky indeed for the book to have found such a good home.
You've also worked as a journalist and published short fiction. How did your previous writing experience bear on writing the novel? Did you find the process very different from your other work?
A novel is a very different animal from either of those forms. One thing journalism can give you is a nose for a story. It always comes down to the human factor. Information about, say, budget cuts is just numbers, boring; but if you can find the person who is hurting because of those cuts and show the connection, you can uncover a readable, interesting story. I think that's an unwavering truth about all stories, whether fiction or non — we don't write stories for computers to read, we write for other humans with the same hearts and brains. At the same time, journalism also gave me an obsession with checking facts, getting it right, maybe too much so for fiction, but that is still good to have in later drafts when you're trying to get the authentic details correct, not so much in the beginning when you're letting your imagination go. You don't need to be fact-oriented then, that will only hinder you.
With a novel, the story is constructed out of imagination. Since the imagination lies deep inside, in the same place where dreams come from, it's an inward investigation. With journalism, it's the opposite, going out into world with the notebook and getting the quotes. But the interesting similarity is that the more you learn about the story — the more sources you talk to in journalism, and the more drafts you do in fiction — the clearer the picture becomes and the more your confidence grows. This confidence reflects in the writing, I think. The key is to persist till you know what you're doing.
What are you working on now?
Another novel and a story collection. To be honest, I have more ideas for projects than I know what to do with. The discipline is to stay with one thing till the end. I think it was Philip Roth who said that the road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.