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Alex Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Henrietta & Proust: Henrietta Rose-Innes Responds to the Infamous Questionnaire

Companion Cats, Anonymous Hotel Rooms, Long Truths, Quick Lies and Dread…In spite of her youth and perverse messiness, Henrietta Rose-Innes has a formidable international reputation as a writer of exceptional fictions. Winner of the Caine Prize for African writing and the SA PEN literary award, she is author of Homing (2010), an anthology of brilliant short stories, as well as three acclaimed novels: Nineveh (2011) , Shark’s Egg (2000) and The Rock Alphabet (2004). She has been writer in residence at the University of Georgetown, and is currently Donald Gordon Creative Arts Fellow at the University of Cape Town.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The translucent, thronging ocean in the recurrent dreams of my childhood

What is your greatest fear?

The incomprehensibly terrifying boulder in the recurrent nightmares of my childhood

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Ethelred the Unready

Which living person do you most admire?

I won’t embarrass them by naming names. They might be Books Live readers, you never know.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Perverse messiness

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Perverse tidiness

What is your greatest extravagance?
I like to stay in generic, anonymous hotel rooms. (When travelling, that is – not just for thrills.)

What is your favorite Journey?

Earlier today I travelled on a bus through the Scottish Highlands, from Inverness to the Isle of Skye. Surely one of the loveliest bus-routes in the world.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?


On what occasion do you lie?

When the truth would take too long and be too boring to explain.

What do you dislike most about your appearance?

Third toe on my left foot. I had an operation on it and now it doesn’t push off from the ground like it used to. You’d think that little toe would be inconsequential, but no.

Which living person do you most despise?

Again, they may well be Books Live readers.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Names of colours. An editor once forced me to count all the instances of “blue” and “silver” in a story. It was embarrassing.

What is your greatest regret?

Not something I should dwell on, or even put into words. Thanks for bringing it up.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

My dear departed Fremount, companion cat for 13 years. I loved her beyond reason or measure. She scorned man and beast, and once plunged a claw into my eyeball. Such is love.

Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to slip a secret, second Sunday, for me alone, into every week.

What is your current state of mind?


If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

The Roses and / or Inneses would have more attractive tartans.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The next book. The one I haven’t written yet.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?

The last kakapo

If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
Something with functional wings would be nice. Kakapos have wings, but they’re useless.

What is your most treasured possession?

If the house were on fire, I’d evacuate the cats. (Are cats possessions?) And my mother’s paintings. And the goldfish – not that I treasure them exactly, but out of simple decency.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

The 3am Morbid Thoughts. Alternatively, the 3pm Dread, which strikes after an afternoon nap

Where would you like to live?

In some sort of secret high-tech mountain fortress

What is your favorite occupation?

Making campfires.

What is your most marked characteristic?


What is the quality you most like in a man?

X-ray vision

What is the quality you most like in a woman?


What do you most value in your friends?

Their unstained virtue

Who are your favorite writers?

Since reading “The Unconsoled”, my shy literary crush on Kazuo Ishiguro has intensified.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. I may be swayed by the fact that he was played by Dirk Bogarde in the film, though. And to continue the Scottish theme: Young Lochinvar (so daring in love, and so dauntless in war) – one of my mother’s inspired lullabyes.

Who are your heroes in real life?
That lady who once turned me right-way-up in the Newlands kiddies swimming pool. I hope she’s still alive.

What are your favorite names?

“Constantine” is rather grand. It’s a family name so I’d have a right to use it if I had a son. Or a Weimeraner.

What is it that you most dislike?

Goats-milk cheese.

How would you like to die?

Mauled by Himalayan clouded leopards. Quickly, if possible, without too much kittenish play.

What is your motto?

Actually I have two. Clan Rose: “Constant and true”. Clan Innes: “Be traist (faithful)”. Not the most exciting of Scottish clans, the Roses/Inneses.

A paragraph from Nineveh:

There is a brief interval, a hush before the orchestra begins. The conductor raises his baton. The creatures of the night wait for the next movement. When it comes, there is no noise. It is rather a change of state – as if the air is charged differently, or has crystallised. Perhaps it is because the moon comes out from the clouds and she sees shadows, washed clean and sharp by the rain, falling on the carpet. Perhaps it is the sense of attentiveness she feels: a million small things listening, purposeful, on the edge of some great metamorphosis.

Top left photograph of Henrietta by Christine Fourie


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