Monday, April 4, 2011

Kate Jennings on writing Snake

Kate Jennings
I wrote my novel Snake through two long winters at the beginning of the nineties out on Long Island. Low grey skies, the angry Atlantic. No distractions from re-imagining life on an Australian farm in the fifties.

When I began, I remember thinking “The world doesn’t need another dysfunctional family or coming-of age novel.” But most of those books were from the perspective of one person: the self-justifying writer-as-child. It was important for me to be even-handed, to present this family from the point of view of all the protagonists. It was also important to me not to write a feminist tract – this was a time when feminists were presenting mothers as nurturing and women in general as somehow innately morally superior. Arrant nonsense, of course. Some mothers are good, some middling, some appalling.

As for the style of the book – the shortness of the chapters, the precise language – I trained as poet. When I started Snake, I intended to write a poem, but it wasn’t working. I’d been reading Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, a short novel in which the prose is so devastatingly exact that the voice that comes through is shocking in its purity. I was off and running. Or, to be more exact, writing and rewriting. This was a way to be harrowingly specific, to describe a time and place: a 1950s Australian rural community. And not just your typical rural community. Most of our rural books are set in the Outback – the romance of the Bush! It took me years to realize that an irrigation area was as much a part of the Australian story as the red-dirt country. If Jamaica Kincaid could do it with Antigua, I could do it with Griffith, NSW.

Like Irene in Snake, my own mother was dissatisfied with her lot, eager to experience culture, a handsome, sensual woman who liked males, disliked females. Hard to be the husband or daughter of that kind of woman; the unloved inevitably becomes unlovable. But, along with unhappiness, she brought everything from Mahler to Mad magazine into our house. I always marvel at the range of cultural influences to which my brother and I were exposed in what usually would be taken to be a barren environment. She was, in every way, an Australian Madame Bovary.

My husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after I finished the book so I put it away and went to work on Wall Street. What was the point? Eventually I retrieved it. The several years the book sat in a drawer helped; when I revisited it, I was able to bring more balance. Snake came out in Australia to reasonable reviews, but it wasn’t fashionably postmodern or redemptive. I did have great success with it in the United States and in England. Very gratifying. And now to have Black Inc. give this tough little book another chance in Australia – well, my pleasure is immense.

Snake is available in all good bookstores. Visit the Black Inc. website for more information. The ebook is available at the Readings ebookstore.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Kate for this background. I bought Snake a few years ago, but only got around to reading it last year - those toppling piles of books and all that - and I loved it. I think you did manage to get that even-handedness, the sense that we all make mistakes, even where we love. I'm a fan of the novella and your book just confirmed me in that!