When I posted this picture of my #OnTheShelfie with Seas of Snow in September I wasn’t to know how much I’d absolutely fall for it and that four months later I’d have made friends with its author, the lovely Kerensa Jennings @zinca and be hosting this interview and #Giveaway on a VERY snowy Scottish January day
Now you can see the weather outside, you can probably guess what inspired me to hold my #SeasOfSnow giveaway on my blog today
I don’t use the word Narnia lightly, but this is very definitely a winter wonderland and perfect to snuggle up with a fantastic book and I have the very book for you.
What first attracted me to this book is its incredibly resonant name – I loved the way that it sounded, the way that it looked and once I’d read the premise I was intrigued to immerse myself in the narrative. Its poetic and beautiful realisation of Gracie’s story that absolutely held me in its spell. I loved it so much I wrote to Kerensa about it and that’s how I was able to interview her and get such a fascinating and detailed insight into her writing world. I absolutely loved her answers and found so much that echoed in my own reading history and I’m delighted to share it with you today on this extremely fitting snowy day
- What is your first memory of a piece of writing that made you feel proud? How old were you and do you still have it?
I remember starting to write little stories as soon as I could hold a pencil! I then by the age of eight used to start typing stories on my Mum’s computer (she was a software technical author so we always had computers at home even back then). I used to spend hours drawing on coloured paper to make the front and back cover, which I then covered with clear plastic veneer (a bit like laminate, but it came on a roll). One had a picture of a magical world where vegetables could talk and a miniature shrunk-down little girl had adventures with a giant ant and a giant caterpillar. Another had a picture of a glamorous, blonde journalist who wore her hair tied up with tendrils hanging down. She was sat at a desk, writing. I went on to become the journalist but so far exploits with a giant ant have eluded me…
I got a tape recorder as a Christmas present when I was nine, and started recording made-up stories orally on cassette tape – I used to pretend to be a DJ on a speech radio station.
And I really loved reading and writing poetry. The piece of writing I particularly remember from my childhood was a poem which was entered by my school into a competition and got published in a book. I was ten. I still remember the words, and in fact I used this very poem as one of the poems my protagonist, Gracie Scott, writes in Seas of Snow…
Hound chases fox
Fox chases shelter
Hound sinks teeth in
Fox bites back
Blood is swirling
Fox sees black
The original went on for several more stanzas…. But this excerpt is all I could remember word for word. There is quite a lot of the literary me in young Gracie
- Your book, Seas of Snow recreates childhood very skilfully – have you included anything that resonates with your own childhood experiences; it’s so vivid…
Thank you – that is very kind. One of the toughest technical challenges in writing Seas of Snow was portraying accurately the vocabulary, dialogue, inner most thoughts and behaviours of young children as they grow up. I spent a huge amount of time researching online, and also listening to children of different ages on public transport, in parks, in my own friendship and family circles, and just generally when I was out and about – out shopping or pottering about. Getting the dialect right for North East England in the 1950s – the story is set in North Shields in Tyneside – was also difficult. Again I did a lot of online research, read dialect guides and channeled my memories from my own dear grandmother, who was a Geordie and never lost her vernacular.
However, your question specifically asks about my experiences. I think there were a vast array of inspirations… many of which I can pinpoint virtually to the moment they happened and end up manifesting in some way or other in Seas of Snow. Others come from inspirations which feel a bit more subtle and nuanced, for example some of the key themes in the book like the nature of maternal love, societal collusion, the need to fit in, and friendship.
I have vivid memories of being two and a half together with my mother, who was pregnant with my little sister. We sat out on the doorstep at the back of the house together, blowing bubbles. I channeled that feeling of childish contentment into some of the passages with Gracie and her mother. The scene relating to miscarriage also draws on a real life – one time I came home from school and my own mother was in jagged, heart-wrenching tears because a neighbour of ours had lost a baby. It wasn’t for several more years that I learned of my own mother’s painful and repeated experiences of miscarriage and death.
Gracie as you may remember, decides to chronicle her life. I kept a daily diary ever since I was eight years old. I remember at one point, someone at my publisher’s queried whether a little girl would bother noting down her take on world events, and the prices of things. Well, guess what… this little girl did. In fact, in the promo video we made as part of the publisher Unbound’s campaign for Seas of Snow, I brought along one of my actual diaries from when I was twelve, and it features in the film!
Another very visceral memory that made it into the book was the dead bird down the blouse incident. That scarred me forever. And to this day, I have a phobia relating to birds. I was at Thorndene School in Camberley, a nursery before I started Camberley First, the primary school. A boy decided it would be hilarious to shove a dead blackbird down the back of my top. I still shudder and feel physically nauseous thinking about it. I must have been four years old.
And of course the key motivation for me writing the book came from a need for catharisis, prompted partly by some childhood experiences, but mostly because of a traumatising time I had in my adult journalism career. I had led the BBC News coverage of a major police investigation, spending many months working with the police and had borne witness to the evidence of the case, including police video tapes. I got to know in intimate detail the mind and behaviours of a psychopath, so wanted to understand better the motives and justifications of someone like that… many people are born psychopaths, but not everyone goes on to perform monstrous acts. I wanted to explore whether evil is born or made, the question at the heart of Seas of Snow.
There are countless other incidents and experiences and feelings I have drawn on… but I would invite anyone who has not yet read the book to do so and see what they think… Writing inspirations come from so many sources – what matters is whether it resonates in your readers. Have you created something with truth, and authenticity, that makes a reader feel something?
- Who do you remember loving reading as a child and how have your reading tastes altered as you’ve grown up?
This is such a good question, and I have to check myself or I will end up writing you a five page essay as an answer! My favourite childhood pre-12 years old reads were all the fairy tales of course, and The Little White Horse, The Secret Garden, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Ballet Shoes, The Faraway Tree, the Tim and Tobias series, the Enid Blyton ‘Five’ series, all the Winnie the Pooh books, The Railway Children, all the Narnia stories, Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz… the list goes on.
At twelve and into my early teens I relished Dickens in particular – David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol being my favourites; and also the Brontë sisters, with Wuthering Heights my standout tale from that era. I also dipped into some rather racy books even before I left my middle school – so must be before I was thirteen. I read the Flowers in the Attic series (my diaries at the time chronicle my childish reactions to some of the themes!); and also the Shirley Conran novel Lace. I learned some valuable life lessons about things from that book… though I must say I have never experienced personally anything quite like the goldfish scene! Fascinating (and an education) though that was to a twelve-year-old…
As I became an older teen, I just devoured more and more books… everything from Lord of the Flies to a number of novels by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and some foreign texts as I got interested in French and German literature (which I went on to study at university), as well as DH Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh. I expanded my range of poets I read, with people like EE Cummings, Seamus Heaney, Brian Patton, Lord Byron, Percey Shelley, John Donne, William Blake, Siegfried Sassoon, Verlaine and Rimbaud being early favourites; and I also started reading a number of playwrights starting with Shakespeare and Marlowe and Beckett.
Through university, I was blessed and challenged to be doing a Joint Honours Modern Languages literature course which basically (I found out part-way through my first year) meant I was doing the exact syllabus each week n BOTH French and German as students who were doing Single Honours French, or Single Honours German. The problem was, no-one in my family had ever gone to university so this was new territory. When I got into Oxford, I just assumed they did a modular thing like the other universities I had applied for. I was staggered to find myself reading each week, the various oeuvres of a particular author, playwright or poet (times two as both in French and in German), as well as needing to acquaint myself with the culture, art, philosophy and historical contexts within which they were writing. So in one week, I ‘did’ Goethe and Balzac (France’s equivalent of Dickens); another I ‘did’ Kleist and Stendhal; another Baudelaire and Rilke; another Mallarmé and Mann. This would go on each week, every term, for my entire degree… A staggering amount of work, but gosh, such an education into the world of literature! And such an education into the art of wonderful storytelling and beautiful writing.
I then after graduating went on to discover Milan Kundera, F Scott Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Conrad… writers who I would single out as the authors of some of my favourite texts. I also love Walt Whitman, Chekov, Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jon McGregor, Ian McEwan, Lisa Jensen, Alice Sebold, SJ Watson… the list goes on… The best book I read in 2017 is Stoner, by John Williams. Just remarkable in its intelligence and observations about life. My favourite books, for the record, are Immortality by Milan Kundera; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; The Beautiful and Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald; and the short stories of O’Henry. I also love The Uninvited by Lisa Jensen, and So Many Ways To Begin by Jon McGregor (I have not yet read his latest which won the Costa prize but would like to).
Basically, I fell in love from an early age with stories, language, words. I am a storyteller… I love stories. The best books are the ones with a gripping beginning, a compelling denouement, and an ending that resolves satisfyingly in some form or other. The best books from my childhood continue to delight me today. The best books, from my perspective, do not necessarily fall into any specific genre. The best books draw you in, compel you to read them, and hook you.
One of the best compliments I have been paid as an author was when Rowan Pelling, the famous writer (Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail) – and Editor of The Erotic Review and The Amorist – said of Seas of Snow: “Intense and haunting, this perfectly pitched debut novel hooks the reader from the first page and refuses to let go.” That is more or less my definition of a great book, so to receive this accolade from such a well-known writer and critic was just amazing.
Personally, I would not classify myself as a ‘classics’ or a ‘crime’ or a ‘thriller’ or a ‘romance’ or a ‘dystopian’ reader…. I am someone who loves to escape and float away with a damned good story. Whoever the author, whatever the genre, if you have written something that will whisk me away from real life for a bit and let me care about your characters, what happens to them, I am in.
- Which book do you wish that you’d written and why?
Wow you ask the most probing and brilliant questions! May I have two???
First, I think I wish I had written Animal Farm by George Orwell. I believe it is one of the most important texts ever written. A satire, imbued with truth about the human condition. A short, simple fable which brilliantly exposes our frailties and our angsts. Political, and yet a-political. A beautiful piece of writing, and an incredible story. A witty, existential piece which examines what it means to be human… our desires, feelings, ambitions. I believe Animal Farm will continue to earn its place in the literary canon, and in history, long after we and our successors are no longer around.
What I want more than anything with my writing, is for it to touch people, for it to matter. I wrote Seas of Snow partly as a process of catharsis for me, but mostly because I want victims of abuse, and those who are tasked with their care but feel utterly helpless in the bleakest of situations, to have permission to feel what is happening to them is not their fault. Animal Farm matters…. and it always will. That is what I wish, deep down, for my own story. For it to matter.
Second, I wish I had written Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. This is the book I have gifted to others more than any other in my life. A passage from it also becomes the talisman of Gracie’s life in Seas of Snow. Rilke (a slightly obscure Austro-Bohemian poet who wrote in German) is one of the world’s most beautiful lyrical writers. His work is astonishing. This book is prose (they are quite literally letters giving advice), but his prose is infused with the essence of poetry. It is stunning in every way. Exquisite writing, perspicacious advice. It is a series of letters to a young man, written by Rilke between 1902-1908 when he was merely in his late twenties and early thirties himself. But don’t rely on my word – you read them. They resonate even today, with our prosaic problems, our relationship woes, our existential crises. Simply brilliant. And again, it matters. If more people had the opportunity to read this amazing work… well, I believe the world would be a better place.
- Your book is very poetic in places, do you read a lot of poetry and which poets would you say have inspired you as a writer?
Anyone who has read Baudelaire, Rilke, Saint-Exupéry, Sartre, Malraux and Beckett will likely sense or read influences from their works in mine. Although I would not dare to compare my writing with theirs, I was very inspired by all of these writers in Seas of Snow. But also of course Tolstoy and Kundera… I am afraid we are the products of the writers we love. We echo their themes, we want to imprint on the world an element of truth and authenticity – even if just for a moment.
My writing style does not come from a specific place.. other than it comes from somewhere preternatural in me. I have mentioned in other interviews, the writing itself comes as an almost automatic process.. although I plan out plotlines, characters and their attributes arrive fully formed in my head. So I would not claim the style is influenced by anyone in particular, but perhaps by all the writers I have read? In terms of themes, I am always fascinated by our existential struggles around life and existence; our natural tendencies to blame ourselves for the fates that befall us; our inclination to take this or that course of action…
To answer the question more specifically… three writers in particular influenced Seas of Snow both thematically and in the writing. Vladimir Nabakov, who wrote Lolita – because of the extraordinary way he entices the reader in that book with a hint of salaciousness at the start, then gradually withdraws it, so all the darkest elements play out in the reader’s mind. I was very influenced by his subtle approach and you will find if you read Seas of Snow that all the horrific events that play out between Uncle Joe and Gracie are in your mind. I wrote with hints and circumstance, but never with explicit description when it came to the interaction between protagonist and the antagonist. Your mind fills in the gaps. You are invited by the author to fill them, based on what you know about Uncle Joe from his history. It is one of the reasons it is such an uncomfortable read for most people. All the dreadfulness happens in your own mind. Nabakov taught me that.
Secondly, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The inaction of the protagonist in that play, his refusal to act, his resistance to intervene to make things better leads to unimaginable bloodshed. Gracie’s Ma is paralysed by social mores and convention… so feels unable to intervene. Her (albeit unwilling) collusion exacerbates the situation. Her behaviours were meticulously, and devastatingly, influenced by Shakespeare’s tragic hero. The tagline for Seas of Snow is ‘Trust. Betrayal. Consequences.’
Lastly, Rainer Maria Rilke, of course. I have already made reference to him so I shall not repeat myself… but his writing, his themes, his approach to life, his advice, his lyricism… all of this influences Seas of Snow more than any other writer I can think of. Of course there is also the talisman I mentioned, which is an extract from one of the Letters to a Young Poet and something Gracie and her Ma cling to. I wanted to share it here so you can get a glimpse of his magic…
How should we be able to forget those ancient myths
That are at the beginning of all peoples.
The myths about dragons..
That at the last moment turn into princesses.
Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses..
Who are only wanting to see us..
Once beautiful and brave.
Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being..
Something helpless, that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened..
If a sadness rises up before you..
Larger than any you have ever seen.
If a restiveness like light and cloud shadows..
Passes over your hands and over all you do
You must think that something is happening with you.
That life has not forgotten you.
That it holds you in its hand.
It will not let you fall.
Isn’t that lovely.. the idea that life has not forgotten you, it will not let you fall. That thought has comforted me so many times over the years, and continues to do so.
- Where do you write and do you have a regular writing routine?
I moved to the house I now live in almost ten years ago. My favourite spot to write here is at my dining room table, facing out through the French windows to the lovely garden outside. The main reason I fell in love with this house was its garden… it has a pretty pond and an abundance of white rose bushes. In London it is very hard to find a place with a proper garden… I was so lucky to happen upon this place. Being in, and being part of nature, makes me feel serene and happy. My garden is only very small, but it is a beautiful sanctuary. I love writing here, being able to look up now and then. My normal routine involves my cat Cabbage nosing around and trying to get a piece of the action, before settling at my feet or somewhere nearby to let me write. Or sometimes cosying up on my keyboard, as if that is by far the comfiest place in the house to snuggle down… which sometimes thwarts the writing endeavour, as you might imagine…
I wrote nearly all of Seas of Snow on my holidays between 2009-2013. Large parts of the text were written on holiday in southern Spain, in the most lovely, secluded spot in the mountains. Only birds of prey circling the sky interrupted proceedings… Other parts of the text were written in North West Scotland, in an amazing little village called Achiltibuie. I love it there and have been many times. The development edit was written at my dining room table, facing out onto my garden…
I love to write wherever it is peaceful and serene, ideally surrounded by the beautiful natural world. Having said that, I do write each and every day, and most of the time I write on the tube on my way to and from work – which is a million miles away from peaceful and serene!
I am not the sort of writer that sets word count targets. I just write what I feel like, when I feel like it. I have to be in the right frame of mind to create, especially with something as intense and committed as a novel. This probably explains why it has taken someone who loves writing so much so long to get their first novel out there!
- What’s your next writing project and can you tell us a little bit about what to expect – will it have any parallels with Seas of Snow – for those of us that loved it?
Awe thank you so much. I am so glad Seas of Snow touched you the way it did. It is the first of three psychological thrillers which are inspired by my life in the field of journalism. Where Seas of Snow explores whether evil is born or made, Edge of Rain asks how far you can push a person before they break. This is inspired by the Sara Thornton case – something I covered while working at ITN in the nineties. A woman murdered her husband, but in the end her charge was transmuted to manslaughter rather than murder, on the grounds of provocation. It was a landmark case – showing how women who are subjected to unimaginable abuses at home are sometimes provoked to a tipping point. Sara Thornton ended up serving time for manslaughter (rather than murder) because although she killed her husband in cold blood, it was the consequence of years of being subjected to the most dreadful, debilitating, demeaning acts.
I am currently writing Edge of Rain… and as you would expect from me, there are characters to care about, and to touch you…. so watch this space….
Writer On The Shelf
Kerensa Jennings is a storyteller, strategist, writer, producer and professor.
Kerensa’s TV work took her all over the world, covering everything from geo-politics to palaeontology, and her time as Programme Editor of Breakfast with Frost coincided with the life- changing events of 9/11.
The knowledge and experience she gained in psychology by qualifying and practising as an Executive Coach has only deepened her fascination with exploring the interplay between nature and nurture and with investigating whether evil is born or made – the question at the heart of Seas of Snow.
As a scholar at Oxford, her lifelong passion for poetry took flight. Kerensa lives in West London and has developed a career in digital enterprise to help inspire young people across the UK and unlock their potential.
Seas of Snow is her first novel.
Look out for my #Giveaway this afternoon on Twitter