By Kerstin Hall
Karen Jayes is the winner of the 2013 Sunday Times Fiction Prize. Her debut novel, For the Mercy of Water, has been described by Konstantin Sofianos (UCT lecturer and contributor to The Sunday Independent Books) as a “strange, challenging novel” handled by Jayes with a “remarkable writerly capacity”.
But long before this book was ever picked up by Penguin SA, Jayes had embarked on a cross-continental journey to discover herself as a writer. First as a radio journalist, then a sub-editor, a poet, a short story writer, teacher and, at long last, as a novelist.
Born into a conservative family in Apartheid South Africa, Jayes studied at Stellenbosch University with the intention of becoming a sports physician. Although Jayes had been encouraged to pursue writing in primary school, her highschool English marks dissuaded her from following this path.
But sports medicine was not to be. Jayes decided to take a post-graduate course in Journalism and ended up working for six months in the radio industry. She describes this time as challenging, but rewarding. It opened up her eyes to the diverse stories of other South Africans.
She moved on to subediting for travel magazines, which led her to the discovery of Adventure Racing. The extreme sport had been gaining devotees in South Africa and Jayes took it upon herself to cover the tales of the running, paddling, cycling and adventuring sportsmen and women. The nature of these stories taught her a lot about narrative writing techniques.
It was also Adventure Racing that led her to Borneo for an international competition. While there, Jayes decided she wanted to climb the highest mountain in the country, against the advice of the local guides. After a monsoon and a freezing night in the jungle, she conceded defeat.
But the wanderlust did not die. Jayes pursued her subediting career further in London, working for TNT Magazine, a publication aimed at South African and Australian expats. Her work sent her to Finland, Thailand, Cambodia.
During her travels, she developed a keen interest in the Middle East. Jayes applied for a position at The Middle East Times (caution: graphic images) without much hope of getting it. She was surprised when the job was offered to her. She subedited on the growing conflict in the region two years before she was promoted to the Chief Editor. Then it was off to Egypt.
Working at The Middle East Times under the rule of Hosni Mubarak presented difficulties. The publication had to be sent to the censorship board twelve hours ahead of publication, where large sections of it were blacked out before it could be distributed to the public.
Jayes returned to South Africa and tried out online journalism at iafrica.com. Unfortunately, she found this to be “terribly boring” and soon quit. She found new employment at Fair Lady which landed her an assignment in Sweden to cover a Volvo crash test. While there, Jayes took an interest in female prisons in the country. Of her own initiative, she organised to visit a prison in Gothenburg while in Sweden. The story she wrote about the inmates, titled “Eva’s Angels” was very successful and was published by the Poynter Institute.
The drive to create fiction grew stronger on her return to South Africa. Jayes penned “Where he will leave his shoes” and entered it into the PEN/Studzinski Literary Award competition. Her story was judged to be the best by J. M. Coetzee. After spending most of her career avoiding fiction, this award provided Jayes with the confidence and validation she needed to pursue her novel.
She left Fair Lady and started teaching. This gave her more time to write, in between looking after her children. Showing great perseverance, Jayes wrote six days a week, every night from 9 till 12. It took her three years to finish For the Mercy of Water. It was rejected by international publishers, but found an audience at Penguin SA.
Jayes describes the life of a writer as that of an outsider, a stranger. Even as a veteran traveller of many lands, she says she never felt as if she truly fitted in. But it is this status – as an observer – that she claims enables her to tell stories effectively.