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Climb That Hill: An Interview with Jane Kay, author of Umbilical

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Jane Kay is a South African-born writer who lives in Europe with her American husband. She has lived and worked in Canada, Russia, and Portugal. Umbilical, her second novel, was published at the end of 2022. Set mostly in southern Africa, with interwoven elements of the U.S., Canada, and China, it is a story of interconnectedness across continents and decades and of an unwelcome inheritance, one that is as inescapable as it is perilous.

You can buy Umbilical here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

For the longest time Umbilical’s working title was Kabelo, a Setswana name/word meaning “gift” or something inherited. It encapsulates the original idea that inspired the novel: what if you inherit a decades-old secret? What if you can’t escape it and have to solve it? The feeling was that the title would mean nothing to those who aren’t familiar with the word, so eventually the decision was made to change it to Umbilical to convey the more developed theme of our connections to the past and how inextricable those ties are. There’s a brilliant proverb (I believe Spanish) that says he who inherits a hill must climb it. This novel is about that unwanted, daunting hill.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

My overactive imagination inspired by just about every single thing I read as a child. Probably Enid Blyton and Bettie Naudé in the very beginning. I certainly feel that books helped raise me. The desire to be a part of the magic of the written word goes back as far as I can remember.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I live in Portugal and joke that I’ve become a true Portuguese in the sense that I have at least four jobs at any moment in time. I started in teaching and have since worked as a course presenter (which I also had to sell—torture!), a research analyst for a management consulting firm, a freelance writer, an editor, and these days I’m having to do my fair share on the piece of land we’ve been rehabilitating for the past number of years, so you can add labourer to the list!

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

It’s brilliant to receive positive feedback from critics and readers alike, especially when someone notices a subtlety that you’ve woven in there. If you can’t connect with a reader, there’s not much point, so it’s rewarding to hear when the story has resonated with someone. Equally fantastic is how much I believe I’ve grown as both human and writer since I signed up with Atmosphere Press.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Fabulous question! Music is an integral part of Umbilical, so now you’ve got my brain going.

West Coast jazz simply has to feature because it’s mentioned as one of the influences of a major character, a musician, in the book. There are too many to choose from, but let’s say Stan Getz (Out of Nowhere, But not for Me); Dave Brubeck (For all we know, Eleven Four etc.).

When it comes to the scenes in the novel where music is being made by a very hip crowd, there should be some Afro-Cuban sounds, so definitely some Ibrahim Ferrer (of, among others, Buena Vista Social Club fame), for example Mami Me Gusto and Silencio. The American band Dirtwire makes use of instruments from around the world, including some African ones featured in the novel, so a track like Bed Spring would work beautifully.

And then a few beloved African artists, not only southern African ones (Google/YouTube them—it’s worth it!): Kwaito (in oversimplified terms, a kind of African hip-hop/house sub-genre) from artists like M’Du Masilela, Mshoza, Mandoza (his track Nkalakatha is legendary) for the more fast-paced parts. For the slower moments where the deeper themes emerge, songs like Alama and Mama by Fatoumata Diawara, Sore by Dioghal Sako and Acha Masimango by Kampi Moto and George Phiri.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Above all else, I’d love for readers to be entertained. An additional takeaway would be the notion of just how connected we are to a past that may not even be our own and to people we don’t know. The idea is that we have to at least take a look at or acknowledge that past and not just say it has nothing to do with us. At worst we may have to “climb that hill.”

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I’m working on something that was inspired by a story gifted to me (oh, there’s that theme again!) by someone who’d lived it. It’s fairly mind-blowing and deliciously intricate. It’s another international story that involves the U.S. and China and some smart-stupid normal people wreaking international-scale havoc with their smart-stupid actions. What’s not to love?!

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Atmosphere Press is a unique outfit, in the best possible way. You’re part of a team from the get-go. I felt safe and challenged at the same time. I think that’s when good things happen.

You can buy Umbilical here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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