Bontle Senne is an author, executive, coach, and speaker. She has published five Afro-fantasy novels for 9 – 12 year olds and several short stories for teens in South and West Africa. She is also a part owner of feminist trade publishing house Modjaji Books and a trustee at Puku Children’s Literature Foundation.
I cannot recall where I first met Bontle Senne, perhaps it was through fellow author, Joanne Macgregor? I’m not sure, but I feel like I’ve known her forever. Scarily intelligent, insanely humble and with the most fabulous sense of humour, Bontle is the type of person who can do anything she applies her mind to.
I found her responses to my questions hilarious, thought-provoking and honest. Enjoy…
Tell us something few people know about you.
When I was 9, a boy named Kyle in my class signed up to compete in KTV’s Reggies’ Dunk. This was a very popular game show for children on M-Net and I was obsessed with it. Kyle envisaged himself competing in the “challenges” portion of the game and wanted his friend Michael to compete in the general knowledge portion. Our teacher took the very tactical move of swapping Michael out for me – the girl who had won my grade’s general knowledge award four years running. Needless to say, I dominated my competitor on the show and we won. We then went on to win a trip to Legoland in the UK. It was my first trip overseas. I didn’t particularly like Lego but Legoland was amazing.
You have a fancy pants job in London. Please explain it to me in short, easy sentences that my tiny menopausal brain can cope with.
Companies want to change the way they do things so that their customers and people are happier – a new approach to online sales, a change to a process for internal recruiting. Sometimes those changes are complex and could cost millions, so they want modern ways to be able to make those changes that remove complexity or get to a better answer more efficiently. I lead a team of people skilled in helping companies make big changes with modern ways of working and thinking. That’s the gist of it.
Have you got involved in the literary scene at all in the UK? If so, how has it been?
Not at all! It’s a weird thing after starting in publishing over ten years ago in South Africa but I have no idea how to get involved in the literary scene in London. Feels very much like being at the beginning of my career – with my face up against tinted windows, trying to find the door. This is also the problem of being an introvert and generally awkward around new people. In professional contexts, I am nothing like that but trying to socialise and meet new people at book events is classified very firmly as a personal context in my mind and I am extra introverted in new personal contexts. Not the most helpful for building a network of author/publisher/editor friends on a new continent.
Tell us a bit about your Shadow Chasers series and what your latest book is about?
Shadow Chasers is an Afrocentric fantasy series about Nom, a taxi boss’s spoiled daughter, and Zithembe, the orphan who lives on her dad’s property. They are the leaders of the latest generation of Shadow Chasers: a group of young warriors tasked with waging a war with an army of shadow monsters and their terrifying general.
My latest book is called A Monster at Midnight and it’s a ghost story set in a rural village somewhere in Southern Africa. Phila is the star of this show and she starts the book really irritated that she is spending the entirety of her school holidays away from her comforts and friends in the city.
She is stuck with nothing but her younger siblings, her grandmother, and nature to entertain her and she is unamused. As she learns some of the local superstitions in the village and a story about a monster that supposedly comes for children at midnight, she discovers that her holiday isn’t going to be nearly as boring as she thought it would be…
We have spoken about the importance of representation – for kids to be able to see themselves in stories. Is that what inspired you to write stories for children?
That is a bit of a long story and what inspired me to write stories for children also relates to how I got published so see question 6 for the answer to that.
Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (the ugly crying on the bathroom floor) and your highest point (cracking open the prosecco).
Ok, buckle up. I started writing and submitting manuscripts for publication in high school. I submitted to everyone who was accepting submissions and got rejected by everyone who was accepting submissions [☹]. At some point, I thought it might be better to work in publishing behind the scenes. My reasoning was that, even though I wasn’t going to get published, at least I could still work with and near books, and I could still help other people get published. I applied for an internship at every trade publishing house based in Cape Town, in PASA’s directory. I was also ignored by every trade publishing house except one: Modjaji Books.
After meeting me and hiring me, on my first day on the job, Colleen Higgs told me I wasn’t going to end up being the commissioning editor I wanted to be. She told me I’d probably end up at a big corporate doing something completely different. When I protested and told her that I wanted to write and publish serious, important literature, she told me that I should be writing for children if that was really how I felt.
I was not amused by that but we were literally driving to meet with someone who was working with Colleen on a new website for children’s literature so it didn’t feel like the right moment to bring up that children’s books were hardly the complex and touching works of art I envisaged myself creating [bwahahahahaha!].
The someone working on the new website was Ben Williams who would later become a dear friend and mentor. He and Colleen introduced me to the website’s main founder, Elinor Sisulu, who become a second mother to me. I realised how much I really loved children’s books working with them. I realised how foundational they had been in my life and how they really were the complex and moving works of art I wanted to be creating.
Years later, through all three of them, I ended up leaving corporate to become managing director of what had started as a website and grown to the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation. In that role, I met the team at FunDza Literary Trust at an award’s ceremony. We were seated at the same table and we really hit it off. Somewhere between the second and third glasses of wine, I think Ros Haden suggested that I should write a short story for FunDza and I agreed.
By then, I was obsessed with young adult fiction and had spent years reading and reviewing it. I hadn’t written any yet but, once I started, I knew it was what I should have been writing and submitting all along.
If you’ve been longlisted/shortlisted/won any awards/had your book optioned for TV/film/achieved bestseller status tell us about it [this is your moment to BRAG].
LOL no. I was shortlisted for the Golden Baobab Prize in 2014 but that’s it. I am always, always happy to celebrate the success of other authors, especially women, but I have often thought about why I have never won or been shortlisted for any award or prize that wasn’t run by a black woman. Why my publishers both have black women on their boards. Why my editors are women. Why my agent was a woman. Black Lives Matter raised a lot of questions about my treatment in the publishing industry. Things I had thought about but thought were in my head.
I didn’t want it to be about racism. I didn’t want it to be about sexism.
What I wanted was for my work to just not be good enough, for others to have been better that year, to believe that I just had to try harder and write a better book next time. But children’s books are often not even considered “real” books by many people, even in publishing. There are hundreds of books, in all our languages, that no one ever hears about or sees and it’s not because the books weren’t good enough.
Now, that I have had the additional pleasure of experiencing a boss who joked about not wanting to employ people who looked like me because the names looked “too difficult to pronounce and who has the time to learn that” (not my current boss – he is amazing), I am starting to have to reckon with the fact that I may never write a good enough book to get that award or that prize. It may have nothing to do with the quality of the work or how many children love them.
I don’t know how to feel about that, honestly.
Talk us through your writing process. How on earth with your day job, do you find time to write?
My writing process definitely changes depending on what I am writing. For most of my books, it has been a process of a few weeks of research and then a detailed chapter by chapter outline to start. I typed up the book to slot into the chapter outlines, working mostly in the middle of the night in a random hotel room while on the road as a management consultant.
For the last Shadow Chasers book, I wrote a large portion of that as a series of notes emailed to myself on my mobile phone – still in the middle of the night. I was exhausted and burnt out at work and couldn’t quite face having to open up my laptop onto a blank page and find some way to make stuff up so it was comforting to be able to trick my brain into thinking I was just writing very long text messages [excellent tip!!] The first draft was garbled rubbish – much worse than usual – but at least I had something to edit.
Lately, I have been doing a lot of handwriting in a set of free conference-branded notebooks that I never really knew what to do with. That’s been a first thing in the morning thing which is a big change for me. I also started writing non-fiction in the form of a book on Agile leadership and for that I experimented with Dragon Naturally Speaking voice-to-text dictation software on my laptop. Talking to myself for a few hours on Sunday afternoon didn’t seem too onerous so it was another way to trick my brain into doing the work of writing without realising it was writing.
What’s next for you? Can we expect some adult fiction any time soon?
Soon? Certainly not. I have really struggled to write during lockdown. It’s only been this last week that I have managed to start writing again and this three-month gap has been the longest period I have ever gone without writing since I wrote my first story at 6/7 years old. I have tried to be kind to myself and remind myself that a global pandemic is not everyone’s time to write King Lear but it’s been a struggle not to slip into wondering if I will ever write or publish anything again… That being said, I am working on a fantasy novel for adults set in a corporate environment so maybe look out for that in 2022? [yayness!!]
Do you have any advice to aspiring writers (besides don’t give up your day job)?
We tell writers to read but often seen to overemphasise reading a certain kind of book. Something worthy or important. Something literary. That often means a man of Anglo-Saxon descent and, to be honest, I did plenty of that in high school and university and I’m a little weary of it. I would encourage writers to read people who are under-represented in the writing and the telling of stories. Women, people of colour, indigenous people, the LGTBQIA+ community, disabled creators, translated works from writers in developing countries – prioritise #ownvoices to understand the full scale of what literature can mean and do, not just what we have been taught about in our antiquated literary curriculum.
I realised a few years ago that I was mainly reading books by men – excellent books but books by men. As a result, 95% of the books I have read in the last 3 or so years have been written by women and it has been a delight. I switched over to add my buying power to a growing surge in demand for different voices and different kinds of stories. I hope this demand encourages agents and publishers to seek and sign more diverse voices.
Any book recommendations for us?
Middlemarch by Seannan McGuire, the Book of M by Peng Shepheard, and Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh.
How are you keeping sane during the pandemic?
Mostly, I am working at my day job. My hours were always long and they seem to have gotten longer just like everyone else’s. I really struggled in the beginning so I focused on other things – journaling, stretching, meditation, colouring books, walking, listening to incredibly boring classical music for an hour before bed so that I could sleep through the night. Writing has been almost impossible – my brain just won’t do it, especially without a set deadline. Reading has been possible only through listening to audiobooks. It’s been a weird couple of months and will be a weird couple more, I suspect.
Where can the fans get your book?
Thank you so much for taking part in #FridayReads! We miss you…