A.L. Kennedy Kicks It Level-headed Scot lit luminary lets loose
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London
Classy Scottish lass A.L. Kennedy is hot these days. As the author of not one, but two award-winning collections of short stories, three award-winning novels and the award-winning Original Bliss, plus two non-fiction books and some jumpin' journalism, one wonders what top three pieces of advice she might give to writers just starting out and wanting to follow a well-scythed writing path such as hers.
"Actually, " she corrects, "In the UK, I've written more than that -- you're a little behind over there. I'm now on book 11. Best advice -- hard to say. Be careful about who you ask for advice, be wary of the advice you get. If it doesn't fit you, don't use it. If someone is attacking you, not dealing with your work, get away from them. If you can find someone to look closely at your work and identify weak areas, it may be painful, but it's invaluable.
"There's no point hiding behind any BS about "this is very personal to me, you are crushing the tender flower of my imagination." Flowers of the imagination aren't that tender and they do need work to achieve their final form. But that's about you and other people -- the thing to decide for yourself would be how hard you want to try -- are you really going to make the best effort you can to communicate in the best way you can whatever it is that you want to say? If not, you're wasting everybody's time. If you do really go for it, you have a chance of getting better, you have a chance of doing good work and you're showing respect to your reader."
Kennedy's been a Booker Prize judge, written for the stage, film and TV and edited various anthologies, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an erstwhile door-to-door brush seller. Her general feeling about the people she has met and dealt with in the world of publishing, is it a far cry from brush sales?
"Oh, I try to keep away from all that stuff," she says. "Publishing doesn't necessarily have that much to do with writing. I try to keep with people who care about books and writing and reading -- some of them work in publishing. People who are obsessed by money, success, paranoid fantasies, career ladders, booze, sex and so forth -- they're mainly dull company."
And what is her personal comparison or opinion of the differences between the novel publishing industries in Scotland and in North America?
"The publishing scene in Scotland is pretty much non-existent. Most Scottish authors are published and supported by international companies based in London. I would suppose that most authors with any kind of visibility are represented at some level by large corporations. At the moment, this doesn't involve me in being censored or manipulated in any way, although I'm sure there are levels of censorship in some companies and I doubt those will lessen. Publishing in most countries is becoming accountancy-led and marketing-led, while the choice of books available to readers lessens and the power of large bookshop chains grows. Readers have to become more and more pro-active to keep themselves informed of writing available and to get hold of books."
Susan Mansfield of The Scotsman made a statement that, "In two captivating readings, she (ALK) demonstrates her ability to grasp characters in the bleakest of circumstances and illuminate them with a mixture of humour and insight." What is the writing/thought process that happens to that allows her to take the fruitlessness of a situation and present it in this fashion?
"No idea -- I don't even know if that's true. I do try to balance dark material with some kind of pace, or musicality, or humour, otherwise it's pretty hard going for the reader. Plus, humour softens the reader up, if you want to pull them in, or surprise them/scare them/move them. People associate humour with truth and that can be helpful for your material."
In her book Now That You're Back, Kennedy explores individual isolation and the difficulties of intimacy and communication within the existing structure of society.
"Again, that's the book jacket rather than me. I just write individual stories about individual characters. I try to gather some understanding of them and of their situations and then to convey that to readers. Themes and window-dressing and literary theory are all after the event."
I try to get pedestrian:
Who's her favourite band? "Whoever I last heard and liked -- although I do like good lyrics -- Elvis Costello, David Byrne, etc."
Does she follow the NBA? "Nope - too corrupt to be taken seriously."
Does she like to write? "Sometimes." Hate it? "Sometimes."
Have drugs ever influenced her work. "Drugs will always kid you that they help -- they always end up stealing your voice. I work with my brain, so I don't poison it. Clean and dry for 15 years."
Has love? "Of course. For the worse. And for the better. Any elaboration on issues of intimacy and sexuality is always good. I write fiction -- you couldn't sustain a life where every time you kissed/made love/laughed with your partner they'd wonder if they'd end up in print."
Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be.email Jesus
Mark London is a Toronto based freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. email Mark: firstname.lastname@example.org