by SRB

The SRB Interview: AL Kennedy

October 26, 2009 | by SRB

AL KENNEDY was born on October 22, 1965 in Dundee. After studying English and drama at Warwick University, she worked as a children’s puppeteer. During this period, she wrote the stories that formed her first book, Night Geometry And The Garscadden Trains, which was published to acclaim in 1991. In 1993 she won a place on Granta’s Best Young Writer’s list, a feat she repeated ten years later on in Granta’s third such list. Kennedy continued to publish novels and short story collections through the Nineties and into this decade, branching out into journalism, reviewing, stand-up comedy, and scriptwriting. Stella Does Tricks, a film about a young prostitute for which Kennedy wrote the script, was released in 1996, the same year she was a Booker Prize judge. Day, Kennedy’s fifth novel, is set in 1949 when its titular hero, a former Lancaster gunner, travels to Ger-many to the prison camp in which he spent World War Two after his plane was shot down. He’s returned to appear as an extra in a film which has recreated the camp. Colin Waters spoke to AL Kennedy about Day, war, politics and comedy.

Scottish Review Of Books: There are frequent references to war in your previous novels. Have you, as I suspect, been working your way round to Day and a more intense examination of war for some time?

AL Kennedy: It’s just part of our society, and we have been at war for a while. Yes, the idea has been around a while, and it took time to do the research.

SRB: Because there’s that line about the media coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of landing of Normandy in So I Am Glad: “I am told nothing about these people that might allow me to find them admirable, loving, human, beyond my scope”. Does Day represent an attempt to do that? To give the men and women who fought in WW2 an “admirable, loving, human” face?

ALK: Not overtly. I’m always aiming to do that with any character. That’s the problem with being a human being, you don’t know the interior of anyone else.

SRB: Initially I thought Day might be your attempt to take back WW2 from the Neo-Cons and their ilk for appropriating the language and the heroic grandeur of that conflict for propaganda purposes.

ALK: I got fed up with people appropriating WW2 but such appropriations are a longer term annoyance. Margaret Thatcher did it. Any politician will appropriate anything that is embedded in the national culture. There are some quite large overarching non-individual truths that we’ve forgotten about the Second World War that people who were there remember but now we only have the propaganda that was cheering them on.

SRB: Irony abounds in Day, as is inevitable when looking back at our history. I’m thinking particularly here about a comment one character makes about Clement Attlee: “That little shit Attlee and his mob. Worse than what we had before. They’re all the bloody same. Promises, promises.”

ALK: And now Attlee seems lovely. The more you know about the period, the more irony you will find. But there is a limit to what I can put in the book. By 1949, the characters don’t know what’s coming at all. The railways have just been nationalised, and women aren’t wandering around with their prolapsed wombs tied between their knees, and there’s a national health service. Education is breaking out and people have different expectations. Now all that’s there in that period. But look at a movie like The League Of Gentlemen [1959], the fact that they rewrote the ending so that the heroes didn’t get away with their bank robbery. There were so many people exactly like those guys, who had those skills, who had gone back to shit jobs after the war, who didn’t feel rewarded, who didn’t have the country they wanted. And there was a lot of armed robbery after WW2. It’s an edgy film. Now we see it as a happy-go-lucky film, but the subtext is vicious.

SRB: Although Kurt Vonnegut raised the issue in 1969 with Slaughterhouse-Five, we’ve been slow in this country to debate the morality of bombing raids, have we not?

ALK: But again, you had someone like Bishop George Bell who right at the start of Allied bombing raids was saying, This is not something we should be doing. This is something we condemned in Abyssinia and in Spain. His letters to the Times inspired Noel Cowards’ ‘Please Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans’. And again we remember the song but not where it comes from. What fascinated me was what war does to people. Particularly bombing. Because there is this obsession with the idea that if you bomb a civilian population enough, you will never have to put boots on the ground, that you can just roll in and incur no casualties, though you might have had to kill ninety-five percent of them but that’s sort of okay.

SRB: One of the other ironies of Day is that it is the defeated – in this instance a German and a Ukrainian – who can talk about their war experiences but Alfred, who fought for the Allies, for the victors, can’t.

ALK: The book contains a few examples of the type of people who can’t think about what they’d have to think about in order to talk about it. On the other hand Vasyl [the Ukrainian] is just a psychopath, but he has that mindset that readies you to kill, which is to see yourself as a victim, an insanely violent victim because they imagine everybody could potentially attack them so they have to attack everybody even if they have done no harm to them. Then with the German, you have someone who got caught up in events and went along with it to the point where they couldn’t do it anymore, a point when they realise where they thought they had only gone a little bit wrong, they had in fact went way wrong. Virtually every German I’ve spoken to says, ‘We have to address this, we have to be careful it doesn’t happen again’.

SRB: This remains a live issue inside and outside Germany, doesn’t it? Look at the reaction to Gunter Grass’ Waffen-SS revelation.

ALK: And there’s how West Germany dealt with it and then East Germany, where things were not so reconstructed. The prison camps like Saxenhausen were still operating at the end of the war so they just reused them. In the way that Abu Ghraib never really went out of business. You can probably divide humanity between those who walk into a concentration camp and think burn it, close it, never again. And those who think, Hmmm, this is useful.

SRB: I wanted to ask you about a comment you once made about literary journalism. “We have allowed the literary and critical establishments to classify fiction as autobiography”.

ALK: There are a lot of things wrong with that approach, chiefly that it is just factually incorrect, and I’m tired of reading articles full of factual inaccuracies. You have a problem in that the critic stands between the reader and the writer. It’s as if they say, “You can only understand this book if you know as much as me, and I’m in the know. I know all these people, I’ve been to parties with them, I’ve had sex with them, I know who they’ve had sex with. You don’t so you won’t understand this book”. That disempowers the reader. And then you have the problem that it denies the existence of the imagination. Which is fantastically dangerous for everything. If you can’t imagine the world as other than it is, you cannot have an effective democracy. If you can’t imagine the world as other than it is, you have no form of momentum of your own. If you have no access to the playful side of imagination, you will be dominated and oppressed by the media. Then life becomes empty. If you are continually being told, “Authors don’t make things up, they don’t use their imagination, they just trace round elements in their personal life and work out grudges”, everything becomes mean and diminished and we find ourselves living in Reality TV Land, which is as far from reality as it its possible to get.

SRB: Yeah, but is the literary establishment responsible for this? Is it not a shift in public consciousness that the literary establishment reflects rather then leads?

ALK: It’s not in any way a trend amongst the public. Again, it’s the press acting as a self-reflexive loop apart from the population. If you go to readers’ groups or literary festivals, you meet readers whose views never reflect those of literary journalism. The thing about being a journalist now is that it’s all about being in the know, being in control, being a in a clique, people we control, people we do drugs with, people we have sex with. And you, the reader, can’t be part of that – and that is the only thing we, the journalists, can offer you of interest because we can’t give you information anymore because it’s too expensive to gather it. We’d rather spend our money on photographs of tits because it’s quick and we’ve forgotten how to do anything else.
Then there’s the academic side of it which is increasingly absurd. After mining a novel for all it contains, the only ideas left that are easy to do is autobiography or context or to link things that are not remotely linked. I often read papers on me where academics have written, “Oh clearly she’s read this person and that person” – and I haven’t. It’s to do with the way academics are forced to think, it’s not that they’re naturally stupid or constrained in their thinking. Very often they’re hugely frustrated at the way they’re forced to present their papers or analyse literature. The very notion that you can only analyse literature in terms of other literature and with no other influences from your life is ludicrous. This all comes together in literary reviewing, as you get academics to review because they don’t have very much money or other authors because they don’t have very much money and they want to be in the club or are in club and need to prove it to stay in it and ugghh. Pity the poor reader.

SRB: I’m trying to account for the current popularity of autobiography and non-fiction over fiction. Could it be that autobiography asks you to judge (and perhaps forgive), a position of superiority that suits the temper of these finger-jabbing times? Fiction on the other hand asks you to sympathise and understand, which people don’t like or feel incapable of making the effort for.

ALK: It’s a weird combination of judging and not judging. If you say anything is factual or autobiographical you can be authoritative about it because you have insider knowledge. Which will always be the position of our politicians who reserve the right to make decisions because they say they have information they can’t share with us right now. You can’t be definitive about fiction because all you can say is that this is to my taste and this is not to my taste. If you want to serve the reader all you can do is describe the book accurately and say, well, if you like that sort of thing, you’ll like it. Here is a clear picture of the book so you don’t waste your money when you go out and buy it. It appears to be hard to make qualitative judgements about arts anymore. It’s all about autobiography or money, not “This makes my soul feel better. This is a magnificent thing which isn’t predictable or a sowing together of the four books that made most money last year”.

SRB: You’ve spoken before about your refusal to use friends, family or indeed any real person’s story as a template for your fiction, “to steal someone’s life and then profit by it”. To be clear – this is an ethical rather than a literary issue?

ALK: It’s kind of both. I’d like to be able to say it’s entirely because of ethics because otherwise you end up with a very weird life. It’s also practical. If I’m creating an independent character with a specific context given what I know is going to happen within the story, it’ll be easier to write from scratch, to look at the context, to look at the themes and to look at the things that are appearing intuitively to blend them together. It’s a more organic way of making a person. And more fun. Otherwise, you get this stapled together thing and you have to work things back and miss things out and it’s just making work for yourself.

SRB: Couldn’t you equally say it’s easier to rip off someone’s life?

ALK: Well, it’s…you know, lots of people make lots of different decisions about this.

SRB: You don’t extend this judgement to disliking a book on principle? You wouldn’t spurn a novel if you discovered it was about the author’s wife, or more likely, ex-wife?

ALK: It would have to be really well written for it to be excusable. No, I’d still have a problem with it.

SRB: Presumably one requires the splinters of ice in the heart Graham Greene spoke of in order to base your fictions on those people around you. You wouldn’t agree then with Greene’s contention on the necessity of those icy splinters to writers?

ALK: Oh, I do but I think you should turn them on yourself first.

SRB: I take it you don’t mean in the sense of using the events of your life as material, but in terms of being honestly able to examine yourself and your motives?

ALK: Yeah. You have to look at matters straight and you get into that habit, so you’re not necessarily the nicest person to meet.

SRB: The much repeated advice supposedly given to new writers is to ‘write about what you know’. When you’re teaching creative writing at the University of St Andrews, I take it you have a sideways approach to that particular piece of advice.

ALK: I’ve never said it in my life. You need to know what you know. Generally you don’t know what you think you know. It’s just what you see around you all the time. If you don’t understand it, there’s no point – and you won’t understand it if you don’t understand you. There’s a hell of a lot to work on before you get onto what you’re going to write about. Which is: who you are, what your voice is, what interests you, what you could write about, how you want to write about it given where you are, when you are, and who you are, given your understanding of those things. And that’s the constant work of maintenance.

SRB: And that’s without touching pen to paper?

ALK: No, but it does make it easier. If you’re very clear about those things, you rewrite less as you know what you’re saying and a sense of it going somewhere. And it has its own impetus and a sense of genuinely communicating. The thing about beginning writers is that they don’t necessarily know what they want to say. And they don’t want to look into it too much in case they don’t have anything to say. So there’s an amount of fear. So the best advice you could give a writer is ‘Be without fear’. Be painstaking in examining where your fear is hiding, because you are not without fear. Find it and get rid of it.

SRB: Can’t you use it?

ALK: Yes, but be careful as it stops you saying things. Which is where the splinters of ice come in. You have to say what you have to say. It’s good to fail as you learn from that, and after a while you can learn from your successes too.

SRB: Are you excited by the prospect of a Scottish Prime Minster? And the Scottish parliamentary elections?

ALK: “Meet the old boss, same as the new boss”? I have a lot of respect for Salmond but I’m not convinced by the SNP. I don’t think there will be independence as I don’t hear anyone but journalists talking about it. I would love YouScotland to do well.

SRB: YouScotland?

ALK: The idea is that you raise money to field independent candidates who are grass roots, community based, non-party political. You can’t keep saying, “All the candidates are shit, I’m not voting”, because it produces apathy and a lack of democracy.

SRB: Do you feel more political as you get older?

ALK: I feel more desperate as I get older.

SRB: Describe your own experiences of making films?

ALK: I’ve been lucky and unlucky, because the first script I wrote got made. Since then I cannot tell you how many films I have written and they have not been made for the variety of reasons that British films don’t get made. I have two scripts at the moment floating about, I don’t know where, which probably won’t be made unless I come into a potload of money and can pay for the one I’d do for myself. Same with television. I’ve written endless amounts of television which has-n’t been made. It’s frustrating because there are certain things that can only be said in certain mediums. And it’s fun to do collaborative things, to work with actors. It’s so much less work to do because they exist. They look like the characters and sound like the characters so I don’t have to describe what they’re doing, and the actors do things I couldn’t envisage them doing, and so it’s much nicer.

SRB: You’ve moved into performing stand-up comedy. There’s a line in Paradise that goes, “Anyone funny, anyone who takes the pain away, you’ve got to be happy they’re there, that they exist…the ones who stop you wanting to kill yourself…They’re a good distraction.” But if we turn to your short study of the film The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, you quote the director Michael Powell, approvingly I think, as saying: “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does either” How do you resolve both statements?

ALK: The comedy I would describe as the best is an empowering distraction. It’s a group activity, and it’s about all the things that are most disempowering and terrifying, which is death and sex and loss and your own essential failings. For a moment, with comedy, you can examine these things in a way that is not overwhelming, and you can turn back the tide, and you do it in the company of other people.

SRB: I was under the impression the world of stand up was very male.

ALK: The world of literature is very male.

SRB: Do you find you can make a living as a writer?

ALK: I do but I don’t have children and I don’t have a partner so I can spend an enormous amount of time working – and I do. I also like working. And I don’t like the things I would be thinking if I wasn’t working. So I’m slightly more driven then I used to be. If I wasn’t a workaholic and had a life or any other concerns to consider, I might find it harder to make a living. All my books are in print and foreign sales are slowly, slowly, slowly helpful. I’m comfy but it’s not easy and it will get harder. My next advance I expect to be half of what I got this time, mainly because publishers are making so little money because the Net Book Agreement went and they’re now selling everything for half-price. Which is not my fault but I have to pay for it. It’s very inconvenient and I’ll have to diversify even more than I have. At the moment I’m saying yes to everything to get me out of my head. Plus if I’m doing a proper comedy gig, you can be paid £300 to £500, so eventually I could end up doing more of that. It might be better to do comedy gigs and my fiction than other types of writing and my fiction.

SRB: “Get out of my own head”?

ALK: Yes. You miss writing when you’re not doing it. You become mentally congested. Writing is like meditation only with a really long mantra which you produce yourself. You’re not aware of your own petty considerations. When it’s good you’re “in the zone” and you’re not aware of time passing and physical infirmities. When I work I don’t have a bad back. I don’t have a bad back when I do comedy.

SRB: Are you an optimist?

ALK: No.

SRB: You must be, at some level. A pessimist wouldn’t bother to write, to try and communicate something.

ALK: I think human beings are okay. As a species we have potential. We deserve investment and care. It’s just that we screw up all the time.

DAY
AL Kennedy Jonathan Cape, £16.99 pp280 ISBN 0224077864

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