The first and most immediate question has to be, why Look At Me How
? What was the thinking behind this project? What specifically prompted you to write the piece, and what do you hope it can accomplish?
I’m a writer and that’s a great job and I’m lucky that it actually is a job for me – but part of being grateful for that and being fully present in that has to be a suitable engagement with the world. I have spent 30+ years learning how to say things as clearly as I can and in an atmosphere of emotionally-charged lies and manipulations, I feel it is important to push back on behalf of accuracy, shared humanity and truth.
It may come as a surprise to many; an artist most readily associated with prose choosing the long-form poem as the means of expression for this piece. Yet there have been instances throughout your work where the style and language has felt very like the poetic register used in Look At Me How
; one example being the closing sequence of your essay, Proof of Life
, which uses repetition, lines of varying length, and a voice which softly and firmly implores its readers. Is there something about poetry that draws you to it when you wish to address readers or subjects directly? Did you enjoy the process of creating Look At Me How
, and do you intend to write more poetry in future?
I just write. The idea of forms is not inauthentic, but I think that literary criticism and reviewing gets strangely obsessed by form. It can be a red herring. The writer should always be paying attention to every word on multiple levels. For some reason this fastidiousness has become attached to poetry. It should be there in prose, too. For more visceral communications I think narrative can fragment and the work will veer more towards poetry. I simply try and pick the form that will best suit the idea and its expression.
The practice of literary art …
I think the best explication of the importance of voice in fiction I’ve read is from a section you wrote (entitled ‘Voice, Language & Dialogue’
) in the book, Novel Writing
(2015). This is a short excerpt:
“Certainly, if our writing on the page doesn’t even resemble the way we would – most likely – address a stranger to whom we wish to give information in the best possible manner, appropriate to content, then we are likely to find ourselves producing stylistic errors and passages of obscure meaning, simply because we are working too far outside our comfort zones in terms of voice. We are familiar with the natural way that we express ourselves and are aware that stilted speech in ourselves or others is both unusual and a sign of some kind of tension. The same rules apply on the page, or rather in the musical space our words (should) open up in the reader’s mind.”
As anyone who has read my story ‘The Writing Tutors’
in Good Listeners
will know, the relationship between the written word and the verbal utterance is something I am both fascinated and mystified by. How does the problem you identify here usually manifest itself on the page, and do you think this void between someone’s narrative voice and their own verbal expression is the greatest difficulty faced by the aspiring writer?
Oh, there are all kinds of pressures on a new writer. Nervousness and genuine fear can distort the voice and make us avoid interrogating what we want to say enough to know it deeply and therefore be able to communicate it. Being vague is often rooted in fear – and a kind of fatigue and ‘this will do’ mindset. Translating yourself to be sheet music for someone else’s mind can feel like a very technical, even intrusive process initially. Just as playing the guitar seems odd at first. But you practice – and then it becomes another way you speak. You are your own instrument here, so the work you do on behalf of your reader is intimate and deep – hard work, but very rewarding. We all have a core voice which we can modulate according to our audience and subject matter (and character voice) so we’re working with an inherent skill that needs strengthening and bringing out – not learning a new technique or the characteristics of a novel material… so there’s a long road of personal exploration. Doing voice work is very helpful – not reciting tongue twisters, but working with a specialist interested in allowing you to sound like you. And reading work aloud to audiences is very educational.
In the ‘Character-Building’
chapter in your brilliant book On Writing
(2013), you are quite scathing about the widely-accepted notion of “write what you know”. I think many people stick to this mode of writing now due to concerns about appropriation – how do you think writers should balance the desire to write what you don’t know with a sensitivity to issues surrounding representation?
The big clue when it comes to ‘cultural appropriation’ is the way that right wing and racist thinkers have distorted what it means. It began as a description of a kind of theft. It was a way of describing how dominant, usually white, cultures take the creativity of other cultures and groups and monetise it. It was a way of saying that is wrong. If we look at writing fiction – that’s a pathway to bring the reader into intimate contact with another mind and voice – a way of encouraging and strengthening empathy. When we enter in, we change, we move further away from psychopathy. Now, of course, that’s all very frightening for fascists and racists because it speaks to our common humanity – a common humanity which is protected by international human rights law. Are there huge disparities in the artistic representation of different groups and genders and orientations? Yes. Are these present at every level in publishing? Yes. Does this need to be addressed? Yes. But we don’t address that by saying that one human being can’t create a fictional human being other than themselves. That becomes problematic almost immediately. If you say that I can’t write a male person because I am female, that sounds oppressive because males are dominant in our society. Saying a male person can’t write a female person… might sound more feminist – but if one is true, both have to be true. And not representing the full spectrum of human experience in one’s fiction is a failure of imagination and a failure in the human empathy project… Can a white person not write a black person? If that’s the case, it becomes tempting to say that a black person can’t write a white person. Can a middle class urban black Briton feel absolutely comfortable writing about a rural Sudanese victim of ethnic cleansing? What do they have in common? Would a white Bosnian victim of ethnic cleansing have a greater ‘right’ to express their fictional story..? We quickly move into areas that become both oppressive and absurd if we seek to limit the human imagination and enshrine the idea that – for instance – white human beings, black human beings, indigenous human beings, gay human beings, Asian human beings, mixed race human beings…. All the more and less arbitrary groupings of human beings are so dissimilar that they cannot make an imaginative leap into each other’s humanity. That would involve saying we are genuinely different species… Members of different groups have radically different experiences – we owe it to our artistic integrity to express that. We don’t express that through diminishing what we can express. The work of fiction is to put humanity, nuance and complication into multiple layers of thinking. That doesn’t create moral compromise, it creates moral clarity – if the author has a grip on it themselves. Good writing, honest writing, writing which works, has a moral centre. To create a fiction does not rob anyone, does not appropriate a life that already existed. If its subject is far from the obvious parts of the author’s life and personality that probably isn’t the whole story. If the work succeeds, it honours the humanity of the fictional people within it, good and bad – and passes that honour on to the reader. That is consistent with human rights law – and frightening to extremists and fascists of all kinds.
I found it very interesting in On Writing
where you spoke about the perils of the workshop in the creative writing classroom:
“The work is being presented at too early a stage – exactly when the individual writer should be taking control of the piece, it is being opened to a barrage of opinions. These opinions are very often simply statements of what other writers would have done if they were writing the piece, and are therefore mainly useless.”
I’m interested in how you came to this understanding – did you attend a lot of workshops when you were starting out as a writer? Did you encounter people who were telling you how they thought you should write? And have you had students describe the problems that this class format created for them with their writing?
I am a naturally solitary person, so workshops were not the thing for me. I thought I was meant to attend one and tried a couple and… no. In the course of working as a writer I have observed workshops and tried to build them and been exposed to various organisations who know they’re a great timetable filler. Do they serve a purpose that couldn’t be dealt with better elsewhere ? Not really. They very often begin by trying to make a solitary experience a group experience and then go further astray from there. But all the more effective alternatives cost a lot – they rack up man hours and only deal with one person at a time. The exception to that would be a genuine masterclass in the sense that an actor or a singer would recognise. I have only once run one and we had to warn and warn and warn those volunteers that the experience would be emotionally exposing. The process would basically involve real time close reading with an audience – very tiring, very high demands on the concentration of all concerned, very tough on the writer – when writing is a form for fugitive people. That kind of masterclass would really work, but it’s rare to find one – and rare that students really want to let themselves in for it.
The Kennedy canon …
It’s difficult to know where to begin to ask you about your work, when I have only a couple of questions to give, and a career that is now into its fourth decade after nineteen books (I believe that’s right?), plus screenwriting and radio scripts, and now poetry. I suppose a fair place to start would be the collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990)
, given that it was your first book, and the first book of yours that I and many people will have read. What was so striking about that book for me was the sense that everyday, humdrum things could suddenly seem so bizarre and monstrous and frightening to your characters. Now, with thirty years more experience of the world, do you still see such horror and wonder in seemingly ordinary aspects of life? Or do you read those stories now and see the work of a much more quizzical and/or awed young artist?
I never read my own work once I have done with it – unless I’m giving a reading. And I didn’t read much from that first book, being a baby writer. The title story was written with the awareness that I didn’t have a story I would feel comfortable reading aloud to a room full of people who might react badly… That first book was definitely all about the ‘little’ people. I was mainly broke and tired and terrified. I was working with a social work department arts project and in community arts in deprived communities and with people who had a wide range of special needs – so I was seeing late stage capitalism and bigotries and prejudices of various kinds frighten and harm people every day. I was very angry most of the time. That can lead to writing. It was good to articulate some of the rage and to state a truth in a way, and to create something when the rest of my life was quicksand and trying to hold up collapsing structures. I was also seeing people with no preconceptions and sometimes no formal education being set on fire and liberated by art – so I had no excuse to think it wouldn’t do the same for me. It has, too. It has given me a remarkable and rich life.
Despite my love for many of your books, especially Serious Sweet,
and Indelible Acts,
and On Writing
, my favourite is still Paradise (2004)
. It’s a book I always go back to when thinking about character. It feels like you got very, very close to the narrator, Hannah Luckraft, in a particularly profound way – a way that can only result in great literary art. Did you feel that you had a special understanding of and relationship with Hannah? Is she a character that stands out to you as one of the most resonant and meaningful that you have created? Was writing her story a very emotional process?
That book attracts nice men – is all I can say. I identify with all my central characters and spend around 3 years – on and off – building them so that they can maybe seem real. Hannah is just one of the people I worked with – near, but not especially near. But I get letters from nice men about her – they worry and feel involved. It’s nice.
Your most recent book, The Little Snake (2018)
, was a fable-like story; somewhat of a departure from the different versions of everyday reality in which your novels are usually set. Was both this style and this setting a form of artistic relief from writing with a focus on verisimilitude? Do you see yourself working more with fable or even fairy-tale narratives in the future?
I’m not sure if I would work on a fable again – you need a huge amount of material before you begin and it needs to be boiled down into a very concentrated form – as does your prose. I wouldn’t say know, but I have no idea when I might. I was asked for a fable in this case, by one of my German editors and perhaps the knowledge that the book would first be read in a functioning democracy was helpful, too. I certainly enjoyed the process and readings and uniquely intense. I have written for children and adults and fables seem to be aimed at the child still inside the adult reader in a way that is very interesting.
The political artist …
I read an interview from 2015 where you made the following statement:
“The state of things is worrying, but worry is a waste of my energy. It also allows those inadvertently and deliberately making my country miserable, punitive and ugly, to dominate my interior state. I’d rather not give vandals and spivs power over my emotions, so I try to keep my mind clear.”
Now, five years later, are you still finding you’re able to rise above the horrors of this political landscape we face, or is keeping your interior state clear proving a much more difficult proposition in 2020?
Oh, yes – more than ever, there is no time for despair. And, should I need any reminders of that, I need only look over at black experience and indigenous experience - just two of many examples. If anyone had an excuse to despair… But have they? No. I was sitting at a dinner in New York State last autumn and having this passionate chat about politics with a retired art historian whose mother had come from a completely different life as a black woman in the South. I asked him whether he was depressed or despairing and he gave me this very particular smile and said that no, he was optimistic. It was a smile that wasn’t about a denial of realities but about surviving realities. And he very naively commiserated about white people imminently becoming a minority in the states and how tough it was to be a minority and would we be alright..? We laughed so much at one point we noticed the rest of the table had stopped talking and was just looking at us. We were supposed to be the two shy people. I suspect were we just the – for various reasons – two people who usually didn’t quite fit in…
I’ve noticed online of late that you’ve been reminding those of us disillusioned with this present attempt at a Labour Party that there are alternative parties out there. Do you think fleeing the Labour Party could be a viable, positive move towards a better form of government than the state of disgrace that reigns in Westminster now? In your view, could there ever be an alternative to this media-oriented parliamentary duopoly we have as our electoral system?
Looking north, the availability of another progressive party has transformed the country in many positive ways. The thing is, people in England need to transfer now to give themselves enough time and momentum to be ready for the next GE – should there be another GE in our failed state… As an individual I look for effective progressive options, I don’t care what they’re called. I’m not joining a cult, I’m trying to keep people safe in a civil, functional society. Back in the day Keir Hardie and the guys were a weird little bunch of crazy people. The next progressive force will be that, too – but it has to move faster – because our collapse is now so accelerated.
Closing questions …
Other than the imminent publication of Look At Me How
, can you tell us anything about any other projects or books you are working on at the moment?
I am working on a novel, have a finished script for a radio drama – another series of Subterranean Homesick Blues
– which I hope will be recorded once things are safer – and a film script mulling. And there’s the start of an opera for Germany. The usual mixed bag of things that might work and get made and things that probably might not.
Our closing question is always the same, the recommendation request – who are the writers and which are the books that continue to amaze and delight you as a reader, A.L. Kennedy?
I always love reading R.L.Stevenson and Primo Levi and am sustained by them. At the moment with working on the novel, I am not reading very much – although The Battle For God
by Karen Armstrong is on my kitchen table and a useful thing for a lunchtime ponder – it explains a lot.
All best and stay well meanwhile,