For the month of August we are revisiting some of our favorite content from the past year. Publication of new work will resume on September 1.
A.L. Kennedy was born in Dundee, Scotland. She is the author of 15 books: six novels, six short story collections, and three works of nonfiction. She is a fellow of both theRoyal Society of Arts and the Royal Society of Literature. She writes for publications in the UK and overseas and has a blog with The Guardian Online. In addition to author, she is a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV, and film, and a standup comedian. Her All The Rage—a collection of short stories—was published by Little A Books in spring 2014. Marni Berger and A.L. spoke about the culture of humor, constructing the landscapes of characters’ minds, and what it means to “write to please.”
Marni Berger (MB): You use italics when you present the thoughts of your characters—whose minds are in shameful, distressing, exciting, and often hilarious places. How do you go about painting these inner landscapes?
A.L. Kennedy (ALK): I’m interested in the differences between what we say and what we think and the interiors of people, as opposed to the front. I suppose I don’t see why that shouldn’t be presented to the reader in case they find it interesting, too. I loved the bit in Annie Hall where their thoughts are presented as subtitles, and I suppose I’ve always found the subtitles to be delightful.
I had a friend who wanted everyone to be able to wear mood lapel badges, so he could have something like, “I’m shit scared of everything and will screw up this conversation,” right there on his lapel.
MB: For Time, Ricky Gervais wrote about the difference between American and British humor—he said Americans reward success and, “Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers.” Though a sweeping generalization, I am curious, as a writer from Scotland, do you find yourself intending to highlight the underdog more than your American contemporaries?
ALK: Both cultures have both types of humor—I think the best humor is probably from the ground up. Laughing at people, rather than with them, always gets a bit ugly. Americans “laughing with” people would be Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Steve Martin, Mel Brookes… I mean all the greats, really. Craig Ferguson.
These are people who shoot themselves before anyone else. A certain, rather sick part of US culture celebrates phony winners and instant success and predatory behavior—that’s in UK culture, too. Because comedy is quite aggressive in a way, it does make a clear line between people who use it as a cosh to hit themselves and the insanity of life—or as a stick to beat up people who are already getting beaten up.
MB: Do you think you would write differently if you had grown up where cultural expectations were different?
ALK: Everyone is influenced by their surroundings, their family, their time, their culture. Then again, writing is very personal and has an element which is about standing aside from your time and place and speaking to the human condition and going for something a little more universal… so I’ve found soul brothers in far away places, living and dead. One never knows really and it may not be helpful to speculate—you write mainly for people who live in your own age and language, which is handy, really. Me writing for Moroccans in the 17th century would be a tough gig.
MB: Have you ever wanted to relocate drastically for your career?
ALK: No. I travel a lot, anyway; most writers do—it makes you want to be at home when you can. I actually have relocated drastically from Scotland to the hell on earth that is London. (Think the stuffy end-of-empire tone of Vienna with Moscow’s level of corruption and Beijing’s levels of pollution.) That wasn’t really for work, more to be nearer to a gentleman I happen to know and enjoy being with.
MB: The Blue Book drops readers into a strange world—it seems quite unreal at first. Do particular places, based in your real life, inspire you to build these settings, or are the places we read in your work conjured mainly by your imagination?
ALK: I tend to use real places, because the reader is used to real places in the real world and sci-fi and so forth have to be explained to a degree that can seem onerous.
Although, having said that, I’ve just written a Dr. Who novel, and that was great fun…. I visit places on my characters’ behalf and try and think how they would react, or whether such and such a scene would work well if it were in such and such a place.
MB: You often visit places on your characters’ behalves—where do you go?
ALK: For my characters, I have been all over the place: airfields, on WWII airplanes, in mortuaries, going across Canada on a train, in Egypt…
MB: How does your process as a novelist differ from your process as a short story writer?
ALK: The novel is longer, so it takes more preparation and research and you need to know the people involved in a different way, to have constructed more of their movie, rather than just the one scene you show in the story. The story tends to be a key moment and the novel is a series of key moments that add up to some kind of conversation around a point, usually. But largely, word for word, they’re the same. Some longer rhythms and pulses and themes get set up to keep the novel running, but that’s not actually much of a difference. The noticeable thing if you’re writing them is how tiring a novel is and how all-pervading.
MB: Do you have a ritual that encourages you to write every day?
ALK: Yes, I go to my hallway, pick up my mail, open the bills and wonder how I will pay them.
To be serious, any ritual will eventually get broken or messed up somehow, so I don’t use them. I just try to do what I can in any given day.
MB: You are not only a writer, but also a performer, a stand-up comedian, obliterating the cliché of the introvert-writer. How do you see your performance life and your writing life affecting each other?
ALK: I think the combination makes sense; it’s all telling stories, and the stand-up reminds you of that in a clear way—and it’s fun. The heckles in literature are much worse—and you have to take them, because you’re meant to be polite while some aimless question shows itself to be eventually a huge insult of some kind.
Generally, people are nice in both fields, but you’re much better able to defend yourself in comedy events—and the backstage chat is much more honest.
MB: There’s that popular Kurt Vonnegut quote—“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Let’s take a quick glance at your bio—you have authored 15 books! It does seem, in that sense, that you are pleasing, if not everyone, very many readers. But in sitting down to write, how many people do you write to please?
ALK: I think every person has a kind of in-built Platonic equivalent and effectively you’re writing for that person. There’s no point imagining them in detail, you have other work to be getting on with—but maybe once, at the start of your career, you let them be present in your process, as something drawing you on. And then they are colored a little with maybe your editor and people you love or respect.
I know a few people who let their partners be their first reader. That can be good, although a risk if the relationship goes to hell. My current aim would be to write towards this ghostly Other and my editor and my gentleman of choice.
Photos: headshot credit, Donna Lisa Healey; other images are places visited by A.L. Kennedy to help inform the descriptions in The Blue Book.