ARCHIVE: Expelling Paradise – An Interview With A.L. Kennedy

Andrew interview A.L. Kennedy in 2006, in the the interview they discuss the importance of the short story vs the novel. Andrew says of the interview,‘I enjoyed interviewing Alison, she was attending the first Short Story conference at Edge Hill, and she was the keynote speaker and I was there delivering a paper on Ray Bradbury. We managed to catch up, we had bumped into each other over the years but normally at festivals, and we never got the chance to sit down and talk. This was actually the first time I was able to pick Alison’s mind on a number of issues prevalent in her writing and career; from her obsessive characters to her public criticism of the judging of the Man Booker Prize’.

Expelling Paradise: An Interview With A.L. Kennedy by Andrew Oldham

Novelist and short-story writer A(lison) L(ouise) Kennedy was born in Dundee, Scotland on 22 October 1965. She studied English and Drama at Warwick University where she began writing dramatic monologues and short stories. She was Writer in Residence for Hamilton and East Kilbride Social Work Department and won the 1990 Social Work Today Award.

She has worked for the arts and special needs charity Project Ability since 1989, first as Writer in Residence (1989-95), then as editor of Outside Lines magazine, and has been a member of the Management Committee since 1998. She was editor of New Writing Scotland (1993-5) and was Writer in Residence at Copenhagen University in 1995. She reviews for The Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald and the Daily Telegraph, is a contributor to the Guardian, and has been a judge for both the Booker Prize for Fiction (1996) and The Guardian First Book Award (2001). She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2000.

Her first book, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), a bleak collection of short stories set in Scotland, won several awards including the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award. In 1993 she was named as one of Granta magazine’s 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists 2’.

She has written two other collections of short stories, Now That You’re Back (1994) and Original Bliss (1997), and her novels include: Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), which centres on a young Scottish woman’s relationships with her father, her lover and her employer; So I Am Glad (1995), winner of the Encore Award, which focuses on the trauma of child sexual abuse and its consequences in adulthood; and Everything You Need (1999), the story of a middle-aged writer living on a remote island and his attempt to build a relationship with his estranged daughter.

She wrote the screenplay to the BFI/Channel 4 film Stella Does Tricks, released in 1998, and edited New Writing 9 (2000) with John Fowles, published in the UK by Vintage in association with the British Council. Her new book of short stories, Indelible Acts, was published in autumn 2002.

A. L. Kennedy lives and works in Glasgow and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2003 she was nominated by Granta magazine as one of 20 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’. A critic of the Mann Booker Prize and with strong views on the media since 9/11, her latest novel Paradise (2004), published to critical acclaim (“a symbolic narrative that powers itself on despair and self-hurt” – The Guardian), didn’t even appear in the Mann Booker long list. The story of Hannah Luckraft’s search for a sustainable paradise, in a dark tour-de-force that examines failure and the dark extremes of the soul, has been cited as Kennedy’s break through novel.

You are a writer unafraid to stand up and speak about war crimes and crimes against humanity, 9/11 and Iraq. Why do you feel so few writers are willing to commit to a view on these areas? And how passionately do you believe that the media have censored the truth?

“I think writers are like everyone else – they have lives and distractions. I can’t say I’ve met one unaware of our current political surroundings, or pleased with them. But it does take a huge amount of effort and energy to find an outlet for information that the media find unacceptable, or that shows the media in a poor light – effort and energy are in short supply sometimes. People may also be afraid of rocking the boat – because it will always be turned into a stick to beat you. I can begin to tell you how little our media tell us – you might simply try getting direct feeds from Reuters and Knight Ritter – the sources the press themselves use – the contrast between what we’re shown and what there is to see, the contrast between spun and unspun news is massive. Last week I had to watch Newsnight which included a vox pop of two Iraqis – two, since when was this representative? – one was for the occupation, one against – when every survey in the last year, and before it, has put those who disapprove of the occupation at over seventy-five percent. Was the sample size phoney because that would make the implication less embarrassing for a journalist with a brain, or was this the imposition of phoney “balance”? In which case no brains were harmed in the making of the programme. And on we go”.

Do you feel that the world around us has gone mad or that individuals in our society are becoming sane? If so, why?

“The world is pretty much the same as usual – but we notice more, we have access to information faster, and we have spare time, because we’re comfy Western people – there’s a backlash with media management, paid “journalism” and so forth, but people do still know when they’re being lied to. The British Empire got away with murder for hundreds of years; the USA will have trouble driving its agenda through. But it’ll get a good way forward, because people are still motivated by greed and fear and altruism is a bit complicated and we’re not brought up to embrace it, or understand it.”

Novels are not an immediate response to a global or personal event but have the events of the last fifteen years, since the Kuwait War filtered into your work? And if so, how have they manifested themselves on the page?

“I’m sure they have, but it’s such a huge influence that I wouldn’t really necessarily know about it. You could surely read a train full of fundamentalist Christians plunging through an atrocity-filled landscape to who knows where as a metaphor for Bushite foreign policy. But I didn’t mean it at the time. I am writing a book about the Second World War now and that’s certainly a response to the size of footprint that war and inhumanity have had in my subconscious and conscious.”

Novels, film and plays are areas that have a slow process in getting published or viewed. Poetry and short stories are seen as immediate (and unfortunately, sometimes as throwaway), as a short story writer, how much of this do you agree with?

“I could wish that short stories had any outlet, throw-away or not. They’re just invisible. Films get much higher profile attention – plays, it’s fairly arbitrary – the money’s awful and the support is a mess, but if you get a winner, again it’s very high-profile, very quickly, for not too much work. Literary novels are well-regarded but getting less and less support. Short stories are looked upon as inferior as a prose form (which is absurd) and poetry has the kudos, but no cash and no space on Waterstone’s shelves. Really, you’re looking at a culture determined to deconstruct itself from the top down – people still like reading, still buy books, but booksellers and publishers are pretty much ensuring that they’ll be able to buy less and less, or poorer and poorer quality – from the cover designs approved by Waterstone’s buyers, to the spelling that it’s no one’s job to check anymore.”

Readers can keep a whole short story in their mind, compared to a novel, making the short story a more intense process for the writer and the reader but why do you feel British Audiences have such a problem with this form?

“It’s not the audiences that have a problem – it’s the booksellers and publishers. If you can’t see a book in a shop, if it isn’t reviewed, if you don’t know it’s there, how would you buy it – by using a divining rod? Don’t blame the audience, it’s there.”

What engages you about short story writing and reading?

“As you say – it’s intimate, it’s intense, it’s highly flexible, it’s the ultimate test of naked prose with nowhere to hide.”

You edited New Writing 9 with the late John Fowles, a writer known for shunning the Literature scene, but what was it like to work with Fowles and what did you learn from the process? And what was the process of collaboration?

“Sadly, John was very ill throughout, so we didn’t collaborate – his name is there as a courtesy to a fine writer – and the one piece he did like, I put in. I didn’t even talk to him. And now he’s dead. This is how we miss people.”

In your new book Paradise, the protagonist, Hannah Luckraft, is nearly forty and with  nothing to show for it. The novel seems to be an exploration of failure, what drew you to this character and theme?

“Not sure if I thought of it as a book about failure, but I certainly don’t have a problem with failure – most people do it. We all fail to live forever.”

How did you get the idea/inspiration for the book?

“From religious art and the idea of someone who has a good childhood, but not a good life.”

You will probably spend the next few years fending off these kinds of questions but there are parallels between Hannah and yourself e.g. age and location. Did you do this to make the character more authentic, crisp or where you drawing parallels with yourself?

“When I started writing the book, Hannah was older than me – I wanted her to be slightly older. Not sure why. And I wanted to use the landscape of my childhood and some of the thousands of odd locations I’ve ended up in on the road. I’d forgotten what Fife and Dundee were like, but working in St Andrews had reminded me and it’s a nice, claustrophobic, pretty but poor setting that seemed to suit. And Dundee is a hellhole – it was good to make her annoyed. Beyond that, there are no parallels – that’s what made writing her fun.”

Alcoholism is often seen on the fringes of society, how hard was it to tackle this subject in the book and to engage readers?

“One in eight people have – that’s not really fringe. Everyone has met one, or is one, or knows one – it’s deep in our culture. I just had to try and make it real, not self-indulgent with the first person aspect, not rose-tinted, because ultimately it’s a killer. Above all, a book is about people and people will read it and they will be involved if it appears to be about people. No one asks these questions if the book is about a middle class couple – or any other ‘default protagonists’ – but how many people aren’t middle class, how fringe are they?”

The book is structured around the Stations of the Cross, why did you choose to structure it this way and what do you think it brings to the novel?

“It seemed appropriate because of the end with death, or a death that brings paradise, or a metaphorical death that brings life. And Christian imagery is very strong anyway, to borrow, and has a lot of booze in it. If you know the story, it lends inevitability and I wanted to get some of the weight and the oddly spiritual quality that you see in people who are destroying themselves.”

Your novels and short stories are often based in Glasgow, is this because you believe you should write what you know? Or does something keep drawing you back to exploring the characters and streets of this city?

“Most of them aren’t based anywhere, it’s assumed that they’re set in Glasgow – if I don’t specify, it’s because I have nowhere in mind. I’m often more interested in people. If I’ve been very clear about setting – mainly in Paradise and So I Am Glad – it’s because other elements are very unrooted, or fantastic, or mobile and there’s a balance needed.”

Your narrators are often obsessive, what draws you to these kind of characters?

“I’m probably obsessive. I think you can’t write a novel without it. But the passions that drive us are interesting. Love is a kind of obsession, we all suffer that. We tend to label positive obsessions differently and leave the negative ones as ‘obsession’”

Paradise was noticeably absent from the Booker 2005 and in the past you have made your view clear about the Booker, stating that it was: “a pile of crooked nonsense”. Why do you feel this? And why do you feel Paradise was ignored after so many great reviews?

“The year I judged the Booker the judges were openly agreed that a book other than the winner was the best book. I found that hard to stomach. I also found it hard to stomach the chair’s speech (published before the judging took place) praising the primacy of the English novel when there was only one English novel on the list and that turned out to be the winner – it doesn’t make anyone look good. It devalues the prize and devalues UK literature. There have been changes made and I don’t know how it’s run now – the fact that John Banville won this year seemed very encouraging to me. But I doubt I’ll ever get near the thing as a novelist, no matter what I write.  That’s up to them.”

Finally, what draws you back time and time again to short story writing? And how does this differ from your novel work?

“Each idea has a form in which it would best be expressed – as long as I have ideas that would best be expressed as stories, I’ll write stories. It’s no more complicated than that.”

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