Kennedy, A(lison) L(ouise) 1965-
KENNEDY, A(lison) L(ouise) 1965-
PERSONAL: Born October 22, 1965, in Dundee, Scotland; daughter of R. Alan (a professor) and Edwardine Mildred (Price) Kennedy. Education: Warwick University, B.A. (drama). Hobbies and other interests: Cinema, the clarinet.
ADDRESSES: Home—Glasgow, Scotland. Agent— Antony Harwood, Ltd., 405 Riverbank House, 1, Putney Bridge Approach, London SW6 3JD, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Clydebank & District, community arts worker, 1988-89; Hamilton & East Kilbride Social Work Department, writer-in-residence, 1989-95; Project Ability, coordinator of creative writing, 1989-94; SAC/Strathclyde Regional Social Work Department, writer-in-residence, 1990-92; Copenhagen University, writer-in-residence, 1995. Judge for Booker Prize, 1996.
AWARDS, HONORS: Social Work Today Special Award, 1990; Scottish Arts Council Book awards, 1991, for Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, 1994, for Looking for the Possible Dance, 1995, for So I Am Glad, 1997, and 1999, for Everything You Need and On Bullfighting; Saltire First Book Awards, 1991, for Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, and 1995, for So I Am Glad; Mail on Sunday/John Llewelyn Rhys Prize, 1991, for Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains; Best of British Young Novelists list, Granta, 1993, for Looking for the Possible Dance, and 2003; Edinburgh Festival Fringe First, 1993; Somerset Maugham Award, 1994, for Looking for the Possible Dance; Encore Award, 1996, co-recipient of Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, and shortlist for MacVitie Prize, c. 1996, all for So I Am Glad; SAC book award, 1999, for Everything You Need; Salon.com Award, 1999, for Original Bliss; Royal Society of Arts fellow.
Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, Polygon (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1990.
Now That You're Back, J. Cape/Vintage (London, England), 1995.
Absolutely Nothing, Mariscat Press (Glasgow, Scotland), 1998.
Original Bliss, J. Cape (London, England), 1997, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Indelible Acts, J. Cape (London, England), 2002, Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
Looking for the Possible Dance, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1993.
So I Am Glad, J. Cape (London, England), 1995, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Everything You Need, J. Cape (London, England), 1999, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
The Audition, first produced at Ediburgh Festival Fringe, 1993.
Delicate, first produced at Royal Leamington Spa by Motoinhouse Dance Company, 1996.
True (Requiem for Lucy Palmer), first produced in Glasgow, Scotland by Tramway Theatre, 2000.
Indian Summer (musical comedy), 2000.
Born a Fox (radio play), BBC Radio 4, 2002.
Totally out of It, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), 1993.
Just to Say, BBC, 1994.
The Year of the Prince, BBC, 1994.
There's an End to an Auld Song, BBC, 1995.
Ghostdancing, BBC, 1995.
Stella Does Tricks (film; adapted by Kennedy from her story "Friday Payday"), Compulsive Films/Sidewalk Productions (England), 1997.
For the Love of Burns, BBC2, 1999.
(With John Burnside) Dice, CBC, 2001.
(With John Burnside) Dice II, CBC/Cite Amerique, 2002.
(Editor, with Hamish White and Meg Bateman) TheGhost of Liberace, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, University of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, Scotland), 1993.
(Editor, with James McGonigal and Meg Bateman) ASort of Hot Scotland, Association for Scottish Literary Studies, University of Aberdeen (Aberdeen, Scotland), 1994.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (nonfiction), British Film Institute (London, England), 1997.
On Bullfighting (nonfiction), Yellow Jersey Press (London, England), 1999, Anchor (New York, NY), 2001.
Editor of Outside Lines magazine, 1990—; editor of New Writing Scotland, 1993-95; editor of New Writing 9, 1999. Contributor to Guardian.
SIDELIGHTS: A. L. Kennedy has gained an international audience for her stories and novels set in "the choppy waterway between hope and reality," to quote a reviewer for the Economist. Kennedy's work eschews modernist or postmodernist sensibilities in favor of emotionally laden realism punctuated with dark humor and resonant descriptive passages. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Andrew Biswell wrote: "Depression, loneliness, paranoia, suicide, prostitution, child abuse, infidelity, wife beating, sadism, sexual fetishism, and mental breakdown are consistent themes throughout Kennedy's published fiction and nonfiction. But this apparently bleak world-view is lightened by occasional moments of sublimity and creative or religious fulfillment. Furthermore, the narrative voice often undercuts the intense suffering that Kennedy describes with odd flashes of humor and irony." The recipient of numerous prestigious awards, Kennedy is considered one of the most important voices in modern Scottish letters, even as she rejects what she calls the "romanticized tartan lunacy" that has colored the Scottish culture.
Kennedy's first literary work, a collection of short stories titled Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, is set in Scotland and features mainly female characters who deal with the troubles life has handed them, including poverty and spouse abuse. Other story plots feature characters facing personal situations, such as unhappy pasts or AIDS in the family. Kathleen Jamie, in a review for the Times Literary Supplement, wrote that the "stories act as a memorial for the silent majority who 'live their lives in the best way they can and still leave nothing behind.'" Published by an Edinburgh press, the collection brought Kennedy unexpected laurels, including the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize and the Saltire First Book Award. Reviewer Boyd Tonkin of the London Observer found Kennedy's writing "pure, full of tenderness and courage, with a gallows humor." Kennedy, according to Tonkin, is not afraid to deal with pain in her writing, and observed that short paragraphs, detailed descriptions, blunt language, and a forté for focusing on the "messy lives that most of us lead," are characteristics of her work.
Kennedy's next work and first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, again takes place in Scotland and focuses on the ugliness of modern city life, or, as Kennedy put it: "rotten ceilings, rotten windows, dog shit, and needles all up your close. Rats." The novel features a somewhat downtrodden and passive main character, Margaret, who works in a community center to make people's lives better, even though she feels drained and "finished" herself. According to reviewer Julian Loose in the London Review of Books, Kennedy effectively portrays a listless, apathetic modern generation, lacking a clear direction in life. In Kennedy's novel, many of the characters use drugs simply to reach an inner peace. Margaret, "knowing that life must hold something more," attempts to bring Scottish cultural pride back to the community center by organizing a ceilidh (a Scottish dance), even though life appears to be disintegrating. Reviewer Loose noted Kennedy's skill in setting image and tone in her writing. London Times contributor Lucasta Miller concluded that the novel "evokes a sense of empty monotony and the impossibility of intimacy. . . . Eschewing experimental fireworks, its theme and style are quietly conventional."
Kennedy is coeditor of The Ghost of Liberace, a series of stories submitted by young Scottish writers that portray a country "with violence on its mind." The title of the book is taken from a poem in the collection that describes the discrimination that homosexuals face. Other stories depict fascism, animal torture, the demeaning of women, and life in West Central Africa. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement noted that some of the prose of these young writers possesses "a rawness" that is sometimes overdone, but "the encouragement of new voices is more than worth the imperfection."
So I Am Glad, Kennedy's next novel, veers from her former adherence to realism and introduces some magical elements while retaining elements of the seamier side of life. Trey Strecker, writing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, described it as "a quirky, comic love story, a smart and literate Blast from the Past." The novel features Jennifer, a radio announcer who feels disconnected from her life and disillusioned with her government. Into this modern-day world Cyrano de Bergerac mysteriously lands, and he becomes Jennifer's lover. De Bergerac provides an interesting counterpoint as he compares his seventeenth-century heritage with present-day Glasgow. He feels at home, for example, when he witnesses a victim with a slit throat on city streets. However, he and Jennifer share the connection of feeling at odds in the urban environments from which they come. De Bergerac regrets dueling and killing people, while Jennifer is disillusioned with the maladies of the country. The radio gives Jennifer a chance to deliver some cutting political commentary on conditions in Scotland, such as fines for being homeless and warnings for asthmatics not to go outdoors. New Statesman & Society contributor Sahara Smith called Kennedy's work "writing that answers back: sharp, satirical and eloquent in its anatomy of the disillusion of a generation." A Publishers Weekly critic noted, "Kennedy's deadpan irony—her dialogues, in particular, have a noirish sitcom feel—and her beautiful, translucent descriptive passages project a dreamlike aura over what is finally, despite its narrator's protestations, a moving story."
Now That You're Back, another short-story collection, expands its settings to include England, Paris, and the American Midwest. New Statesman reviewer Kirsty Milne praised the "cool conviction of prose" and the use of characters that try to "make sense of their lives through offbeat obsessions." For example, a Midwest American woman is married to a man who is allergic to her skin. A relative knits them body suits that they can wear all the time, but the wife tires of the inconvenience and falls in love with a serial killer. Together, they bury the allergic husband alive and leave with the woman's daughter, while she continues to praise the virtues of her new love. Kennedy's writing, according to reviewer Milne, is characterized by a "rare and robust voice" that captures the surreal elements of ordinary lives.
Original Bliss, a collection including short stories and a novella, also deals with topics of love and sex. Amanda Craig described the title piece in New Statesman as the story of two people in pain: Helen, a woman obsessed with her loss of faith, who formerly clung to God in an attempt to deal with a brutal husband, and an author and professor Helen meets who, in his own isolation, is obsessed with pornography. Together they ultimately find happiness. Reviewer Teresa Waugh, writing for the Spectator, called the novel "a small masterpiece," commenting that Kennedy is unafraid of crossing "the boundaries of decency, of daring violence, and of questioning pornography." Original Bliss may make the reader sick, Waugh warned, but it contrasts cruelty with courage and passion. In a similar vein, Eamonn Wall in the Review of Contemporary Fiction commented: "Original Bliss is slow-moving, painful, and disturbing. It is also full of truth and executed with great verve." In her review of the book for the Scotsman, Catherine Lockerbie declared that Original Bliss "only adds to the now copious evidence that here is a writer of linguistic brilliance, balm-bearing humanity and blissful originality."
Lorna Sage, a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, said that Kennedy has refined her knack for presenting the surreal in everyday life. Kennedy plays with the topics of death, infinity, and foresight, and uses tactics to subtly remind the reader that the author has a presence in the story. According to Sage, Kennedy uses cold or perversely lyrical language which reminds the reader that a cold, third presence watches over these tales of seduction. Sage claimed that the detached prose is Kennedy's way of avoiding the middle road which, to her, is equivalent to true human despair.
In the opening to her nonfiction volume On Bullfighting, Kennedy relates how in 1998 she experienced her own personal despair. She had been blocked as a writer for months and was even contemplating suicide, when an editor from Random House called and commissioned her to go to Spain to write a book on that country's national sport. As Jim Burns noted in Library Journal, "In many respects, it makes sense to assign a book on the ultimate blood sport to a creative writer who, critics say, isn't afraid to deal with pain in her work." Kennedy's depression was no existential abstraction but based on the circumstances of her life, including a painful slipped disc in her back. Although she felt no natural affinity for bullfighting, Kennedy decided to accept the assignment. She traveled to Spain "to discover if the elements which seemed so much a part of the corrida—death, transcendence, immortality, joy, pain, isolation and fear—would come back to [her]." The book that resulted from her excursion, a slim volume of 136 pages, was described by Veronica Scrol in Booklist as a "graceful meditation on the horror and beauty of a blood sport—the kind that comes close to religious mystery." In marked contrast, a writer for the Economist characterized On Bullfighting as "a patchwork of gloomy personal introspections embroidered by descriptions of bulls and ways to fight them."
Rather than choosing the most obvious literary antecedent of Ernest Hemingway as a model for the thematic reflections of On Bullfighting, Kennedy focused on the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, in particular on Lorca's poem "Lament for the Death of Ignacio Mejias," an ode to a torero who was fatally gored in the bull ring. Once in Spain, Kennedy visited Granada, Lorca's birthplace and the place where he was shot to death by nationalists in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. She meditates on why Lorca would return to nationalist-held Granada, as if courting his own death, and compares such self-destructive behavior both with her own suicidal impulse and the suicide of matador Juan Belmonte, who shot himself. The middle sections of On Bullfighting explore factual information related to the sport, its history, the breeding of bulls, bull physiology, the psychology of the spectators, and the techniques of the torero. Richard Eder, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that "these sections frequently seem dutiful: Ms. Kennedy is not at her best wandering from the particular to the general." However, in response to Kennedy's first description of an actual bullfight, Eder noted, "Suddenly there is no distance at all between the author and her subject: new to the experience, she possesses the artist's timeless vision. She writes somewhat as Goya paints: with pain, terror, and beauty." Ultimately, Kennedy concludes that the sport of bullfighting is one rife with contradiction, stating that "what happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight." According to Michael Smith in the Lancet, "Although technically non-fiction, this book is rich in stories and allusions, undercurrents and emotions. Kennedy brings to her subject a novelist's scope, and she draws compelling links between the fate beckoning from her fourth-floor window, and that stomping behind the matador's cape."
Said to be the longest and most ambitious of Kennedy's novels, Everything You Need covers a period of seven years in the lives of two writers who happen to be father and daughter. Nathan Staples, the father, is a purveyor of popular horror novels who courts self-destruction and obsesses over the wife who left him. He lives on a remote island populated by a colony of eccentric authors who share his predilection for suffering. Nathan and his cohorts tender an invitation to Mary Lamb, an aspiring novelist who happens to be Nathan's long-lost daughter. Even after Mary arrives on the island, however, Nathan cannot reveal his true identity to her. The novel is an extended meditation on the writing life, the vagaries of publishing, and the essential difference between artistic creation and authentic communication. Washington Post correspondent Lorraine Adams wrote: "In this novel Kennedy has traded the intense precision of her earlier work for a more capacious virtuosity. . . . Reading Kennedy, one gets the feeling that our era has produced a writer commensurate with its complexity and lushness, its vulgarity and absurdity." In her World Literature Today review of the work, Mona Knapp observed of Kennedy: "In syntactically sophisticated sentences that almost snap with emotional intensity, she weaves her characters' complex perceptions into riveting narration, commanding the reader's full attention." Knapp concluded that Kennedy's message is "a larger one, about life—where often enough, once choices are made, there are no resolutions-and about the all-consuming narcissism of the artist, that is more likely to lead to pain than to truth."
A. L. Kennedy contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
As far as being a writer goes, there are numberless beginnings and there is only one. Any person who earns a living by making words follow each other in more or less sensible ways will find it perfectly possible to invent all kinds of influences and impetuses for public consumption: the good English teacher, the bad English teacher, the First Great Book they read, the First Awful Book they read, the reading parents, the non-reading parents, the need of books, the presence of books, a disabling accident in childhood, a robust childhood, a tendency to dream, a tendency to flee dreams, the touch of a certain sunset over a certain view and the sound of geese going somewhere the author realises he or she will never be. Equally, if that same author reaches any kind of general publication, horribly quickly there will come journalists and academics and critics and friends and acquaintances and strangers and readers and relatives who will eagerly provide almost endless reasons for the writer and the writing. Many of these observers will be completely, even professionally, sure that they've hit on the heart of the matter, the truth.
But the truth is that you are a writer because you are made that way.
Naturally this, or something like this, has been said before by all sorts of people, some of them writers, but there is very little discussion of what this kind of statement does and does not mean.
For example, you are not quite made a writer in the way that you are made blue-eyed, or diabetic. Writing is more of an inbuilt disposition—some children, suitably triggered, will grow up to perpetrate random murders; others, suitably triggered, will become alcoholics, or clerics; still others will write. The trigger for writing appears to be very finely tuned—it may be sprung by chance qualities of light, coincidences, or any of the unpredictable odds and ends mixed up in the simple presence of everyday life. And, going back to those clerics, we might also describe the predisposition to write as a vocation, because it seems to be a need that comes from without as well within. It is ours, but it plays upon us, has an independent existence which sometimes argues with our own. This calling, like any other, can be resisted, abused, disappointed, or simply drummed into silence by external forces.
And, even taking the disposition into account, being "born a writer" does not imply that the budding typists won't have to work at it just as hard as they might if they'd been born a policeman, or a fishmonger, or nothing identifiable at all. I might also point out that being born a writer can often feel paralysingly similar to being nothing identifiable at all, given that writing is an unlikely and ephemeral occupation, rarely respected until it has produced considerable fruit. It is almost always inexplicable to others until you have published at least a few books and even then it can still be tricky. And whatever work it moves you to will not look like work, because the hours you devote to your writerly calling may seem perilously close to idling and will produce unmistakable (if occasionally angst-ridden) signs of satisfaction. Your progress will be irregular, baffling to quantify. It will also be deeply personal and, because of this, the idea that anyone can teach you how to become a writer, or how to write, is a myth—one most often promoted by those who will charge you a great deal of money for the privilege of discovering just how comprehensively they'll fail you.
Still, it may be that other writers—inside and outside all manner of institutions—may help you to find out who you are and how you think and how you write. Although, being a writer (and therefore prone to self-obsession) you probably won't thank them for it and, in any case, you will be doing that yourself, simply because part of writing is learning how—for ever and ever, writing is learning how. There are no short cuts. Even if you write until you die, you still won't produce any more than you can ask yourself, at a given time and a given place. The art is in hunting out all of yourself, in putting your totality to work.
This may seem rather gruelling, if not frustrating, but it is also wonderful and, rather handily, exactly what the reader needs. One of the things we look for when we read is just that level of commitment, that totality. We seek out the full realisation of a unique presence, a voice other than our own: the viewpoints of human beings beyond ourselves: the precision of experiences we cannot have, described by somebody we cannot be. When we read we can go where the geese are, because someone took pains to go there before us and write the way. The writer gives us two miracles, a world other than that which we inhabit and the ghost of their company, their voice.
And, as we've returned to the geese, what follows will be my list of plausible influences and impetuses that may have affected my writing, or me. You may wish
to bear in mind that I am not exactly lying, but not exactly telling the truth, either—because the truth, you will recall, is that I am made this way. Be aware also, that I do realise this minimal degree of predestination associated with writers can imply a certain brand of grace, a specialness that ought to be available amongst writing folk. If I am so inclined, I can exploit this, invoke my Artistic License. I can run around behaving like a tetchy infant, because I have a strange job. I can pontificate in newsprint on questions of the day and imagine myself very wise. I can pretend I am an intellectual. I can even indulge myself in Bohemian ways. But, should this be the case, I'll be doing these things because I am an ass, not because I am a writer. The clue is in the name—a writer writes, anything else is just for decoration. And even the writing only arrives with practice and God willing and with luck.
Long before that arrival: before I could write my name: there I was, very young and still unable to say geese—I turned it into seegs—and because they were a difficult word and also, by accident, a new one which I had made and, because they could fly and I could not and, because they sounded melancholy and appeared around my birthday, they seemed to draw something in me, they made me connect. They arrived with the autumn sunsets, black and calling across the towering, wonderful, blood-soaked finales to almost every day: the clouds and lights that still rage at the end of the year where I come from, burning in total silence across a whole vapour landscape of plains and gorges, lakes and cliffs. The geese led me into a world of fire and sky, repeated below in the river estuary, blazing in the water. And I was too small in comparison and could, in any case, touch none of it, have none of it—but I still wanted to. Which is a reason for trying words, for trying to catch hold of things in letters, sounds. Inside your head, outside your head, in your mouth: words are what you have to carry all your wants and pleasures with you, to give them to other people, because that's how words grow: two heads being larger than one.
Not that words on the page were quite my best friends at that age, because my mother, a teacher, was in the process of teaching me to read them and this was far slower that simply thinking them. Worse still, this involved Mr. Duck the Postman.
Today I can remember nothing about Mr. Duck, or his story—I suspect that I found it troublesome to pronounce postman, which is why I still don't like him, thirty-three years on. I also picked my way through a devastating saga revolving around a green dress and a red squirrel. I suppose the depth of my distress was a sign that my reading was making progress, but I only half enjoyed the trauma of the narrative: the homemade dress, the other squirrels mocking—who knew squirrels could be so cruel?
Still, those early efforts paid off and by the time I went to school, at four, I could already read unassisted. At first this proved more of an embarrassment than anything, because most of the other children had been passing their time at home in the myriad of interesting ways that didn't cross the path of Mr. Duck and I generally felt more comfortable pretending that I couldn't read at all, either, rather than stand out. As I genuinely couldn't add up (and often still can't) I think I was something of a cause for concern. More importantly from my point of view, reading was my thing; it was private—yelling out C-A-T and H-A-T in a room full of people I didn't know seemed slightly indecent.
But I can't deny that being able to read young was a grand thing in the long run. A natural home and comfort in, at least, your native language is irreplaceable if you are to enjoy genuine access to your current affairs, laws, democracy, human interactions, sanity, and the blessed varieties of relief available in verbal humour. If you are going to grow up to be a reader or a writer, it is precious beyond even this.
Then again, I was a child who spoke early, understood words early. I preferred stories to healthful and nourishing exercise outdoors, I made things up as often as possible, collected words like amphibian and carried them around with me like pets. I liked to examine reality, in order to think things different, to make them what they were not. Language, I met as if I were returning to a friend, to a part of myself—it seemed to be a place where I could be. My mother encouraged and enjoyed my reading and helped me enormously, as did living in a stable community, in a country not at war, having access to good schooling, to books—these were all gifts no one should take for granted. Nevertheless, I responded to them according to what was already in my nature.
And, by this point, you may have noticed that I'm not actually describing writing here at all. At this age, words were partly about reading, partly about a way of responding to myself and my environment and, above all, about expanding the possible into the impossible, simply because it was a joy to do so. Because writing words down was still unpleasantly connected with penmanship and a dreadful lack of speed, this initially meant telling and thinking stories. This is where being a writer comes from for me—that joy in the impossible, in making everything available into something more by whatever means are to hand. Which is to say, writing is nothing to do with publication, literary prizes, academic theorising, or any of the detritus which arrives when you are fortunate enough to be able to make a living out of making things up. The thing to remember is that writing in its purest form is no more and no less than a monstrous delight in making things up. No one would keep doing it through the inevitable rejections, misunderstandings, plateaus of self-loathing, hours of solitary concentration, and often a great deal of no money whatsoever, if writing weren't as fundamental as this, as deeply rooted in who the writer has always been and what they have always wanted, if it didn't feel extraordinary. Words felt great years before I'd even thought of sex—right after hot and cold, wet and dry, hungry and not—in came the words for everything.
Which is not to claim that I am, therefore, any good at writing—only to say that writing will always be an issue for me, I will always be trying to go home to it and be with it and be with others who love it, too.
Home, of course, is important. If your parents do not get on well, if you do not like your father and the feeling appears to be more than mutual, if certain periods in your childhood make you think you really need a rest—then it's always good to get away. Stories were as far away as I could get, having no passport or independent income. They could be fun, too. When my father's father and, more particularly, my father's mother arrived for one particular visit and everyone trod on their personal selection of eggshells for the duration, I sloped off and wrote about vampires, monsters, creatures who lived in my house but who could be defeated absolutely by infallible, traditional means. And, if one of the monsters resembled my paternal grandmother, that didn't matter especially, because the story was my secret. It was a terrible risk—rather more terrible for my mother, in retrospect, because she would have got the blame—but it was a way of being my unrestrained self and free.
Just as it was when I was in school. After my inauspicious beginnings, I settled into attending the same institution for thirteen years: a place of terror for the under-sevens, intense anxiety for the under-elevens and, thereafter, that peculiar mixture of cramming, classics, pseudo-military organisations, amateur theatricals, rhetoric, stupid rules, flamboyant rebellions, and tightly enforced respectability that you only ever seem to get when parents are paying fees. My move up to senior school coincided with my parents' divorce and a great deal of change. I stayed, naturally, with my mother, while my father continued fee-paying, but balked at providing anything else—so I attended an expensive school in a secondhand uniform, with secondhand books and so on and so forth and my mother had to adjust to a whole new life and there were various types of distress and so on and so forth, but steadily there with me throughout were the words: books, proper lessons about nothing but English, and an environment just restrictive enough and just fond enough of intellectual activity to encourage writing as a tunnel to outside worlds.
I spent the last six years of my schooling in, among other things, writing bad poems, peculiar plays, speeches, and stories. The fact that I occasionally had to hand over pieces to members of staff, and that they would set me subjects, was an imposition I liked to think I chose to tolerate, but not enjoy. A good teacher—and I had one great teacher—would bring me closer to writing as I would for myself, the poorer ones closed me down. Likewise, I chose texts that weren't on the curriculum to study for exams, because I didn't want anyone interfering with my reading, or the inside of my mind. I must have been a revolting child.
Between eleven and seventeen, I wrote for the school magazine and then acted as one of its editors, read and reread Shakespeare obsessively, took part in public speaking competitions and fell in love with the theatre. I also embarked on a crash course in what I was led to believe were Great Texts. So I had the pleasure of hauling myself unaccompanied through Dante's Inferno, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, a great many Nordic myths the names of which escape me, Boccaccio's Decameron, frequent potluck selections from the Penguin Classics, bits of Dickens, Wordsworth (couldn't see the point), and Milton—ever gone into a library and said "I'm looking for Paradise Lost?"—and, in fact, I became a little obsessive about the mountain of books that I hadn't yet read while, for God's sake, people were writing new ones incessantly. Which is to say, I explored as many of the worlds of words as time and money could allow.
Above all, words aloud, the sheer music of the things, that's what caught me. I had joined together the silent rhythms and melody of words asleep on pages with the racket they can kick up in a brain and now I'd realised (I always was slow on the uptake) that the entire orchestration could come racing, tiptoeing, waltzing, and doing whatever else it liked out of mouths. I recited Shakespeare and Chekhov and C. P. Taylor and Henrik Ibsen and anyone else who seemed interesting to anyone who would listen. I felt the authors rear-range how I breathed, govern where I paused, reshape how I spoke to their pattern. I stood up and galloped through speeches I had cobbled together as part of the endless round of public speaking competitions lying in wait for perky Middle Class youths and, as a result, learned that special pressure which comes upon any writer when they are faced by an audience with which they must communicate, an audience that wants to be entertained.
An audience: it's like a reader, only bigger. And, like a reader, each one has its own foibles, it's own energies and, mainly, you want it to be your friend, to make it laugh and listen and travel with you wherever you go. The thing is, after a while, you want to take it to odd places, just to see if you can: you want to push it, you want it to laugh until it stops, you want to break the easy connection and then make a real one, you want to haul a whole room off into dreams and nightmares both at once. You are scared of the audience, because it can dislike you while you are there, it can be plainly bored and disapproving, it can heckle and fall asleep. You are fond of the audience, because it can sometimes allow you to feel very fine and significant and it can increase the size of any story quite remarkably, it can make things happen to a narrative that have never happened before, it can spring you out into unexplored territory—but if an audience makes that all too easy, you don't respect it and, if you're too easy, you don't respect yourself. Performance, it's an education.
It's also intense and I am partial to intensity.
Writing my own plays was more intense than watching them—and the city I grew up in didn't even have a theatre for several years. Seeing fantastic productions of marvellous plays in Stratford and London was more intense yet and I saved up, bought cheap student bus tickets and lived on B and B breakfasts to see as much as I could in my holidays. I could even pack in a Friday night bus ride from northeast Scotland to London, stagger out on Saturday morning, see a matinee and an evening show, get an overnight bus back and sleep off the travel on Sunday afternoon. My English teacher at the time said this made me too excited and I should stop, which inclined me to enjoy it all the more—intensity.
Of course, taking part in theatre, saying words and feeling them in my head and my lungs and having them force apart my teeth, that was even more intense than letting them just lie on paper, or watching someone else go out and play with them. So I docilely agreed to go to university and study English—a promising, normal, academic subject—and, on my arrival, immediately changed my course to theatre studies and drama—a degree which managed to leave graduates entirely unqualified for normal life and insufficiently qualified for the stage.
Still, my course served its purpose in a number of ways, several of them highly useful for a writer. And I would mention here that I still had no intention of being a writer—writing was just something I did. Even I wasn't mad enough to think it was any kind of a job—and I was considering working in the theatre.
I continued to read, occasionally buying books in place of food—only occasionally. I also continued to perform, keeping in touch with the audience, writing to see what I could do with other people and words. Added to this, came the possibility of writing words to fit actors I knew, even of writing to produce voices I had never heard. I experimented with monologues, with small casts, with directing, with singing, with the possibilities of soundtracks, light, and movement. (Although I am painfully, impractically slow to learn anything physical.)
Then one day a voice specialist came to run a workshop with our group and, in the process, gave me almost everything else I'd need when I finally had no choice but to be a writer. Which was convenient, because I was far too wilful and ugly to do well in conventional theatre.
I'm afraid I can't remember the specialist's name, but my prayers are with her. She arrived in front of our little class with an air of authority and a single sentence and a plan. The sentence was from Dickens and it had as many words as we were people. So far so good. She made us stand in a line and recite one word each. This sounded fairly awful when we did it, but was otherwise painless—we'd been given far sillier tasks in our time, we were drama students. Then she explained that the word we had said was our word—we would work with it now for the rest of the session—two hours—and we would get to know it.
My word was the.
I did not like this voice specialist. I did not like her idea of a good way to spend 120 minutes of my life.
But I tried what she suggested, as we all did—we were nothing if not biddable. We moved around the studio and whispered our words, we crooned them, shouted them, howled them, said them in every possible way we could without doing ourselves harm. We replaced our words with noises—not that my word was much beyond a noise to start with—we replaced our words with movements, we combined the movements with the sounds, the movements with the words, we lay on the floor and said the words so that we could feel them reverberate through the floor boards and our diaphragms and the bones that made our faces, we did all this and more until we were tired.
During the course of this, I moved from cynical amusement, to irritation, to despair, to fury, to concentration, to a lack of thought, to a state I had not inhabited often before—the absence of self, which arrives when the writing occupies you and there's no room for anything else. Then, sly thing that she was, the specialist lined us up again in our original order and had us say our words and, natural as birdsong, out rang Dickens' music, unified and fresh as you like. It said itself. It had found its proper life through us. And it felt extremely intense.
I passed from wanting to brain the specialist with a chair to volunteering for an extra session with her, during which a handful of us sat with texts and were informed, wonder of wonders, that every word there had a life—a life which had to be discovered and made manifest. For an actor, this kind of thing allows you to unlock a text and then say it as if you'd just thought it, as if it had never happened anywhere before. It may well be what's working when you hear someone—say—acting Marlowe and wonder if they've deviated from the verse, because you can actually follow their meaning and it sounds as if they're making it up. Of course, they're not making it up, they're helping it live and you understand what they're saying, because they do, every word.
For a writer—albeit one in waiting—this kind of attention to detail makes you unable to ignore the fact that each word on a page counts, constructs a music. Actors learn very quickly that bad writing is hard to remember and physically very difficult to say—the body and mind want nothing to do with it. Good writing, on the other hand, is alive—it can dominate you, fight you when you don't let its rhythm run, carry you when you do, it will help to change you (temporarily) into someone else, it will stay with you for life. If writers have any sense, they will want to learn this, too.
Put it together, then—words have a life and it is your responsibility to aid them in making that life manifest. Words have physical effects on the people who carry them. Take Shakespearian actors: they have rib cages like opera singers', because playing a Shakespearian lead will make them breathe as seriously as they'd have to singing opera—the author dead for centuries, while his writing is still changing peoples' shapes. Words have physical effects on the bodies they touch—ever seen someone really laugh?—the only other way to make them act like that would be to punch them. Declarations of love, of independence, restraining orders, national anthems, curses, spells—we rarely consider the power of the words around us, but they have it, all the same. So, of course, they are precious enough and complex enough for someone to spend two hours in beginning to understand the definite article. This is something a writer needs to know.
Something else for an author to try—lie on the floor giving a paragraph your full attention, waiting until it starts to sing in you—that's a feeling you could get to enjoy—that is, in fact, the adult return of just the feeling you had on those nights when you stayed awake in bed and wrote and wrote after lights out, wrote the words that were for you alone to be inside. Welcome home.
Still looking for intensity? This is, without limit, intense.
When you are living alone for the first time in your life, when you are a student among students, when there are all kinds of new experiences on offer and you are trying many of them—even then, this can burn sharper and brighter than every one.
Unsurprisingly, if I return for a moment to my childhood and my two favourite sections from my two favourite books, I find that both combine ideas of musicality, impossible worlds, and an absolute immersion in creativity. Both indicate that I would grow to be more than ready to find this kind of experience in life, that I'd be delighted to listen if anything like this called.
The first quotation is taken from the chapters in Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth which deal with Chroma, the venerable and mysterious conductor of the orchestra which produces the world's colours. Milo, the book's young hero, is trying to understand the orchestra's function and why it is active, but silently so. Chroma shows Milo what happens when the world suffers a withdrawal of creative energy.
"See for yourself," roared Chroma and he raised both hands high over his head. Immediately the instruments that were playing stopped, and at once all colour vanished. The world looked like an enormous colouring book that had never been used. Everything appeared in simple black outlines, and it looked as if someone with a set of paints the size of a house and a brush as wide could stay happily occupied for years. Then Chroma lowered his arms. The instruments began again and the colour returned.
Needless to say, Milo waits until Chroma is asleep and then cannot resist trying out the orchestra himself—a beautiful and harmless chaos results.
I won't insult you by stating the obvious reasons that would make me like a reality which set artistic effort and experience in so central a position—and which offered the promise of such immense control and such massively exhilarating powerlessness.
The second passage comes from that ardent defender of Story—C. S. Lewis and his Magician's Nephew. Here a man who was a devout Christian (but also a devout writer) produces an alternative creation myth full of anarchic and unmistakably pagan vitality. It's the kind of worshipful blasphemy that any writer, and very many children, couldn't help but love. The central figures of the book have arrived in a place which is Nothing, unborn—and they are just in time to hear Aslan, the great lion of all the Narnian chronicles, sing Narnia into being. Aslan is the Word and words and also beyond—or rather before—words.
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it. The horse seemed to like it too; he gave the sort of whinny a horse would give if, after years of being a cab-horse, it found itself back in the old field where it had played as a foal, and saw someone whom it remembered and loved coming across the field to bring it a lump of sugar.
"Gawd!" said the cabby. "Ain't it lovely?"
Then two wonders happened at the same moment. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by the other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn't come out gently one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leapt out—single stars, constellations and planets, brighter and bigger than any in our world. There were no clouds. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing, and that it was the first voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.
Many more wonders are described, the rushing growth of forests, the emergence, fully formed, from the earth of living animals (both the fabulous and the humdrum) and even—my favourite—the growth of a complete, lit lamppost which springs from a fragment of cross bar allowed to lie on the fantastically fertile earth—
"Don't you see?" Said Digory. "This is where the bar fell—the bar she tore off the lamp-post at home. It sank into the ground and now it's coming up as a young lamp post." (But not so very young now; it was as tall as Digory while he said this.)
Lewis was, of course, not unaware of the parallels between the creator and the Creator. He knew that every writer makes a world, if not a universe, of their own and must then fill it with life and the story of that life. He has written beautifully of the writer's love which gives rise to characters and their further love, which allows them to release those characters to be themselves, to give them—if you like—free will. Free will and love—they don't come up too often in literary analysis.
The birth of Narnia, which fascinated me as a child, pleases me now because it gives such a beautiful sense of the moment when a story begins to work, to live—the point when the author's voice ceases to be alone. It also reminds me of what I loved as a child and what I still love now—the reader's ability, with the author's assistance, to do just what Lewis's narrative suggests—to see and hear it, just as Digory did, to be with the protagonists. The only thing better is to be Digory and your own Aslan—to form and then cooperate with whatever you have made to see and hear and light all the other senses in a narrative.
Coincidentally, I made a kind of return to childhood when I left university. Given that I was equipped with an utterly impractical degree, my chances of finding gainful employment were quite small. I had small prior work experience as a jobbing gardener, a street entertainer, and as an entirely unenthusiastic telephone salesperson of truly appalling double glazing—I am proud to say that I never got anyone to buy a single unit and I actively encouraged complaints. For a time, I also wrote increasingly fantastical copy for the programme of the Belgrade Coventry Festival. But now I had gone home to a small city with almost no cultural life. I gave a few drama workshops, I sold brushes door-to-door, very badly, I collected supplementary benefit and tried to think of some useful purpose I might serve.
Finally I managed to secure a position in a children's puppet company funded by a government scheme to reduce unemployment. My fellow unemployed persons and I were supposed to make puppets and then act out dramas intended to teach children that the disfigured were not to be mocked or feared, but embraced in a spirit of harmony and inclusion.
Actually, we very rarely performed anything because the couple who ran the business did not like children. Our very few outings tended to make me think they had a point.
Parents look upon puppet shows as splendid opportunities for abandoning their offspring and sprinting off, who knows where. Any large number of abandoned and unsupervised children will mutate within minutes into a medieval mob, complete with improvised weapons and rudimentary command structures. Hapless puppeteers will find themselves rapidly surrounded by a baying, Neanderthal mass and yet will be wholly unable to defend themselves, due to their hands being shoved up the hollow nether regions of various furry animals. It's not pretty and it's not fun.
Our little troupe operated both from a central, closed booth and behind a low wall, over which we would work rod and stick puppets. There were opportunities for clowning (and stamping back little hands and the little hands' owners) out in the body of the room, but eventually we would retreat behind our wall and, as the diminutive rabble began to hurl itself towards us we would, with infinite regret, take off our puppets and, holding their soft bodies aloft, swing down their plaster and chicken-wire heads in close proximity to the swearing and shoving hordes that threatened to overwhelm us at any moment.
Nobody died, as far as I know.
It has been suggested to me that the author, cunningly working away behind his or her delicately constructed marionettes, is as much a puppeteer as anything else. I can only say that these suggestions have never been made by puppeteers. And no wonder so many Punch and Judy men were professional alcoholics.
But the puppetry business did, indirectly, spur on my writing. After all, I had no access to a performance space and I had been, to tell the truth, overexposed to mediocre theatre in the course of my studies. The only things that had still excited me before I ceased to be a student were staring at texts until they unlocked, improvisation, and scribbling. But I was now far away from any of the performers for whom I had written parts. I had very little hope of finding new ones—at least not ones over four inches high and with their own lower limbs. It was pointless, even depressing, to study scripts I would have no chance to perform and I could hardly improvise all by myself.
Or, at least, I could improvise, could even exercise my voice—if I wrote pieces that were self-contained, if I wrote prose.
By attempting prose I could have all the advantages of theatre with none of the inconvenience. Improvisation and rehearsal, they could take place on the page and produce the text—a work with (in theory) the kind of unlimited potential and flexibility that no performance could ever provide. And this could allow me to be involved again with something alive. It could give me the chance to make a noticeable difference in something, no matter how minor, to start something and complete it, as I wished.
Because nothing else was as I wished. I had very little money and I couldn't burden my mother by making her spend what she didn't have on bailing me out— although she often tried to. I had no apparent hope of moving beyond the puppets and on to something that had an identifiable use. I could boast no skills that seemed to be of value to me or the world at large. I was stuck in a tiny flat that I couldn't afford to heat in a mainly chilly city that I had always wanted to leave and my future did not look set to improve.
So I wrote.
This was partly a return to that reliable comfort that had seen me through other unpleasant times and partly the result of a need I hadn't previously understood. Three years at university had left me accustomed to writing—I hadn't realised that I would feel uncomfortable if I stopped, or even just wrote a little less. The whole process had become, in some way, necessary. So, in the tiniest, most self-conscious handwriting, I began to scrawl down short stories which were a continuation of my trial monologues and of the small forays I had made into short prose in the final months before I graduated. All the pieces I had produced then were rejected by the only literary magazine I had heard of.
And the first five or six stories I pounded out as a disgruntled puppeteer were also rejected—although I had been loaned a Writers' and Artists' Yearbook so I now had a wider, if totally random, choice of magazines by which my work could be spurned. Five or six stories on the scrap heap doesn't sound much, but it took me a minimum of three months to produce each one, so my life was withering away here quite alarmingly in what seemed an increasingly futile, if psychologically satisfying, pursuit.
I tried joining a writer's group full of very pleasant, largely retired individuals and discovered that I'm not really a group person. I talked to a writer in residence—and left after our chat, filled with the certainty that I couldn't write properly and never would. I tried joining another writer's group full of less pleasant, largely mad individuals and decided that I really, really wasn't a group person.
But it still happened.
Somewhere in the midst of all this joining and not joining and living on cheese and potatoes and general confusion, a story of mine was accepted for
publication. And something else much more important had happened first, something that I didn't understand until many years later.
One evening I had sat down to begin another story, with a little less hope than I had managed for the last one, which had in its turn seemed significantly less promising that the one before that. Rather than ploughing straight in and wrestling with the first few words, I paused and I made a decision, the decision that anyone who wants to make things eventually has to make—I decided that I'd write to the best of my ability, no holds barred. If I'd known what I was doing, I'd never have risked it.
Because failing when you're not really trying is one thing—failing when you've broken your heart in the attempt, pushed and shoved and driven yourself beyond what you thought you could manage—that means you always will fail—it means that you can't do it, you haven't got it in you, you'll never know how.
Being far too stupid to understand what I was up to, I settled on the idea that I would make every word count, that the music would have to be right, that it should feel alive. I was going to make the effort to hear every syllable, as if I were saying it to someone I needed to hear, someone for whom I had respect—so whatever I had to tell them should be important. I made up my mind, in effect, to unlock my own text while I was building it, to work beyond my limit so that the words could leave me and live elsewhere.
I look at that story now—it's called "Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains"—and it's very embarrassing. Because I was almost frozen by the seriousness of my undertaking, it is a very short, short story in which very little happens; it contains only two people and a tiny amount of dialogue. Although it does have moderately seamless rhythms running from the start of paragraphs to their end, it doesn't manage to sustain those from one paragraph to the next—so it's like coughing up chopped liver if you try to read it out aloud. And like filling your head with chopped liver if you read it all. But it is, you might say, an honest story—I believed in it as fully as I could and I made it as fully as I could and I let the characters creep off as far as they were able into the peculiar, unfinished world that I had provided. Because I did the best I could at the time, the story did its best, too.
Which turned out to be just enough. My little story was published in what turned out to be a prominent literary magazine—I'd never heard of it and had picked it by chance out of the Yearbook. The magazine publication interested an anthology which, in turn, republished those very few, very lumpy pages. The anthology, in its turn, attracted the attention of two different editors who wrote to me and filled my heart with happy terror (and suspicion of convoluted practical jokes) by asking if I had enough such stories to fill a collection. All that, just from deciding that I would commit to a text, to each word, to the shape and the music of it.
And, believe me, I know—it could have gone either way—my prose only just made it to the wire and less generous readers would have concluded it fell far short. If I'd picked the wrong magazine, if the anthology hadn't been interested, if those two editors hadn't been taking time out to read around, if my best had been even worse than it happens to be—I might still be taking swings at children with smiling lumps of chicken wire and plaster.
Although, almost as soon as I was published in that lucky-for-me magazine I moved from the east to the west of Scotland to take up a position as a community arts worker in a postindustrial community on the Clyde. This allowed me to cofound and work with the Clydebank Community Youth Theatre (a finer, more talented, and more seriously unbalanced group you'd never meet) and to see all manner of arts allowing all manner of good people to do all manner of good things for themselves. And, of course, there was a great deal of writing in many forms.
Meanwhile, I was spending my (few) free evenings and weekends and holidays fighting to produce enough stories to make a collection. These I finally sent off—in a dreadful condition—to the editor who had approached me on behalf of a large, London-based publishing house. He duly sent my large envelope back with a polite rejection. Having mastered my desire to chuck the whole thing in the river and mashed down enough of my despair to have room to rewrite, I then sent off a slightly healthier pile of stories to the editor who had approached me on behalf of a small, Edinburgh-based publishing house.
The collection was accepted.
And probably the best things about it were the title, which was Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains—always be polite to the work that has helped you—and a story it contained that I wrote when I needed to read a piece in front of an audience and knew I had nothing good enough.
The publication process itself was surreal.
First, I tried to get a bursary out of the Scottish Arts Council on the strength of my impending book, armed with the publisher's letter to prove its (fairly) immanent existence and in hopes of a novel to come. My letter was looked upon with great incredulity, as was the idea of a short story collection at all, and after a wasted trip to the SAC's Edinburgh offices, I was packed off brusquely with a form to fill out for inclusion in a paid public reading scheme only open to authors once they had published. I threw the form away before I got on the train to Glasgow.
Second, I had my author photo snapped while I balanced on a pile of Arran Highland Dress socks—the publisher had requested an 8" by 10" and I could only afford to get one taken at the combined Highland Dress Hire and Portrait Photographer down the road from my office. (By this time I was in my last remotely normal job—working with creative writing and special needs.) The photographer, very usefully and truthfully, informed me that my kind of face will always produce drooping eyelids when I smile—so, photographically speaking, I will never look very happy without also looking very drunk. I have spent the last decade trying to convince God knows how many other snappers that my best option—if I must appear jolly—is a mild grin.
Third, I was told how much I would be paid for what amounted to five years' work—£500. Which put paid to any thoughts that writing might become a full-time occupation.
Fourth, I was sent—in lieu of any editorial comment—a handful of reports from different readers, each one in some way contradictory to each other one. This meant that, just as the book was about to go to press, I was as sure as I'd ever been that it should be burned and never spoken of again.
Fifth, I was assured that the cover would contain no heavy-handed references to night, geometry, or anything railway-related. Naturally, the cover arrived, boldly emblazoned with a star, some straight lines, a picture of some track, and a railway station. All that was missing was an owl swooping down with a timetable for the Caledonian Sleeper service held open in its claws.
Finally, I stumbled out with another bleary author for our joint book launch—which was in a restaurant. People in restaurants want to eat, they want to clatter their knives and forks and talk to their neighbours, they want to order pudding and more wine—people reading from novels are much, much less welcome in restaurants than men reprising Neil Sedaka on untuned pianos, or indeed open tubs of rats.
And that was that, or so it seemed, and I went on having fun writing with people who enjoyed writing—in prisons and hospitals and psychiatric facilities and adult training centres and rehabilitation centres and other places where words can do quite remarkable things in close association with human beings.
One example—I was invited to work with some people who wanted to write a play. The group was fairly disparate: some participants had degenerative conditions, some were recovering from injuries, some had mobility difficulties, two had a visual impairment, and a couple came along from a local alcohol treatment centre. We'd discussed things, started to rough out a plot and some scenes, and we were working on characters when I spoke to one lady who was completely blind and apparently quite withdrawn. Whenever she came into a room, she hugged the walls and sat down as soon as possible, she spoke very little. She had decided that her character was going to be an alcoholic, nymphomaniac air hostess and would-be fashion model.
Now, I have always had a policy of not interfering with what anyone wants to write—it's my job in a group to support writers, to help them find a way to do whatever they need to—and I wouldn't interfere with an inspiration without having a very good reason: inspiration is temperamental stuff and it might pick a fight with me later. So, I didn't want to interfere, but I didn't want to let someone set themselves a challenge they were going to fail, either. Still, the writer was set on her character, had plenty of ideas about her and (with silent reservations) I ended the session having talked them through.
The following week, we reassembled and worked on improvisations, scenes, and character construction. The air hostess/model seemed to be taking shape, but the woman who wanted to build and then play her was her usual timid, quiet voiced, tip-toeing self. Then, just as we were about to finish the day's work, that quiet voice interrupted—she'd been practising at home and now she had something to show us—all of us.
And all of us watched this writer stand and walk in a straight line through the middle of the room, just as a model would—the head back, the swagger, the smooth hipped glide, everything just right. Then she spun in a perfect turn, sashayed back, and sat down in the perfect and happily amazed silence that she had made. She had rehearsed the confidence she wanted in words and then fitted into reality. She had done her best and her best had freed her to excel herself.
Needless to say, she played the part remarkably, the show prospered and, thereafter, her life was one that would be comfortable for an outgoing, enquiring, and active young woman.
One more example—I worked with a group of adults with learning difficulties who wrote poems as a group. They made a tight team, had different strengths, different influences on their pieces—their voice changing when anyone was absent. As a favour, this group was invited to have its work presented to an assembly of senior social workers and community education officers after the close of a business meeting—a faintly condescending indulgence they'd decided to grant us, over their coffee and biscuits. The poets and I watched as the busy officials settled back with appropriately charitable smiles and two professional readers approached the podium and then set loose the work—poems about dreams, fantasies, nonsense, about freedom, about not wanting help, about preferring it if their annual outings could be to places they liked, poems about being human and having interior life. The poets and I watched as the charitable smiles faded and were replaced with expressions of concern, even fear. If you have power over words, you start to have power over your life, you are much harder to patronise or ignore, you may want to have rights in practice, as well as theory. That's the kind of thing that can worry senior social workers and community education officers.
I mention this because I loved working with words and people and I loved what they could do in combination and because I believe in them, at least in part, because I have seen what they can do—not on the page, not in the classroom, but in life. The unlimited possibilities of the page can spark across into reality, the imaginative freedom of fiction can become a literal liberation. This was true for the people I worked with—and it would be true for me, although I didn't expect it.
To all intents and purposes, my slim volume of stories had slipped out of sight and would stay that way. It had received a few reviews—one featuring my Highland Dress photograph with the splendid phrase "A. L. Kennedy: making misery tedious" printed in italics underneath, and I was worrying (in those free evenings and weekends and holidays) at my first novel, mainly because it seemed so unlikely I'd been published at all that I might as well do something else impossible while my luck was in.
Then, like the monster in every bad horror film you've ever seen, Night Geometry rose from the dead. For reasons which remain mysterious to me my book was
given a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and a Saltire First Book Award. Then I was invited down to London for a highly unlikely lunch, before which I was announced as winner of the Llewellyn Rees Prize—an award intended to encourage promising youngsters by giving them a cheque which was roughly equal to my year's salary. I spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering round Hyde Park and saying "Well, well, well" repeatedly to a number of uninterested ducks.
Before I reached the ducks I also met that London-based editor again, the one who had written to me. During the lunch, we had the conversation which meant he sent a bicycle messenger to collect the manuscript of my impossible novel from my brand new agent—why not have an agent?—everyone said I should. He then accepted the book for publication.
The same man has edited my fiction ever since. We come from roughly the same place and went to roughly the same kind of school, we like roughly the same kind of things and, because—or in spite—of this, he reads me with a better understanding than anyone else. We would never have worked together if I hadn't decided I might as well go down to London to see some university friends, watch someone else win a prize, and then get a free lunch. No one had thought I would win—my Scottish publishers hadn't even bothered to make the trip and offer me moral support. And a different London editor was almost on the point of buying the novel and was already sending me faxes along the lines of, "We know these kinds of things happen, but do you really need to write about them?" This leads me to believe that we might not have been well-suited.
All of which brings me to the threshold of my life as a professional writer. Travel commitments made me less and less workable as a weekly group tutor, the hunger to write grew with feeding, and—eventually—I managed to piece together enough to keep myself afloat by writing alone. This currently involves me in writing for television, film, newspapers, radio, magazines, and the stage, and in learning two interconnected lessons—the kind that are only available when your writing begins to be other people's business.
Other people—they're certainly instructive, whether they mean to be or not. As a writer you will meet a number of types—people who think they could write if they took the time and do not respect you for this reason, people who do not like writers and whom you cannot please, people who do not like you and therefore attack your work, people who do like you and therefore over-praise your work, people who want you to give them something they believe you have offered in your work, people who think that they know you because of your work, people who are insecure in their own professions and want you to be insecure, too, people whose idea of entertainment involves staring inappropriately at the miseries of strangers they despise and who want to provide new miseries, people who will not pay you for your work, people who will not give you credit for your work, people who cannot understand words and resent the fact that you sometimes can, people who are stark, staring, falling down and biting mad. There is nothing terribly wrong with these people being this way, if they find it pleasant—but it is inconvenient that many of them happen to be TV producers, film producers, editors, festival organisers, directors, and all the sundry others who are supposed to collaborate with writers. They are to be avoided, if this is in any way possible—often, it is not.
But there are also the wonderful people who love words and want them to live, who want characters to stand clear of the page and run, who take the time to understand a text and then to help it be itself—these are the people who give the most savage and beautiful notes, the people that you can spend hours with and not notice, the people you rewrite for before you're asked, because they should have better than the best, the people who understand that words have music and must sing, the people who make writing the hardest work and the hardest fun. You go without sleep and food together, you worry together, you are very, very silly together, and you play in a way that gets things done. These people make a solitary profession inhabited, they are near friends of the heart and if you meet one or two in your life you are fortunate. I have been very fortunate.
Good collaborators have taught me the joys that working with others should provide and, in the process, they have helped me to discover that what matters to me, whatever the form or the format, remains the same—I care about the characters and the story, the sense and the melody of the words: it is my job to defend them, let them grow and be as they should. Without them, the piece will fail—with them I can try to build something that prepares for and invites the participation of readers, actors, technicians, setbuilders, musicians, choreographers, directors, cameramen: whoever is necessary or would like to come along.
But, when all else fails, and the play ends its run, or the film can't find a budget, of its final edit is done, or when the novelty of having books exist on bookshelves, or get reviews, or win awards, or not win awards—when that wears away, then I end up back where I started. I'm left with what I care about, what I love—the words.
This isn't always a good thing. Writing is often lonely and isolating, it is hungry for time and emotional energy when you might rather be using both in other ways. There are days when you would like a life, but all you seem to have is the opportunity to auction off your true home for a much less than adequate sum. Don't think for a moment that I haven't wanted to stop, find something else to do.
But, of course, there's nothing else I can do. There never really was and, having spent so long in such a peculiar profession, I'm quite beyond saving now.
I'm the kind of person who likes to examine reality in order to think things different, to make them what they are not. I take monstrous delight in making things up, in trying to reach beyond reach: to the touch of a certain sunset over a certain view and the sound of geese going somewhere that I can't be. Words are what I have to carry all my wants and pleasures with me, to give them to other people, because that's how words grow: two heads being larger than one. I will never write as well as I would like, but I still want to try. I still want my words, these words, to be in your head—because I'm made this way.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Dramatists, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Novelists, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 271: British and Irish Novelists since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002, pp. 196-204.
Head, Dominic, The Cambridge Introduction toModern British Fiction, 1950-2000, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 2002, pp. 153-154.
Kennedy, A. L., Looking for the Possible Dance, Secker & Warburg (London, England), 1993.
Kennedy, A. L., Night Geometry and the GarscaddenTrains, Polygon (Edinburgh, Scotland), 1990.
Booklist, February 1, 2001, Veronica Scrol, review of On Bullfighting, p. 1033.
Cineaste, spring, 1997, Raymond Durgnat, review of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, p. 16.
Economist, April 26, 1997, review of So I Am Glad, pp. 83-84; November 6, 1999, review of On Bull-fighting, p. 92; November 23, 2002, "Shining Light: New Fiction."
Guardian Weekly, August 8, 1993, p. 29; December, 19, 1993, p. 29; January 28, 1994, Jenny Turner, "Portrait: A Person of Substance," p. 16; March 13, 1994, p. 29; April 3, 1994, p. 29; May 28, 1995, p. 36.
Lancet, January 20, 2001, Michael Smith, "The Psychology of the Bull Fight," p. 239.
Library Journal, March 15, 2001, Jim Burns, review of On Bullfighting, p. 89; July, 2001, Edward B. St. John, review of Everything You Need, p. 123.
London Review of Books, July 8, 1993, pp. 18-19; August 3, 1995, p. 17.
New Statesman, February 19, 1993, Judy Cooke, review of Looking for the Possible Dance, pp. 40-41; February 11, 1994, Kirsty Milne, review of Now That You're Back, pp. 39-40; May 26, 1995, Sahara Smith, review of So I Am Glad, p. 25; January 10, 1997, Amanda Craig, review of Original Bliss, p. 47; May 24, 1999, Toby Mundy, review of Everything You Need, p. 49.
New Yorker, January 18, 1999, Daphne Merkin, "Unholy Happiness," p. 79.
New York Times, March 30, 2001, Richard Eder, "Defeating Death by Writing about It in the Bullring."
New York Times Book Review, February 27, 2000, David Sacks, "Just Don't Mention the Nose," p. 18; August 5, 2001, Richard Eder, "Musing upon the Wreck," p. 13; October 7, 2001, Scott Veale, review of So I Am Glad, p. 28.
Observer (London, England), February 24, 1991, p. 63; January 30, 1994, p. 18; March 20, 1994, p. 23; July 24, 1994, p. 17; May 14, 1995, p. 15; April 7, 1996, p. 16; January 19, 1997, p. 15.
Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1999, review of So IAm Glad, p. 74; February 12, 2001, review of On Bullfighting, p. 193; June 11, 2001, review of Everything You Need, p. 56; July 23, 2001, Yvonne Nolan, "A. L. Kennedy: A Dream Not Her Own," p. 43.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1999, Eamonn Wall, review of Original Bliss, p. 161; summer, 2000, Trey Strecker, review of So I Am Glad, p. 176; February 12, 2001, review of On Bullfighting, p. 193; spring, 2002, Trey Strecker, review of Everything You Need, p. 142.
Scotsman, December 1, 1995, Gillian Glover, "Call Me A. L.," p. 14; January 11, 1997, Catherine Lockerbie, review of Original Bliss.
Spectator, February 12, 1994, pp. 25-26; May 20, 1995, pp. 41-42; January 18, 1997, pp. 35-36.
Times (London, England), February 27, 1993, Lucasta Miller, review of Looking for the Possible Dance.
Times Literary Supplement, April 5, 1991, Kathleen Jamie, review of Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, p. 27; March 5, 1993, p. 20, January 7, 1994, p. 17; February 25, 1994, p. 19; May 12, 1995, p. 20; November 29, 1996, p. 16; January 24, 1997, p. 21; May 30, 1999, Stephen McGinty, "Death Becomes Her," p. 13.
Washington Post, December 8, 2001, Lorraine Adams, review of Everything You Need.
W Magazine, summer, 1999, Catherine Lockerbie, "A Writer Apart," pp. 13-20.
World Literature Today, spring, 2002, Mona Knapp, review of Everything You Need, p. 151.
Alison Kennedy Web site,http://www.al-kennedy.co.uk (May 9, 2003).
Atlantic Unbound,http://www.theatlantic.com/ (March 29, 2001), Julia Livshin, "Spasms of Grace."
Spike Magazine,http://www.spikemagazine.com/ (May 9, 2003), Bethan Roberts, "Blissed Out" (interview).