A.L. KENNEDY FEATURE
All. IN THE MIND
Sue Wilson talks to A.L. Kennedy, whose third book consolidates her position as one of Scotland’s brightest literary talents
t’s going to be a great spring for
new Scottish fiction. As the
Robert Louis Stevenson
centenary celebrations gear up to
remind us of our past literary
glories, a substantial pile of books by Scotland’s current brightest and best — James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, Duncan McLean - are set to roll off the presses over the next few months. First offthe mark, however, is A.L. Kennedy, named last year as one of Granta’s twenty best young British novelists for her debut novel, Looking For The Possible Dance, with a new short- story collection Now That You’re Back.
It was with stories, of course, that Kennedy first established herself as a writer to watch, when Night Geometry And The Garsclcadden Trains won the Saltire Society’s First Book Award and the Mail on Sunday/John Rhys Llewellyn Prize. Critics applauded Kennedy’s precisely-pared prose, her unflinching eye for the still waters running deep in ordinary existence and her mordant, coruscating humour, all qualities equally evident in Looking For The Possible Dance and — perhaps even more so — in her third book. Such continuities are unsurprising, given the relationship that exists between Kennedy’s short and long fiction.
‘The stories that are out now, apart from two, were written during the time I was writing looking For The Possible Dance,‘ she explains. ‘So you’re looking at ideas which came up at that time but weren’t immediately sucked into the novel. As you keep on writing, it’s not that you necessarily have more or more diverse ideas, but you’re less likely to throw things out. At the moment I’m probably precisely in the middle of another novel and, again, the occasional short story will come out of it, so this pattern of alternating novels with books of ’ stories seems very comfortable for me just now.’ .-
Viewed in this context, the + : striking diversity of the new stories offer some intriguing insights into the freewheeling process of writing fiction. The thirteen tales include a sermon by a ‘Wise Old Man’ on penguins as role-models (‘It is not a matter of chance that no city has ever been
besieged by penguins, that no international incident has ever been ignited by penguins, that no glistering genocidal design has ever been
A.l.. Kennedy: ‘Humour with me will come out when I‘m very angry about somethlng.’
pursued by penguins'), the searingly funny ‘Mouseboks Family Dictionary’ (‘natural justice: a phrase almost perfectly describing the contents of an unforesceably emptied diving pool. That is to say, something which is not only almost nothing, but also painful. See Bad Joke, Life, What You Deserve’) and the hilariously sick ‘Mixing With The Folks Back Home’, wherein a woman describes, in folksy Americanesc, her discovery and blithe acceptance of the fact that the nice neighbour she fancies is also the local serial-killer. The comedy is the darkest of hues, driven by an intense seriousness of purpose. ‘Humour with me will come out either in self- defence,’ says Kennedy, ‘or it’ll come out when I’m very angry about something.’
Elsewhere, Kennedy employs 1 her oblique. increasingly stripped—to-essentials approach " to take us inside the minds of
ordinary folk struggling, wearily
and sometimes desperatelyo ‘ ‘ ' with the ordinary shit life hands - out; people nearing the
3743:" frighteningly approachable line between sanity and madness; people who’ve long since crossed that line, did they but know it. Often, the exact nature of the characters’ difficulties is left unspecified — Kennedy concentrates, with rare and sometimes
Kemedy takes us inside the minds of ordinary folk struggling, wearily and sometimes desperately, with the ordinary slit life hands out; people nearing the frighteningly approachable line between sanity and madness; people who’ve long since crossed that line, did they but know it.
chilling sensitivity, on evoking their effects and implications.
‘Technically, if you take something like ‘A Perfect Possession’ (in which it gradually becomes clear that the apparently loving parent talking about his or her son is subjecting the child to terrible abuse), it would be very hard to write out directly what it is they’re doing,’ Kennedy explains. ‘I don’t think I could, and I don’t think l’d want to — it’s quite important that I shouldn’t tell you, because then you’ll think of whatever your thing is, and the story will work for you; I leave gaps so that you’ll think of whatever your specifics are. So I suppose. if anything, I’m moving more and more towards writing less and less and letting you do the work. And it’s very odd, what different people put in — I’ve been interviewed more about this book than 1 was for either of the other two, and it’s like you’re talking about a different book every time.’
Although many critics are keen to ascribe the troubling qualities of Kennedy’s writing, her preoccupation with awry mental states, to her disturbed mind rather than theirs, she is refreshingly down-to-earth when talking about her work, and gets very tired of interviewers trying to psychoanalyse her. ‘The figures say something like one in two people will suffer some kind of mental disturbance during their life; I think everybody goes through periods when they’re not entirely sane. But they can also be the times when you feel outside and special — in fact you’re just going through an adjustment process, but part of it is that you feel special. And so I’m trying to make the reader feel special, in a way, pandering to their
differentness — everybody’s different, but because we’re all different, we’re all the same; everybody’s a bit loony, but we’re a bit loony in
similar ways — it can become very serious in 1
some people, but I don’t think anybody’s “normal”. And that’s interesting, whereas normal, pretty, attractive, nice, terribly well-
balanced people aren’t very interesting. Or’
they’re certainly only one story. And they really are worrying.’ Now That You 're Back is published by Jonathan
Cape at £8.99. J
The List 28 January—10 February 1994 17