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Clumsy sex, women who drink, and Jesus: A. L. Kennedy talks with Bookforum.

For more than ten years, Scottish author A. L. Kennedy has been writing one award-winning book after another. Her first two works (a story collection and an unpublished novel) earned her a place on Granta's Best Young British Novelists list before American readers had even heard of her. Those earlier titles have yet to appear on this side of the Atlantic, but they did catch Knopf's attention. In 1998, the US publisher bought the novel So I Am Glad (2000) and a collection of stories titled Original Bliss (1999), which includes the novella of the same name. For the American edition of Original Bliss, however, Kennedy's editors took the bold decision to publish the novella only, dropping the other stories. They believed that the astonishing, mordant tale of Helen Brindle--an abused house-wife whose loss of spiritual faith leads her to seek the guidance and, eventually, the romantic affection of a porn-addicted self-help guru--possessed the narrative strength to stand on its own. And they were right: Original Bliss is one of the oddest and most memorable love stories I've ever read.

Kennedy, who is now thirty-nine, has introduced readers on both sides of the Atlantic to a host of lost souls. So I Am Glad features radio announcer and reluctant sadist M. Jennifer Wilson, whose exhibitionistic parents forced her to watch them have sex when she was a small child. At the opening of Everything You Need (2001), commercial thriller writer Nathan Staples tries to hang himself, but he then goes on to attempt to redeem some of his failures by offering the daughter he abandoned a fellowship at his writer's retreat. And now, in Kennedy's latest novel, Paradise, just out from Knopf, we meet thirty-six-year-old sad sack Hannah Luckraft, who sells cardboard for a living and whose spirit--indeed, whose life--is being steadily eroded by her insatiable thirst for alcohol.

Kennedy's themes are almost always dark, but her gallows humor and her elegance as a stylist are strangely inviting, eliciting gasps, sighs, and the occasional complicitously sinister laugh. Her people are ornery, at times downright despicable; but Kennedy never flinches. A profound sense of humanity and irony distinguish this Scotswoman as one of the finest and most idiosyncratic writers to make her mark in recent years. Kennedy spoke with me by phone from her home in Glasgow one January afternoon, about how a teetotaler invents an alcoholic character; how a writer reckons with Christian spirituality in an era of religious fanaticism; and what it was like to suffer excruciatingly the time she nearly stopped writing--forever.

BOOKFORUM: I got a vicarious hangover reading Paradise. That novel could be an effective tool for rehab.

A. L. KENNEDY: [laughs] You're not the first person who's said this.

BF: The character Hannah is totally disoriented, and yet we have to rely on her as our narrator. How do you strike the balance between making her speech articulate enough to be compelling, but slurred enough to typify the alcoholic she is?

ALK: It's certainly something I had to be aware of, because a lot of the time she has no idea where she is or what's going on. If you can follow her emotionally--she herself doesn't really care where she is--I think you get less freaked out by it.

BF: Hannah tells us that she comes from a good family, and she's aware her drinking hurts them but she can't stop herself. Did something in particular drive her to drink?

ALK: No. I was wary of making a bad thing happen and then, as a reaction to that bad thing, having her drink. She doesn't know what the initial kicking-off was, other than that she drank something and it was nice, and she drank something more and it was nicer. She's obviously a very obsessive person.

BF: But she is drinking to anesthetize some pain, presumably.

ALK: Yes, but I didn't really want her to have anything that she genuinely has to obliterate. If she wasn't drinking, she wouldn't need to black anything out. [laughs] I think the most frustrating kind of person throwing their life away is the one who doesn't actually have anything wrong except the cure for what they think is wrong. I wanted it to be like that for Hannah. Eventually, drinking messes things up so much that she gets a reason to drink.


BF: She has a torturous relationship with Robert Gardener, a fellow drinker and lout. You've written from a male perspective before. What made you decide to tell the story through Hannah's rather than Robert's eyes?

ALK: I didn't have much interest in retreading the experience of Bukowski or other guys getting drunk. I am more interested in women getting drunk, because it's a subject that's dealt with less. I don't know what it's like in the States, but female drinking since World War II in Britain has taken off, and now it's a full-on crisis.

BF: You don't drink. Has this always been the case?

ALK: No. Drinking doesn't agree with me. Before I really started writing seriously, I thought to myself, If I'm going to do something with my brain, I probably shouldn't poison it. Writers do have a reputation for being huge drunks, and certainly you see a lot of horrible dysfunctional behavior among writers. But as a writer you also spend a lot of your time on tour, hugely overtired, massively jet-lagged, in an altered state without any chemical assistance. We all like intensity. And a lot of the disorientation [portrayed in Paradise] was not unfamiliar at all: I had a very bad back for an awful lot of years, and I didn't like taking any of the things that they gave me to deal with it--it made me unwillingly muzzy.

BF: Hannah is suffering a spiritual loss. Is this why you made her an alcoholic--a play on the word spirits--and not a drug user?

ALK: Drugging is the most style-conscious addiction. If you're not up on exactly the correct slang or the cutting-edge substance of the moment, it's going to get very dated. I'd done a lot of reading for another book about alchemy, and I came across a lot of stuff about alcohol, including the fact that it was called spirits because being drunk or intoxicated was like allowing yourself to be inhabited by a spirit. Drugs have been around for a long time as well, but I find alcohol much more interesting because it's legal, and culturally, it's a very large part of the Celtic and British identities--I wanted to look at something that was more plugged in and acceptable.

BF: How do you imagine the life and the thoughts of a character so out of control and vexing as Hannah? You certainly wouldn't enjoy meeting her outside of your pages.

ALK: She'd be a huge pain. We actually had a Hannah who gate-crashed at the book launch. A journalist. We couldn't get rid of her. She was loud and stupid, and eating all the canapes and trying to go out with everybody. My relationship with the character Hannah--well, you're kind of wearing her skin, and although she hates herself, she doesn't actually irritate herself. If there's any judgment involved, it certainly isn't a third person's judgment. I don't particularly like that in books that I read; I don't think it's very helpful. Everyone has their endless interior monologue that goes on and on through the day, and the nice thing about writing is that you stop having to listen to yourself.

BF: Many of your characters struggle with spiritual crises. What is it that inspires you to revisit this theme? Did you grow up in a religious home?

ALK: Not really. My mother had been a Methodist lay preacher, but eventually became atheistic--well, I don't quite know whether she believes in God. My father was a virulent atheist and also a church organist. When I was very young, we went to church a lot, and yet I sort of had the idea that neither of the people taking me there was really into the experience. My parents were both brought up Methodist, and we were attending a Church of Scotland, which is much more shouting and Calvinism, so that wasn't a very good fit. After I turned five or six years old, they stopped going, so I didn't go either. I would go to a Methodist chapel with my grandparents once or twice a year, which is great because all they do there is sing and everybody knows everybody. Religion's an issue because you sort of grow up with it. We have people here in the UK throwing their weight around--this horrible, bland, terrifying insurgency. I mean, even Jesus had doubts. [laughs] It's in the Bible!

BF: It's apparently much easier to take scripture literally and be told what to think than to interpret it for yourself.

ALK: If you're a writer, it's interesting to look at the big religions. They're based on a book and on infinite interpretations of words. You can say, "This is just literary criticism." It may be literary criticism that means that you blow up a building or invade a country, but it's still literary criticism. And if you have any understanding of God as a supreme, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent being, you couldn't possibly imagine that you could understand it. But this huge level of arrogance really freaks me out, because you would think it would be about humility. The whole thing about "We must defend God against blah blah blah." Surely God will be able to work this out. [laughs] I believe in God, and I consider myself a Christian, but I find I have to say I must be a "self-hating Christian," in reaction to the current cultural climate.

BF: You write the best bad sex scenes, by which I mean exquisitely awkward, sad, honest scenes, with hip bones crashing into hip bones and elbows smashing up against faces. Sex is the one way, sometimes the only way, many of your characters can achieve intimacy. In Original Bliss, for example, when Helen Brindle and Edward Gluck have sex, It's almost a triumphant act.

ALK: I'm very clumsy, so that's my standard product--elbows in eyes. [laughs] If something is pornographic, it serves a purpose and that's fine. But if someone is going to write about it to really shock you--that just annoys me. You get two people who are completely different from any other two people who are in moods that are specific to that time--I find it very interesting. There are times when sex is about sex, but they are actually very difficult to write about because it's nonverbal. If they're at a point where they're not saying anything and they're not thinking, they're just doing that thing because it's reached that temperature--there isn't much I can do with that. Eventually you run out of vocabulary. I do martial arts, which is another way of interacting physically--because, you know, I'm not going to have sex with as many people as I've fought martially. That would be unhealthy and tiring.

BF: Is there a character of yours that you identify with the most?

ALK: Not really. It has to be whoever I'm writing about at that moment. Hopefully, I can always find different ways or additional ways to get further in, whoever they are. A lot of people thought Paradise must have been really upsetting to write. But I thought it was great fun.

BF: I can see why people would think it would be upsetting. Paradise reads like a memoir--it's emotionally grueling and intimate.

ALK: Hannah says terrible things about people, stuff that you would never say out loud. It's great to have a year of this woman ranting horrifically about things that she hates. The end was not nice to write, because I did feel that I was putting her somewhere unreasonably unpleasant--I mean, necessary, but that was probably not very nice to do.


BF: On Bullfighting is quite personal. It's a travelogue, written with lifesaving urgency. You reveal that you'd been suicidal and suffering a creative block, after a devastating breakup with a boyfriend. It must have been a difficult book to write.

ALK: On Bullfighting was just necessary. Writing it was like throwing up. In Britain, we agreed that I would not do any publicity for it. I just wrote it because I thought if I didn't, then I wouldn't write anything else again--ever. When I handed the text in, I said, "If you don't like it, I'll give you the money back, but I'm not in a place where I can rewrite it." My grandfather had died, plus the stress of a relationship--I was so tense that I popped this disc out of my back. My dislocated disc was misdiagnosed for a long time, so I got muscle atrophy in my arms and became very seriously disabled and in so much pain that I didn't particularly notice until it started to get better. At the time I wrote On Bullfighting, a can of soup felt quite heavy, and it took a long time to recover. So when the book came out in America, people would ask me questions about it, but I genuinely couldn't remember most of the process of writing it, because while writing the book I was taking a lot of painkillers and lost about forty pounds.

BF: You're reputed to be a private person. And when I looked on your website, I saw that you parse your reviews--you don't seem too keen on your critics. So, were you hesitant about putting a personally revealing work out there for the press and your reviewers to receive?

ALK: It's not that I'm being secretive. There just isn't an awful lot to talk about. I don't have a husband or children, and I'm not having huge numbers of affairs. Some people when they interview me want extra details, and it's like, Everything I really wanted to say is in the book. Fiction feels slightly more threatening to me. When you're writing, you're used to creating a safe space in which to produce whatever you have to produce, and to a certain extent, shaping something that has happened and is true is less of a worry than making something up, which in a way is more emotionally and psychologically revealing: There's only you there to make it exist, and the things that you love and care about--all of your vulnerable areas--are all there in your fiction.


BF: You used to be a prolific reviewer in your own right. Have you taken a hiatus from the critic's desk?

ALK: I haven't reviewed for probably two or three years. I'm not very happy with the climate of reviewing in Britain. They tend to want you to be very adversarial. I used to review a lot for The Scotsman. The woman who used to be in charge of that page wanted you to either do a good review or no review, so she'd send books that she thought would interest me. I'm never happy slashing a book to pieces. These days, reviews are really about how clever the reviewer is, or the reviewers don't really like the author because they met them at a party and they were full of themselves. You're kind of second-guessing what their intentions are.

BF: What do you read when you're writing?

ALK: While I was writing Paradise, James Ellroy, Hunter S. Thompson--people who just really drive on the page, because I wanted Hannah to be fast. I tend to not read contemporary fiction. I read Herman Melville and Stephen Crane, and reference books, and before I start writing a novel, I always seem to go back to the children's books I read when I first discovered the enjoyment of reading, like C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien. I go to things that have a very pure sense of story, and have that definite "I am speaking, and I am speaking to you" quality. Right now I'm writing something that is set in the Second World War, so I'm not allowed to read fiction from beyond 1949, which is the latest year that the book is involved with. At the moment, I'm actually reading Sherlock Holmes. There are some very nice women's short stories from that period, collected in an anthology called Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye. There are people you'd know, like Jean Rhys, but there are lots of people I'd never heard of.

BF: I read a review that compared Paradise to Jean Rhys's earlier works.

ALK: Yeah, probably After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. It's the book of hers that I like the most--it has a slightly twisted sense of humor. I like humor, full stop.

BF: You've masked your gender by writing under your initials. Did you consciously create an androgynous literary identity to circumvent the gender politics of publishing? And has it impacted the way you've been received?

ALK: I've never been happy with "androgynous," because that's neither one thing nor the other. It's never been about gender for me. I got rejected by at least one Scottish magazine which was very pro-female because I was writing stories from a woman's point of view and the editor thought I was a man. You discover that people will always project onto you how they would do it if they were doing it themselves. I do not know why I decided to use initials--I think it was a combination of having really liked J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I was really amiss when I saw a photograph of C. S. Lewis on the back of one of his books. He didn't look the way that I expected, and it disturbed me. I wanted the story and the voice, but I don't want the person, at all.


The one thing I didn't realize about the initials: If you have any kind of public persona, then you have a name which isn't quite your name. It's fantastic, because you are going to be given a personality which isn't particularly your personality. When I'm being "A. L.," I have certain duties, and do lots of things that are nothing like the rest of my life. It's actually quite good to have another name. I don't want you to know my name because this--my writing--all may go horribly wrong, and you may find out where I live and come around and try and kill me. [laughs]
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Author:Bolonik, Kera
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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