AL Kennedy’s new book is an anthology of essays, many of which were written for The Guardian newspaper’s website. It is a warm, witty, insightful and deliciously idiosyncratic collection of musings on the art, craft and business of writing. Below is my interview with her…
The book is largely a compilation of blog posts that first appeared online. Can traditional publishing and the new electronic media coexist happily?
Oh, God, I don’t know. Yes, probably – the one should help the other. Sadly UK publishing has crashed morally and intellectually since it stopped being run by Europeans (Weidenfeld, Secker, Gollanz, Warburg… etc) who believed in the importance of culture as literally life-saving. You add in financial and commercial incompetence and you have the perfect storm – people who can lose money across all formats.
You say that the UK publishing industry is ‘floating belly-up in its own sad, poo-and-algea-filled bowl’ and later you call it a ‘urine-filled thimble’. Are you hopeful for the future of publishing in this country?
See above. It’s their own fault but readers and authors suffer.
I like re-writing, it’s about 80% of what I do when I write. Certain writers, for instance Kate Atkinson, say they don’t do a lot of re-writing. Hemmingway said that the first draft of anything is shit. Do you agree?
I think it depends on when you write and how prepared you are. If the thing is very set and cooked in your head then you can have at it and batter away and there it will be, with not much to do… other people work out what they’re doing on the page… which then takes forever to mend. Most people are between the two.
You call the book ‘On Writing’ but you could easily have called it ‘on viruses, illnesses, disease and medical conditions’. Are you a hypochondriac?
Sadly, no. I’m ill quite a lot. I tend not to notice until several other people tell me, so things get a bit far gone. I am therefore incredibly glad to have moved to England where there is no health service.
When I invited you to the Huddersfield Literature Festival in 2011, we had quite a bit of bother (to the extent of us nearly having to cancel the gig) from a man who took offence at something you wrote about bullfighting. Is it flattering or frightening for your writing to have that effect on another human being?
Um… in that case it was bewildering. Any reactions to any work are surprising and I tend to keep away from them and just get on with the next thing.
To what extent is writing/reading an escape from life and to what extent is it engagement with it?
It certainly can get you through rotten times, or let you forget if you’re in some kind of phsycial of psychic pain, but I think it has to be connected to who you are and what’s going on, otherwise why are you doing it and who are you talking to?
You write about the process of inhabiting the head of another character as being akin to the proverb about walking a mile in another person’s shoes. Is this deluded thinking?
Of course – you’re only ever going to be yourself. The problem is that you have to make your reader temporarily be someone else, so you have to do it, too. People love being deluded, they do it all the time. At least I’m not asking them to believe “Austerity” is necessary, or watch The Wright Stuff as if it were a proper television programme and not a bag of other peoples’ vomit.
You are attending a writing workshop held by a small man with a beard who calls himself a ‘post-language poet’. In the room are a dozen beautiful, intelligent, vulnerable people who all think this man has something to teach them. Instead, he asks them to write a poem about the colour red. Then he asks them to read out their responses. ‘I like that’, he says, ‘it reminds me of so and so blah blah blah’. The entire two hour session consists of him doing this. In your bag you have some superglue, a gag, a length of rope, a taser gun, a bag of cable ties, some piano wire, a bag of ball bearings and a tub of swarfega. What do you do?
Oh, you tempt me horribly. Thing is, I wouldn’t be there in the first place and if I was, he’d get as far as “Post lang-“ I do sometimes just get annoyed. Don’t mess with my family, don’t mess with people I love, don’t walk on writers’ brains and hurt them. Generally speaking. Thing is, you don’t have to be violent at all – words do it. That’s the whole point. No one is “post language” – and it’s easy to demonstrate that in ways even they would notice…
The book is now available from the usual places.