Bethan Roberts talks to A.L. Kennedy about weird sex and the problem with women’s writing
I recently went to see AL Kennedy give a reading at the Sussex Arts Club. While the atrocious lighting made her look as if she were about to burst into a rock anthem or become involved in some sci-fi nonsense, it didn’t really matter; what mattered was her voice, every word so clear, concisely pronounced with that clipped rhythm favoured by Shakespearean thesps. Kennedy read from her new collection of stories, Original Bliss, as if they were poems – rather long and sprawly poems with a lot of sex in them, granted, but verse, nevertheless. It was hypnotic, terse, hilarious, and drier than my pre-performance Martini.
Original Bliss follows her reputation for the oblique and the difficult, the blackly funny, the very, very odd. These wonderfully strange stories explore the absurdities and the bliss of our obsession with sexual love. There’s the one about the woman who has replaced religious faith with a professor obsessed with pornography; the one about the guy who just can’t get to America quick enough to ‘rescue’ an old flame from her marriage, frustrated at every turn by airport staff and hostesses whose shade of lipstick matches their purple uniforms precisely; the one about the woman constantly fantasising about making her bullish lover deaf with the sharpened lead of a pencil.
I have always found her work romantic in the best, most cynical way. One of the things I saw in So I Am Glad was a ripping love story. Kennedy began work on Original Bliss whilst working on the last novel, so the preoccupation with relationships was already there. When I ask Alison whether she thinks it’s fair to say that her work is aware of the impossibility of faith in and connection with another person, and yet believes in them just the same, she skirts the subject by commenting that it has been “good discipline” for her to write a whole collection of stories on the same subject. She shrugs the suggestion of romance off: “I suppose the books do have a belief that being with somebody is better than not”. This is typical of Kennedy’s reserved passion: acknowledging a feeling concisely, refusing to agonise over it.
Kennedy has been criticised for being reader unfriendly; she does has a tendency to leave out the traditional contraptions of story telling, such as details of time, place, physical description – “my decision is that it’s not important”. Which is a bit like my telephone interview with her: lacking in those details you take for granted in a face-to-face interview. But I can’t help thinking that with Kennedy the voice, low and measured, would dominate anyway. She delivers a steady stream of witty, convincing answers which never get too personal. If you’re her reader, there’s even more detective work to be done: you only have those sexless initials.
She comments that she decided on the name in order “not to be identified as the author… I don’t have a personality that’s interesting enough to sell a book.” Her reading was certainly not a personality-led event: the voice was there, huge on stage, and Alison Louise was there, small in leather jacket and jeans, stuck at the bar in the interval with what looked like the most tedious person in the room.
With the immense coverage and success of Now That You’re Back, her second collection of stories, critics leapt upon Kennedy’s apparent desire to escape her gender. There is no question that she writes stories from a male perspective absolutely convincingly, but is the “A L” a defiant feminist refusal to be categorised by gender, or a rejection of feminist principles through a return to the gender cover-up days of George Eliot? Even though she insists “I don’t mind being called a woman personally” , she does object to it professionally : “you do get asked on all these panel discussions, where the same question always comes up: is there such a thing as ‘women’s writing’? To which the answer is always no …” What there is such a thing as, she suggests, is a reader of ‘woman’s writing’. Such literary movements are most beneficial to the marketing departments of publishing houses.
A L Kennedy has escaped all such labels very successfully: she dislikes celebrity, which, she points out, is another easy solution to marketing those hard-to-sell literary books. It takes up so much time and, if you get suckered into it you end up spending all your time travelling to and from London, and “your writing dies”. No chance of the Jeanette “MEMEME” Winterson syndrome for Kennedy, even though she has won as many prizes and received as much critical acclaim. I tell her she has been compared to Winterson by some critics, which makes her laugh incredulously – “I can only think it’s because we’re both women”.
I can’t imagine Jeanette admitting that she sold double glazing over the telephone as a student in Leamington Spa, as Alison does. The town near Coventry where people go to die is something we have in common, and I attempt to get her worst stories about the place but she ends up moaning about how taxi drivers still look at her as if she’s about to run off without paying the fare, as they did when she was a student. Does The Spa appear in her writing? “Not really…some of the early stories, perhaps, and the first novel, in that it was set in a place that could be anywhere”.
Kennedy describes public reading as “a very Scottish thing…part of the up-front culture…all Scottish writers come through this tradition of saying something to other people”. I asked her what she makes of the laddish image currently tagged on to Scottish writers. “It’s not anyone’s fault…it’s what the media finds most interesting…but the press seem to think we’re all up here shooting up together … in fact we’re scattered all over the place”. When they – they being Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Janice Galloway and Alan Warner – do meet, “we do get on absurdly well – it’slike a horrible reunion.” However, Kennedy tends not to socialise with other literary types, not least because the Scottish scene is “very male and very pub-based, which is not much fun unless you’re bloke who likes a drink”.
After talking and listening to AL Kennedy, I still have no idea who she is. She doesn’t like a drink, she doesn’t like using her personality to sell books, she doesn’t like being mistaken for a student. She likes giving public readings, and she likes winning prizes because it means she has enough money to spend more time writing. I can’t tell you anything else. I know her voice, though, and that is more than enough, as I think she is well aware.