Mountains to Sea for Kennedy's 'On Writing'

AL Kennedy tells of how challenging life as an author can be in her new book, On Writing.
AL Kennedy tells of how challenging life as an author can be in her new book, On Writing.

DO you want to be a writer? Novelist AL Kennedy’s book, On Writing, might be a guide. Kennedy will appear at next week’s Mountains to Sea book festival in Dublin.

Born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1965, Kennedy began writing in the 1980s, when, she says, she could earn “as much as £30 a year from it”. Her first collection of short stories was published in 1990. Her fifth novel, Day, won the Costa Book of the Year award in 2007.

Kennedy is insightful and, as someone who does stand-up, she has a dark, droll sense of humour. Writing, she says, has pitfalls: financial woes; dodgy diets, and, in her case, 10 years of back pain. It can be fantastic, but, she adds, it doesn’t always “suit a melancholic temperament,” so much time is spent alone or, given marketing demands, among strangers.

“It’s very isolating,” she says. “You just have to be by yourself to do it. My theory is that if you catch a writer writing, from the outside they look quite miserable, but it’s like when people are asleep, they don’t necessarily look happy, because their face isn’t doing anything; they’ve gone inside themselves, so they look absent.

“It might look miserable, but actually you’re not miserable, because what you’re doing is being with a bunch of people who are really interesting and challenging and very, very involving, which is why so many writers’ relationships don’t last very long, and why it’s easier for a man — because you can swan off and be by yourself and be supported by a network — then it is for a woman, who needs a quite odd sort of man.”

The loneliness “is when you turn around and you’re in a situation that will enable you to have that much solitude. In a way, it’s quite monastic. I think, initially, you do what I did, which was that finally you get rid of all your day jobs, and you think, ‘I’m gonna do this all the time’, and you kill yourself because you can’t do anything all the time.

“Eating is nice; you can’t do it all the time. Swimming is nice; you can’t do it all the time. Having sex is nice; you can’t do it all the time. The best things in the world, you can’t do 24 hours a day. You get knackered and you stop enjoying it. If you’re sensible, you build-in breaks,” she says.

Touring is a big part of the writer’s life. “I’ve got friends who are actors and, in all of this area (the arts), the funding is gone, so you have to be out there a lot, promoting, a lot more than you ever did, and that is unhealthy, because you have to really focus to be able to eat well. You have to really focus not to get too tired, to get proper exercise,” she says.

Kennedy says she could make a living doing readings. “If you said ‘yes’ to everything, it’d just be touring, touring, touring, being in different hotels, eating hotel food, not seeing fruit and vegetables, not getting vitamins, not getting sunshine, being on planes a lot, being dehydrated, being fabulously lonely.”

Some literary festivals are wonderful. “I love going to Canada, for instance, but there’s a big tour that you do where you go to Calgary, where it’s exceptionally dry, like a desert, so your nose bleeds and you feel weird. Then, you go up to Banff, which is thousands of feet high, so you get very tired and you have very strange dreams, because you’ve vaguely got altitude sickness.

“I don’t drink, but everybody’s trying to relax and not be depressed and they’re tired, so they have a beer and they get about a quarter way down the first beer and fall over, getting the worst kind of pissed. Everybody gets Scottish drunk at that altitude. You’re thinking, ‘great, I can’t talk to anyone — they’re on the floor, and I’m getting hallucinations at night that I’m going to die’. Then, you go to Vancouver, where all it does is rain, and you’ve had to fly over the Rockies, which is always turbulent, so you end up holding the hands of strangers,” she says.

Kennedy caused a stir when she began open-mic sessions. Two companies filmed her run at the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2006. The rough-and-tumble of stand-up doesn’t trouble her, she says. “If you talk to comics, heckles are not a problem. Silence is a problem. Silence, you can’t do anything with. If somebody shouts, effectively they’ve joined in, and you can do something with it. It’ll either be a great heckle, a terrible heckle or a mediocre one, but it’s something.

“Somebody I knew said that the whole audience just hummed at him, which was quite bizarre. They just all hummed. I don’t know what you could do with that, except punch yourself in the face and drag your body off. The interesting thing is that if you’re a man, the unimaginative, pathetic heckle, which you can always get back, is ‘You’re shit’. Then you just say, ‘Hooray, Oscar Wilde is in the building’. You don’t get that as a woman, what you get is, ‘You’ve got a big mouth’, because women shouldn’t speak. There’s a basic objection because you’re up there making a noise, because that’s what they’ve come away from.”

*AL Kennedy is at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, Friday, 6.30pm, Sept 6, National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Mariners’ Church, Haigh Terrace, Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin; www.mountainstosea.ie

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