Saturday, 26 January 2008

Kennedy has the last laugh

The Times, Thursday, 24 January

With her long, unsmiling face, the novelist A L Kennedy is easy to distinguish from a ray of sunshine, but in public she performs with a witty self-confidence which rarely fails to surprise those who dismiss her as a miserablist.

Kennedy was at it again on Tuesday night as she collected the Costa Book of the Year for Day, her historical novel, which had already claimed the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year prize. In her acceptance speech she made a passionate plea for author’s rights to fair rewards, and against cost cutting retailers. This was, after all, the "most influential room that I could every play to".

It was to be expected. Whether she is reading from her books or delivering stand-up comedy, Kennedy’s fierce intelligence always demands attention.

She brought all of her intellect to bear in Day, a fiction based partially around the Forest of Dean and the Black Country, where her grandparents and parents once lived. More than five years in the making, whatever its strengths as a novel, Day is an impressive feat of historical research, which Kennedy undertook in part to understand how the world around her had been made.

The novel reveals the life of ‘Alfie’ Day, the former tail gunner of a Lancaster bomber, whose harrowing life is pieced together as the book unfolds: the brutal father, the put-upon, Methodist mother, the camaraderie of the bomber crews and their anxieties as they fly out towards death. As might be expected with Kennedy, there is no happy ending.

Joanna Trollope, the chair of the Costa judges, found Day comparable with the work of James Joyce and said the book was perfect and beautifully crafted. Yesterday, having broken a promotional tour in the United States to collect her award and despite her fear of flying, Kennedy jetted back across the Atlantic, where the New York Times has already compared “this gifted writer” to the Russian masters.

By now this author should be used to such accolades. Despite her evident dislike of awards – “prizes do not make sense” she writes on her website – she has been winning them throughout her professional career.

Alison Louise Kennedy was born in 1965, and brought up in Dundee. though notoriously cagey about her early years, her family’s religious background has plainly left a mark on her worldview, as did her parents’ divorce when she was 11.

After studying English and Drama at Warwick University, by 25 she was installed as writer in residence at Hamilton and East Kilbride social work department. Her first book, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains is described by the British Council – renowned for talking-up home-grown artists in colourful language –as “a bleak collection of short stories set in Scotland”.

Since then she has created a succession of difficult and challenging novels and short stories, and On Bullfighting, a non-fiction work which reveals how she contemplated suicide after the death of her maternal grandfather.

It is a pedigree which apparently cuts across her emergence as a stand-up comedian, but Kennedy, more than most, appears to understand that comedy is the flipside of tragedy. She first appeared on stage in 2005, and afterwards enjoyed a sellout run on the Edinburgh Fringe. She still performs, regularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but on stages all over Britain.

“Anyone who likes her writing, would like her stand-up. It is the same dry style which she has in her writing which she brings to her routine. There are very well crafted jokes there, but it is not ‘ho ho ho’ type comedy,” said Tommy Sheppard, the owner of the Stand clubs.

Kennedy lives in a flat in Glasgow’s West End, a seemingly determined loner, plagued by a bad back. She doesn’t care much for journalists, but appears to delight in the question and answer features which fill up magazine pages. In one telling answer, she urged would-be writers to avoid using drugs or drink as stimulants.

“Sometimes your substance of choice will sucker you in with a little good foreplay (writing you would have produced anyway) but eventually you’ll end up on the rag heap with Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Brendan Behan and all the rest of the much more numerous drunks and junkies who didn’t even make it to visibility before they destroyed themselves.

“You do this by yourself, because you are made that way. Try faking it and it will f*** you and your ability to do what you were born to do. But feel free to try it the other way first, many people do. It's frightening to write - people who are frightened run to substances. That's normal - but we can't run from the fear. We need it.”

Kennedy still teaches creative writing, but advocates “just write” if you want to succeed as an author. Her own love of her craft and her endless pursuit of perfection suggest we have not seen the best of her yet.

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