A sense of Voice

Stand-up comedian, dramatist, prize-winning author and professor A.L. Kennedy talks about her varied roles and favourite forms.

Published - March 04, 2015 03:30 pm IST

A.L. Kennedy.

A.L. Kennedy.

A.L. Kennedy is a prize-winning writer fighting for the many forms and freedom of expression. She is not a raging bull, but don’t let the lightness of her physical form fool you. She fences dextrously between her roles of stand-up comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe, dramatist, writer of fiction, short stories and non-fiction, translated author, a serious blogger and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. She also has in her repertoire, apart from a successful touring production called WORDS, a bhajan ‘Gauri Ganesh’.

So which is her favourite form? “Ooh that’s hard!” she says. She has excelled in each. She was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Competition in 2014 for her collection All the Rage (Jonathan Cape), has been a judge for the Booker Prize for Fiction (1996) and won The Guardian First Book Award (2001), the Costa Prize for Fiction (2007), as well as the Austrian State prize for European Literature. I’m bewildered by her talent, success and humility and the look in her blue eyes; their gaze fixed in the near distance choosing between imaginary blue jars containing these forms that often strike a blue note. She continues to consider in her Istanbul blue jacket and trousers, except the brogues — black and tan — and her quiet blue umbrella weeps from the weather outside.

“I fell in love with literature because of theatre. It was at the end of a golden age of British Theatre, just before people lost the way of expressing themselves on stage.” Her route was through Drama and Theatre Arts at the University of Warwick. In spite of being trained, the only way forward she could see was being a starving artist. Deciding against that death by distinction, she became aware of actors coming to her to write dramatic monologues, as selections for an audition that had a substantial dose of Shakespeare, but not enough challenging contemporary material for women. Monologues that would be spoken. That led to short stories. “Although they (monologue and short story) are dissimilar, and I didn’t know it at the time, they were similar for me because I was drawn to writing with the sense of Voice.”

To Kennedy, there are qualities to each form as there is a discipline in writing within that form. There are responsibilities that a writer must undertake when selecting a form. Then, “there’s something that supersedes form. This is because the words are saying something about people to people. In a short story or novella or reciting directly in real time or saying it through other people, there are fundamental ground rules — there is a mutual respect about what you care about, and a respect for the listener.”

The voice is literal, and metaphorical with her thought and practice of writing. “Neurologically when you start reading aloud, and the practice of reading with double meaning, the pun, there’s a musical experience.” That circuitry transfers to her thoughts on translation as well. If reading is neurologically a live sound within us, then the writer of double meanings and layered meanings is writing with nuanced across languages. Communication is about connecting with and reader/listener and writer/teller are in a pact about participating in the universal from the local. At that moment, two mice scurry across the room keeping warm and dry in the prestigious building we are in, as it is pouring sleet outside. Without cue, she says “Life is not Hollywood, one has to give the reader something worthwhile by being humorous.”

Her characters are those we might pass by every day and not want to know anything about. But that’s the point of it all as in Practice of Mercy, when Dorothy — a sexagenarian — recalls a school chemistry lesson when a sliver of potassium was dropped in water “the metal wasped back and forth on the liquid’s surface in a tiny blur of lilac flames, too angry to sink. It made Dorothy smile, then and today: the idea that every human body hid a pastel shade of outrage no one should view without safety glasses, or else protective screens. It was a necessary element. Inside.”

The choreography of rage that keeps us all alive runs through her characters and their situations neither taking the lead, except the truth of what it means to be, to recall, to inhabit that time and space. She doesn’t believe in “stealing characters — there would be no privacy among friends. I don’t want to make something that is already made.” She inclines toward three-year plans — for research, during which she finishes a novel, while putting together short stories, writing scripts and getting her non-fiction in shape. When I ask her about her work on Bull Fighting , she opens a new window on not being squeamish about ‘bleeding, but the idea of someone bleeding really upsets me…”

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