She is the writer of 17 books; an award-winning novelist, playwright and performer. And luckily for us, she also happens to be an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. The Boar’s Beth Longman recently spoke to A.L Kennedy about politics, empathy and fostering creativity.
Back in October, Kennedy was awarded the prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize 2016, which aims to recognise writers who “promote social and political progress” and “international understanding.” Of the impact of current affairs on her writing, Kennedy says: “I’m interested in people – it’s my job to study human nature and history. I don’t like suffering and the imposition of unnecessary suffering offends me – so that is part of my writing.” In November, Kennedy was scathing in her criticism of the United Kingdom in her article ‘Unbeing, Estrangement and the Politics of Fear’, referring to Brexit as “hate-filled self-delusion” and the media as a series of “hate mills.”
London was a character while I planned the book and I always wanted it to appear as both a background and of itself.
Her novel Serious Sweet, released in May 2016, has been described as a portrait of London, through the eyes of two of its inhabitants. “Place is one element in a piece of writing – there will be character, plot, psychology, atmosphere, themes, time and quite possibly a number of others,” she says. “All the elements have to interact. London was a character while I planned the book and I always wanted it to appear as both a background and of itself.”
We are granted a glimpse into twenty-four hours in the nation’s capital through the eyes of two flawed, decent yet disillusioned characters, Jonathan and Meg. 59 year-old Jon is divorced, and a senior civil servant who carries inner rage against the government he works for while Meg is a barely sober bankrupt accountant. But how does Kennedy create characters that feel so true to life? “Years of research,” she answers, “over the course of three years or so, I prepare to write a novel, to find settings that are useful and to understand the main characters. That’s necessary because the people who read about my people are also people – they will notice if my people are not personlike.”
She continues: “politicians tell us we’re all different. People who want to use our energy and distract us from real issues tell us to hate each other. That isn’t reality-based and is vastly dangerous. The experience of reading long fiction and the experience of writing long fiction is about reality – the reality other people are as complex and interesting as you are. If you took the time to talk to each person you walked past, you would find more than you could possibly imagine.”
Politicians tell us we’re all different. People who want to use our energy and distract us from real issues tell us to hate each other.
But in addition to being a writer, A.L. Kennedy is no different from us – she harbours an inner fangirl. She has written numerous articles for the Guardian detailing her love for Doctor Who and wrote a heartbreaking tribute to the late Victoria Wood in April 2016. “I’m influenced by everything I’ve ever read. Everything. I’ve been reading since I was four, so that’s quite a lot of books by now.”
For aspiring writers, she is both an inspiration and a mentor in her capacity as an Associate Professor. Her own approach, which she would advise to others, is one of rigid discipline and commitment. According to Kennedy, great writing does not, and should not come easy:
“As an artist you are in charge of your imagination, and also reliant upon it. You have to push yourself to work and get better at what you do, but you also have to enrich your life and give yourself rest and opportunities for inspiration. Balancing that takes a while to work out and varies over time.”
“People don’t plan enough,” she continues, “planning helps everything to be easier.” And in a world where distractions are available at the click of a finger, concentrate. The concentration you apply to writing is both deeply tiring and deeply peaceful. It has the same effect as meditation, it brings about an absence of self, from anxiety and stress and petty concerns. That’s something you miss when you don’t get it.”