AL Kennedy offers a love story with a happy ending - of sorts
Arifa Akbar talks to the prize-winning novelist about magic and storytelling
Friday 29 July 2011
Alison Louise Kennedy spent three years delving into the dark arts, ostensibly as research for her latest novel but also driven by a certain degree of personal curiosity, and maybe even by hope. In her extended commune with mediums, stage psychics, hypnotists, Tarot readers, mentalists, magicians, Indian swamis and palm readers, she became desperate for a Delphic moment of illumination. If any of them had managed to peer into her soul, they would have picked up on her background Christian belief in the unseen, and her willingness to accept the extraordinary.
Sadly, she did not glimpse anything approximating other-worldy insight. What she got was more a crash course in the Artful Dodge, than the dark arts. Kennedy, 45, single and childless, was given scores of husbands and scores of children; she was told that her family didn't really love her and that her friends envied her. But she could always have both palms read if it helped (at an extra cost) or buy a good luck charm (at an extra cost) or even come back next week for another reading (at an extra cost).
"I wanted someone to be good at it. I would love there to be (a channel to another world). I think sceptics particularly would want to have an enormous, remarkable experience. But there is no evidence that there is anything like that."
There were, however, plenty of moments when she caught glimpses of the ugly inner mechanics of the soothsayer's industry. Much of this, as well as her bookish study of mentalism and the great Victorian magicians, is channelled into her latest novel, The Blue Book (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) a beautiful, magical-looking artefact in itself - it is gold and blue all over with pagination encoded with the tricks of numeracy which the text reveals. "I wanted it to have a magical effect," she says.
The story – a burning romance between two stage mediums who have dabbled in the dark art of the psychic scam - does not condemn the industry completely, but does lay bare its canny workings – the detective study of human behaviour by psychics, the adrenalin thrill of "readings" and the deep psychological injuries that lead the lost and vulnerable to the medium's door. The protagonists, Arthur and Beth, who are bound for near present day New York on an ocean liner, are both escaping from a past in which they have been a Bonnie and Clyde-style clairvoyancy double act.
Kennedy's writing is often described as bleak and challenging at times – her fêted collections of short stories dwell on loneliness, the dyfunctionality of marriage, the impossibility of love and at the same time, the insatiable cravings for it; her Costa award-winning novel, Day, was a study into the emotional trauma of a World War Two tail gunner; Paradise, meanwhile, explored the interiority of an alcoholic. Yet bleak would be an unbefitting summary of her latest novel, written fast and furiously over an eleven month period and filled not only with (fake) magic but an unabashed romanticism and a naked faith in love.
Neither is Kennedy as bleak or challenging as reputation suggests, sitting at a sunny pavement café in Glasgow, diminutive, fine-boned, with no hint of icy reserve. She has been ill since March with a debilitating middle-ear infection and a shrinking appetite which has left her yet more petite (a whippety seven stones). She had intended to work on film scripts that have yet to get off the ground, although she does have two radio plays on the go (one starring Bill Nighy for the second time).
One senses a very hard internal task-master in Kennedy. She would like a break, she says, but at the same time, would not be happy with a hiatus in writing. The writing, in fact, appears to pull her both ways, emotionally, both up and down. "I wouldn't be particularly happy if I didn't write for a year. I just have to control it."
She is full of bathetic stories of dodgy dealings from her most recent fieldwork: there was the swami who, after looking into her future, nearly got run over by a white van ("he didn't see that coming", she wise-cracks); there were the cold-hearted, deadly-professional connivers and there were the well-meaning but inept.
What most alarmed her was how much sinister control the psychic-showman exerted over his audience. There was one moment, she says, when she had gone into a psychic's stage show, pen and notebook furtively in hand, when a hostile murmur spread across the auditorium. A television monitor that had been registering the (largely) rapt faces of audience members had spotted two dissenters – their arms folded implacably, their faces glowering with scepticism. The audience needed only a few prompts from the psychic before a chant began for their departure. Kennedy's cover wasn't blown ("I'm good at making myself invisible"), but it was a chilling lesson in group manipulation.
"These people are evil, and sociopathic and trying to scam, but they slightly bewilder you. You would see the people (who go to psychics) were wrecked, you could tell by their faces, their skin tone, their eyes, you would hear it in their voice. A lot of them were bereaved relatives. And then you'd see very horrible people on stage."
The desire to be seen, fully, penetratingly, she says, is not altogether dissimilar from the universal hunger to be loved. The way that the psychic looks at a client replicates – even if palely – the lover's gaze. "That's what we want in a relationship. Someone who really, really knows us and will love us anyway. That stuff is so powerful, there's such a need for it."
Just as Arthur shows an "indiscriminate love" towards the people he cons (who are so often bereft of it), so the professionals she met, and read about, cajole with a ready love. A great American magician used to stand in the wings (before a performance) and say "I love you all, I love you all, I love you all", she recalls.
There were though, a few unaccountable moments when she felt there was something – perhaps a deep concentration of the senses – at work. Just before she began writing, she went on a master class for "cold reading" (reading someone on whom you have no prior knowledge). "At a certain point you start to get things that you can't put a finger on. A woman had been frightened on holiday and she had to be pushed to say what had frightened her. I had a picture in my head of a dog's face. It was quite intense, because you're trying to engage with all the senses. It turned out it was a dog that scared her."
And she also secured a rare personal audience with Derren Brown, the mentalists' mentalist who features in her novel's acknowledgments. "He's sneaky", she says, admiringly. "He's also interested in the linguistic side of things. The story that a magician tells you is a deeply convincing story. Derren Brown's storytelling is really extraordinary and his showmanship is extraordinary."
Kennedy, an only child whose retired teacher mother lives in the Warwickshire village, Bidford-on-Avon (her father lives in France) grew up around book and her love of words developed early. She was already writing by the time she studied drama at Warwick University, and was duly hailed as a brilliant new literary voice while still in her 20s. She has appeared on Granta's list of Best of Young British Novelists twice, and her 1990 debut, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, a collection of short stories set in Scotland, won several awards. She has subsequently won many more, most recently the Costa prize for Day, her fifth novel, around which she has a funny story to tell, reminiscent of one of her more surreal stand-up skits for which she has also garnered glowing praise.
She had sailed to New York days before the prize announcement in 2007, because flying generally unsettles her (it was during her week on the ocean liner that she decided to set The Blue Book on the high seas). She found herself taking an emergency flight to get to the prize-giving ceremony and on her way back to New York, the cabin staff, astonishingly, kept her entertained with tales of mid-air near disasters. "They told me that a man got sucked out of a window once (in the cockpit) and the co-pilot had him by the legs. The others thought he was dead and kept saying 'let go' but he didn't. The man got frostbite in his eye and looked like he was dead, but when they got him back in, they realised he was alive."
Ever since her books have appeared in print, Kennedy has defended her use of initials over her full name. The common mistake is to think it has to do with feminism or obfuscation of gender for marketing reasons (men statistically gravitate away from fiction by women). It is more because she seeks the effacement of the author. "My idea of writers was that you didn't know what they looked like." Yet it has led to enduring misconceptions of who AL Kennedy is. "Whatever I do, even if I fuck some bloke naked in the high street, I will always be gay as AL Kennedy. It's a bunch of other people's stuff that I find annoying. I have no objection to gayness, but I would rather not be redefined (by others)."
Perhaps it might be a backhanded compliment, I suggest, because she is so exceptional at crawling inside her male protagonist's heads and delivering a story from this perspective as convincingly as the female's. She has not really considered why and how she is able to do this so well, though in everyday life, she feels more at home in male company. "Most of my friends are men. I don't hang around with women all that much. I find them slightly difficult to understand, slightly threatening. If people suddenly talk about childbirth or handbags I get very bored, I just don't get it. I think some women think they are supposed to talk about shoes."
What she is also incredibly adept at is writing about is sex, explicitly and in its full physicality. She is one of the few female writers of literary fiction who does so (the feature is more commonly seen in literary fiction by the likes of Alan Hollinghurst, and Geoff Dyer). Much of the love story in The Blue Book rests upon its convincing sex scenes.
"If it's necessary to put sex into a story then I do put sex into it. I don't think about it differently to anything else. There had to be sex that was not about sex in this book. It had to be a reflection of how I would wish to be treated by someone myself if I loved them, that happened to be expressed as sex".
But sex on the page takes a lot of work to get it "anywhere near to being what it should be", she says. "It's very technically difficult. You have to be physically very precise and there are grades of being graphic. There are lots of technical pressures on you" .
The sex is tied to discussions around love in The Blue Book, the pull between a "reasonable love" and the real, chaotic version of the emotion. Kennedy says it is the latter she is drawn to every time, in spite of the terror it brings.
"I don't think love is reasonable. It's lots of things but it's not reasonable. There are times when it can be calm and gentle and secure, but if it's real, it's never not a risk.
Settling for something, or someone "reasonable" is not something she has been able to do, not even for the biological reasons of having children. "I had a bad back for ten years so it wasn't realistic to think about kids. It would have been untenable. I couldn't lift anything, I couldn't kiss anyone. In a way, what I do is a stupid job but just as I didn't settle for something that would earn me a living but that I would hate, I have never had a desire to settle for something that's not real."
The discussion on love returns her to magic, and magic to storytelling. She relates the magician's desire to perform tricks to the writer's conjuring of plots, characters, emotions, out of thin air, and the magician's audience is likened to the reader, a willing party to this delightful deception: "When they're being slightly pompous, magicians call their work thaumaturgy, the working of wonders. It used to be a religious term but magicians, because they're sneaky, appropriated it. If you think of any arts practitioner, that's what they should be aiming to do. That's the reason for wasting someone's time. If you're inflicting a book on someone, you're trying to make a wonder somehow real."
Arifa Akbar travelled with Virgin Trains. For bookings go to www.virgintrains.com or phone 0871 977 4222. Return fares from London to Glasgow start at £37
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