Original sin

Obsession, self-denial, violent sexual fantasy. AL Kennedy's novels are never comfortable. But she tells it like she feels it. By Glyn Brown
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The Independent Culture
`We're not perfect... We're here to ruin ourselves and love the wrong people and break our hearts." OK, so the quote's from the movie Moonstruck. But it suits the sensibility of much of AL Kennedy's work and, not to strain things, her life, currently. If you're not familiar with what she writes, you may now be misled into thinking it's romantic fiction, which would be a grave mistake, because Kennedy deals with identity, dislocation, and deep, dark, bloody secrets. Many of her stories are so idiosyncratically surreal - telepathic nuns, zen penguins, charming serial killers from the lazy Mid-West - you want nothing but to wallow in them. Others are so uncomfortable, so clearly about obsessive, self-induced pain, you rip through them avidly because, of course, it's impossible to stop.

Kennedy has won sacks of prizes, was a judge on last year's Booker, and has scripted a couple of movies, one of which, Stella Does Tricks, should see the light shortly. That film illuminates Kennedy's latent streak of violent sexual fantasy; but it's her new book, Original Bliss, that examines this best. The stories don't all deal with it, though sex is in most of them, somewhere (in Far Gone, a man travelling to meet a lost love effectively resists arousal while in flight by conjuring images of Malcolm Rifkind, and of penetrating Nancy Reagan "roughly from behind"). It's the novella, Original Bliss itself, that deals with the subject most movingly. Here we have Helen, a Glaswegian housewife who has lost her faith in God while suffering her husband's startling brutality. She falls for the charismatic Edward E Gluck, a popular self-help guru who's tall, floppy-haired, lovably sensitive and can do a great Jimmy Stewart impression. Problem is, he's addicted to hard-core porn, photos of gang rapes and sex with Alsatians. He hates himself for it, but he can't stop. And, of course, what this addiction does, when he tells Helen, is prevent him having the thing he really wants, which is love with her. (There is an ultimate redemption; you'll have to read the book to find it out).

But people denying themselves - or being denied - the life, or love, or fulfilment they truly want, that's Kennedy's most revisited theme. Lounging in her well-appointed Glasgow flat, where the walls are green or psycho-killer red, she fills in the story so far. She was born in Dundee. Her parents divorced when she was 11, and she rarely sees her father, but grew up with her Welsh mother, of whose accent she retains much. She studied Theatre and Drama at Warwick university, where she began writing scripts. And then what? "I started writing short stories, but only because there was nothing else positive happening, nothing I could complete. I'd tried selling brushes door-to-door, I was useless at that. Then I answered an ad for people vaguely disposed toward puppet-making - papier mache, glove, rod and stick..." That didn't really suit. A few years later, she became involved with a Glasgow special needs unit, working with people with learning difficulties, brain damage, ex-offenders and psychogeriatrics in therapeutic creative writing.

"Everyone has something to say and we'd write plays, and perform them. And they were wonderful. If they weren't taken off for being illegal. Because if you have people who are very institutionalised and they begin to get opinions and express them, you may be contravening laws that say you can't talk about sex and disability. The institution will just say, `we wanted you to help their powers of expression, but now we want you to stop'."

This kind of squashing was not going to be something Kennedy enjoyed, though it may have been a microcosm of something she'd later notice on a wider scale. "You're asking groups - y'know, you're trying to find out what people are, they can't identify their emotions because they haven't been allowed to have any - you say, `what happens when you get angry?' And you just get, `oh, we get an injection'. You can't go forward." During this time, Kennedy was also bashing out her own work. "And though I was exhausted - I was writing the first three books and doing a six-and-a- half-day week - you were remembering every day that what you do is fine, it makes people who are ill better. And that it's very simple. You have something to say, you find the words, and you say it so someone else will understand it. Everything else is fuss and complication."

But however clear you hope you are, things will be misconstrued because of the differences between us all. Kennedy's need to get through barriers, the immediacy in her work makes you want to talk back, have some contact. And people try.

"I have people who travel to see me. And somebody wanted me to go to Seattle in order to see them. Well, in order to have sex with them. He sent a photo, he sent a CV, copies of his Lonely Hearts ad in the Seattle whatever, and a covering letter to apologise in case I thought he was a mad American. Which of course he was.

"My writing's very intimate, but it's not autobiographical. Because I write as a man, it doesn't mean that I'm gay. Because I write as a woman who has lots of men, it doesn't mean I'm a nymphomaniac. But I read out one thing in Greece, first-person narrative, woman, about lots of shagging. All the women left, and all the guys went wild, giving me their phone numbers and so on. Which was fine, but it's the woman in the story they're giving their number to, not me."

Though she laughs deeply and often, Kennedy, like many writers, tends to be "on the depressive side". Sometimes, she can sneak an impending depression on to a character, "and if you're very quick you can walk away and it'll stay with them. That makes it have some kind of meaning. Otherwise, you feel like dropping off a twig and that's it. I dunno, the depression gets worse as time goes on."

Caused by?

"I'm just lonely. Time passes and you think, I'll be in another relationship soon [in fact, she's been single for about five years], and it's, hmm - yeah, right."

We'll come back to this, but for now I suggest that some relationships are worse than being on your own.

"After a few years, you'd even rather have a miserable relationship. Anything. Oh, I know, I know. But if it's crap, you can always write about it. Pain is lovely."

Which brings us, awkwardly, to Original Bliss's Edward E Gluck, who uses his obsession as a palliative.

"Gluck is addicted to porn, and it gets extreme because he needs it too, to get the same buzz. He's another of these terribly lonely people. He decided, I don't want to be involved with people, I don't really have time and so I will do this, because that's entirely convenient. Which is unhealthy to begin with, whatever it would be. It just so happens the thing is quadrupally unhealthy because it's a bad choice. Having sex with paper." Fiendish grin. "Terrible cuts."

Kennedy worries about things she sees in the papers, and writes about some that disturb her. She attributes much of the world's evil to "the pressure everyone's under. Everyone's so taut and nobody has any time or is on pills or is taking cocaine... Part of why you write is to say, look, I now know about this and I have to tell you. Not just because it's a terrible thing, but because it's a terrible thing that was done by somebody who was not dissimilar to you. Just certain things were different. And if you don't understand that, then you're a psychopath."

The humanity in what she does makes it clear that Kennedy (Alison Louise, since you ask) is someone who needs to interact. But, as we know, she has little luck with men. Her last relationship was so bad, it put her right off. These days, the wrong sort seem to like her.

"If Danny de Vito crossed with Gerard Depardieu turned up, lived in a different country, was married and approaching 70, he'd immediately fall in love with me. And he'd phone obsessively for about six months, because that's what they do."

And say, "Come to Seattle."

Clears throat, nodding. "Come to Seattle and shag me for two weeks."

And yet, when you write about love and trust that works, it's breathtaking. You've not, by now, become a cynic?

"Oh, no. Well, I am. But that's because I'm a romantic. There aren't any cynics, just disappointed romantics."

And people who can't touch, or let themselves touch, the thing they really care about. "Of course, I spend my life doing that. But I don't think if I wrote a happy-ever-after story it would make me think differently. I think it would make me throw up"n

`Original Bliss' is published on Friday by Jonathan Cape