The Books Interview: A bone to pick with God

A L Kennedy transforms pain (hers) into pleasure (ours). Christina Patterson meets a typist with a divine mission
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If literary success brings happiness, then Alison Louise Kennedy should be very happy indeed. She has won so many awards for her work that her CV reads like a litany of sometimes weirdly named literary prizes, and her new novel, Everything You Need, (Jonathan Cape, pounds 16.99) must surely be a strong contender for this year's major awards.

But the figure hunched at the head of a boardroom table, on the fifth floor of the Random House headquarters, looks far from happy. Her skin is so pale that you fear it couldn't survive normal daylight and almost her first words are to request that the harsh office lights be turned off. She speaks in a voice that's barely a whisper and sips water frantically, as if trying to quench some terrible thirst.

I tell her that I think the new book is magnificent, undoubtedly her best yet. Does she agree? "I didn't like it very much," she responds a little brusquely, "didn't enjoy the whole process of it at all. So I don't like thinking about it." This doesn't bode brilliantly, but Alison Kennedy is, and has been for the past 18 months, in intense physical pain.

After frequent fainting fits, tests and hospital trips, she was diagnosed with a displaced disc in the neck. She has now found some relief in a new manipulative therapy which has, she says, turned her into "an aqueous alcoholic". Anyone who has read more than two lines of her work might have guessed that she is no stranger to emotional pain, but this is the first time that she has experienced chronic physical discomfort.

To have produced nearly 600 pages of any prose in such circumstances would be quite an achievement. To have produced work of this calibre is something of a miracle. Clearly, the writing was extremely tough, but it was also at times a distraction. "There's a dichotomy between writers who write to explore themselves," says Kennedy, "and writers who write to escape themselves. I'm a fugitive. It isn't heroic. I'm running away."

Escapism a la Kennedy is, as might be expected, not of the Mills & Boon variety. The central character, Nathan Staples, has lost everything he loves. Abandoned by his wife 15 years ago, and forbidden to see the daughter he adored, he now leads a solitary life as part of a small community of writers on an island off the Welsh coast. While churning out regular doses of "blood, fear and fucking for the thinking lady", he wages a constant battle against loneliness, longing and despair. When his daughter, Mary, arrives on the island on a writing scholarship, he faces an agonising dilemma. Should he tell her he is her father, risking further rejection and pain?

Spanning seven years, the novel explores all the familiar Kennedy themes - love, death and pain - and relates them to the writing process. It is considerably longer than any of her previous books, has more of a structure and, arguably for the first time, a compelling narrative thread. How far were these conscious decisions and was she, the least self-indulgent of writers, nervous about taking on the writing theme?

"There's never that kind of forward planning," she announces, again a little tersely, "so, to all of those `did you intend' questions, the answer's no. The only way to do it is to make a place of safety within which you cannot think about what anybody else will think." Her views on writing are surprisingly romantic for one so apparently matter-of-fact. "It's particularly about inspiration and about waiting for things to come," she reveals, "having some kind of interaction with something that is numinous, something greater than yourself."

The novel seems to reflect a profound ambivalence about writing. "I type for a living," says Nathan, "I'm not on a mission from God". But writing is also presented as a buffer against death, the only route to immortality. Do Nathan's views reflect her own? "You do type for a living, but you are on a mission from God," Kennedy replies, in a flash of the dry humour that has become something of a trademark.

"You can't spend all that time with words and not be aware that they're immensely powerful, important things." The God she talks of is, in part, a literal one.

Unlike most other contemporary novelists of her generation, her work is shot through with a sense of real engagement with the divine. In her extraordinary novella Original Bliss, this takes the form of a traumatic loss of faith. Elsewhere, her characters rage at a God who is both a vicious sadist and a perpetrator of brilliant black humour. This, as I suspected, is the Kennedy view.

"I believe in God," she announces matter-of-factly, "but I have serious arguments with him, very serious arguments. Sometimes I don't get the joke. Sometimes I am the joke." She gives as an example an account of a piece she had been writing last weekend on an unfamiliar computer. Aiming at lock capitals END, she achieved control END, which demolished in a moment an entire afternoon's work. "It's like, the last letter of the last word makes it all disappear? That is so good, that's elegant, that's funny... God gets away with it!"

On a slightly more serious note, she adds, "Why would this resemble anybody you know? Why would this be nice? Love is an interesting thing to talk about, but love isn't necessarily nice." Indeed.

In Everything You Need, Nathan's love for his absent wife is almost impossible to bear and his love for his daughter causes him to behave in ways that she finds difficult to understand. But Mary, left by her mother with her two gay "Uncles", has been lucky enough to experience years of rock-solid love. As a result, she is, according to her creator, who claims to be neither, "absolutely straight and normal... She would be, if she got what she got early on," she adds, a little wistfully.

Kennedy is notoriously reluctant to answer questions about autiobiographical content in her work, pointing out, not unreasonably, that fiction is fiction. She does admit, however, that she and Nathan "would get on" and hints at certain traits in common. His defensive flippancy, irony and tendency towards self-flagellation are, at a guess, not entirely imagined.

Kennedy's own upbringing, a combination of militant atheism, Welsh Methodism and Scottish Calvinism, certainly seems to have bred a fierce moral fervour. "If you have that kind of upbringing, it doesn't stop you from behaving appallingly, but it means that you know you are," she explains, "it makes things important."

She told one interviewer that she had a rule that she wasn't allowed to whinge about something without sending off an appropriate cheque. "I've never been fond of fun," she announces, not, you feel, entirely ironically. "Fun is bad for you."

I ask, hesitantly, about her private life. "I type for a living," she replies, echoing Nathan, "and everybody thinks I'm being secretive. It's, like, there's nothing I can give you! I'm not having fantastic affairs with people. I'm not doing anything!" The men who fall for her are, she says, either nutters or "people like me". What would be wrong with that? "Bad news," she mutters darkly, "you don't want two intense obsessives in the same room."

Intense obsessives are not, unless they are Woody Allen, usually as entertaining as Alison Kennedy. At public readings, she is nearly always superb, tossing out the one-liners as if she had been born to stand-up. Her self-deprecating wit has audiences screaming with laughter and glowing with empathetic warmth. "It's an auto-pilot thing," she explains, a little surprisingly. "You develop whatever public persona will get you through."

While there's little attempt to charm in a less public situation, her conversation glitters, beneath the slightly curt veneer, with the same gallows humour, combined with a generous and disarming frankness. She speaks in the same dry tones about God, theology, sado-masochism, love, depression and sex. The latter, apparently, is uncomfortable, due to her "very bony hips".

If it is a cliche that great art demands extraordinary sensitivity, then A L Kennedy perpetuates it. I hope very much that this passionate, fiercely honest and supremely talented young woman has some respite from her pain. In the meantime, it is tempting to think that we, her readers, are reaping the benefits.

A L Kennedy, a biography

Alison Kennedy was born in Dundee in 1965. After studying drama at Warwick University, she was an arts worker in special-needs education, winning the 1990 Social Work Today Award and editing the magazine, Outside Lines. Her first collection of stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains was published in 1991 to critical acclaim, winning prizes including the Scottish Arts Council Book Award, which she also won in 1994 for her second collection, Now That You're Back. In 1993, Kennedy was selected as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and published her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, which won the Somerset Maugham Award. Her second novel, So I Am Glad (1995), won yet more awards and was followed in 1997 by a collection of short stories, Original Bliss, and a study of the film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Her work for stage and TV includes an award-winning one-man play, The Audition and the BFI/Channel Four film, Stella Does Tricks. She lives in Glasgow.

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