AL Kennedy: 'If I hadn't turned to comedy I would have hanged myself'

It's no joke - the author who says her 'sanity and cheerfulness are hanging by a thread' sees stand-up as a welcome relief from the grind of book tours and the loneliness of the novelist's life. By Martin Hodgson
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The Independent Online

Out on to the stage bounces a new, fresh talent hoping to win over the tough Glasgow audience. Billed here tonight as Alison Kennedy, she's better known offstage as A L Kennedy, author of some of the bleakest novels imaginable and a woman who, on her own website, warns that her "sanity and cheerfulness are both hanging by a thread". She launches into a act that one prim reviewer later describes as being full of jokes not fit to mention in a family newspaper: the same reviewer, perhaps a little harshly, also suggests that she has the ability to make five minutes seem like a lifetime.

But Kennedy doesn't care. Defying her image as a grouchy misanthrope, in recent months she has performed dozens of low-profile shows at clubs in Scotland, and is considering a possible one-woman show at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe.

"The deal is this: you try to make people laugh and they try to kill you. It's an absurdly horrible thing to do," she told The Independent on Sunday.

Before publishing her first book, Kennedy studied drama and worked on community theatre projects, but her return to the stage was prompted last year by a crisis in her personal life. "What made me want to become a comedian? It was an alternative to hanging myself."

A lifelong fan of comedy, Kennedy took up the microphone after the sudden break-up of a close friendship. "I had a pal for a number of years. We used to talk about comedy and enjoy comedy together - then we stopped speaking. So I had a lack of the sort of thing I'd normally used to cheer me up."

For Kennedy, working on her routine became a weapon in her battle with depression. "If you're in a very negative place, comedy gives you something to do," she says. "You think about comedy rather than jumping out of the window."

Her mention of suicide is possibly more than just a throwaway comment: in her 1999 non-fiction work On Bullfighting, she described an aborted attempt to throw herself from a fourth-storey window.

"If I had a perfectly happy life, if I had anything to lose, and if negative publicity was a risk, then I wouldn't be doing this. But none of that is the case."

Comedy marks a radical departure for Kennedy. Born in Dundee in 1965, she started her literary career as a writer in residence in Hamilton and East Kilbride Social Work Department. Her first collection of stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, was published in 1991, and since then she has had four novels published and written three more collections of stories, as well as screenplays and non-fiction works on bullfighting and film. And as a newspaper columnist, she has inveighed against the war in Iraq and torture in US prison camps.

Now she has turned to stand-up. Starting with five-minute slots at open-mike sessions, Kennedy has built up enough material for a 20-minute set and performs regularly at the Stand Comedy Club venues in Glasgow and Edinburgh. And as with her writing, she brings a cool-eyed worldview to her routine. "I'm the warm-up for the warm-up for the warm-up act. The next step down is the person who takes your ticket."

Kennedy has not yet ventured south of the border. "In Scottish venues, the audiences are clubby and supportive. But in England, stand-up has a reputation for being a blood sport - which is very interesting, and eventually I'll want to do that," she says.

The isolation and painstaking work-rate of writing seem a world away from the frenetic and very public nature of the comedy circuit, but crucially, the rough and tumble improvisation of the comedy club has offered a welcome relief from the repetitive grind of promotional book tours. "Reading the same things again and again is the best way to make you despise the book you've written," she tells me.

Kennedy once described the Booker Prize as "a pile of crooked nonsense" determined by "who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who". So it is perhaps not surprising when she says that there is more solidarity between stand-up comedians than between authors.

"Comedians are probably as warped as writers, but there's an enforced sociability. You've got more support around you than you do as a writer."

Kennedy's novels and stories have twice won her a place on Granta's list of Britain's best young authors, and despite their bleak worldview - her latest book, Paradise, is the interior monologue of an alcoholic - she says that there is a vein of mordant humour throughout her work.

On stage, her subject matter ranges from the personal to the political, with routines on her fear of flying, the perils of oral sex in a moving car, and a lengthy skit on the possibility of shaving a gibbon to replace George W Bush.

"If I'm doing political jokes I tend to be more obscene, just to keep everyone happy," she says.

Even before she turned to stand-up, Kennedy had shown a flair for political humour with trenchant newspaper columns and appearances at peace protests and demonstrations outside the Faslane naval base.

The first time she did stand-up was at political meetings. "I never felt happy talking seriously because I'm neither an expert nor a genuine activist, so I tended to do political jokes."

She enthuses about the satire of Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce, and insists that "humour is a perfectly legitimate response to the horror of the world". "The man in charge of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world is a member of a cult which is gagging for the end of the world," she says. "The situation is so absurd you have to laugh."

A lecturer in creative writing at St Andrews University, she has no plans to give up literature for good. "I couldn't give up writing. But I'm interested to see how far I can go with this stand-up."

FROM KENNEDY'S NOVEL 'PARADISE'

I remember, with aching clarity, an air steward blocking the ragged perspective of an aisle and dancing his arms through the usual safety drill: the oxygen mask for yourself before your gasping children, the floor-level guides to coax you through darkness and smoke. He was enjoying himself, sweating only a little with all of those swooping indications in time to the comforting script. Then he tried to put on his For Demonstration Only life jacket and failed comprehensively... and something about the moment made it plain that we both knew he was now demonstrating a true emergency. This was precisely the way that we really would panic and fluster... and be trapped in the dark, inanely struggling. This was how we would stare, while horrors struck against our wills. This was how we'd be plunged into water and feel every trace of protection ripped easily adrift. He was showing us how we would die.

FROM HER STAND-UP ROUTINE

Humanity en masse is not exactly easy to be fond of - it takes a up a great deal of space, obscures the best views, causes litter, noise and traffic congestion and generally gets in the way. Public transport, even in its present, hobbling manifestations, would be immeasurably more pleasant... if it didn't have to deal with the public, wandering about all over it and wanting to reach pre-arranged destinations at specific times. But that's Other People for you - they're so demanding.

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