SCOTTISH AUTHOR Alison Louise (A.L.) Kennedy has published more than a dozen story collections and novels. She is also a columnist, a stand-up comic, a writer of radio drama, and a teacher of creative writing. Whatever the medium, her work is immediately recognizable for its dark humor, both sharply mordant and profoundly compassionate.
Kennedy’s fiction favors characters in difficult times, deceived and deceiving, self-seeking, self-deluded, self-destructive, entirely complicit in their own suffering — yet somehow also, in their brokenness, entirely sympathetic. Fellow Scot Ali Smith once described Kennedy as “the laureate of good hurt.”
Her recent collection, All the Rage, is a book of 12 love stories for grown-ups. With an unerring, unflinching sense of detail, Kennedy depicts intensely awkward, intimate moments: disposing of a condom, an inappropriate touch on a first date in middle age, an interaction with an overenthusiastic salesperson in a sex toy shop. But the quirks and ticks, the private pain and shame of her characters, are treated as ordinary, and in this way Kennedy’s portraits are both revelation and benediction — to be deeply flawed, these stories suggest, is to be deeply human.
Claire Cameron: You have a wonderful way of connecting the mundane with the profound — how a first kiss can completely transform the most banal of objects or moments into something intimate and strangely beautiful.
A.L. Kennedy: I think the job of writing, or art in general, would certainly be to at least try to do that. And I think being in love heightens your awareness — or can — and so everything takes on more significance. And certainly the object of one’s affection becomes entirely un-mundane, even if everyone else can’t quite see what you’re making a fuss about.
To me, these are love stories precisely because they emphasize humanity over perfection, or real love over the idea of true love.
I did want to try and look at real love, or adult love, or middle-aged love, perhaps — a state of being not unaware that people aren’t perfect. But you make a decision to act as if they were, or could be, and allow yourself to be open to the way that they are perfectly themselves. I think if you love someone fully then that’s what you are appreciating — that they are themselves. And you want them to be safely and happily more of the same.
Many of these stories made me laugh out loud. How does humor fit into your take on relationships?
My mum always used to say, “Marry someone who makes you laugh.” And that has been her only real relationship advice. I don’t think it’s necessary to say much more, in fact. If that bit works and is based on truth, rather than the kind of humor that avoids the truth, then you’ll be okay in the end. If everything is terribly serious then you get Strindberg, or Fifty Shades of Grey. Love is absurd, people are absurd, sex is completely absurd — but if you can accept that, have a laugh and move on, then all is well.
How did you write the stories in All the Rage — as a whole, or did you gather them into a collection later?
I had four or five stories that had been commissioned or appeared for this or that reason, and then I did what I normally do — which was to look at them and see what kind of collection they suggested. That gave me an area to try to explore with some kind of thoroughness. In the end it’s probably a little like putting together an album.
In your mind, what relationship do the stories have with each other?
I hope it’s not too tight a relationship. Really, it was just that they should all be about types of love and cover the ground as far as age and gender and tone would go. I would want each story to be as different as possible within a context that keeps everything much the same — which seems a losing battle, but one has to try…
Is there a difference in how you approach stories versus a novel?
Stories are short — it’s sort of that simple. You have very little time and space to establish everything, so the stakes are much higher. You have to pick the right moment, everything has to earn its place in the prose; it’s more testing than a novel in some ways. Equally, it doesn’t take as long. Which is a blessing.
Do you prefer writing one form over the other?
When you’re writing, you’re just writing. You’re providing a story, usually about people who do things and think things and meet each other. The form is part of the story’s expression. If it’s on a small scale, it will be short. Although even that isn’t always true on certain levels. I’ve written short stories that cover years, and I’m currently working on a novel that covers 24 hours. […] Definitions of form are there to keep academics and critics happy. They don’t help writers all that much, beyond stating the obvious — “That thing you wrote was short.” “Yes, it was.” Unless you’re saying, “Too short.” Then you’re making someone aware of a problem. If there’s no problem, hopefully the reader is thinking, “Wow.” Rather than, “She’s giving me 3,200 words worth of wow.”
To me, point of view is an important part of your fiction. I specifically think of Hannah in Paradise or Alfie in Day, and also the varied points of view in The Blue Book.
Point of view, I think, is the key to making most forms work. If a movie doesn’t work, it tends to have failed because it didn’t cut and edit and shoot for point of view — the same with radio, with painting, with art in general. It will always be there consciously or unconsciously — but if it’s there unconsciously, it gets feral and doesn’t serve your work.
In All the Rage, you set stories in the third person, in the first person, and in the second person. Do you approach each story with a clear idea about the point of view you will use?
Second person can be useful. Ideally, it’s a voice that invites you in closer than the third-person voice, but doesn’t put you right next to someone who obviously isn’t you in the way that first person does. Some readers dislike it intensely and find it makes them feel as if they have been miscast in some drama for which they didn’t volunteer. Each story will have a point of view from which it will operate best, and it would be my job to find that.
Do you need a large dose of empathy to write from such a varied point of view?
People assume that writers are terribly insightful and good at being with or reading other people. But the people we portray are, of course, people we made up and therefore very accessible to us. We hopefully make mankind our study and gain benefits from that. We are also human beings who spend huge amounts of time alone, obsessed by the fruits of our own control-freakery. So our research into humanity may make us smart about certain things, but if you get us on a bad day we may not notice if you’re on fire. (When I say “we” I mean “me”.)
Is empathy something than can be learned — both in writing and love?
Oh yes. Unless you’re a sociopath you can have your empathy nourished and strengthened. That’s why it’s so disastrous that so much popular culture is about hating others, fearing others, mocking others, watching faked segments of semi-hysterical playacting presented as “reality.” That’s morally and politically toxic in every way.
Is empathy required for love?
I think it is, but fortunately — because empathy can be tiring — love tends to make it automatic at least some of the time. It rewards us for being self-forgetting and generous and so that becomes a habit and everyone feels good about themselves. People will die for the people they love, they will transcend themselves, donate organs, fight to get home, overcome all manner of odds. That’s even how armies work — they’re not about countries and flags and philosophies when it comes to the real challenges — they’re about caring for the guys around you, the same guys who also care for you. If we applied that away from the battlefield and the bedroom and tried helping others to live, that could work out well for us as a species.