AFTER more than ten years of attending the Hay Festival at Hay-on-Wye, in Wales, I have one stand-out memory. In 2007, A. L. Kennedy had just read from her latest book, Day, about a tail-gunner during the Second World War, and the floor had been opened to questions.
As anyone who goes to literary festivals knows, those selected to ask a question often do not want to ask one: they want to make a short (or not-so-short) speech to someone else’s captive audience. It then falls to the facilitator to interject with something along the lines of, “And your question is. . . ?”
Not that day. The elderly man who raised his hand had a simple and genuine question for the author. Visibly moved, he asked: “How could you possibly have known what it was like?”
In response, Kennedy talked about sitting, in Lincolnshire, in a taxiing Lancaster that was air-worthy but too expensive to fuel. Soaking up the sensory experience of being in those confined quarters, she occupied the rear gunner’s position, and rehearsed the awkward manoeuvre to get in and out. She handled an unmounted machine gun and ammo, and tried to warm it up, to release dormant smells. She spent three years researching, reading training manuals, and watching training films.
Kennedy spent enough time doing this sort of thing to worry the aviation centre staff, but it was clearly such painstaking attention to detail which lent authenticity to her work, and lifted the former Lancaster Bomber pilot from his seat to ask in amazement how she had done it.
This single occasion is a stand-out memory to me, but Kennedy talked to many such men around the country after her readings, and when promoting the German translation she was equally moved to meet people who had been bombed by those very planes.
THE writer of 16 books — novels, short stories, and non-fiction — and winner of several awards, A. L. Kennedy was twice included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists. She is a dramatist for stage, radio, TV, and film, but also a stand-up comedian. Conscious of the wide range of her talents, but also of the dedication that she clearly puts into the task of writing her novels, I ask whether, in her heart, she is first and foremost a novelist.
“From the point of view of the writer — or me, anyway — I don’t think I’m primarily thinking of forms. The things that interest me are the characters and the ideas, and the plots around them. Out of that comes a form that would best fit them, and the rest is to do with marketing departments, or critics, or academics. It’s all just stories. Really, you’re looking at how long something will be, how wide in scope, what elements might lead and how best you express that. . . “Prose fiction would definitely be the most tiring thing I write, because all the elements have to come from me: no actors, no soundtrack, no illustrations, no limitations placed on you by a newspaper, and so forth.”
The extent of her output suggests Kennedy’s commitment to her craft. Increasingly, writers are required to do much more than write — not least to take part in the ever-widening festival circuit. Besides appearing at events in the UK and abroad, Kennedy is often on the radio, and her words are in the press. I wonder how hard it is to ring-fence her time to write, while having to be on the move so much.
“I don’t generally do anything that I don’t like doing: it’s all fun. The time issue is a little troubling, but then I can work anywhere — on trains, in hotels, wherever. . . I like being out there and talking about writing as a serious thing and a force for good in the world.”
So writing matters to Kennedy. Fiction makes a difference; it is important. I mention that a high-profile TV celebrity (whom I won’t name, but who has a penchant for maths) was recently quoted in a national newspaper as saying that she could not see the point of “something someone has made up “.
It catapulted me back 35 years, to when I was an English undergraduate, dumbfounded by a physicist who told me that Christians shouldn’t study literature, as it wasn’t “true”. What, I ask, would Kennedy tell the likes of the physics student and the TV presenter is the point of fiction?
“If you don’t understand the value of imagination — the relation it has to your own future, the narrative that you tell yourself about your life and personality, the necessity of imagination in any conscious change — then you’re in trouble.
“Works that come from [other people’s] imagination help you to exercise yours. Fiction that has any worth has to have a basis in reality. If it’s fantastic, then the author will have to establish a whole world, or a sense thereof, a constructed reality. If the setting is ‘real’, then the characters, actions, motivations, etc. — all that has to work together organically. That’s work. Hard graft.
“And it may involve more research than factual writing. You may get nearer the truth of human nature and the chosen setting in fiction than in any non-fiction.
“If you’re aware of how writing and journalism — and politics — work, then you should know that ‘factual’ writing is, at best, incomplete. At worst, it’s lying dressed as truth. Bias against fiction tends to come from people who don’t like unpredictability, don’t like emotionally involving texts, and who never have read it much.”
An Associate Professor at Warwick University, Kennedy teaches on the Warwick Writing Programme. Her popular blog, written for The Guardian, forms the core of her book of essays and advice, On Writing. Evidently, she thinks that there is something worth while that she can pass on to aspiring writers; but what can be taught?
“You can’t teach someone to write. The writer has to have an essential sensitivity, an ability to observe and create, a willingness to risk, and a determination to pursue their craft. You can’t teach that, but you can support those things if they’re in place.
“There are attitudes of mind you can encourage or explore; there are simple early mistakes you can point out, while also pointing out that failure is part of the process; and there are questions you can ask about how determined someone is to produce work of high quality. Without determination, they’ll get nowhere, even if they do have ability.
“You can talk about self-care, how to deal with the business . . . there’s a lot to learn about how to do the job and be in the world.”
Being in the world clearly matters to Kennedy as well. The calibre of her fiction has given her the platform to speak out on issues other than literature: education, fracking, torture. Is this is a platform she is happy to occupy, I wonder. Does she relish, for instance, speaking on Radio 4’s A Point of View?
“I don’t relish it, but I think something has to be done if there’s pain somewhere, or a problem, and if I stand about with my hands in my pockets then I’m part of the problem. I do very little, though.
“The Point of View essays are slightly pressured, because they have to be written in the week they go out, but it’s a joy to be in the slot that Alistair Cooke once occupied. I love radio, and I loved his essays. I can still remember some of the ones I heard years ago. And working with voice is great fun, and educational always.”
KENNEDY is described in the literary press as not only one of our finest, but also one of our most humane, writers. I ask her how she feels about that, and whether her political and social engagement are part and parcel of her life as a writer.
“I would hope my writing was humane. I don’t think it would be much good if it didn’t have a heart. Whether I’m humane as a person is another matter. I try, I suppose.
“I would be politically aware in any job, but having a louder than average voice, or being asked to use one’s powers of expression to a good purpose, is something I’m happy about. I don’t think you can be morally neutral in a job that involves the media. Neutrality actually drifts into negativity pretty fast.”
Do any issues particularly exercise her at the moment?
“I’m concerned about torture, the treatment of minorities, the punishment of the poor, and the withdrawal of benefits from the disabled — how many people that kills, and how much it costs. I mean, the list is fairly endless.”
Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, Kennedy will make her début at the faith-based Greenbelt Festival. I ask whether she is conscious of any benign and beneficial effects of faith on communities today, as well as the usual negatives perpetrated in the name of religion.
“I always enjoy reading websites and publications that are specifically for religions. The comment sections can be hugely depressing, but they can also be full of people who are trying to reach out and to make bridges between communities. And I always admire the way the Quakers just get on with things, and the way they are a source of positive — but not frivolous — news.
“I think a lot of people — atheists, agnostics, and people of faith — are looking for ways to be in the world in a spiritual manner. That interests me. The religious obsession with texts I find disturbing, given that they were all written down by people, rewritten by people, nipped and tucked to suit political tastes, and so forth.”
KENNEDY is 50 this year. With a broad and established body of work behind her, are there unchartered waters she would like to explore, or will she continue along the same paths?
“I hope I would go on doing the things that seemed right to me, and trying to get better at what I do. I like working with actors, and I’d like to do a little more of that. I don’t really plan in that way. As long as I’m being offered possibilities, and as long as I’m having ideas that come to me to be expressed, then I’ll be all right. Writers don’t have to retire until they drop.”
Trailing national and international awards, Kennedy has good reason to be pleased with herself. Is there one piece of work she is most proud of?
“I’m not proud of any of it. I hope that the next thing I write will be something I’m proud of . . . leave it at that. It’s none of my business, really. If some piece of mine got somebody through a hard time, that’s always good to know.”
I think again of the Lancaster Bomber pilot at Hay. Hearing his experience captured so precisely in a work of fiction, he was reminded that what he went through matters — not only to him, but to all of us as we explore the mystery of our human nature.
Jo Browning Wroe is a writer and teacher.
A. L. Kennedy will be appearing at the Greenbelt Festival at Boughton House, Kettering, on Monday 31 August.