The Books Interview: A L Kennedy

The stories in your new collection, What Becomes, are united by a preoccupation with what separates human beings from one another.
Certainly, there's a theme running through about people being in despair, and feeling psychologically and emotionally unconsoled. Particularly in the stories that deal with any sort of violence. One of the offensive things about violence is that it reminds you that in the real world you're not special.

That sense of not being special crops up again and again.
It's because I think the level of misery in people gets underestimated. Most of the culture ignores it.

There are multiple failures of connection. "Edinburgh", for example, is about a couple failing to connect.
Well, the woman in that story is obviously not a terribly nice person! But in "Another", for example, I describe two people coming together.

But what's striking about that story is that the woman's thrill at achieving intimacy with her new lover doesn't seem entirely benign. You describe her almost masochistic pleasure in "little private bruises".
Again, she seems to be a slightly strange person, whereas I suspect the new partner is a nice person. And don't forget that new lovemaking is quite vigorous in any case!

There are several descriptions of people coming together physically for the first time. What sorts of writerly challenges do these present?
It's difficult to make it new and not to make it just pornographic. Pornography is effective in its own way, of course; it's just the wrong sort of effect. Partly the difficulty is just the one you always have in describing something that is physical and three-dimensional. Pornography is doing a different job from fiction. The point of pornography is for the reader to have the requisite experience, and for the people depicted to be as cipher-like as possible.

Do you think of writing itself as a bodily, as well as a mental and intellectual, act? You wrote an article recently about the importance of writers reading their work in public.
I think it is important for writing not to be reduced to just a series of marks on paper. You can't predict what your reader will be like, of course, but you can predict that they will be a human being who is going to experience the world as something other than two-dimensional. You're actually saying something to somebody. It's very easy, particularly if you've been writing for a long time, just to have a conversation with yourself. But you always have to remember that people have gone to the effort of buying, or stealing, and then reading your book. So, without wanting to pander to them, it would be rude not to give them anything.

What is the relationship between your writing and your performance work? Do you see them as essentially continuous?
Horrifically, I've been reading my work out loud for a quarter of a century. Obviously, the experience of one feeds into the other, though they're different modes. The more you get used to the different registers, then, yes, it becomes a continuous thing. I've been talking to people about being
a writer and the importance of language for 25 years. My live performances started with humorous talks about being a writer, then it got to be more of a show, a humorous show about being a writer, and then finally I came to the point where I could do a show about the things I really care about - the use of language and what it does. Language is this fantastic thing, but we take it for granted. But it is this joyful, life-changing, powerful thing. The only way to make it un-powerful is not to use it, to forget it.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
A L Kennedy's short story collection "What Becomes" is published by Jonathan Cape (priced £16.99). She will be performing "Words With A L Kennedy" on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 6 August. For more details, visit:

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.