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A L Kennedy: "The use of language is underestimated as a force"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, On Writing, is a collection of essays and blogs. How did you start blogging?
I like what I do. I like reading. That whole area of my life has always been very joyful and supportive and well supported.

It’s probably just me being evangelical – not about people being writers but about people having access to what writing can do. That’s why I go around and do a one-person show and that’s why I started blogging.

Writing has become one of your central themes, hasn’t it?
Yes. The use of language is underestimated as a force. It’s how advertising influences; it’s how politicians influence. The way you are defined by the law is framed in words. It influences every aspect of your life, so if you’re not in control of language, language is in control of you. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

The blogs, which function as a sort of diary, give a strong sense of the toll that writing has taken, particularly on your health.
When I was coming through, there weren’t any [writing] courses. You somehow had the idea that you should get a room of your own and that the more time you had, the more you would write; and then you’d get published and that would be it. That was all the information you had and, even with the courses, it’s pretty much all the information you have now.

Warwick, where I teach, is very good; the emphasis is on the words on the page. Still, you need to ask: do you have a comfortable chair? Are you working on a laptop, which means your head is in the wrong position or your hands are in the wrong position – or both? If you do that for four, six, eight hours, when you’re basically built to swing through trees and eat fruit, you’ll become ill.

In one essay, you talk about “being with people in art”. The way you work seems very communal.
I don’t know many writers who work in an ivory tower. That was only really possible for a very brief period when a particular class of person had vast amounts of leisure time. If you look at history, [you’ll find that] the people who told stories were primarily performers and it was always public or it was a communal activity and everybody did it.

What effect has the growth of creative writing courses had?
It depends on whether the course is good or not. Writing is not a communal activity when you’re doing it, putting words on paper. If your name’s on it, it’s your responsibility. It’s not a group decision.

A lot of courses and sessions and books are about making money; making people dependent upon a process that is unnecessary and upon which they should not become dependent.

Writing is the most self-contained form of self-employment. You don’t have to go on a course; you don’t have to have gone to university – but you do have to understand your craft. It is a craft and you can learn it, regardless of how you serve your apprenticeship.

Why do you think creative writing as an academic discipline has been so controversial – in this country, at least?
Because it’s not fit for purpose. It wasn’t designed by writers; it was designed by English departments. The idea that the English department should be the one that creative writing is attached to makes no more sense than it being attached to the anthropology department or the physics department.

Your background is in theatre studies. You write about actors a lot in the book.
Actors are extraordinarily good readers. In a way, they’re the most forgiving readers around because even if you’re producing unmelodious and unbelievable rubbish, they have to be out there wearing it and if it doesn’t cover them, then their arse is out of the window.

The cover of the book makes you look like a polar explorer. Is that a good metaphor for the writing life?
It’s completely polar. You’re walking out across a great, white wasteland, making little black marks.

A L Kennedy’s “On Writing” is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis