I was driving through the Florida panhandle to Mississippi, passing ten “Jesus Saves” billboards an hour, when I first heard of Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy, in 1999. Appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered to answer questions about her novel, Original Bliss, she emphasized its focus on spirituality, pain and the ways people seek to fill the void when their faith in God is lost.
I was raised Presbyterian and Charismatic. A sort of religious schism in my house eventually led to my parents’ divorce, but even after the split my sister and I were required to attend both churches. Although I’ve turned away from Christianity since then, I often find myself puzzling over spiritual faith and the absence of it.
Despite its prominence in our culture, religion is ignored in most contemporary fiction. When it is considered, it is ridiculed or serves as fodder for satire. Kennedy is one of the few current writers whose work seriously engages the subject.
The protagonist of Original Bliss, Mrs. Brindle, is a woman so convinced of God’s existence that she used to be able to feel Him. As the novel opens (excerpt here), she has lost that visceral sense of communion. Lacking the one thing that matters to her, she tries to distract herself. She prepares meals and focuses on other mundane details that her violent husband, Mr. Brindle, expects her to get right.
Day after dreary day passes. Mrs. Brindle remains in her abusive marriage. She finds some small comfort in the affirmational teachings of a TV pop-psychologist named Gluck and seeks him out at a conference. There she learns that he’s as confused and empty at the core as she is, that he’s deeply addicted to violent pornography but avoids sexual relations with actual women. Romance, tragedy and redemption follow.
I picked up Original Bliss not long after I heard the interview. I read it on a plane, in one sitting. A few days later, I read it again.
The book appeared in Britain as a collection of short stories and novella in 1997. We in the States saw only the novella, and then only two years later. It was the first of Kennedy’s books to be published here — never mind that she’d published more than ten in the U.K. during the preceding decade and was named one of Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists in 1993 (she made the list again last year).
Since the late 90’s, Indelible Acts, So I Am Glad, and the nonfiction On Bullfighting have appeared in U.S. bookstores, and the loyal readership that’s sprung up on this side of the Atlantic belies the reigning wisdom that American readers shrink from dark stories. For while she is concerned with faith and spirituality, other themes common to Kennedy’s work include abuse, depression, and suicidal impulses.
Her book about Spanish bullfighting opens as the author contemplates leaping from a ledge to her death on the street below. She decides against suicide because the folk song playing is so abysmal that she can’t bear to leave the world listening to it.
Mired in depression, battling writer’s block, Kennedy told The Atlantic she undertook the book because:
I wanted to see if I was still capable of writing anything at all. I wanted to keep my mind occupied, because — left to its own devices — it might very well manage to kill, or at least torment me. And I wanted to discover if the elements which seemed so much a part of [bullfighting] — death, transcendence, immortality, joy, pain, isolation and fear — would come back to me. Because they were part of the process of writing and, good and bad, I miss them.
Everything Kennedy says about writing and life interests me. I’ve had her in mind since I started the writers-on-writing series, but prior interviews establish that she prefers not to discuss her personal life, and I was nervous that she’d scoff if I asked her to answer questions about writing. I worked up my nerve and asked anyway. Not only did she agree to participate, but after I mailed the questions she returned the answers within hours.
Fans in Britain will be glad to know that Kennedy’s latest book, Paradise, appears there on September 2. Those of us in the U.S. will have to wait a bit longer.
In the interview below, Kennedy talks about her writing process, the new novel, our “culture of de-fictionalisation,” religion and war.
Do you write every day?
I probably write almost every day – I think it’s a good aim to have, but if I’m ill, or stuck or enjoying myself too much I don’t. But I’m aware that I am probably paying attention every day and that converts into writing.
Between your novels, short story collections, nonfiction book on bullfighting, and opinion articles for the Guardian, you’re an incredibly versatile and prolific writer. Do you find it difficult to move between these different forms?
The differences between forms are actually illusions. If you think about them at a fundamental level then what I produce are stories about people that other people have to be able to understand. The stories should all have an honesty within them that indicates a respect for the reader and a self-respect on the part of the author. The honesty of fiction lies in created reality and accuracy of invention, in non-fiction it lies in some kind of ruthlessness and accuracy of observation. (Not that I’m saying I achieve any of this, but at least I’m not afraid of going from one form to another.)
Do you often have several projects in the works at once?
I almost always have several things cooking at once – this is partly because people ask me to do things I want to do at times I can’t predict, partly because I can be preparing something while I’m executing something else, partly because I can’t control (and wouldn’t want to try to control) when I get an idea.
When you sit down to write fiction, do you know from the outset whether a given narrative will take the form of a short story or novel?
By now, yes I do know the difference between something that’s a novel or a short story very soon after the initial thoughts, or as part of the initial thoughts – if you think about it, that’s not so unlikely – they are very different in scope.
Some writers shy away from reading fiction when they’re immersed in writing a novel because they feel they’re too susceptible to other people’s prose styles. Others say they read books that counteract their own stylistic weaknesses. While in the midst of a project, Walker Percy, one of my favorite writers, returned to some of the books he most admired, like Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky’s novels. “The truly great writing steadies me and puts me on track to do the best I can,” he said.
Do you read fiction while you’re writing? If so, do you gravitate toward particular authors or books?
I don’t read an awful lot while I’m writing because that part of my brain is tired. I also can’t read anything sloppy, because all of my thinking is towards trying to polish and tinker – so I need to read people who present no opportunity for me to pick up faults.
You’ve expressed concern about a “culture of ‘de-fictionalisation,'” partly inspired by reality TV shows, that has led to a spate of mediocre autobiographies and confessional novels. In the Guardian , Fiachra Gibbons quoted your concerns that the “’emotional, human, psychological truth of fiction, its commitment, risk and its ability to break the bounds of reality is devalued and increasingly ignored,'” even as the “‘qualified, edited truth of autobiography, travel, celebrity and sexual reminiscence is valued and given weight, simply because it has some of the trappings of reality.'”
Since you gave a speech on the subject at the Edinburgh book festival in 2001, newspapers and publishers — at least in the U.S. — have devoted even fewer resources to fictional novels, citing reduced demand. Do you think demand actually has fallen, or is this a bunch of hogwash? Would the public still seek out good novels if only they were published and promoted? Or is there actually some sort of lasting cultural shift at work?
Certainly in the UK, there is increased demand, but people are only buying the books they know are there – we have bookshops with far smaller stocks on display and very limited media coverage of very few books – this means we have a sick culture. Add to this the increased fictionalisation of “factual” coverage of events and the increased pressure to redefine words in order to cover political embarrassments or evasions and we live in a world where we can go to war for no reason and many voices seem unable even to form words to discuss why this might be disturbing. Words are here to be enjoyed, to help us, to communicate – they are also here to save lives and to genuinely defend freedom – one of the most abused words in the lexicon.
In the States there’s an ever-widening gap between Evangelical Christians and the rest of the country. You’ve probably heard of Tim LaHaye and his hideous bestselling series of Left Behind books depicting “The Rapture,” that apocalyptic event in which Christ returns to whisk the Faithful away and leaves the Nonbelievers to suffer. It’s easy to mock LaHaye and his teachings — hell, I certainly have — but there’s a tradition in the U.S. of religious extremists like LaHaye. After all, the country was founded by zealots. LaHaye’s the contemporary answer to Cotton Mather, the original Puritan fire-and-brimstone preacher.
There’s something about his apocalyptic message that works on the most fearful among us. LaHaye and his ilk scare people shitless and then offer them the Ultimate Salvation: Christ, and by extension Heaven, and Eternal Life! It’s a false promise, but I wonder: how does the rational world compete with it? And how do we separate fear-based religion from true spirituality?
It seems to me that your fiction engages with some of these questions in a way that most contemporary novelists wouldn’t dare, or at least wouldn’t bother to do. Can you talk a bit about the way you deal with faith and the loss of it in Original Bliss and your other novels?
I’m aware of the situation in the US – mainly because it’s a terrifying cop out on the part of a whole superpower – never mind union laws, never mind the environment, never mind life, let’s get on to the End Times and get raptured up. The identification of wealth with virtue is disturbing, too — although less new. It’s a kind of huge suicide cult, rather than a religion, and certainly has nothing I would identify as Christian about it. Plus, you know you have this position where people are living within the fictions they create, or have been given – “I know you’re telling me facts, but I know my congressman is a Christian and therefore cannot lie.”
It takes facts and accuracy out of the loop and makes everything a proof of faith – the loonier the assertion, the bigger the proof of faith. It’s proof of the power of fiction – especially if you tailor it to flatter people’s spiritual pride and fear, but it’s the black side of the art. I deal in imagination and I am always interested in questions where that imagination brings faith, alters character – or leads to awful acts. Someone, for example, must have imagined sodomising prisoners in Abu Grahib before it happened –you imagine a poem, you get a poem, you imagine rape, you get rape — it’s all coming from the human brain. I don’t like to forget that we have these two sides and I really don’t like the cop out where “God told me to”, or “the devil told me to” – no, YOU told you to. So you’re responsible.
You’ve written some hilarious satirical articles for the Guardian. I’m thinking particularly of the sinus medicine-induced vision of Jesus, wherein He says He’ll return to “rapture up the Good Fortune 500 Christians, then the 144,000 Jews who’ll have converted to me just in time, then the saved’ll get to watch while I kill everybody else. It’ll be cool.”
And I can’t seem to find the link to it now, but I loved your scathing response to Alexander McCall Smith’s denouncement of “miserablism” in contemporary Scottish writing.
Have the Guardian editors ever tried to tone down your editorials? Do you sit down and write them when the anger is fresh, or are you able to put the draft aside, return to it, and call up the outrage anew?
The only quibble I have with the Guardian is when they try to get me to write less about Iraq than I’d like to. They’ve never toned me down. Then again, they do like pieces with edge and, frankly, will publish frothing nonsense, so long as it might annoy someone – so I don’t really sit back and think that my burning truth is irrestible and sweeps me into their pages by right. (Plus, our news climate is still less conservative than yours — although ludicrously hidebound if your read European papers or watch European TV.) I don’t have to wait to be angry — I get news by email for the US/Israel/Sudan/Iraq/etc every day — so I’m angry every day. People dying for no good reasons really annoys me for some reason.
Yeah, the media situation in the States is outrageous. We get the truth, or glimpses of it, from the BBC and the international press, and there are documentaries like Control Room, but for the most part our own press just parrots Bush’s spin doctors. Aside from Seymour Hersh’s articles for The New Yorker and a few decent segments aired in the last three or four months on CBS’ 60 Minutes, there’s very little actual reporting.
It was incredibly demoralizing to get out on the streets and protest with hundreds of thousands of people in New York City last year and then have the media write off the diverse crowd as a group of “young women with green hair, young white men with dreadlocks, self-styled anarchists carrying black flags. . . . people complaining about the ‘corporate media,’ the plight of the Palestinians, capitalism, imperialism and several other isms.” Everything you’ve said about the fictionalization of the news is true, and it’s terrifying. Have you seen Outfoxed? If Bush gets into the White House again, I’m not sure I can stay here.
But on to your new novel, Paradise. It appears in the U.K. in early September. When will we in the U.S. get to see it?
In the Evil Empire, you’ll get to see it in the Spring, I believe. Canada gets it this autumn – because there are fewer Canadian war criminals (ever wanted to take out Irish citizenship – I do all the time ?)
Hey, there’s an idea. I’ve been looking at the application for Canadian residency, but maybe I’ll look into Ireland.
Care to discuss Paradise or any of your current projects?
Um… I’m working on a couple of films, but I can’t discuss them. Paradise is based on the Stations of the Cross – so that’ll get people going in some interesting directions and I suppose it’s an exploration of secular martyrdom. And hopefully it’s funny. Otherwise it would be a bit bleak. It’s dedicated to my mother – which she found out last week, so she’s quite chuffed at the moment. And read the book in a day, which is depressing, because it took much longer than that to write.
Hope that’s a help and hello to all the Nice Americans – I know you’re still out there. One day you’ll get the politicians you deserve.
Thanks so much for agreeing to do this.