On meeting A.L. Kennedy during Tartan Bites week

Early last month I found myself, for the first and no doubt the last time, sipping whiskey in the second-floor bar at the National Arts Club.

Actually, I got my drink and retreated to the room adjacent to the one where the book critics were mingling. (The better to avoid that favored smirking question of blog detractors: “So, are you working on a novel taken from/inspired by/written in the same tone as your, ahem, website?”)

There I studied the paintings, bric-a-brac, and fancy furniture, and admired the nice view, and I tried to work up the nerve to go over and introduce myself to A.L. Kennedy. She’s one of my literary heroes. I showed up at the Tartan Bites event because I was told she would be there.

Soon I was joined by another, equally nonplussed attendee, who turned out to be someone with whom I’ve corresponded. We stood together, looking around the room, until the Scottish Book Trust people came over to put us at ease. (You’ve got to love a country that has an entire national agency “committed to the promotion of reading and books.”)

As the organizers introduced themselves, two young Scottish writers, Rodge Glass (author of No Fireworks and a forthcoming secretary’s biography of Alasdair Gray) and Alan Bissett (The Incredible Adam Spark), showed up, slightly flustered and apologizing for their tardiness. Glass, who’d made a quick run to his hotel to track down some pants for Bissett,* was fresh from a subway theft involving a “really quite insistent Metrocard stealer.”

He said he was terrified to meet Kennedy, too, so we walked up and introduced ourselves together, and I’m posting this at his urging. He emailed last week to say: “I see you may have backed out of writing up your meeting with ALK – more nerves? Someone so self-deprecating couldn’t be that scary, could they?”

Writing about meeting Kennedy is a daunting prospect not so much because she’s intimidating — despite her wit and allergy to bullshit, she’s completely approachable — but because I’m incapable of conveying how unpretentious and drily, spontaneously funny she is in person. The people who’ve claimed (as in the Herald article quoted at TEV) that she doesn’t have the knack for stand-up comedy must have spent the week before her show sucking on sour balls.

She and I talked for ten minutes at most, but when I walked away my stomach muscles were cramped from laughing.

“I only agreed to come on this trip because I needed more material,” she told me. “I just didn’t expect to get so much.” Try as I might, though, I can’t reconstruct her anecdotes about a delayed flight out of Amsterdam, surviving literary events, or how manic her readings have become now that she’s doing stand-up. I begged her to perform her comedy routine in New York, and she said she would. Sometime.

Anyhow, here’s the news Kennedy fans are waiting for: her latest novel, Day, is about a WWII bomber pilot. It will be published, if memory serves, sometime early next year. She said she finished writing it ages ago. I asked if she still likes her books by the time they’re published. She said no.

I laughed. “So how long does it take before you start to loathe a book you’ve written?”

She smiled grimly. “About thirty seconds after I finish writing,” she said.

You can listen to Kennedy and fellow Scottish writers Richard Holloway and Janice Galloway talking with Leonard Lopate in the WNYC archives.

* No denim is allowed at the National Arts Club; lycra, halter tops, sundresses, and jogging suits are also verboten. Luckily I’d decided against my usual hand-me-down Levis in favor of a frowzy old gray skirt I found on the floor of my closet that morning. (Some people never learn.)


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