The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Alan Kennedy

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Alan Kennedy

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Summary: Jill thought that Lucy was a vivid, clever story of love, art, war and missed opportunities. She and author Alan Kennedy had quite a bit to chat about when he popped into Bookbag Towers.
Date: 19 November 2014
Interviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy

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Jill thought that Lucy was a vivid, clever story of love, art, war and missed opportunities. She and author Alan Kennedy had quite a bit to chat about when he popped into Bookbag Towers.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Alan Kennedy: All my books have the same cast of characters and these individuals have become very real to me. I know their habits, their cast of thought, their idiosyncrasies. Like good friends, they sometimes do things that take me by surprise, but I always understand why in retrospect. So I imagine readers who care about these people, if not quite as much as me, at least enough to wish them well. I imagine readers who fear for my characters and want things to come out alright for them - even when they guess they probably won’t.

  • BB: What were your inspirations for Lucy?

AK: My first full length novel The Boat in the Bay was about my own childhood. It started out as an autobiography, although I eventually found that uncomfortable – many of the players being still alive. It turned out easier to wrap things up in a kind of Arthur Ransome pastiche. For many of my wartime generation, Ransome was extremely consoling. Anyway, most autobiographies are a kind of elevated fiction. I tried to emulate Ransome’s oblique “inconsequential” prose style and got lashed for it by impatient readers - stories that uncoil that slowly being well out of fashion now.

To get to the inspiration for Lucy, I was one of three brothers, and this posed problems finding parallels with Ransome’s two-boys-plus-two-girls recipe. What to do about the missing girls? I was the middle boy, close to my mother - perhaps the girl child she never had - so I was not too unhappy in that first book to inhabit the psyche of the character of the rather fretful, slightly hysterical, Laura. Which left me to invent someone to fill the gap left by Ransome’s fourth character: the girl he called Titty. She is by far his most complex and vulnerable creation. There is, of course, a real-life model in one of the daughters of Dora Collingwood – Ransome’s first love. But there is lot of Ransome’s own daughter Tabitha in the character, the little girl he effectively abandoned when he left his first wife. He was extremely disappointed when she told him she thought his books boring (which I suppose shows him to be surprisingly naïve). This complicated, tormented character – half fiction half fact – is the inspiration for the person who grew up to be the Lucy of my novel. Of course, Lucy was a child prodigy and that is not at all a Ransome theme. I have a professional interest in the “curse of precocious talent.” That twist to Lucy’s character gave me the means to escape Ransome’s grip in the book that came next, The Broken Bell.

  • BB: Your books follow the same characters. Are there particular themes that tie them together?

AK: There’s a tendency in a lot of modern literature to see growing up simply in terms of sex. But growing up is also about leaving the world of play behind, which is an equally agonizing experience. For almost everyone it is also a permanent experience - although, curiously, that seems not to have been so for some truly great artists. In the modern era, Benjamin Britten never really grew up; neither did Pablo Picasso. So far as I understand it, neither did Mozart. But the rest of us spend a good part of our lives looking back - hoping to recapture that playful, imaginative mode of existence. Hoping and failing. That’s why I write a lot about painting – it is the theme that binds things together. Art versus reality is just another way of talking about play versus work – the only big problem that life throws at us and one that most of us don’t solve. I have the advantage over my readers in that I know more or less exactly what life holds in store for all my characters – and it is not invariably benign. This knowledge leaks out, foreshadowing things, whether I intend it or not. Since I’ve admitted that the persona of Laura is close to my own, it would not be giving too much away to say that she has a pretty tough time of things. Given we believe in the persistence of personal identity, the reader must surely wonder whether all those traumatic things had lasting effects. I’m always asking myself the same question!

  • BB: Will we ever meet Lucy again?

AK: Certainly. We’ll meet them all again. And again. I am really writing one very long novel in which the same characters intersect and even in some cases confront the same events, albeit from very different points of view and on different timescales. I know this has been done before (what hasn’t?) but not very often with such an explicit focus on childhood precursors. That said, I don’t think we’ll ever see the world through Lucy’s eyes again – she has had her time in the limelight. Lucy was a first-person narrative, pretty close to a stream of consciousness, and I think it will be a while before I pretend to be a woman again! I am going to explore the character of “Ian” in my next novel. In Lucy he floats about in the background and it’s not very clear what he’s up to, apart from the fact that it’s a war secret and he’s a figure with inexplicable authority. He seems to be involved in Lucy’s life but even she is unaware of exactly how and to what extent. All is explained in the next novel. Up to a point.

  • BB: We came away from Lucy feeling that starvation and propaganda are two of the most vicious weapons of war. Would you agree?

AK: I’m not sure about that. I guess real bullets are even worse. But there are so many thousands of books about soldiers and battles; I wanted to look at the other side of the coin – people trying to go about their ordinary humdrum lives when all the things necessary for that have disappeared. Researching for the novel I re-read Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Francaise. It is an incredibly moving account of the terrible ordinariness of war-time horror. I think Marcel Ophüls’ film The Sorrow and The Pity (banned for years in France) should be compulsory viewing for any in the present generation who hold a romantic view of resistance in occupied France; for those who don’t even know that for many French people, fearful of communist revolution, Nazi occupation seemed the lesser evil. Not that I’m in a position to judge: we’ll never know what life in occupied England would have been like, but my guess is much the same. What is so shocking is not so much what German people did to French people, as what we all seem capable of doing to each other. The vicious dog-eat-dog struggle to stay alive, particularly in rural areas of France, left a lasting scar. It’s curious how we still make a distinction between civilian and military losses in war, as if the former are somehow unintended. The countless millions who died in WWII were, of course, nearly all civilians. Or “innocent” civilians as the newspapers like to say – as if there were some other sort.

  • BB: Where and how do you write?

AK: When I was a fully paid up academic psychologist I kept office hours and I can’t really shake off the habit. So the deplorable truth is I sit at my desk most of the day. “Deplorable” because I live in such a lovely part of France. I am surrounded by a bewitching landscape that can’t have changed much in 500 years. Alas, I write extremely slowly so I need all those hours sitting down. But there is Caesar, of course: Weimaraners need a lot of exercise so I do get to set foot outside.

  • BB: What would be your desert island book?

AK: Only one? I tend to get through about two novels a week - making the question impossible. I think I’d have to settle for Ransome’s Pigeon Post – in the hope that I could finally work out how the old boy did it.

  • BB: If you had to choose: Britain or France?

AK: It hardly matters. I live in France, but I work in Dundee. Thank god for broadband! I exchange electronic words with my colleagues every day, allegedly in Dundee, although frequently they also turn out to be there only in spirit, their bodies being in San Diego or Sydney. For thirty years I divided my life between France and Scotland, watching the ups and downs of the two. France is rather down at the moment – it’s particularly grim for students. I am sometimes nostalgic for the endless political debates we used to have in the 70s and 80s, when the students didn’t have a job but their parents did. Now nobody has a job and it’s all become a bit sour. If current cravings for a strong leader in France get too insistent, perhaps the choice will shift back to Britain. Not Scotland, though. Or at least, not Dundee - it’s far too cold.

  • BB: If you had to choose: writing or psychology? (Sorry! That might be a bit unfair!)

AK: Well I could hardly earn a living writing fiction. Who can? It’s psychology that puts food on the table and I am grateful to her for that. In any case, Freud had such a profound influence on literature you could say the debt runs both ways. Actually, I think psychology informs my fiction a little bit – perhaps most obviously in The Pink House – so I really don’t have to make a choice. One thing you notice about writing of any kind is that (generally) you get better at it simply by doing it. As a psychologist I find that process rather mysterious. Were I young again I would want to research the topic because in many domains you rarely get better as you grow older, however hard you try.

  • BB: What's next for Alan Kennedy?

AK: I’ve just finished Oscar & Lucy – An Autobiographical Biography. A mixture of very personal reflections on my own early days as a novice psychologist, terrified of virtually everything; reflections on psychology, a discipline that appears perversely determined to ignore its primary subject; and reflections on Oscar, my old Professor in Melbourne, a terrifying chap who turned out to have quite an extraordinary history. He worked in Germany with Erich Jaensch (Hitler’s favourite psychologist); spent four years as a Bletchley Park code-breaker; dined with the Cambridge Four; knew Ian Fleming well; led a commando raid on Hitler’s Berghof; and finally organised the British part of the psychological process known as de-Nazification in post-war Germany. Quite a catalogue. Oscar spent a few years as a lecturer in St Andrews just before WWII; in fact, I was appointed to the same post exactly thirty years later. His Dundee exploits prompted me to set part of my novel there (I’m rather unkind to my adopted city in Lucy, but it really was a pretty dreadful place at that time). It’s a very short book – otherwise it would have been extremely long – and is due out in mid-November. Then I have given myself a year to finish the next novel. No title as yet, but, as I said, it is the story of little Ian, fully grown up and no longer playing at sandcastles. He is quite an engaging character in the early novels, but he has his dark side.

  • BB: That's fascinating, Alan - plenty for us to look forward to there. Thanks for chatting to us.

You can read more about Alan Kennedy here.

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Siobhan MacAndrew said:

I loved 'Oscar and Lucy' and wonder what you think?

I notice that you have spoken to Kennedy before - but as you can see below 'Oscar' is a very different book ...

here's my review for Amazon ...

A surprising story from a surprising man

‘Revelatory’ doesn’t even come close for this reader. This book documents the discovery of personal and national secrets on a grand scale. Still more satisfying is that this is one eminent researcher applying his gifts to investigate the life and work of another.

Especially intriguing for me is that I am a former student from Kennedy’s own Psychology Department in the University of Dundee. Thus I found this intensely private man transformed on the page from an elder statesman of his field to a tentative yet dedicated young man trusting to fate to realise his aspirations. Times being as they were he also had to accommodate to the whims of senior academic figures. Since I have come to know him as a senior figure himself I can report he no longer demonstrates this characteristic.

His respect for those who went before him is palpable and he writes with understanding and compassion about the protagonists. He is tough on himself and his own decisions and gives huge credit for those who taught and employed him. After a lifetime as a professional writer Kennedy’s prose is elegant and easy to read. I bounded through the book in a few hours often open mouthed at what it contained.

This book will appeal to those interested in History of Science, Psychology, the ‘life scientific’, local history, the relationship between academics and WWII (and of course former and current Psychology students of the University of Dundee).

As for me? I am touched not only by what I have discovered about Kennedy as a person, educator and academic but also by the history of the department in which I studied. I walk taller as a result.

best wishes

Siobhan