A.L.Kennedy Interview

Questions for A.L.Kennedy on the novel Paradise by Liu Mei Cheng, Yuko Miyawaka, Keiko Nagano, Tomoko Takeda, Satoki Umezawa, Ayaka Wada, Yasuhiro Wakai

Tokyo University 30/01/06

Would a Scottish reader understand the meaning of ‘Mo run geal og’ (my fair young love)?  Do you include it here because the song is dedicated as a funeral song?  Or because this song has political or any other specific relevance to the reading of Paradise?  These words are offered as part of the book – how are they significant?

Not too many readers would understand it – but the Gaels would. And it’s a very well-known song, so easy to find, should they wish to make the effort. It’s not something without which you wouldn’t understand the book. It began as a dedication on “Everything You Need” and there is a translation of part of the song in the book – it’s a lament for a dead love, not just any dead person and that was important there. It then also seemed to suit “Indelible Acts”. I used it again for this book because she begins to associate paleness, these fugitive flashes of white, or of nakedness, or visions of a swan with her love, so it almost folded into the book because I knew it would be there.

When we looked up the 14 stations of the cross the book seemed unconnected in a systematic way with the 14 stations (though events could be forced to fit).  Could you tell us more about this structure? 

Yes, the book is based on that structure. I hope without forcing, but without it being too obvious. Again, I couldn’t assume that people would know the stations, so the book has to work without them. I like the inevitability of any martyrdom, the associations with wine and Christianity, the idea of the spiritual piercing something secular through extremity.

Why is Hannah a Catholic?  Does the structure determine elements in the story, or do character and plot always come first?

I specifically say that she’s not a Catholic – if you refer to the carol service, she doesn’t know what’s going on. The structure has to be symapthetic to character and plot, if there’s a very set stucture, then it has to appear very early and be very sympathetic – which is what happened here.

There don’t seem to be many fictional characters who are dentists.  Why is Robert a dentist?  Could he have been a doctor or a lawyer?

I liked the idea of an alcoholic dentist – more scary in a way, more regularly met than a surgeon, or a pilot. Statistically, they also have very high levels of alcoholism.

Robert has a traumatic experience to motivate his drinking, but there seems no clear motive for Hannah.  Why is that?  If looking for a motive changes the way we read the book, is that a good thing?

I wanted her to have no “motive”. Alcoholism is a disease – you don’t need a motive for a disease – this isn’t Hollywood. In life, things happen without your knowing why, bewliderment is part of the picture – I’d rather go with life than Hollywood.

Who is the bartender in Chapter 12?  He seems to know a lot, and appears to be a meaningful character.  Yet he is introduced to the story very suddenly, and leaves us as puzzled as Hannah.

If you pay attention to his description, it corresponds to Hannah’s idea of God – much earlier in the book. If you don’t pay attention, I can’t really help it – although what he says does suggest who he is and he does give a clear reference to Matthew “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  He has been interpreted as Demonic, which may work as well for the readers who thought that. He appears at a point where Hannah is already mostly out of her mind, so you won’t get huge clarity, beyond the spiritual.

The man Hannah may or may not meet who gives her the train tickets is called Matt Duchamps.  This suggests Marcel Duchamp, who played with false and real names when signing his famous sculpture of a urinal.  Robert Gardener has a made-up name (and may be made up by Hannah).  In fact, by the end of Paradise the reader is free to interpret the information in the train scenes in any way they want.  Are you influenced or inspired by post-modern art and how do you feel about this type of close analysis as a way of reading your novels? 

It may suggest Marcel Duchamp to you, that’s fine. I wasn’t go there. I was writing a book about an alcoholic – it’s not really going to be honest to let you get away with only her quite ofetn rosy view of what is an unpleasant reality. I also wanted to take you to a point where you might actually share her experience of a bad, florid  blackout – which is why you don’t know what of the end is real. You also can’t know, because she doesn’t know and it’s a first person narrative. So it’s a psychological decision and decision driven by subject matter. Post-modern art gives me a pain. Close analysis is fine, but it will tend to get further and further from the book – it becomes a demonstration of how clever the reader can get – not quite about reading. All readers views of a book will be different, sometimes very different, but taking the trouble to write out all the possible things the writer may have been thinking tends to become absurd quite quckly – it misses the masic principle which would be that a writer constructing a book is building something the reader invests with significance, as they wish. The “close analysis” is just another investment of significance by an individual.

Hannah loses consciousness and gets acquainted with men in bars.  Later she is shown as being loyal to Robert.  In some ways, her salvation lies in a traditional idea of sexual faithfulness.  Do you have a clear moral scale in mind when you’re writing?

I don’t know if her salvation could lie in deciding to be faithful to someone who’s probably incapable of being faithful to her. And she does manage to have sex with someone else as an expression of her faithfulness – which is hardy conventional. I have no moral scale – my characters make their own decisions. My own morality would govern whether I write something I feel is untrue, or whether I abuse the reader, or whether I steal from someone’s life – my relationship with my craft.

Do you think that novels can affect the real world, by influencing the way readers act?  In the last chapter there is a suggestion of infinite repetition, and on the train Hannah loses her sense of identity.  Is this because you wanted to communicate an opinion about alcoholism and where it leads? If this story could happen to anyone, is Paradise supposed to put people off drinking?

I don’t think you can write a book with any hope that it will have the effect you want, in that way. Readers have told me the book put them off drinking, readers have told me it made them want a drink. A few people told me it helped them understand individual people they knew who were alcoholics – I would even have hoped that one, but I was happy it had happened. Again, it’s more about them being ready to understand and having distance from whatever pain was associated with the area.

The mention of the war (in the airplane to Canada) seems abrupt, and also unnatural for Hannah, whose interest before this lies almost solely in drink and her love life.  Why should the war make her desperate?  Did you throw this bit in because you personally oppose the Iraq war?  We also know from your website that you’ve started doing stand-up comedy.  Do you think this filters into Paradise?  Some of Hannah’s drunken riffs at the beginning of the book read like stand-up set-pieces.  Is this intentional?

The mention of the war is abrupt – Hannah is a person capable of missing an entire war. She has no interest in it whatever. It doesn’t then make her any madder than any other news would have, she’s riding for a fall throughout that journey, but she’s not without feeling or intelligence, she knows that war is a bad thing – she just doesn’t have much space for people other than herself. It’s not in so I can say something about the war – I say things about the war all over the place. What she says is what she thinks – something negative taking her down into a black drunk. Paradise is certainly intended to be funny – it would be unbearable if it wasn’t lightened by something. But I’d have to say – because I do stand-up – that her riffs ain’t stand-up. That wouldn’t work on the page and she wouldn’t work on the stage. Different balance of content and delivery, different relationship with the recipient of the words.

You treat author profiles with contempt.  Aren’t they interesting to readers in the same way as a fictional portrait is interesting (even if untrue)?

I object to people saying things are true when they’re not. If the profile was offered as fiction it would be interesting as fiction – it’s offered as fact. I also dislike laziness – most profiles are based an a hurried reading of other profiles. It’s bad, space-filling journalism – cheap, uninformative and a  barrier between the reader and the book and a barrier between people who work in the arts and people who receive them and other artists. Why would I like any of that ? Good author profiles would be interesting – although you’d aonly really get one shot every ten years or so, people don’t usually change that fast. Good writing of any kind is interesting and informative and all kinds of things. I’m objecting to the lack of good writing in UK journalism.

I loved the writing so much I couldn’t come up with any ‘close reading’ questions for you the writer, only for myself and God.  Is this the sign of a successful novel?

In my opinion it’s the sign of a successful reader. You’ve had an experience, it’s made you thoughtful, you’ll deal with that and on to the next experience – that’s nothing to do with me – that’s all the work you did as a reader – now you reward yourself and on we go. (But I think it’s not allowed if you’re studying English – saying “I liked it and now please leave me alone.” Doesn’t get you marks. Which is why I didn’t study English.)