‘At sentence level, I am ruthless’: In Conversation with Louise Kennedy
Ahead of her event on 15 October at Cheltenham Festival, ‘The Sunday Times Must Reads: Louise Kennedy’, Wasafiri talked to author Louise Kennedy, whose collection of short stories, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (Bloomsbury) was released earlier this year to rave reviews. Termed ‘dazzling’ and ‘outstanding’, Kennedy’s debut is throughly engrossing, interrogating universal, desperate situations – poverty, toxic marriages, sick children – with honesty and depth. Kennedy draws her characters so vividly into life that a single page can contain both heartbreak and laughter. It’s bare-boned and beautiful; as Joanne Hayden said in her review for The Independent, ‘A line of dialogue can reveal an entire history’.
Wasafiri was particularly excited for this interview, given that Louise Kennedy was a winner in the 2015 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, with her short story ‘A Suitable Family’. Since we last profiled her in 2017, she’s undergone a nine-publisher bidding war, been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award twice, written a novel and finished her PhD. We were delighted to talk about the journey she’s been on in the last few years, how she works, what we can do to support older emerging artists, and what’s coming next.
The End of the World is a Cul de Sac is a stunning debut – how did this collection come about, and what was the drafting process? When did you know it was finished?
Thank you! Partway through my MA year at Queens University Belfast, I wrote a story set on one of the Anglo-Irish estates that still occupy swathes of the Irish countryside. It featured a disillusioned girlfriend, a sleazy gamekeeper and a fey hare. I had written several short stories before and never felt I had done more than scratch at an emotional truth, but I could see in the first draft that something new had happened: I had settled on voice and tone in the first line and held my nerve all the way to the last, and the landscape was doing much more than serve as a location. I called it ‘Hunter-gatherers’. With subsequent stories, I worked hard at paying attention to those elements and kept going. It wasn’t until I was approached by Eleanor Birne, who is now my lovely and brilliant agent, that I realised I had the makings of a collection. The drafting process is the vast majority of the work. I don’t really separate structural edits from line edits, as I like to clean as I go, possibly a hangover from my years as a chef. At sentence level I am ruthless and find that being deep in the text exposes all sorts of problems.
How does the writing process differ from writing a novel? Has the process for your upcoming book Trespasses presented different challenges?
So many things have felt different about writing a novel! For the stories, I began with a line or an image or, rarely, an idea, often something slight and almost intangible. Each story had false starts and required many different approaches until I found the point from which I could launch it. And each one accumulated its own set of rules. ‘Gibraltar’, for example, required both the illusion of randomness and strict discipline; ‘In Silhouette’ has a very rigid structure. With the novel, I was terrified to approach it in my usual way, fearing it would take years of feeling around, figuring out whose story it was, and that I might never finish it. But matters were kind of taken out of my hands in March 2019, when I was diagnosed with melanoma. I reeled about for a few days. Then I said, ‘Fuck this. I’m going to write a novel.’ By 2 June I had 67,000 words of what could charitably called a first draft.
You’ve called yourself ‘a northern writer with a small N’ – how important is your identity to your work? Do you think that there are things that come with being from the north of Ireland that uniquely affect your writing and thinking?
I do not deliberately drag my identity to the desk every day, but it turns up. I grew up a Catholic in a small, mostly Protestant town on the shores of Belfast Lough in the seventies. My childhood had a lot in common with that of children in the UK and, in a different sense – the rest of Ireland. But it was stressful in a way I did not understand until later; my generation were reared by nervous wrecks. My family moved to the south when I was 12, my parents having sold the idea to us kids that we were going to some sort of promised land. But in my experience, the south of Ireland in 1979 was a dreary theocracy and there was a deep suspicion of anyone from over the border. I have lived in all four provinces; my Irishness just is. It was probably only when people began to react to the stories that I saw how my being from the north informs my view of the world. The grim humour and anxiety, a kind of cheery nihilism, are, I think, very northern. And so is the unease in my characters’ relationship with place.
You’ve also said that you only started writing at 47 – do you feel like the industry overlooks emerging older writers? Did it affect you?
As far as getting published is concerned, absolutely not. My work was the subject of a 9 way auction and not even one of the editors I spoke to had reservations about my age. All, in fact, revelled in it. That is not to say there is not ageism in some aspects of the industry. Those lists of under 30s and under 40s are terribly unfair, I think, as are the prizes that exclude people over a certain age. There are so many reasons why people, especially women, don’t get to write until they are older… they were skint/busy/tired/scared, perhaps. It makes sense to recognise ‘new’ writers, rather than ‘young’.
In a similar vein, how do you think we as a community can support those who come to writing at a later stage in their life?
Recently, someone justified a new prize for women writers under 35 by saying that older people are more likely to be financially secure. I laughed out loud. A few months after I started writing, the restaurant I ran with my husband collapsed and I found myself, at 47, on the dole for the first time. We had two children, mortgage arrears, negative equity and no credit, going weeks without central heating as we could not afford oil. How precisely I was less worthy of support than a 29 year-old with a job, no debt and no dependents I would love to know. Some older writers need financial assistance; without awards from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2017 and 2020 I could not have kept going. Some need space and time to write, in the form of retreats and residencies. Some need courses, workshops, professional development. What none of them need is to be told, ‘sure you’re grand, love. Now step away from the desk so we can help that young one’.
It’s amazing to think that six years ago we were celebrating your win of the 2015 New Writing Prize, and now you’re speaking about an acclaimed debut at Cheltenham – one of the most popular mainstream festivals in the UK. How does it feel?
For a long time, it felt that nothing was happening. I worked away at the stories and was thrilled when one was published or won a contest. I suppose two game-changers happened in 2019: being signed by Eleanor Birne, and making the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award shortlist. Things went a little mad for a while, and settled down after the utterly wonderful Alexis Kirschbaum at Bloomsbury bought my books. Then the pandemic happened. I freaked out for a while, like everyone else, then I finished a PhD, finished the stories and now I’ve finished the novel. I am blessed that my great friend Una Mannion – we started writing on the same day, in the same room – had her brilliant first novel, A Crooked Tree, published by Faber in January. She helped me through my pre-publication nervous breakdown. And The End of the World is a Cul de Sac came out in lockdown, which protected me from scary live stuff. I grew to enjoy putting on make-up and getting traumatised via Zoom a few times a week at my kitchen table.
What are you reading right now? What’s captured your imagination?
Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground should be read by anyone who wants to understand the north of Ireland. My friend Garrett Carr (author of The Rule of the Land, another essential book, about walking the border in Ireland) gave me Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. It is top of the pile beside my bed. Jan Carson’s forthcoming novel The Raptures is, so far, touching and bloody hilarious. I loved Raven Leilani’s Luster. On Audible, I’m listening to Kink, an anthology of short fiction about desire, edited by Garth Greenwell and R O Kwon. I’m finding it fascinating and not remotely erotic. Maybe I’m getting old.
The writing world can seem like a monolith sometimes, and one that can be difficult to try and enter into. Do you have any advice that could help writers who feel like they’re coming from the margins?
I often see people on social media complaining about their literary rejections and bemoaning the success of other writers. Sally Rooney, in particular, is the subject of a lot of this sort of nonsense. So my advice is: One may well be an undiscovered genius, but one’s time would be way better spent with the head down, learning one’s craft, than shit-talking writers who are talented, hard-working, and classy in the face of begrudgery. Do the work and keep sending it out. Editors are only dying to sign new writers.
And finally, what’s next for you? Have you got any new projects or ideas brewing?
Uncannily, I wrote a few thousand words of a second novel in August and found out a few weeks ago the melanoma is back. I am currently making a deal with god, to paraphrase Kate Bush, that I will might get to write another novel, become a granny (not too soon, kids) and have even a modicum of craic every single day.
Louise Kennedy will be discussing her book, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (Bloomsbury, £14.99) at Cheltenham Literature Festival on 15th October. You can buy tickets here. Her debut novel, Trespasses, is out in 2022 via Bloomsbury.
Feature image courtesy of Bloomsbury.