Night into day
IF BOTH the bookmakers and most of literary Britain are right, just after 10 o'clock tonight, novelist AL Kennedy will be declared the overall winner of this year's Costa Book Awards. To most authors, the cheers from publishers, the smiling faces of the judges and awards presenter Mariella Frostrup, the 25,000 cheque, and the applause from the 500 guests in the Ballroom at London's Intercontinental Hotel – would be the stuff of dreams.
But Alison Louise Kennedy isn't most authors. To say this Dundee-born writer has an ambiguous relationship with fame is as much of an understatement as saying that four year-old girls don't, as a rule, bounce eagerly into the dentist's chair and invite the attentions of syringe and drill.
That said, she's bought a new suit to wear tonight because, even if she doesn't win the main prize, she will pick up a 5,000 cheque for her novel Day, a singularly intense and brilliantly realised story of a Second World War tailgunner on a Lancaster bomber, which has been chosen above 150 others as Costa Novel of the Year.
And she knows too exactly what winning the main Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year award could do for her career. Even though she has a pathological fear of flying, she still caught the redeye from New York last night and will, whatever tonight's result, be heading back there first thing tomorrow morning to give a reading with Roddy Doyle tomorrow night.
Yet where so many of her colleagues would quite happily linger in the spotlight of fame, all Kennedy's instincts seem to back sharply away from it.
"It's really nothing to do with me," she mumbled into the microphone while accepting the first of eight literary awards she has received in Scotland – for her debut collection of short stories in 1991. Talking about the surreally rapturous audience response to her readings from Day in Germany last year, precisely the same phrase crops up. This sounds phoney – Calvinist modesty pushed to extremes. But to Kennedy being applauded, as she will be tonight, for something she started working on four years ago and is already forgetting, just feels slightly absurd.
"What makes it even odder," she says, "is that writing doesn't always feel like an individual effort; you've spent a lot of time trying to get yourself out of the way so that you can try to bring these characters to life in the first place. And it's just not helpful to have any idea of yourself and your 'greatness' because as a writer you've never got to come between the story and the reader. That's got to be as transparent as possible."
So, if she is the one who PRs will be gently tugging to lead off to the television interviews tomorrow night, she won't be basking in the applause. The only writers who would are those who love themselves rather too much. And not even any of AL Kennedy's fiercest critics could accuse her of that.
THROUGHOUT THE 1990s, journalists would trudge up the steps to Kennedy's Glasgow attic apartment and write about the strange, ascetic-looking, hyper-intelligent (a First in drama at Warwick) young woman who lived in it. They'd mention the videos of executions and torture on her shelves, her small collection of ceramic eyeballs and prosthetic limbs.
Into their notebooks, along with this menagerie of pain, would go variations on the theme of the tortured artist: insomniac, barely solvent, in continual physical pain from an undiagnosed slipped disc (now much better thanks to tai chi) and constant emotional distress from either failed relationships or unbearable loneliness. Even then, some things were apparent to any interviewer. The passion with which she talked about the need to support people with special needs or those who'd slipped through the welfare net (from 1988-1995 she ran workshops for them with the Glasgow organisation Project Ability). The mordantly self-deprecating, self-pitying wit with which she dissected the miserableness of the writer's life. Her honesty, her pacifism; the laconic asides and dangerous edge to her prose. They'd note her fiction's constant fascination with extreme pain and hurt, and wonder to what extent its roots lay in Kennedy's emotionally troubled childhood in Dundee, where she was born in 1965, and her strained relationship with her father, who was a psychology professor, after her parents divorced when she was 11.
And, though Kennedy frequently mocked on her website their prolific profiles, shooting down even attempts at praise with a barrage of withering put-downs, these portraits at least mirrored some of the fiction she was writing: dark, bleak, obsessive studies of profoundly dysfunctional relationships that were also shot through with a lacerating, cold-eyed intelligence.
The only non-fiction book Kennedy published in that decade, 1999's On Bullfighting, spelled out that her mental anguish even more revealingly. In it she wrote of how, wracked by pain in her neck, still grieving for her beloved maternal grandfather, and having lost the will to write, she got out of the window of her fourth-floor flat and was about to jump to her death. Fortunately, she heard someone in a nearby flat singing Mhairi's Wedding ("step we gaily, on we go"). Distracted, she chose life.
Catherine Lockerbie, now director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival but then books editor of The Scotsman, was one of Kennedy's earliest and most consistent supporters. Long before Kennedy was voted one of Britain's 20 best young writers in the literary magazine Granta's now celebrated list in 1995 (uniquely, she was on its 2005 list too), Lockerbie was championing her in our books pages – despite being sternly ordered by one editor not to be so fulsome in her praise. ("If she wins tonight," she says, "I'm going to send him a postcard with just three words on it: Told You So").
"Alison is one of the most intellectually courageous women I know," says Lockerbie. "She takes more risks than just about any writer. Right from the start, there's been a constant fascination with extreme pain and the hurt that people inflict on each other. Other writers deal with this, of course, but Alison writes at the extreme edge of it, going as far as she possibly can to understand it, sometimes it seems almost to relive it."
That sensitivity, empathy and imagination have always allowed Kennedy to take readers deep inside the minds of damaged characters, but in Day she also brilliantly conveys the wider traumas of the war against Nazi Germany. Even if it doesn't win the main award tonight – Simon Sebag Montefiore's masterly biography of Stalin's early years is its closest rival – Day stands unchallenged as the most potent Scottish war novel of the new century.
Yet for all her literary success (in November she became the first Scottish writer to win the prestigious American Lannan award, worth 75,000), some of Kennedy's key ambitions for 2008 don't involve novels at all.
For a start, there's stand-up comedy, a career move that none of those 1990s profile-writers could have ever predicted: as well as various other gigs, she can usually be found at the Stand venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the first week of every month. She's also working on new short stories and three films, including an adaptation of Day with the writer of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Somehow she also manages to find time to be Warwick's associate professor of creative writing: colleagues and students at a similar course she ran at St Andrews without exception eulogise her teaching ability.
But the main reason tonight's awards matter so much to her are that a win would push open the door just a little further on two projects she'd love to do more than anything else.
First, to write Doctor Who. She's entirely serious about this, having been a fan of the series ever since she was four. "I write asking them every six months, and I get increasingly high-ranking reject letters, each time explaining there's nothing they can do, and it's all down to (series writer] Russell T Davies."
Second, to write a play for the RSC. She's already finished the second draft of a play – on the subject of torture – for them, and hopes to find out soon whether they'll be staging it in 2009. For theatre is Kennedy's first and deepest love. This is a woman who, as a 14-year-old at Dundee High, would save up all her money to go down to Stratford on overnight buses, and there do without all food apart from breakfast to get tickets for the RSC's summer repertoire.
So there are circumstances in which applause won't embarrass her in the slightest. "If everything goes well and the RSC puts on my play and I can sit in the dark in an audience where nobody knows who I am and see a fantastic performance that makes my stuff look really good – well yes, that would be one of the best things."
The story so far: books by A L Kennedy
NIGHT GEOMETRY AND THE GARSCADDEN TRAIN (1990)
The "night geometry" is the angles the bodies of a married couple make, asleep in the conjugal bed; the Garscadden trains could symbolise the small lives of people who never make the headlines. Kennedy's debut collection of short stories, published when she was only 25, had an originality and skill that established her reputation.
SO I AM GLAD (1995)
Cyrano de Bergerac meets cold-hearted newsreader in 1990s Glasgow? Like Day (see below), it's hard to imagine anyone else successfully pulling this off. An Encore Award and a Saltire Book of the Year award are testament to the fact that Kennedy's second novel did just that.
Visceral portrait of self-loathing alcoholic Hannah Luckraft, on a mission to rescue her lover, who is holed up in a Canadian clinic. As ever with Kennedy, the internal voice is perfectly captured, here shot through with loneliness, vulnerability and a deliciously dark sense of humour. Drunkenly slithering towards the edge of her own life she may be, but Luckraft is also able to skewer the foibles and pretentiousness of those she meets along the way.
Multi-layered, time-shifting story about Alfred Day, Staffordshire-born tailgunner on a Lancaster bomber flying missions against Nazi Germany. Although the story takes us completely and vividly into his mind, Kennedy broadens her range here to take in the camaraderie of the crew and gives a convincingly real portrait of the air war.
Day's experience of war is so singular – after it, for example, he volunteers to be an extra in a British film about prisoners of war in Germany – that it breaks away from all the clichs of Second World War fiction. But the same could be said of many of the truly great, enduring works of war fiction, from Slaughterhouse 5 to Catch-22.
Stylistically a virtuoso performance, Kennedy's Day belongs in that rarefied company.
It has already won major awards in Germany, Austria, and the took top spot in the best novel of the year category in the Costa awards. It fully deserves to win tonight's main prize.