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When Darkness Turns to Day: A.L. Kennedy Talks About the Process of Writing War and Performing Stand-Up Comedy

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Scottish writer Alison Louise (A.L.) Kennedy's words fall together on the page with such elegant precision, you barely notice how hard she must have worked to get them to that point. Her prose runs the gamut from short stories about love and sex, as in Original Bliss, to non-fiction, such as her acclaimed examination of life and death in On Bullfighting, and her most recent work of fiction, about the post-war life of an RAF tail-gunner, entitled Day.

Since Kennedy has already spent three years traveling the world talking about Day, which hit bookstores in the US in January 2008, and having won the Costa prize for the novel, it felt fitting to focus more attention on her literary process, the feedback she received from critics of her new work, veterans of world wars and her new side gig as a standup comedienne.

How did the idea for Day begin? Was it fueled by world events or something you read?

Three separate things: I was always interested in aerial bombing and when we started doing it in the current Iraqi war, it only meant this was the time to write about it. I always had an interest in looking at war and the parallels of being on the wrong side and being on the right side. So, I wrote a piece about this war and people doing a film about POWs using POWs to reenact it.

Are you structured in the way you breakdown storylines?

No, not really. I do have notes, but I try not to structure things because then they stop being fun and it's quite hard work anyway, so you try to make it fun. I spend a long time preparing to write. I'm preparing the next novel now and I'm working on a book of short stories. I take a long time and after a while I just remember stuff because I've been thinking about it for years and hopefully that way it becomes a bit more organic.

How much research did you do for Day and did you interview veterans?

I didn't interview anyone, I didn't want to. Partly because it's not helpful, because I'm not writing about them, I'm creating someone else. You need more context and then you build the person and put them in the context and see what they would do, so lots of context research and reading quite a few memoirs. I think the thing is I didn't want to sit in a stranger's living room and say, "tell me about the worst experience of your life, this book will make me money and then I'll never see you again. Bye." That just seemed to not be a very good idea and I wouldn't have felt happy with that.

Is your writing experience solitary or do share your work for feedback?

I don't like to give people things that aren't finished. I don't give my editor anything until the final, final, final draft, because you can only read something for the first time once and I want his experience to be as close to the readers as possible. If it's possible for him to get an idea, he'll get it, so you're just trying to help him be the man on the street and I don't want him to say to me, "I've read it five or six times", because no one else is going to do that. I've never been in a community of writers and most people I know are normal and would be bored out of their minds reading multiple versions of something hideous. And why do that to somebody, it's kind of like giving them nude photos of yourself.

Are you a writer that mentally edits in your head before the sentences end up on paper?

If I haven't been able to write for a long time it will come out in a form slight more cooked. If I've just been sitting there with free time on my hands and know that I have a thing to write towards it comes out, bluhhh. But I write multiple, multiple drafts. Sometimes I'll go in and revise a sentence and go out of the document. Sometimes I'll go back through and rewrite what I did the day before or until it's the best I can do. Or I'll do a rewrite of the section. Or I'll get 100 pages in and do a big hard rewrite. You have to make big horrible mistakes in order to learn how to make something better.

At what point do you know the ending to your stories? Has it ever changed over the course of your writing?

Sometimes I know the end and I don't know how I'm going to get there. Sometimes I don't have any idea. With Day, I had no idea of the ending. You just know when you have enough of the stuff to start. You get a critical mass of things that belong together. But I can't tell you how I know they belong together - is it smell, is it taste, do you see it? I don't know, but you know instinctually. It's like falling in love, "oh yeah, I want that one, but not that one."

At what point did standup comedy come into the equation? Is it different or elementally the same as writing and do you think it's changed your writing?

I don't know if it's changed my writing, I think that'll take a long time to show. I think I'm less patient, because with comedy it's instantaneous and you have to get at least one laugh really quickly. You do rely on audience mood to guide you and that has carried over into the reading of my stories and novels, especially with Day, because so much of it is dialogue, it's a little like acting. With some novels, the story just unfurls and you can sit back, but not with this one.

Elementally, it's still telling stories to people. Trying to do your best to give them what they want - the game is to have fun, so you try to give them that. It's still about words.

What does the dedication of Day, Tha Moran An So, translate to?

It's Scottish Gallic and it means, "There is too much here." Because it's a big book about people where too much has happened to them and they can't take any more pain.

Did you receive any comments or feedback from veterans after the book was published?

Yes, and it was entirely positive, but also a little disturbing. I thought it would be too negative a picture and I just didn't know, but I met a pilot who knew I was writing a book and he told me a horrific story that ended up in the book and I almost didn't put it in because it was so personal to him, but it was the story he chose to tell me and that's what he wanted me to know and remember.

I met one man who said, "I am Alfred Day [the book's title character]." This man came from the same area as the character and trained in the same position and he said," I felt like Alfred and I still feel that like him about the war 60 years later and I don't want anyone to have to go through that and feel like I feel."

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