If you don’t know of A.L.Kennedy, you should rectify that state of affairs immediately. I first came across her through her column in the Guardian, which is very funny, but she does all sorts of other stuff too – book writing and stand up being the main activities where it’s socially acceptable to follow her movements (although not in a stalker-y way). Yesterday she was at the Edinburgh book festival talking about her new novel, The Blue Book, so I went along to listen.
Kennedy began with a reading from near the start of the book – “it’s page 31. Not much has happened, not much will,” – a passage including the character description, “red shoes and amateur clown hair,” which I loved, although naturally she says it better than I do.
She was then interrupted by an enigmatic lady leaving the auditorium with the chilling words, “I know you from a long time ago.” Not the most traditional of heckles in my experience, so top marks for mystique there, especially as she proceeded to stand in front of the stage repeating the phrase over and over again…
After a second passage, prior to which she explained, “the book speaks to ‘you’ which some people find oppressive or offensive, so sorry… but I think it’s quite nice when somebody talks to you,” Jamie Jauncey asked questions about how the book came to be, as is traditional at these events.
It’s about fake psychics (“stop me if you think the ‘fake’ is redundant,” Kennedy remarked) and took three years of research during which she met some pretty dreadful people. It was inspired, she says, by a desire to find magic that is properly magical.
“If you had the ability to know what someone was thinking, I’ve never understood why you’d want to tell them what card they were thinking of. They weren’t thinking of a card in the first place, you made them think of one.”
Her maternal grandfather (“lovely if you were family, but everyone else was prey”) taught her card tricks, how to play “really aggressive cribbage,” and self-defense.
“The only trouble was, he didn’t tell me what to do next. If you’ve got someone up against in a wall in a half nelson, at some point you’re going to have to let them go. And they’re going to be pretty annoyed. So what do you do?”
He also taught her escapology, which she now suspects was a scheme to relieve her of her milk teeth.
“He used to tie me up,” she says, “and I knew that if you gnawed at the ropes for long enough you’d be able to rat bite out of them…”
Her granddad may have provided some inspiration for the book, but it’s not about him particularly. Whilst she was researching it Kennedy talked – or tried to talk to – a lot of other magicians and mediums. Jauncey asked her about the mention of Derren Brown in the acknowledgements at the end.
“It’s like being sick on someone, to actually ask a magician anything,” she says. “The only thing you can ask them is ‘would you like more tea?’”
What did come out of meeting Brown and others was a sense of how people in the trade use language to persuade the punters to believe in them.
“People are selling language as an infallible means of domination,” she says. Because people want to believe that if they say a spell they can get someone to fall in love with them, or through this medium they can talk to someone they have lost one more time.
“It’s an enormous type of power which is quite corrupting. Derren Brown made a decision quite early on to be kind with it,” she says, which a lot of others don’t do. “Sincerity is the best way of fooling people,” she adds. And sincerity changes – you can tell someone you love them on Tuesday and mean it, and fall out of love with them on the Friday and you’ll be sincere both times. The characters in the book reflect this.
Did meeting with Brown influence the character of Arthur in the book, Jauncey asks. Kennedy shakes her head.
“I can’t use anyone I’ve spoken to for more than twenty minutes, that’s a rule I have. That way you start to pillage your own life, relationships become odd..”
Although from the sounds of it, a lot of the people she met whilst researching this book are ones she wouldn’t want to have a relationship with anyway. She is evidently quite angered by the way mediums pretend to offer a solution to people who are really unhappy about a problem to which there is no solution. In the book Arthur is sort of redeemable in the sense that he doesn’t take advantage of individuals – although he does fleece millionaires.
Is it exhausting inhabiting all of these characters, Jauncey wants to know, because they are very human and so flawed as well as having good points.
“It’s fun being someone else,” she responds. “It’s sitting down acting, not proper acting.”
“I got into writing because I loved reading, and the only thing more intense than reading is writing.”
As a child she used to buy Doctor Who novels because she loved the TV show and thought that by reading the books she would “get to know the Doctor, I would get inside him. I didn’t – those books were terrible. I bought one in a charity shop recently just to see – it was awful.”
There was a brief Q&A at the end which was a little surreal. One lady urged her to breed, which seemed a bit out of the blue but Kennedy managed it with self effacing humour.
“The trouble is that the gentlemen I like resemble me so closely it would be… bad,” she says. “It’d still be in the womb at fifteen months refusing to come out going, ‘I don’t like change!’”
She also touched upon being a suit fetishist (“if you have crushingly low self esteem and an odd body shape, the best thing to do is get someone to draw round you”) before returning to the subject of horrible charlatan mediums.
“If you want to feel ill, get cable and watch Psychic TV,” she says darkly. “Watch women telling other women that he’ll get back in touch in a month with the letter ‘m’ in it and that you just need to keep hoping.”
“When I finished The Blue Book,” Jauncey announces, “I felt seasick for several days afterward.”
I kind of get the impression Kennedy is still feeling that way. I can’t wait to read the book though – genre fiction research be damned.