“Just Hold Your Nerve”: An Interview with Louise Kennedy.

Interview by Lily Kuenzler for The Word Factory

Ten minutes before my interview with Louise Kennedy was due to start I get this email from her:

Lily! I’ll be on by ten past, some fucker drank all the milk.

From that moment I knew that I was going to like her. Although this interview covers many moments of darkness, it is important for any reader to know that Louise talks about tragedy and sorrow in much the same way that she approaches the calamity of having no milk for her tea: with humour and lightness. If you have read her work, then it should come as no surprise that Louise is humble, tongue-in-cheek and engaging. Her short story collection The End of the World is a Cul De Sac, published April 2021, has enjoyed both commercial and critical success and saw Louise nominated for the highly esteemed Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award.

The Word Factory: I read in The Irish Times that it was your friend Una Mannion who encouraged you to join a creative writing course in 2014, but that you were initially reluctant to go. What do you think she saw in you that you didn’t?

Louise Kennedy: So it was Una who set up the writing group. I’d known Una in passing for probably 20 years or so, but I wouldn’t say she was a close friend at that stage. It was another friend who asked me to go along, a writer called Niamh McCave. At that time, it had never entered my head to write. I don’t know what it was that she saw in me because she said: “Come along”. And I laughed. And she kept at me a little. And I said no. And later on, she rang me, about half an hour before it was due to start and basically said: “For fuck’s sake! What have you got to lose?” I didn’t have anything to lose — it was a Monday night. At that time, I’d been cooking for nearly 25 years. We’d opened a restaurant in 2007 — the timing was so bad, it’s kind of hilarious — the Irish economy collapsed a year later. In 2014 I had been depressed for years. I was stressed over money, the hours were antisocial: my husband was cooking during the day and I was cooking at night. We had two kids, we didn’t have childcare. It was just mental. It was a very negative time. So I really didn’t have anything to lose going to this writing class. I went along and the first session was horrific. I sat there and thought, Dear Jesus, what am I even doing here? They went around the table and asked why everyone was there. I thought I was going to vomit when it was my turn. I said something stupid like, “Because ‘Niamh made me.” Just petulant, and embarrassing. Una was the first person to submit and she’s so talented — I remember thinking Oh my god, Lorrie Moore is in the room. I wanted all of them to think that I wasn’t an idiot, but I really wanted to impress Una. I can’t have done too badly because we’ve been friends ever since. I probably spoke to her twice yesterday, maybe three times the day before. Some of it is feedback about writing but we also talk about things in general: not having time, feeling guilty about not being productive.

TWF: How have you found the pandemic in terms of creative productivity?

LK: In March and April last year I was freaking out. I did a lot of cleaning. At one point I felt like I’d been wiping the same light switch for weeks. During the sheltering I was washing tin cans twice — just ridiculous things. At the time none of us knew what we were dealing with, so I suppose a lot of people were doing that sort of carry on. I was meant to be working on a draft of my novel. Instead I allowed myself to just read for about a month. Then it got to the point where it was piss or get off the pot. I opened up the laptop around the middle of May and started working.

TWF: Your collection The End Of The World is a Cul De Sac was subject to a nine way bidding war. How did that feel?

LK: I mean it was amazing but… I don’t know if I’m just one of those people who can’t actually enjoy anything. It was really quite unreal. I suppose I still don’t know how I feel about those stories. I don’t know how I feel about my novel. I don’t know how I feel about any of it! I never walk away thinking, that was fantastic. Still if I read one of these stories now I find things that I’d change. I guess you just have to move on.

TWF: Do you think that mindset motivates you?

LK: I don’t think I’d like to be sitting here thinking ‘God, aren’t I great!’ because I wouldn’t bother trying to make anything better. Although sometimes it gets ridiculous. I spent most of March crying — I had a minor breakdown. I was constantly ringing my agent and Una going: “Oh, my God, are these all shite? Am I gonna make an exhibition of myself? Everybody’s gonna think they’re rubbish!”

TWF: I hope that you don’t feel like that now.

LK: I’m okay now. I’m back to working on another draft of the novel. I was out there earlier this morning. I still want to throw up as I approach the laptop, but you get used to that. I don’t know if that’s ever gonna change. In a way I don’t want it to. Before I was published, it didn’t really matter what I wrote and I could just go and muck around with things. I didn’t have to think about how everything was going to be received or who was going to read it. There was that freedom in the first year or so of writing that was liberating.

TWF: Let’s talk about ‘In Silhouette’, because that’s a fantastic story — nominated for the Times Audible Short Story Award. The story is set during the troubles in Ireland, which I know you grew up in. What was that experience like for you and how do you think it affected your writing?

LK: If you live in a place you take for granted how it is. But at the same time, I think I was aware from quite a young age that there was something not right. We were Catholic, living in North Down outnumbered probably eight or nine to one by Protestants. My family had a pub, which meant that we were quite visible. Our pub was bombed twice, and and then sold in 1975. I left the North when I was 12, but I suppose all of the writing comes from that feeling of being an outsider. We were outsiders where we lived in the North. But then when we left and moved to the South in 1979, again we were outsiders, because we were northerners. I’ve long ago lost my accent, but I think that my inner voice when I’m writing is still quite northern.

TWF: In this collection, you write mainly in third person. ‘In Silhouette’ is in second person. Somewhat unusually, for short story collection, none of them are told in first. Why is that?

LK: I realised very early on that if I sit down and try to write a story with an ‘I’, it literally becomes me. I’m not kidding! As soon as I say ‘I’ then I’m writing as myself somewhere between 1975 and 1981. Then I’m writing non-fiction. So I think I use the second person as a way to get around it. ‘You’ gives me some access to a character’s inner world. I think in our inner voice we speak to ourselves as ‘you’, so perhaps it’s more honest than ‘I’.

TWF: Many of your stories are set in nature. Is it fair to say that it is your Ireland you are describing?

LK: I think very much so. Because I don’t come from here, if I go for walks I have to find out where I am. I like to look up the place names and all of them derive from the Irish language. I love that — the idea of people moving across this landscape for generations. When you look into the folklore attached to the places a lot of the stories are based on women and fertility: stories about witches and hags and still-born babies. I think that has been on my mind the last few years, because of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment and legalise abortion. Then other things, like the oppressed women who had been basically incarcerated in mother and baby homes. There’s all of that in the land.

TWF: A lot of the women in your stories are stuck. Many of the women have in some way been denied agency. Do you agree with that assessment and, if so, why do you think you’re drawn to this narrative?

LK: Yes, I do agree. It wasn’t my intention. But that’s the reality for a lot of women. This is gonna sound really depressing: I think that we all leave school and we get out occasionally and go to work and embark on relationships. We do that with hope in our hearts. But by the time you throw in really difficult relationships, people who are sick, death — problems like that — then it all just gets whittled away. I think that’s the reality for a lot of women. In order to live with people, we have to make accommodations every day. I think some people find that easier than others. As we get older all of the failed attempts stay with us. People carry that burden of disappointment, even when they’re trying to make new connections or to stop things from falling apart.

TWF: Word Factory is all about the short story. Do you have any words of advice for all our budding writers?

LK: It’s really important to lash down the first draft. Because even though it’ll be so horrific that you can barely look at it, it helps keep up the energy and momentum. It used to take me weeks to write the first page. I try not to do that now. Some of the old stories that I wrote were quite airless and overworked because I didn’t know how to push myself forwards. I kept going back over the first couple of pages. Then you feel as if you’re getting nowhere at all. I would recommend trying to get a draft out as quickly as possible. Also, I don’t really like the way that people are told that short stories are somehow inferior because they’re short. Some of the most memorable things I’ve ever read have been short stories. A lot of novels are a bloody mess.

Finally tone: if you can settle on a tone in the first couple of sentences and just hold your nerve with that throughout — that’s huge. It’s really hard, but I think it’s worth it.

Lily is a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow. She has been part of the Word Factory team for the last six months, conducting interviews and helping to run their social media. Her work has also been published in GUM, Pith magazine, and the Glasgow Guardian. Lily writes her own fiction, and has a podcast called ‘Tongue Torn’ in which she reads her short stories.