Author Louise Kennedy wants aspiring authors to give themselves permission to write terrible first drafts
Irish author Louise Kennedy was a chef with a writer hiding under her hat, waiting for her to give the pen and paper a chance. She accidentally stumbled into the world of writing and has got one thing to say to all writers — both hidden and visible — “give yourself permission to write terrible first drafts”. Be bad, write something that makes you want to burn the page, but write nonetheless. According to her, it is only the beginning, rewriting is “where the most work is”.
Kennedy is currently in Pakistan to attend the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) hosted at Alhamra Art Centre. The book launch for her debut novel Trespasses is scheduled for Saturday and she is also a speaker in Sunday’s Fiction: A Chronicler of Our Times panel alongside Tanzanian-British novelist and Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, Nadifa Mohamed, Damon Galgut and Ahmed Rashid.
Images: How has your experience in Pakistan been so far?
LK: Amazing! We, just this morning, walked around the park and the botanical gardens beside the hotel here. It is warmer than I thought it would be for this time of the year — which is a very nice surprise because I live in the North West of Ireland where it is quite cold and very wet. This is delightful and we had a gorgeous dinner last night, and met some of the other people who will be reading and speaking at the festival. Everybody’s very welcoming, [it’s a] beautiful city.
Images: Are there any authors you are looking forward to meeting at LLF? Any talks you’re looking forward to attending?
LK: I was very excited to meet Abdulrazak Gurnah so, yes, I’m looking forward to his talk today. There are a few panel events with conversations about postcolonial matters, that sort of thing, that I’m interested in. Actually, I think I’m more curious about people that I haven’t heard of, who I wouldn’t normally get to listen to at festivals in Europe. From that point of view, it’s very interesting.
Images: Any names?
LK: [Besides Gurnah], the other writers I am most interested in are Adania Shibli, Ameena Hussein and, of course, Mohsin Hamid.
Images: Can you tell us about your book?
LK: My book is called Trespasses and it is set in the North of Ireland, very near Belfast in 1975. It’s a novel but I draw a lot on my own childhood because that’s where I lived when I was a child and that’s where I grew up. It was a love story but the time and the place, the Troubles as I suppose they were called, press in on the main character — Cushla Lavery, her name is — very severely and I guess that sort of grows as the book goes on, that sort of pressure. Cushla is 24, she is a primary school teacher and she also helps out in her family bar in the evening. She meets a man there, he’s older and for lots of reasons, she shouldn’t be going there but she does and in the end, the consequences for everyone are devastating.
Images: What inspired you to write this story?
LK: When I started to write the book, I suppose it really came out of a visit that I made to the Ulster Museum — which is also a gallery — in 2014. It was an exhibition called Art of the Troubles and I suppose the Good Friday Agreement brought about peace in 1998 but there was still a lot of people who were angry, a lot of people still carrying pain. That exhibition was controversial for a lot of reasons, some people felt like it had gone too far and others felt it hadn’t gone far enough. It made me think that art can be used to express things in a place where there’s so much problem around language, where a lot of things are kind of unspeakable. So the novel opens with Cushla as an older woman at this art exhibition and then it closes there too. I guess this piece of art brings up memories of a particular time in her life. I think that was the impulse to the write the book.
Images: I like how the story moves in a circle, back to the place it began.
LK: I think it needed the circle because some terrible things happen and I think maybe I wanted to have some symmetry by opening in the gallery and closing in the gallery but also maybe I wanted the reader to know Cushla was kind of okay in the end.
Images: Is Trespasses your debut novel?
LK: It is. I have a collection of short stories that was published in 2021 and then my novel was published in the UK and Ireland in 2022. I didn’t write at all until I was 47 and I kind of wrote by accident. A friend asked me to join a writing group which I thought was a hilarious idea, I thought ‘why would I be sitting in a writing group?’ I laughed and laughed, and refused several times [but] she made me go along. I agreed to try to write a short story and I presumed it would be terrible and all the other people in the room would laugh at it when I brought it in but they were very encouraging so I kept going. I was a late starter and it was very different in lots of ways from the life I had before — I was a chef, I worked in a restaurant.
Images: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
LK: I joined a writing group which for me was very helpful. I met with a group of people who I grew to trust very much and when we shared work, we gave each other feedback which was always kind but also rigorous and constructive. That helped me a lot in the beginning. The main thing is for people to give themselves permission to write and I think people can struggle with that, especially women. It is important to give yourself permission to do it and to give yourself permission to write terrible first drafts — the vast majority of the work is in editing. My first drafts are terrible, I would die if anybody saw them but I think it’s important to understand it’s just the beginning. That it’s about rewriting and rewriting — that’s where most of the work is. You just have to go with the process and learn to love it even though it’s hell.