Getting Lucky: Kathleen Anne Kenney on Writing and Inspiration
The experience of bringing pen to page is different for everyone. For some, the words flow free and a plan is only a hindrance. For others, it comes in fits and starts and an outline is a lifeline. Whatever the case may be when you call forth your literary muse, we can all agree that with good writing there’s always an element of luck. Here, Kathleen Anne Kenney recounts her experience writing—and getting lucky with—Girl on the Leeside.
If a writer is very, very lucky, a character emerges from the ether or the subconscious or some suburb of Oz/Kansas—wherever—and whispers to you to tell their story. My work is absolutely character-driven, much more than plot focused. All of my writing begins with the advent of one character whose story, apparently, is somewhere inside me and needs to be drawn out and told.
The character of Siobhan appeared in my head about fifteen years ago, shortly after my family returned from our first visit to Ireland. Painfully introverted, sexually unawakened, even child-like—it was as if she needed me to set in motion the chain of events that would launch her into adulthood. Siobhan’s narrow life is focused primarily on the Leeside Pub, where she lives with her uncle, and Irish literature. Once I began exploring Siobhan, and how Siobhan and I could navigate her story together, other characters joined the party. If she was very sheltered, who sheltered her? Uncle Kee. Why? Because he’d lost his sister—Siobhan’s mother—in a violent bombing. Who else could inhabit their world? Katie, who’s in love with Kee and impatient with his compulsive protectiveness of Siobhan. The traveler family of longstanding tradition, headed by Galway Gwen, who visit yearly and are also part of the fabric of Siobhan’s life. Who or what happens to upset the proverbial apple cart? Professor Tim Ferris, an American scholar of Irish studies, to whom Siobhan finds herself drawn in ways that mystify her. Thus let the tale begin.
The setting—rural western Ireland—is another intentional “character” in the story; as a reader I find the physical setting of a novel important. As a writer, I’m very much drawn to exploring our sense of place, and believe that most people are intimately defined by their relationship to place. Our reaction to and interactions with our surroundings are fundamental to our identity. Certainly that is true of me, and of Siobhan. Her symbiotic relationship between self and her beloved Leeside comes from an elemental connection with the earth that all people have. Our second visit to the west of Ireland took place a few years ago. The small villages, green hills, endless shorelines, and welcoming people all enlivened my interest in my ancestral heritage even more. It was then I took up the manuscript again and revised it to the point where I felt the work was as strong as I could make it—and was perhaps ready to go forth into the world.
Girl on the Leeside is my third manuscript, and it taught me that the more I write, the less I know. The process of writing fascinates me. How to make a reader experience the voices of my characters as I, the writer, do? And not cross the lines into stereotyping, predictability, or worse, falsehood? If my characters are not real people to me, they will not come alive for the reader. One of the best quotes about creating art for me is from the pen of the wonderful Aaron Sorkin: “An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky.”
As a writer, one of my fundamental goals is to be a witness; this concept is at the core of keeping the language active and moving my narrative forward through the journey of the characters. In this way, the reader and the writer are both witnesses to the story. A novel is a contract between the reader and writer, an exchange that is, hopefully, intensely personal and captivating for both. If that happens, we both got lucky.