The Short Story Interview: Jonathan Kemp

Interview by Denise McCulloch

I was intrigued by the Theodor Adorno quote that opens Twentysix – ‘He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinise its estranged form’. What were you conveying by using this and how does it scaffold the short stories within the book?

I was interested in Adorno’s concept of the non-identical; looking at the thing that does not fit in, and finding the truth. The idea that no object goes in to its concept without leaving a remainder and, in that, that the idea of concept is limiting; that it leaves something out and that is where we find the truth – a thing that is non-identical, the thing that doesn’t fit in. Life, in its estranged form, is something that could neither be represented as male or female; destabilising the very structures of representation. This challenges the protocols of the concept of male and female bodies – how binaries get gendered in systems of thinking. In essence, the male mind gets aligned with concepts of culture and the body with femininity and nature.  So there is a contradiction at the heart of the phrase ‘the male body’; it is a clash between binaries. So, I started with Adorno to find and expose a truth. His philosophies of representation and theories of gender deliberately buckle logic – leaving estrangement at the core of the enquiry.

When did you learn that language had power and how do you balance that with sensual and sexual writing?

During my PHD I had a massive alteration in my thinking, my being and certainly my writing. Being exposed to challenging theories within the metaphysical being of language suggested that language was inadequate to the job and I was using it as a blunt tool in trying to define my work. For example: moments of pleasure are fleeting but language is fixed to a degree. So if you are writing about sensuality you are immediately describing in a way that delimits it. The moment is fleeting and has gone yet it has been fixed in language that may not do it justice. But, one of my reviews states that Kemp does a pretty good job of defining language in his work, so I must be getting better at it!

Twentysix reflects on the cultural ideas of sexuality, gender and desire. You oscillate from the visceral to something tender and haunting – it is a pretty profound release of sounds. Should writing be framed by real emotion?

I tried really hard to do something new. I wanted to question the subjectivity; sex and porn is often objective with bits of bodies going into bits of bodies. I wanted to get into the erotic encounters, subjectively. Some of the pieces are written in the 2nd person so you can really locate the reader within a dark room  – forcing them to go into these places and experience the interiority of the subject engaged in the acts.

How do you balance between being original with delivering what readers want?

I would never second guess what the reader wants to read. I would assume that they want to read what I am writing so I just write what I want. I’m not saying that I’m unconscious of the reader but I think what you should aim for is a reader that is like you. So that you are almost writing the books that you want to see in the world that aren’t there. In that, I am always trying to write the book that I would be happy to read. In considering how I think about the reader – I guess I identify with the reader in as much as I am the reader.

How does the use of your words, and the stories that you tell within, shape your own life?

It is more the other way around, insomuch, how does my life shape the words. Making the work shapes my life because I actively carve out and seek out the space and time to do it. It’s a kind of two way street really.

Does your writing energise or exhaust you?

A bit of both really. There are moments when it is completely energising and moments when it is exhausting. There’s an aftermath of feeling low and listless, almost like grief, like losing somebody, a relationship ending. I do believe that writing something long, a big project is a bit like a relationship – sometimes you’ll love it, sometimes you’ll hate it –it will irritate you and you will want to walk away. But when its over its like a break up.

How do you overcome that?

Get something on the rebound! Normally, something is already taking shape as I’m finishing a project.

Are they ever linked?

No, not normally and that can be quite frustrating. Ghosting was taking ages to get right and the new one was already starting. I was impatient to get going, to go into this new territory – a new love affair if you like. I was bored with the old one but knew that I had to get it right to give it credence.

Some male authors have problems in making their female characters believable. How do you tackle writing about the opposite sex and is it difficult to get into the mind of a woman?

Virginia Woolf said that a writer should have the soul of a hermaphrodite. I’ve always had huge empathy for women and share a lot with women that perhaps they wouldn’t normally share with a man. I do genuinely believe that we aren’t that different – that the differences are overplayed at the expense of the commonalities. It’s very much a societal thing. But I do use episodes from my mother’s life – taking certain experiences and weaving them into a fictional tale. Is it audacious to say that I find it quite easy?

London Triptych draws on the life of Oscar Wilde. How do you approach ethical issues when writing about historical characters or settings?

That’s a hot topic at the moment, similar to asking if we have the right to invade certain territories. Though, in essence, writing is unlike an occupation or colonisation, in some cases it can be viewed as such. There have been problems with white writers who have represented black characters, for example. It’s almost a question of should we be doing this. I am very much for the artist having absolute permission to do anything and everything but at the same time it has to be done with awareness, sensitivity, and as much intelligence as can be mustered. I don’t think, or even felt, that I ever asked myself should I be doing this. Again, this is because I don’t consider the reader to a massive extent – if I do consider them, I consider them to be much like me. It kind of comes as a surprise when my work is read by people who aren’t like me.

Why is that a surprise?

Because someone can have a different approach or view to the one that I had when I wrote it. I remember one woman took umbrage that I had teenage prostitution in my novel. She thought that the character should be having a good time, not being forced into exploitation and a grim reality. The issue was more about her than me but I don’t seek permission and, at the same time, I don’t assume that I have the arrogance that I can go anywhere with my writing. I will always think about what I’m doing in terms of how it might be viewed negatively. Not that I think that every representation of a minority needs to be viewed indiscriminately, as shiny happy people, because we are all complex beings dependent on our power or access to society. For me, that’s what’s interesting about a character – the complexity, the negative and positive aspects and the understanding that we all mess up. All writing goes through various stages. If I felt that I needed some form of permission then I would seek that.

How do you change your writing structure when moving from the short story to navigate a longer piece?

It is not something that I could comment on as a conscious shift. I just sit down and write whatever it is I am writing – whether that is a play or short story, academic essay or novel.  I see the work as the task in hand and just get on and do it. I don’t have a different strategy – each of them is a different puzzle to be solved using the same or similar means.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic practice?

Letting go. Accepting that something is finished – that the work is done. It is hard because sometimes you think it is and it isn’t and wonder when it really will be. Trust in the people that tell you it is. I have some amazing editors and publishers and their guidance and trust is paramount.

London Triptych, by Johnathan Kemp
London Triptych, by Jonathan Kemp

London Triptych won the Authors Club Best First Novel award. What did you do with the prize money?

Nothing very exciting! I paid my dues and used the rest to live on. I lead a very hand to mouth existence. My primary objective is to orchestrate my life around my writing – finding the time and space to write. I overlooked and neglected making money in a high flying career. So when I do get prize amounts they just get absorbed into my living expenses, which I work very hard at keeping to a minimum.

London Triptych is a strong novel. It was shortlisted for the Polari and Green Carnation prizes. Do you think the winners were deserved and what did they have that made them stand out from yours?

You’d have to ask the judges that! I read the winner of Polari: Autofellatio by James Makers. It is a wonderful memoir and I was more than happy to let him win on one level. The dark and dirty secret for us all is that we are more competitive than we like to admit and I was miffed that I didn’t win. But if I had to lose to somebody then losing to James hurt less. James Joyce said prizes don’t matter and that the best writer is the one that is chasing the perfect sentence. Winning a prize ensures more attention, but sometimes others that are worthy get overlooked. I was thrilled to be shortlisted. After all, I’m still new at this game!

If you had to champion an under-appreciated novel, what would it be?

Hmm…probably The Mad Man by Samuel R Delaney.  What I love most about this book is Delaney’s ability to actively challenge literary genres through cross-fertilisation and blurring of boundaries. He blends the intellectual with the downright dirty. Like De Sade, Delaney seems to be endlessly cataloguing sexual acts in order to move beyond mere pornography, to enter a terrain of ethics, even boredom. It’s a mad book – part detective story, part philosophical treatise, part fantasy, part love letter, part socio-historical exploration of subcultures. As a poststructuralist, Delaney is interested in exploring the multiplicity of the self, the ruse of identity, the betrayals of language and how truth might be textually constructed. It is a big, open, generous book that invites the reader to reassess their own ideas about ethics and morality.

Since last December I have experienced what I call reader’s block. Have you ever felt this and, if so, how does that impact on your writing?

Yes!  I describe it as book fatigue. For the majority of my life I have voraciously consumed books and earlier this year I had a mountain of marking (reading the fictional work of my students), reading for my personal writing and research, reading for the lectures that I was preparing – it left me constantly print-lined. I don’t know the solution for it other than taking a break but that seems like laziness from the thing that you are reading. I instruct the importance of reading for the writer to my students and use the quote from Stephen King: ‘reading should be the creative centre of a writers life.’ I commit to that, so I try and read through the fatigue. I am aware of it and it is definitely a thing. It never feels right not to read no matter how much it frustrates me. I can’t go anywhere without reading. Perhaps the answer is when it happens read for pleasure; return to an old favourite and sink into the cosiness and familiarity of what you know.

Do you believe in writer’s block?

In the same way that I believe in reader’s block, but I don’t give it any credence. If I am making a living from inspiring people to write I should be able to find a way through it. I tend to do writing exercises in order to get a project started – if I’m blocked I know how to unblock. It’s all about making the effort to overcome it.

When can we expect your next publication?

It is on target for publication next year. This summer will be spent completing and editing the second draft, so I have a busy time ahead!


Jonathan Kemp was born in Manchester in 1967. He spent the early years of his life in Malaysia, but grew up in Cheshire and moved to London in 1989. His first novel London Triptych was shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His book of short stories, Twentysix, and his second novel Ghosting are both published by Myriad. Jonathan currently teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck College, University of London and continues to write both fiction and non-fiction. His third novel is due for publication in 2018.

Nise McCulloch is a Creative Writing student at Birkbeck College, University of London. Previous lives have seen her teaching, directing literary festivals and instigating community art projects – all of which possessed her love of literature at their core. When she isn’t in London or the Surrey Hills, Nise can be found searching for inspiration on World War battlefields or perched on the side of a mountain.


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