Q&A with Joanna Kavenna

Joanna Kavenna grew up in various parts of Britain, and has also lived in the USA, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Her first book The Ice Museum was about travelling in the remote North, among other things. Her second was a novel called Inglorious, which won the Orange Award for New Writing. It was followed by a novel called The Birth of Love, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize, the fiercely funny satirical novel Come to the Edge and, most recently, A Field Guide to Reality, which AL Kennedy described as “an extraordinary, wise, funny, adventurous and hallucinogenic book that combines fiction with gleefully warped fact. Kavenna explores the complex nature of reality and perception with vast imaginative energy and a generous spirit.”

A prolific essayist, journalist, and critic, Kavenna’s writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, the Guardian and Observer, the Times Literary Supplement, the International Herald Tribune, the Spectator and the Telegraph, among other publications. She was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. We spoke with her about her upcoming writing workshop with The Real Story, writing the self, her work, and the writers she has learned from.

You’re leading a workshop for us called Writing the Self. In this society drawing inspiration from our own experiences, and putting them at the centre of our writing, has a slight air of shamefulness about it, as if on some level we’re being taught it isn’t valid. Why should any of us write about our own lives?

By ‘Writing the Self’ I mean the process of establishing and expressing a distinctive vantage point as a writer. Sartre wrote: ‘You are your life, and nothing else.’ Each one of us is here, for this unique, finite moment of contact with everything beyond and around. Paradoxically, we are mysterious to ourselves and even discontinuous – we are firstly pre-verbal babies, then small children, then teenagers, young adults, wage-earners, older adults, perhaps parents and so on. We are constantly assailed by edicts from elsewhere, by societal notions of ‘the self’ or ‘the proper person.’  Althusser described this as ‘interpellation’ – the way in which society calls to the individual in different ways depending on their class, race, gender, age and so on: ‘You are this, you are that. You must be this, or that.’

These are masks, in a sense, and we are offered them, and sometimes we even put them on, to be polite, or not to freak other people out. But if the mask gets stuck on then we are in trouble. Camus wrote that it’s hard to have a real conversation with someone when they are lying, or even just when they are afraid (or unable) to express their real opinions.  So writing is inevitably bound up with the quest to understand the self – to fathom and convey our real opinions about the world.

I’ve written more about the self here – https://iainews.iai.tv/articles/the-riddle-of-the-self-auid-869

I’m interested to hear what you think about the different ways writing the self is received depending on the gender of the writer. I’m talking about how, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical My Struggle has been widely hailed as great writing on the human condition, but say, Rachel Cusk’s similarly detailed autobiographical books have been criticised as ‘confessional’, off-putting and self-indulgent. What’s happening here?

In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex she makes the argument that woman is traditionally regarded as ‘other’ to man. Therefore, Everyman ostensibly expresses the human condition; Everywoman is seen as a subcategory of the universal. Alas this argument is still relevant. Autobiographical fiction with a male protagonist is often seen to express ‘the human condition;’ autobiographical fiction with a female protagonist is often seen ‘merely’ to express ‘the female condition.’ This runs counter to the weird process of writing, in which you create works not as WOMAN or MAN but as an individual, writing in your own way, trying to fathom the beauty and chaos around you. Thus, the reception of these works is incompatible with the atmosphere in which they are created – which causes dire confusion.

Who are some of your favourite writers of the self, and what have you learned from them?

I admire writers who convey a distinctive vantage point in their work. I sometimes use a metaphor of the guide – the writer tours us through their version of reality, saying: ‘This is how I see reality and this is my portrait of the wonderful and terrifying business of being alive, once, and encountering other finite mortals along the way.’  Along these lines, I particularly admire Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Katherine Mansfield, Djuna Barnes, D H Lawrence, Doris Lessing, William James, Iain Sinclair, Enrique Vila-Matas, Charlotte Mew, Roberto Bolano, Knut Hamsun (in his first novel, Hunger), Joseph Campbell, Chan Koonchung, Joseph Roth, Elfriede Jelinek, Charlotte Bronte, Robert Musil, Albert Camus, Saul Bellow, Philip K Dick, Walter Kempowski, Marguerite Duras, W G Sebald, Jens Bjorneboe, Sarnath Banerjee, Rebecca Solnit and many others.

Like Virginia Woolf, who you’ve written about before, you’re a writer who publishes across many forms and registers: fiction short and long, nonfiction books, essays and journalism. How has the multi-stranded nature of your writing output created challenges for you, and/or how has it benefitted you?

I think the subject matter often dictates the form or register. My first published book, The Ice Museum, explored the ancient Greek story of Thule.  Thule was a remote northern land, ostensibly found by a Greek explorer called Pytheas in the 4th Century BC. Pytheas’s account of his voyage was lost and he was dismissed by later scholars as a liar and charlatan. Thule became a metaphor for the lands that lie beyond the maps and also for uncertainty in general.  I became quite obsessed with this story and also with the places associated with it – northern Scotland, Norway, Iceland, the Baltic States, Greenland and beyond. So that book had to be a travelogue, in part, though it was also an account of a highly subjective quest for a mythical place.  My most recent book A Field Guide to Reality began with an idea about a manual for fixing existential angst – a helpful volume that would supply reassuring answers to traditionally imponderable questions about the nature of reality and the meaning of life.  Sadly, this book can’t exist in the real world so I had to devise a parallel reality in which it might conceivably exist. In the end I produced a novel which nonetheless alludes to various real-life philosophers and their theories of reality.

My main challenge has been persuading my publishers to accept this – as you say – multi-stranded output.  An editor who has quite enjoyed one book finds the next is simply not their bag. Or, they like publishing non-fiction but back away politely if you mention fiction. Or vice versa. As a result, I now work with several editors, which is confusing at times but also means I don’t have those vaguely dreamlike conversations in which an otherwise civilised and kindly editor asks if I would mind making my novel just slightly more like a travelogue or vice versa.

What are you working on now?

I am finishing a book called Tomorrow and starting work on another book called Flight.  Both are about the usual things that perplex and compel me – time, mortality, love, families and the unreal nature of reality.

Sign up for Joanna’s workshop ‘Writing the Self’ which takes place on September 19, 5:30-7pm at Gullivers Manchester, and is suitable for all levels of writing experience. Tickets £15; price includes admission to event afterwards. Places limited, book here.

Joanna reads at our Real Story: Live event alongside emerging essayists following the workshop on Tuesday September 19, 7:30pm. Tickets £5/3; book here