by Guest Blogger, Kerry Hudson
I am a novelist. My first book, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma tells the story of young, spirited Janie Ryan growing up on the edges of British Society in the 80’s and 90’s. It has appeared on several literary prize shortlists for novels.
In fact, my book falls under the very common category of ‘semi-autobiographical first novel’ and the lesser known category of ‘fictionalised memoir‘. Because of that, the first question I’m often asked is, ‘how much of it is true?’ I usually answer, ‘about 82%’.
In writing my first novel I explored my own coming of age, my familial relationships, particularly the bond between myself and my mother, and my own interaction with my environment – by British standards my upbringing would be classified as very poor. That was the truthful skeleton. Then came the fictional flesh: the inclusions and omissions, the descriptions chosen, the many parts of the book that are pure make believe.
Like Janie Ryan, the protagonist of my debut novel, I was born into a clan of fishing folk in Aberdeen, Northern Scotland. The men went out fishing on the treacherous seas and the women worked in fish houses – gutting, cleaning, filleting and packing the fish. In the UK they are known as fishwives and have a reputation as fierce, foul-mouthed, strong women. In my family it was the women who dominated the conversation at social gatherings and who held court around the kitchen table. There were hundreds of family stories dating back generations and as I filled up on a traditional Scottish meal of mince, tatties and skirlie (that’s minced beef, mashed potato and a type of oatmeal and onion fried mix) my head would be filled by their stories of feuds, love affairs, stormy seas where men were lost and miraculous lottery wins. My favourite story back then was one about my grandmother who, as a beloved but spoiled child, demanded the biggest Easter egg in the shop and then smashed it over her father’s head during a temper tantrum on the bus home.
Like any close-knit community gossip was rife and my little ears would hear all about who had an argument with who. I heard about drinks thrown in faces, kids being taken into state care, who had got ‘The big C’ which is what we called cancer. It wasn’t a malicious type of gossip though, in fact, I think that gossip was actually the women in my family working out the world around them, trying to understand their often difficult lives. An understanding that became crucial to me when I started writing.
My mother and I left Aberdeen when I was five, on a bus bound for London, only returning for weddings and funerals, but those stories went with me; stored up in the slats of my ribs, a soft part of my belly.
Still, I didn’t start writing until I was twenty-seven believing that people from my background, one with little privilege, had no place writing books. Despite having grown up in the company of oral storytellers I believed that books were something ‘other people’ wrote. It wasn’t until I was in my adulthood that I felt ready to write about my childhood and even then, I didn’t start to write this book thinking it would ever be published. I started writing it because I believed that the adult I had become was shaped by my childhood experiences and I wanted to understand that better, to understand my place in the world and my interaction with the people around me. So it was that I found myself in Vietnam writing my first book about my Scottish family and when I sat down I felt all the strong, proud, fearless, hard-working women of my family at my back; whispering their stories as I sat down to tell mine.
So why did I write my story in a hybrid of truth and fiction or ‘the bones and the flesh’ as I like to call it? I wrote it that way because I wanted creative freedom that fiction allows, I wanted to be able to write a journey of highs and lows. To have permission to omit the boring parts and amplify the moments of drama. At the same time I used the bones of my life because that was what I was interested in analysing on a personal level. Later, after it was published, it would also become important to be able to say that the book showed an authentic way of British life that is often not seen in books…
But of course, in the beginning, I was writing only for myself and it was hugely cathartic, an absolute joy to be able to sit down every day and write out my complex childhood and young adulthood which was often very hard but always full of love and to start making sense of that. Every day I settled down my tiny Saigon studio and asked myself two questions before I began writing – what is my creative intention with this scene? What do I want the reader to feel or to understand about Janie and her circumstances? The second question was often the most problematic: Is this genuinely my story? That meant constantly trying to remain truthful to the narrative while ensuring that if I was going to bare souls the only soul being bared was my own.
The biggest difficulty in writing fictionalised memoir is protecting those who have not asked to have their story told. In my case, I asked my family before I ever wrote a word if they approved and they said they understood why I had to. Still, neither my sister or my mother had read the book before publication and one of my greatest fears was that they would be unhappy with the way I portrayed our environment. I was very lucky that they were proud of me and the book. As I’ve tried to explain it to others, Janie is me, and it was my own decision to expose myself in that way, it means this book may as well have my heart beating between the pages. But the mother and the sister in the book are more fictional flesh than truthful bones.
Writing Tony Hogan really did change my life. Not only because I discovered that I was good at writing, and that it made me incredibly happy, but because exploring my childhood and putting to rest the painful parts of it by showing them to the world, brought me peace I never expected to have.
But where do you go from there? How do you write another novel when you have already used your life? Well, my second novel is a love story between a man from London and a girl from Russia. They are lonely when they find each other, their love affair is a fragile one and they must overcome emotional and practical barriers if they are to keep the relationship in tact. I am not Russian, I’m clearly not a man…but, I do know what it is to be lonely, to find hope in love and to want to fight for that. I live in London and have travelled across Russia and it is these factual elements that are woven through the fiction of my second novel, Thirst.
I’m a young writer and I’m still learning all the time and developing my craft. But I think my writing will always be connected with my insides – with my heart and head – and so my writing will reflect the changes in my life as I get older. I love the idea of a collection of novels that will also follow the course of a person’s life. I think for me, writing will always be used as way of analysing things that make me curious in some way, that make me feel strongly – how people with their own fragility find love and look after others. What blows life delivers, why and whether it’s ever possible to get beyond them. Small, simple kindnesses and acts of bravery and how much they can change things.
Writing in this way has also changed the way I live because writing has become my way to life a full and fulfilled life. Every experience I have is brighter, I am more present in it, because I am alert to the possibility of creativity and applying my imagination to it. A trip down the street to the local convenience store isn’t just a trip to buy bread and milk but a potential story. And as long as I am living there are stories for me and as long as there are stories to tell I’ll feel alive. For that reason, I will always be grateful to have discovered the bones and flesh method of writing.
A very heartfelt thank you to Kerry Hudson!
Kerry’s novel has been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Scottish Book Award. We greatly appreciate her sharing her creative process with us, and can’t wait to read Thirst when it comes out!
- Why we are watching Kerry Hudson (theguardian.com)
- Kerry Hudson on travel and the colour of an old woman’s toenails. (booksellercrow.typepad.com)