The new novel with the unusually long and descriptive title Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (Penguin) is anything but a generic tale of growing up poor and emotionally neglected in a Scottish town. Author Kerry Hudson begins the story with the narrator Janie’s birth (so you know it’s fictionalized, no matter what percentage of reality it may be based on). I found it quite original and a pleasure to read.
Hudson now lives and writes in London. Our interview took place via email and therefore I’ve left Hudson’s spelling as is (i.e., not Americanized).
Q&A with KERRY HUDSON:
Q: I loved Tony Hogan, even though I tend to avoid tales of extreme poverty and childhood abuse because so many feel generic to me. But this one has a compelling voice that kept me reading, without wanting to skip a word. How did you achieve that quirkily optimistic voice?
Thank you so much for your kind words—that's really lovely to hear. The voice is hopeful partly because that's true to Janie—she's a hopeful person, one of the ways she survives is by finding the good in most situations. Also because there can be hope even if you're from that sort of background. I intended for the reader to be able to see that optimism, the opportunity, and thus be able to will good things for Janie throughout the book.
Q: How long from the based-on-true-events in Tony Hogan until you got the idea to write about them in this fictionalized form? Had you considered a memoir at some point? It reads so TRUE, with the characters all balanced and evolving.
I started writing short stories based on my upbringing when I was 27 (which was really when I started writing seriously or with intent), so almost a full decade from when the book finishes with Janie. I started the book about a year after I started the short stories—largely because I had interest from my now-literary agent. Completely honestly, it took me that decade to process that upbringing (writing the book was very much part of that process actually) and to be settled enough to start thinking about it.
I never considered memoir, partly because I don't think in itself—without those fictional smoke and mirror tricks—my story would stand up on its own and partly because I love the freedom of 'creating' something.
Q: Did you go through many, many revisions?
It was actually an amazingly 'fast' book to write. I wrote the version that went onto submission with publishers in six months in Vietnam while on sabbatical from my NGO job in the UK. I knew that time was precious and unlikely to be had again, and so every day my focus was just on writing the book, immersing myself in the story. And I loved writing it (I still love writing first drafts) so that was easy.
Once it had been accepted for publication, the redrafting was fairly light too. So about seven drafts in total I would say, but two of those were copy-editing and a 'read-aloud' to check the rhythm. They say your first is the book you've been writing all your life so it's not uncommon for it to come flooding out. My second has taken much, much, MUCH longer though! You fly on your first and do all your learning on your second is what I've found.
Q: You wrote the book in Vietnam? Why there?
I wanted to travel there anyway and didn't have much money so it seemed to make sense. It was actually the best decision though. I was able to completely dislocate myself from everything I knew and conjure my memories afresh (I had nothing familiar around me). I woke up, I swam in a dilapidated Communist Workers Party rooftop pool, cycled around, ate noodles, wrote my chapters longhand and typed them up in incredibly noisy internet cafes. I was incredibly, incredibly happy—and productive!
Q: Since the story is so true to life (even though it's fiction), what has been the reaction from your family and the people you grew up with? How do they feel about the way they were portrayed?
I told them before I'd ever written a word that I was intending on writing a novel based on my upbringing and asked if that was okay. My mum read it when it was published and said she thought I'd done a good job.
I think it's important to say that Iris, Tiny, Doug—they aren't my real family. They're fictional characters built on a tiny part of the reality so it's not about how they're portrayed really, but how true the characters seem within fiction. When I was writing it I really, really, REALLY (etc.) never thought it would be published. I wrote that book for myself mostly… to make sense of things.
My family are all proud of me though. People from where I grew up were never meant to write books—they became shop assistants or, at best, supervisors. It was very blue collar. The very idea I would get a novel published was unthinkable—books were something 'other people' did— so I don't think any of us can quite believe that this is now my job. I feel lucky every single day.
Q: In an essay you wrote for the Guardian, “My Hero, Roddy Doyle,” you wrote that the Irish author of The Commitments, which you read in your teens, gave you permission to speak up. How?
Reading The Commitments was the first time I had ever seen working-class life—and all its energy and colour and spirit—portrayed in a book. It suddenly made me realise that my story, my interior world and emotions, were just as valid as anyone else's. It's thanks to that book that years later when I began writing Tony Hogan I felt I had something worth saying.
Literature should reflect the full spectrum of society. Stories from poorer streets, though still underrepresented in the UK, are just as important for understanding ourselves and the world around us as middle-class stories are.
Visit Kerry Hudson’s site
Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry
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