Of Jedi Knights and Princesses. Of DJs and Writers: Interview with Jemma Kennedy
by Anna Battista
At a certain point of Kevin Smith's film Clerks, the protagonists Dante and Randall start a conversation about the Star Wars saga. In less than five seconds, what had started as a which-Star Wars-movie-do-you-prefer innocuous talk, becomes a passionate pseudo political rant with a comic edge. Oh well, you're right, it's not the only movie in which Lucas' saga is the subject of discussion: Star Wars jokes, parodies and quotes are a bit scattered everywhere in films, cartoons, songs, sites and so on. But I bet you still haven't read anything in which Star Wars is not only the cause of an insane mania, but also the deus-ex-machina of the whole novel. I'm talking about Jemma Kennedy's debut novel Skywalking (Penguin) in which all the characters' single stories get tangled up one with the other thanks to a seven-year old "Jedi knight."
The plot of Skywalking mainly deals with the main characters Ted and Lovell who spend a whole day looking for Kiddie, Lovell's nephew. Kid has suddenly decided to run away from his uncle and follow a stranger, Sara, who happens to be dressed in white and of bearing a shocking resemblance to the character played by Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars saga. Kiddie's adventure and search for his beloved Princess Leia in distress, become crucial for the story: it is indeed only through the little Jedi who speaks "Yoda talk" and makes himself incomprehensible to the world of adults, that all the characters will meet and come to terms with their personal problems. If you like such a plot you're a Star Wars fan, but if you've written such a book, then you are a "huge fan" of the saga, as Jemma admits she is. "Han Solo is my favourite, for all the obvious feminine reasons!" she enthuses, "He was one of my first crushes as a girl, but I like Leia too, she's a tough cookie...".
Because of all the Star Wars connections with childhood in her novel, you might think that Jemma grew up in a world of her own, a bit like Kiddie, a world that somehow influenced her writing as well, and in a way it is true. "I was exposed to a lot of alternative communities in the ´70s and early ´80s," she remembers, "such as communes and co-operative housing communities, which my mum and dad were briefly involved in when I was very young. We spent holidays at these places with my dad when I was a kid, and I was around a lot of commune-raised children and adults with some quite radical social and political views, both in London, and in the country where my dad lived. It was an interesting period of time and has definitely affected the way I look at the world! Some of them were nutters, some were geniuses, but they were very different to the suburban people in the town I grew up in. I felt very stifled there as a kid. In my writing I was really inspired by being a voracious reader, more than any one person. I lived in a world of books and I always wanted to create those worlds for myself. Although my parents both get thanks for reading to me right the way through my childhood, until I was quite old. I loved it. I've written as long as I can remember, since I learned to print letters, in fact! I was always writing stories and poems and nonsense. But I suppose I started seriously in my early twenties, which is when I first got published when a short story was anthologised by pulp fiction books. I think the craft of writing can be taught to a degree, although the creative inspiration you need for writing cannot be taught, which is why there are a great many competent professional writers around, and very few great ones. I was in a very lucky position of having my book accepted, unfinished, by the very first publisher who saw it, Penguin."
If Penguin accepted the book on the spot, what was the general response of the reading public to Jemma's novel? "That's hard to say, because reviews have been slow. I wish I DID know the response of the reading public, but that's always very hard to assess, as opinions obviously get filtered through the reviews of individuals. The various people I know who've read it have seemed to really enjoy it which counts a lot to me!" But it is likely that readers will soon fall in love with characters such as the paranoid Ted, the seducer Lovell, Kiddie the Jedi, the shop girl Sara and the pop philosopher Richard. In the meantime Jemma's preferences in terms of her characters are "Split between Lovell and Ted," as she claims, "Ted is the most like me, I think. Lovell is an amalgamation of several people I've known and loved over the years. I really think I got inside their heads. They were totally real to me, those characters. Still are, in fact. It's hard to say who's the best portrayed character. I suppose I should say Ted, again, because I have really felt the things I tried to portray him as feeling. The other characters were more imaginatively drawn, rather than from real experience. Although whether that always necessarily makes for a well-drawn character is open to debate."
There's a character in particular in Skywalking, Richard, the pop philosopher Ted has to interview for an arty magazine, who from first degree bullshitter becomes a sort of guru for Ted: the latter, while interviewing him, manages to recognise even in his drunken stupor that Richard in the end has got some talent. Behind the fictional character, Jemma states, there is a real person, precisely "A friend I made in New York called Charles Hawkins III," as she explains, "He's actually a stand-up pop philosopher - he turns his philosophising into performance! I never actually got to see him do it, but I spent many hours drinking with him and asking him all about his ideas. He's a very interesting character."
"There was a time when music had made me angry, passionate, punchy with ambition, when I still nurtured the same childish fantasy of becoming a rock and roll star before I was thirty, despite the fact that I'd never learned to play an instrument and could barely hold a tune. Over the years, however, my disillusionment had grown in tandem with my record collection, both of them threatening to overwhelm me at times. Deep down I still couldn't quite let go of the belief that musicians were the people who made you feel fully human, both in your longing and despair." -- Jemma Kennedy, Skywalking
In Skywalking, Jemma Kennedy mentions here and there albums, bands and singers, a thing which might hint at the fact that she's a music lover, which might also be confirmed by the fact that, in her novel, Ted is basically a music journalist and totally a music addict and the style of the novel brings to mind a DJ's technique: in the same way as a DJ samples records and mixes together various voices and tracks, Jemma Kennedy seems to try to perfectly mix the dialogue or the thoughts of one character with the dialogue and thoughts of another. For instance, in the first chapter Ted is talking and the last words of that chapter are the first words of the following one which is narrated by Lovell. Has Jemma taken inspiration to a DJ mixing records while writing her book? "That's an interesting analogy! I've been DJing unprofessionally for years, but maybe you're on to something and it had an affect on the mechanism I used in the book of blending the voices together. If only it was as easy to mix records as it is words!"
Usually, Jemma spins records with a collective called Hey Ladies: "I love DJing because it's good fun and it's sexy and I get to let off steam and indulge my musical tastes. Hey Ladies is the regular event I'm involved with on the DJ side. We put on a monthly club night in London featuring only female DJs, of which I'm one of the residents, and we have a rather delightful fanzine, also, featuring writing and art and all things Lady. Hey Ladies is an amazing collective of beautiful, talented, having-it girls. It's our space to let our hair down in whatever style we want, and we do let it down as often as possible. Having said all that, DJing is also about as far removed from the act of writing as possible which demands total solitude and quiet and space. I don't think I could be a DJ more than one night a week, whereas writing is something I do every day or should do every day."
Since Jemma is also a DJ and this implies that she knows her music well, it would be intriguing to know which songs she would include in the soundtrack of a movie taken from her novel. "God that's the sort of question I could chew over for days," she starts, revealing "I actually started trying to adapt the novel for a screenplay, as I thought it would be an interesting exercise, and all I managed to do was write endless lists of songs that I'd use in the movie. I would feature most of the songs in the novel, yes. Lots of Velvet Underground I think! But many others, too. The song I chose for the opening credits, was, I recall, a song called 'Storm Warning' by an English band I love called I Am Kloot!"
Talking about I Am Kloot, well, their records are released by the label We Love You, which is a sort of imprint of Wall of Sound. What does this have to do with Jemma? A lot. A while back, Jemma used to work for Wall of Sound as label manager, how was it? "Hectic. Fun. Exhausting. I learned a lot, but think I've served my time in the music biz! Never again. In that particular label I learned that whenever there's a capable woman around, she will bear the brunt of the organisational work! Which is what happened to me, surrounded as I was by highly talented but chaotic men (and boys). I did actually learn a lot of things about how to successfully manage a company which we didn't usually actually achieve!"
A lot of musicians think that the music industry is fake, full of corruption and crap, having worked in this field Jemma might help us in understanding it better. "I think it CAN be a very dynamic and creative industry," Jemma states, "some of the most amazing and talented individuals I've met have come from that background. And so have some of the biggest and most soulless arseholes. As far as artists are concerned, I can see why they think it's corrupt. At the end of the day, the music industry is just that, an industry, and as such it is governed by market trends and economic forces at its most basic level. And that's anathema to most musicians."
Though musicians often complain about the music biz, well, often music stars are themselves considered the weirdest people around, so, who knows, Jemma might tell us some secret or gossip about our fave stars. "That, I'm afraid, will have to be saved for my music biz expose, which will be written later in my life," Jemma answers, frustrating our desires, "There are far too many weird and wonderful tales to pick one out now, anyhow. And most are libellous. I'll have to wait for most of the characters to die!" Among the various bands Jemma worked with, there is also a very famous one, Propellerheads "Working with them was a lot of fun, too, because I was in New York then, living with Alex Gifford from the band in a mad apartment, and having all sorts of adventures. It was hard on my liver... it was also fairly intense, working with only one artist and being so involved in their work, but I liked the creative input and I have to say that Alex really inspired me to get my skates on with my first novel. I wrote a lot of it in his studio, when he was recording music and I'd be tapping away on my laptop. Somehow we managed to tune each other out."
"'…back then music might have been a motivating force, but today?
Manufactured pop bands? People with nothing to rebel against? Where's the
politics in rock and roll these days?'
One of the funniest bits of Skywalking is when Ted finds himself in Sara's living room, basically an alien territory to him, and he starts analysing the albums she owns, a typical behaviour that only truly music fans (and music addicts) display. Jemma nurtured a love for music and bands since she was very young. "I was in bands when I was young but I didn't have enough stagelust to pursue a musical career," she claims, "I always fancied myself as a bit of a chanteuse though I don't think I would have had it in me to play rock and roll, but I live in hope that one day I'll get to record an album of songs. Something nice and low key!"
And while waiting to make a proper record, Jemma is enjoying listening to the most disparate albums: "Well, if I take a look across the desk at the CD stack by my stereo, I can tell you that it includes Burt Bacharach, David Crosby, the Quadrophenia soundtrack, the new Doves album, Big Star, Marianne Faithfull, Stevie Wonder, Grandaddy and The Byrds. That should give you some indication of my eclectic taste in music! Oh and I'm also listening to a new album by an American band called Nada Surf who I saw in New York. It's really lovely." Our Princess Leia has also got some tips about the books to read and the albums to listen to during our holidays: "My current favourite book is ´I'd Rather You Lied´, the collected poems by Billy Childish. He's an amazing, fearless poet and his music's good too. My current favourite band is Nada Surf. Coming to a town near you soon..."
Among the other things Jemma has been doing lately, there is travelling: after living in New York for a while she went back to London and she has recently been in Spain. "It was lovely," she recalls, "I stayed at my mother's house in Andalusia and did a lot of sunbathing and a lot of reading and some writing. It's good to get out London sometimes and recharge. I miss New York a lot - it still feels like my spiritual home. I love London too, and most of my closest friends and family are there, but I do find it exhausting and a bit grey. The key is to get away as often as possible, back to New York City ideally."
At present there's one goal in Jemma's life, to keep on writing. "I'm halfway through my next novel and working on a number of other writing projects too," she reveals, "my plan is to avoid getting a day job for as a long as I can. I really want to try and make a living from being a writer, although it's incredibly difficult. I feel I'm ready to give it a shot, anyway. I also know that if I took a job in the music biz now my heart wouldn't be in it and I wouldn't be able to do it well like I used to. There's too much to write about now! I'm learning to let it all out in a disciplined fashion!"
You see, the universe is so vast: a long time ago in a galaxy far away (and in a fictional and fantastic world), a charming princess and a group of rebels were fighting the grip of an evil empire with spaceships, arcane powers and fluorescent weapons. Right now, in a galaxy near you (and in the real world), another charming princess is writing, listening to music and occasional DJing. The latter is named Jemma Kennedy and she promises to bring you with her words to another galaxy. Far. Far away.