Ali Smith interviews Jackie Kay
Ali Smith interviews her close friend Jackie Kay about writing, jazz and the power of art in her novel Trumpet.
Here, award-winning writer, poet and playwright Jackie Kay is interviewed by fellow acclaimed writer Ali Smith. Read on two explore what two literary greats have to say on the many fascinating themes in Jackie's novel Trumpet.
How do you feel and what do you think about Trumpet now, nearly twenty years on? How do you feel and what do you think when you look back on the time of its writing, and now when you think about the novel out in the world?
It’s funny with your books because they age and they don’t age. Part of you thinks of them as still very young like parents think of their children, and part of you is surprised that they have grown up and managed without you in the world, and kept alive, and fended for themselves. That’s how I feel about Trumpet – surprised. And I feel a similar sort of pride that I have for my son, that his achievements are his own and not to do with me. Trumpet, after it was written and published, had to find its own way in the big world of readers, and lucky for me, it found readers that have kept the book in print all this time. And it still feels a pretty young thing.
And then part of me can’t believe it is nearly twenty years and that I still haven’t written another novel for adults. Part of me feels that that cannot be, what happened to the time?
And when I look back on the time of writing it seemed to take for ever, five years, a long time for a short book. Novel writing for me doesn’t come easily and sometimes I fear that Trumpet will be my only child. At the time of writing, I hadn’t come across a character like Joss Moody in fiction. A black Scottish jazz trumpeter who lived his life as a man but was biologically female. I wanted to see if I could make him live and breathe. Make him real. He felt fresh to me. Toni Morrison said she wrote the fiction that she wanted to read. I think that was what I was doing when I wrote Trumpet, writing the novel I wanted to read. But then it was a long time ago . . . It is hard to remember!
‘We are all that we read that we love and all that we love that we listen to.’ Tell me a little about the biggest influences on Trumpet – music, jazz, song, and rhythm.
When I was writing Trumpet I stopped writing it in the middle and wrote a short book about Bessie Smith. During that time I immersed myself in The Smiths, Bessie and Clara and Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey and all the early blues women. And I immersed myself in the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens and Louis with Ella and Ella with Count Basie and Duke Ellington . . . and when I came back to Trumpet something had shifted and I found I could finish it. Then I listened only to Clifford Brown, to everything by him over and over till I woke hearing him. Brown, like Bessie, died in a car accident. Brown was only twenty-five and left behind only four years’ worth of recordings. But it was enough. His life blazed and his music lived on out and beyond him on the open road. I imagined Joss played like Clifford.
I grew up in a house of jazz and blues – my dad being a big blues and jazz fan. So we listened to Artie Shaw to the lyrics of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin and my dad sang – all the time. His favourite to me was ‘Well Alright OK You Win’ . . . But he sang ‘St James Infirmary Blues’, and ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, ‘Brush up Your Shakespeare’ and ‘Cow Cow Boogie’, ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’, ‘Sing Sing Sing’, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’, ‘Begin the Beguine’. Jazz came to greet me in my own house in Glasgow and a lot of those songs I first heard as a child found their way back into Trumpet. The energy, the life force, the spirit in the music made my living room become a jazzy, cool place at these party socials where my parents’ friends would take to the floor and dance and sing.
I loved the stories of the blues. How involved I felt, how much a part of me those songs and pieces of music became, so that it felt I had it in me, the rhythm of the blues, and that it influenced the way that I wrote. And then I became fascinated by the place where Celtic folk and Burns ballads met blues ones, and how somehow the music you love starts to ònd connections with other music you love, and it began to seem to me that literature and music were not worlds apart either but connected. So I liked the idea that Trumpet would have a jazz structure, riffs and solos, and that some characters would appear and let rip and then disappear coming in and out of the focus like jazz.
What’s it like, being interviewed by a pal? Without any real sign of the laughing and the unsaid understandings and the warmth of the usual conversation between us? Will we tell the readers of this interview that while we were doing it, on email, we ran a series of invisible questions and answers, completely private to us, alongside these public ones? Very suitable to Trumpet . . . which insists on how there are public and private places in the world – in a world now more unused to privacy than it’s ever been.
It’s a little strange I think – because our conversation is always to-ing and fro-ing and back and forth and two-sided, but the interview feels too one-sided. For every question you ask me of Trumpet I want to ask you one of Like or a like-minded question . . . so I suppose I feel a little shy, like the attention is on me and not on us both like it usually is when we talk. I think, like you, I’m a bit awkward trying to talk about my work. I love our invisible questions and the thread that runs underneath, and I love our friendship the way that things are never really separate, and the way that all things find ways to connect and spool back; and the way that we meet each other in our books in another way that doesn’t feel all that different to meeting in person . . . Maybe too because our friendship is both private and public and we manage those delicate shifts fine – sitting talking to you on a stage in front of hundreds of people can still feel like a private conversation to me, even though others are getting to hear it. I love your company whether or not we also have extra company – and so that’s how I think of the questions in some ways. I am just talking with you, but other people will hear it.
It used to be that privacy came naturally to everybody and that we understood implicitly what kind of things a person might like to keep private. Now somebody has torn up the rule book on privacy and there’s a kind of free fall and free for all and few people naturally know how to guard this precious thing, privacy. If I were writing Trumpet set today, I would have to take all that into account. It would be harder for Joss in the world of mass surveillance, Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook, it would be harder for Joss to be private and for Joss and Millie to share their own life away from the prurient gaze of others. In Trumpet it all happens after Joss has died. If I were writing it set today, it probably would have come out before he had died. In this very public, non-private age, Joss would have had problems passing as a man – and in these days of gender fluidity and transformations, other choices would have been open to him.
Does art make anything happen? Does anything make art happen? And why was it, and why was it important, that this book took the shape of a novel? And what, if anything, will make you choose to write another book taking this form?
I don’t agree with Auden. I think art makes things happen. Poetry makes things happen. A poem or a novel or a painting or pieces of music, if it can find its time, its moment, can completely change the way that things are seen. An old play being performed in a new context, like Shakespeare in Palestine, makes something different happen. Art is always nding new answers, new questions. Having art in your life opens doors in rooms in your house you never knew existed and opens windows you didn’t know were there. Having art in your life means you are always accompanied even through the toughest roughest of times. Art somehow holds your hand and tells you to keep on going. That’s making something happen.
Writing, for me, saved my life. I think I would be long gone by now if I didn’t write. It’s through the work of the artists, the writers, the musicians that real cultural and societal change is made possible. When people are creative, they are creative with the future.
We wouldn’t have a vote were it not for people who had a vision, we wouldn’t have changing attitudes to racism were it not for black is beautiful, were it not for people who were creative we wouldn’t have gay marriage, and a complete change in attitudes to gay people were it not for writers and thinkers, and the same goes for every major change towards people, be that to do with race or gender or age or mobility . . .Writers, artists, thinkers have led the way. The imagination is light years ahead of society. Writers make other writers happen too. I can’t imagine being here without having read Virginia Woolf, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Liz Lochhead . . .
Trumpet had to be a novel – I had the idea and it came in that shape even though I hadn’t written a novel before. To me the novel is the best form to explore everything: politics, culture, identity, music, secrets, lies, manners – somehow the novel can contain everything. It is a big social form. It is even sociable – though you don’t feel all that sociable when you are trying to write one. You often feel ill. Writing a novel for me is like having a long illness. I feel I must lock myself away in a cellar or an attic, hidden. And because I’m sociable, the most social of all forms doesn’t seem to fit me all that well. But now I have a new book that I am writing and again it feels like the novel is the only form it can be written in and the characters are chomping at the bit. I feel, when I leave them for a while, that I am neglecting them, not treating them well. So I must get back to them and bring them out into the light of day. I hope though that when this novel has finished that the birth of the one after it is much easier, and less frightening. I don’t know why writing should be frightening when it is only you making things up. I guess because you are afraid of the power of it. Or afraid of it not being powerful. I guess because you want your work to make a difference, to make something happen.