For Books’ Sake Talks To: Kerry Hudson
18th Sep 2012
In the few days that we were emailing back-and-forth for this interview, Kerry Hudson’s début novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was long listed for the Guardian First Book Award.
I get to observe first-hand the change recognition can bring for new authors, from Hudson fretting a little that publicity for the book had quieted down, to being thrust in the literary spotlight as she is named one of the six best new novelists of the year.
I was particularly thrilled about the nomination, not just because I got to chat to Hudson about it, but because Tony Hogan is unquestionably my favourite book of the year, probably one of my favourites books from any year.
Our interview is conducted with a series of email exchanges, Hudson’s replies often late at night as she attempts to juggle a full-time job, short story commitments, working on her second novel and, after the Guardian First Book nomination, “grinning into the distance like an idiot because I can’t believe my luck”.
Tony Hogan has proved a memorable début for all the right reasons, but one of the first things critics have picked up on is the whimsical title. I ask if anyone ever suggested that she changed it, given that it breaks a lot of the conventions.
“Tony Hogan is actually the last of four other names,” she explains, revealing the rejected titles; Dole Cheque Kid, Council Estate Cookbook and Echoes of Small Fires. “But as soon as we hit upon it we knew it was it was the one. Debuts need to stand out and Tony Hogan certainly does!”
“It’s also a cheeky little wink to the misery memoir genre because of course the story was going have some of those comparisons even though it couldn’t be further from that,” she adds.
Tony Hogan is the story of Janie Ryan, a kid born in to a long line of Aberdeen fishwives, and raised by her Ma in a traumatic blur of poverty, drug addiction, depression, sex and violence.
The book’s jacket notes that the material for the novel came from Hudson’s own childhood “growing up in a succession of council estates, B&Bs and caravan parks”. This inevitably begs the question, how much of Janie Ryan’s story is based on Hudson’s own life?
“The best way I can describe the book is that I used the chronology and geography of my own life to create a structure and then built the story around that based on some truth and lots of fiction,” she explains.
She notes some of the more glaring similarities, such as the fact that Hudson also grew up with her mother and sister in a single parent family.
“Lots of the experiences Janie has in the novel I had too (like lots of other girls of that age) and I hope that honesty and authenticity shows,” she says.
I ask if she was ever concerned that by revealing the similarity with her own childhood, that people might take it as essentially autobiographical, and perhaps pass judgement on her upbringing?
“[As] far as I know nobody has assumed it’s essentially autobiographical and people have been reluctant to judge the Ryan women – I hope because I’ve written their story with dignity and they’re very loveable and admirable at core,” replies Hudson.
Throughout the novel, the Ryan family travel the length and breadth of England and Scotland, settling everywhere from Aberdeen to Canterbury to Great Yarmouth. Hudson certainly seems familiar with every corner of Britain, and I’m curious as to whether this travelling took place during her childhood, like Janie, or whether she has remained a wanderer in her adult life.
“I live in Hackney which in itself is a borough full of wanderers and the displaced, but I still travel whenever I’m able,” says Hudson. “I’ll always feel a bit rootless because I moved around so much growing up but it means I’m not afraid of packing a bag in search of an adventure and now I’ve found Hackney I know I’ll always have a place I call home to return to.”
Given that Tony Hogan covers some pretty harrowing and heavy material, I am keen to find out if Hudson ever found it difficult to keep the tone as chirpy as it is, often bordering on the darkly funny.
“Not really,” she replies. “Because that’s how things are when things are rough – when you have nothing left but the ability to laugh and to see the absurdity of often dreadful circumstances and see the darkest humour in things.”
She stresses that anyone who has lived on an estate will know that there is as much laughter and love as there is difficulty. “I was very aware that I wanted to capture that though so I’m so happy you saw that in the story,” she adds.
Hudson explains that she did not consciously set out to fight the under-representation of working class women in fiction. “It was however absolutely my intention to write about what it is like growing up as a working-class woman in contemporary Britain, and for that reason I tried to be as unflinching and honest as I possibly could.”
She adds that since the book has been published, she has been thrilled by how many women have contacted her to say that they had similar childhood experiences.
One of the most striking things about Tony Hogan is its unique literary style, especially the dialogue, which is written in a blunt Scottish dialect. Was it difficult for Hudson to keep it consistent, given that she doesn’t actually have an Aberdeen accent herself?
“I’ve a bit of mongrel accent as I picked something up in every place we lived!” She says, and explains that before she started the novel she generated a list of words and rules that would be used in dialect and then applied them, “just as I would any writing rule.”
“It was fun but also I so wanted to capture the almost poetic sound of that rough language, the rawness of it and its music and so writing in dialect was the only way to do that really.”
Food is also used to great affect in this novel to anchor the story in a particular time and place. Hudson has spoken before about food as an important thematic device in fiction, and even wrote a guest post for Untitled Books on her Top Ten Books With Food.
“[I] absolutely love food to an obsessive level and that probably shows when reading Tony Hogan I feel that what we eat, how we eat it, what our interactions are with food (or lack of it) say so much about us as a society and then also reveal a lot on a very personal level.”
She admits that despite being an adequate cook, at this time in her life she is mostly surviving on apples, toast and coffee, but concludes; “I can say with certainty that my writing will always be full of food.”
The last chapter of Tony Hogan sees Janie entering a new stage in her life, and the novel suggestively ends with the phrase ‘The Beginning’. Does Hudson have plans to revisit these characters for a sequel?
“Janie, Iris and Tiny are with me even when I’m writing other things and so it seems likely that I’ll write about the characters again in some way even if it’s not a sequel novel,” she replies.
Hudson has also spoken about plans to adapt Tony Hogan in to a play, and reveals that this is still very much on the table. “I still really want to write the stage play of Tony Hogan… with a combination of spoken word and Aberdonian folk thrown into the mix I think it could be magic.”
However, at the moment Hudson is being kept busy developing her second novel, Thirst, with support from The National Lottery and Arts Council England. She received a grant from them, which enabled her to travel to Russia as research for Thirst, as well as the time to complete a first draft of the novel.
“When I applied I didn’t think I had a chance but the Arts Council England really want to promote and further new artists and so now I always tell people it’s always worth spending time on putting in a strong application and then crossing your fingers,” she says.
Hudson reveals that Thirst will be the story of “a fragile love affair between a down on his luck security guard and a young, trafficked woman from Russia; it’s set between Hackney and Siberia – amazingly, the two locations complement each other perfectly!”