Ally Kennen interviewed by Julia Eccleshare.
Ally and I first met when she did an event at the Hay 2010 festival as one of the authors on the Guardian children’s fiction prize longlist. Ally has a talent for performance; she bounded onto the stage and her energy, frankness and humour held the audience spellbound.
Meeting Ally again reaffirmed all three qualities. She is bubbly to be with and, while clearly absolutely committed to her life and her writing, she is nicely deprecating about both. Just the bare bones of her writing career – she’s about to publish her fifth book in five years and has had three children in that time – tell you all you need to know about her energy.
The roots of what Ally writes about are deeply embedded in her childhood. She grew up on a small organic farm on the edge of Exmoor. Her parents, about whom she is most affectionate, met very young at agricultural college and then took on the running of a farm which Ally describes as ‘run down and isolated as it is at the end of half a mile of track’. Ally speaks passionately about the value of space and quiet and darkness and room just to wander and disappear safely to let off steam as a recipe for a healthy adolescence as well as a spur to writing. ‘On a farm you have to create magic from not a lot,’ she says enigmatically. When pushed, she adds flatly, ‘when you see a stream, you have to make up a story about it.’
There’s no criticism in Ally’s comment, merely an observation about the lack of action in the countryside expressed with her typical deadpan humour. Ally loves the home she grew up in and still lives close to it. She showed me her wedding photos which capture perfectly an idyllic pastoral scene of an outdoor ceremony with the guests sitting on hay bales. ‘It was a beautifully sunshiny day in July and we had a humanist celebrant.’
One of the features of Ally’s books is their very strong sense of place. In all her novels distances are defined and timed and journeys take appropriate times. Much more than that, how people behave seems to be partly shaped by the landscape in which they live. As she shows me the wedding pictures she points out the valley with the reservoir that features in Beast. She plotted the landscape as carefully as she plotted the story making sure that Stephen can get to the reservoir to feed his secret creature. She draws on other places too, such as Cane Hill in Surrey, the huge, derelict mental asylum in which she set her third book, Bedlam, after researching the building thoroughly on the internet. Again, the characters behave in a particular way because the strange topography of the old buildings creates an unusual landscape. In Quarry, her most recent title, she returns to the lanes of Somerset and Devon adding the dimension of the motorway which becomes almost an extra character.
In addition to the farm, Ally’s parents began fostering children when she was about four. Her mother had received kindness from others during her own childhood and so wanted to do the same. As Ally puts it: ‘When you have your own children, the plight of other less fortunate children becomes unbearable.’ The foster children were almost all teenagers and mostly boys. About 60 in total, they came for anything from one night to years. ‘They were usually bad boys who had been badly damaged by something in their pasts. One boy had bruises round his neck where his father had tried to strangle him. It wasn’t uncommon for the police to come round,’ Ally says. ‘Some I liked, some I loathed.’ She speaks of them with no judgement but a certain amount of detachment; it seems as if they were something that happened around or alongside her own growing up rather than directly within her sphere. And in a way they did in that she and the child she describes as ‘my one blood brother’ had two rooms which were linked to each other but which could be shut off from the rest of the house. ‘We had a bolt to keep the others out,’ she says simply.
But despite not being absolutely central to her childhood, these boys are pivotal in Ally’s writing. Stephen in Beast, Chas in Berserk and now Scappy in Quarry are all boys with complex backgrounds or other external influences which drive the behaviour which makes them such interesting and striking characters. Ally knows how these boys behave and some of the reasons why. Her lack of judgement of her own foster brothers is just as evident in the way she tells the stories of her fictional versions. Instead of the often contrived ‘edginess’ currently so highly prized in teen fiction, Ally writes strikingly about characters forced by their own inner turmoil to behave in ways that are genuinely ‘edgy’ and she does so with care and concern rather than with a desire to impress.
It may be particularly lucky that Ally has these boys at her fingertips as she is strangely blank about her own adolescence saying only that ‘there was a lot of space, no one paid much attention, you could just be’ and describing herself as ‘deeply hard-working and studious’, a phrase she reinforces when she continues, ‘I was very conscientious at school. I wanted to distance myself from my wild brothers.’ She loved acting and singing and got a place to study drama and history at Birmingham University. Once there, she found she hated the course having become too self-conscious to act freely. She switched to archaeology and history and sang in a band.
The defining moment that led to Ally’s writing came from her singing. Now living in Bristol and working as an archaeologist, she was writing an adult novel, The Quab Baby ‘packed full of rural mystery and folk stuff with a bad archaeologist as its central character’ and also singing and writing songs. In 2000 she co-wrote a pop song called ‘Way Out West’ which got to 41 in the charts and earned her £3,000. ‘It was “extra money”,’ Ally explains, ‘so I thought I could just blow it. I could have spent it on a hot tub or a creative writing course. They were the same price and seemed equally unlikely.’ Luckily Ally chose the latter, submitting a chunk of The Quab Baby to prove her eligibility for a place on the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA. ‘I felt that if I was accepted onto the course it would validate my writing.’
Ally was accepted and sees it as the moment that her attitude to her writing changed profoundly. ‘I felt my writing was given some importance.’ Ally loved the course but she was sick of The Quab Baby and also longing to get pregnant. Luckily a tutor suggested that Ally should start writing something else. She did and ‘I finished it two weeks before my daughter was born.’ The book was Beast, the story of Stephen who wants to turn his life around and be responsible but who has the complication of the hideous creature he keeps as a secret pet. Ally’s distinctive teenage voice was immediately recognised by her being awarded a prize at the end of the course which led to a major auction and the reward of a three book deal from Scholastic.
On publication, Beast was hailed as ‘an extraordinary and imaginative achievement’ and shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal. All at once Ally, at just 29, was a recognised author and a mother. ‘The book and being a mother are all tied up together. I’d go into town to look at the book in the bookshop and then get a flat tyre on the buggy on the way home. I didn’t really have time to feel proud of it.’ Ally had adopted a first person narrative voice ‘because I thought it would be simplest and because in a single viewpoint like that you can make every word count.’ It was a trick she’d picked up on the course but what made it so powerful was the way she combined it with her knowledge of damaged teenagers. ‘The voice just came from the finer qualities of many of the foster brothers. As a foster sister, I was very aware of the indignities of children who’d been in care and how at 17 they were just meant to manage on their own. I was very scared for Stephen because I had seen how hard that can be.’
Now in the teen frame of mind and because ‘I wanted to go with what works’, Ally wrote Berserk, the story of a boy writing to someone on Death Row. It had many of the same qualities as Beast and again explored the complexities of the world of a troubled and testing teenager. For her third book Ally tried something different. ‘I didn’t want to be a one trick pony. I had more confidence and I wanted to write about a girl.’ Lexi had appeared in Berserk and Ally wanted to write something for her. The setting of Cane Hill provided a rich background and the story about who was hiding in it came from her strong feelings about the deportation of illegal immigrants. ‘I’m probably naïve but I just think please, give these people a place. Some things just rile you up but I don’t want to push my simplistic views or preach.’ Ally does neither although she shows her anger and she also shows that she can write about girls too.
Three books in very quick succession and all of a kind were followed by the delightful and hugely entertaining Sparks, a romp of a story for younger readers about how three children, acting without adults in the best tradition of children’s fiction, manage to arrange a Viking funeral for their grandfather. ‘I got a new contract so I thought I’d write two books in the year but I moved house instead.’ As ever, Ally’s life and her writing cut across each other but she had a trick up her sleeve. ‘I stole the story from my GCSE folder. It was called ‘The Last Request’ and provided the bones I could build from.’
But that was an interlude. Now, with Quarry, Ally is back again to those teenagers in her darkest book yet. The chaos of Scrappy’s life is tangible but there is nothing sensational or mawkish about how Ally describes it. And she doesn’t offer any easy fixes. Instead, in her familiar, first person narrative enriched this time by her habit of ‘sidling up to a group of teenagers and stealing their speech’, she tells a bleak story about the absolute collapse of a parent and how it almost destroys a child in its wake. But, despite the desolation, there is humour, kindness and a strange sense that things will get better – somehow.
If Ally Kennen keeps up this rate of writing, her output will be prodigious. Somehow, I think she’ll have to slow down on both babies and books but, whatever she writes next, will be a book to look forward to.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of the Guardian and the co-director of CLPE (The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).
(published by Marion Lloyd Books in paperback)
Beast, 978 1 4071 1708 9, £6.99
Bedlam, 978 1 4071 1710 2, £6.99
Berserk, 978 1 4071 1709 6, £7.99
Quarry, 978 1 4071 1107 0, £6.99
Sparks, 978 1 4071 1108 7, £6.99