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Scottish author Jackie Kay won the Guardian Fiction Prize for her novel Trumpet(Picador), based on the life of American jazz musician Billy Tipton, born Dorothy Tipton, who lived as a man for most of his life.
She is also the author of the short story collections Why Don’t You Stop Talking(Picador) and Wish I Was Here(Picador), and several volumes of poetry. Her new memoir, Red Dust Road(Picador), about her search for her birth parents, is just out in the United States.
Let’s start right off by talking about your brilliant new book, Red Dust Road. This memoir covers many years and many stages in your search for your birth parents. At what point did you decide you wanted to tell this story in a book? What inspired you to do so?
I found my birth father and met him for the first time in 2003. The experience was so strange and bizarre that I felt as if I was living inside a story, that my life was a story that was happening to me. There seemed no point in making anything up, or turning it into fiction. On some deep and mythic level, my life WAS fiction. I started just writing about finding my born-again Christian father and him singing and dancing around me for two hours trying to cleanse me; then I realized I also wanted to write about finding my mother twenty years earlier; and then I realized I must write about the people who really ‘made’ me, my adoptive parents. I was interested in what makes us who we are, nature or nurture.
Red Dust Road chronicles many happy moments in your life, as well as what I would characterize as a few emotional landmines. Was this a difficult book to write? How would you compare writing memoir to writing fiction?
It was difficult to write and also not difficult to write. I think the structure of the book was the difficult thing. I wrote the whole book chronologically and decided that that linear structure didn’t work. So I ditched that altogether and started again writing episodically. I wanted the book to work the way our memory works, that one trauma or sadness can trigger another even if they took place years apart, they exist in our mind side by side. It’s also difficult with memoir getting the tone right. You don’t want to sound sorry for yourself, or bitter or accusatory, and you want to try and recreate faithfully and truthfully the voices of the people in your life. I wanted to write a multi-voiced memoir that would capture the speech patterns and rhythms of both my mothers and both my fathers, and the rest of the people in my life. Emotionally, writing memoir is more taxing than fiction and you have to make a lot of decisions about what to leave out. It also can keep you up at night worrying if you even have a right to tell your story, which doesn’t happen so much with fiction.
In Red Dust Road, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie appears as a friend and colleague. May I ask how the two of you became friends? Did you get a chance to meet other Nigerian writers while in Nigeria? If so, what was that like for you?
We first met because I was asked to have an onstage discussion with Chimamanda at the Soho Theatre in London. We got on right away and then Chimamanda invited me to come and do a workshop for the Farafina Trust and we became firm friends then. I met many other writers at the Farafina Trust and was really excited by the amount of young talent in Nigeria.
Your short fiction is funny, perceptive, quirky in the best sense, and deeply moving. In one story, a woman deals with looking exactly like the queen. In another, a woman gives birth to a fox. I am particularly struck by what you leave off the page in your stories. For example, in the hilariously devastating story “Wish I Was Here,” you end the story before the narrator meets her inevitable emotional doom. This is so effective. Please comment.
Thank you. I think that short fiction shares a lot with the poem. It captures somebody at a crucial turning point in their life. You’re absolutely right; what you don’t say is as important as what you do. The silence in the short story is like the pauses in music; without the silences you’d have a different story. I like leaving enough space for the reader to come in with her or his life, and also leaving enough space for the reader to be active, to continue with the story long after it has finished, or to imagine what happened to my character before the story began. Short stories are often bleak, not for the faint-hearted! But I think they capture a truth about being human that few forms can reach.
Your novel Trumpet, is brilliant. How did you decide to do a novel based on the life of Billy Tipton? What kind of research did you do for the book?
To be honest, the book was sparked off by reading a tiny obituary about Billy Tipton in the Guardian. It said that the jazz musician Billy Tipton had died and on death it was discovered that he was a woman. None of his three adopted sons knew, and one was quoted as saying ‘he will always be daddy to me.’ I found that very moving and it was that that inspired my book Trumpet, the idea that if you love somebody enough, you’ll believe them; that identity is fluid, not fixed. I didn’t do too much research on Billy Tipton specifically after that. I wanted to create a whole new character and not to get too bogged down in Tipton’s life. My character is a mixture of fact and fiction. But Joss Moody, a black Scottish trumpet player, came more out of my imagination than anything.
American lesbian authors often talk about how lesbian authors in the UK—you, Emma Donoghue, Ali Smith, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson—receive respect and a readership in a way that we don’t here. Do you have insight into this cultural difference? (Don’t be shy here.)
I’m not sure if that is true or not…and I’m not being shy. I think perhaps we are beyond having to define our lesbian writers as lesbian writers. I don’t think of Ali Smith like that, for example. I simply think of her as one of the most talented living writers anywhere in the world. Her work astonishes and excites me. I don’t know how much of that excitement is to do with her being a lesbian. Maybe some of it. But I love the way her imagination works. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a lesbian imagination. It’d be interesting to research that!!! The lesbian imagination! I suppose I feel wary of writers who are lesbians being defined as lesbian writers in a way that writers who are heterosexual are never defined as heterosexual writers. Which isn’t to say I’m at all SHY about being a lesbian. On the contrary…
Who are some of your favorite authors, and why?
Ali Smith, Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Adichie, Pablo Neruda, Robert Burns, Alice Munro, Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chinua Achebe, James Kelman, Don Paterson, Jo Shapcott, Grace Paley, Katharine Mansfield, George Eliot. The why would take forever. I love them all for their shining vision, for inspiring me, for their way with words, for accompanying me through my life. My life wouldn’t have been the same without them. In a curious way, we are what we read, much more than we are what we eat.
What are you working on now?
A new book of short stories called Reality, Reality. Then I’m going to be getting back to my next novel.