First published on Bob’s blog here.
Bob Neilson: Tell me one little known fact about John Kenny.
John Kenny: To some people this won’t be a little known fact, but to most perhaps it is. I played the part of Patrick Pearse, the leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, in the movie Michael Collins, which was directed by Neil Jordan in 1996. I wouldn’t blink, though, or you’ll miss the brief few seconds I turn up. Three days of scenes we shot; I’m still waiting for the director’s cut.
BN: Which was your first love, acting or writing and why did writing win out in the end (so far)?
JK: My actual first love was art, specifically comic art. I grew up reading all those 1960s Marvel comics and it was my dream to become a Marvel comics artist. All my spare time was taken with drawing my favourite characters and inventing new ones. There are more avenues for Irish comics writers and artists to make a career for themselves in the States and the UK, but back when I was dreaming about it, there was no real way forward.
I didn’t really start reading books until after I left school at 18, having been put off the idea of reading by the Christian Brothers and their nonsensical choices of approved texts for the school curriculum. And the urge to write didn’t hit me until I was nearly 30, so I’m a late bloomer. Initially it was all SF, but over the years, as I’ve broadened my reading tastes, I’ve branched out into horror, dark fantasy, slipstream and mainstream literature. Lately, a lot of the work has hints of autobiography to it and is edging more towards the mainstream end of the spectrum with minor fantastical elements.
Acting was something I got into be pure chance. There were two intitial reasons: I wanted to gain more contact with someone I fancied (now my wife, Susan) and knew she was a member of a particular theatre group (the Grove Players), and I thought drama workshops would be a good way to improve my writing of dialogue in my fiction. Of course I ended up getting drawn into the world of theatre and ended up acting full-time, getting an agent and an Equity card, etc., etc.
It was when my first daughter arrived on the scene that I decided I needed to get a ‘proper’ job. Much as I was incredibly busy with acting work, I wasn’t making any real money. So I walked away from acting and into the corporate world. It was a very painful wrench for me, but I found that I could at least fit in a little time here and there writing. Despite operating in the ‘real’ world, I could still express myself artistically. Writing became an outlet for me that I could fit into my hectic schedule. And over time it has become what I love most to do.
BN: Checking your website, you seem to be doing a lot of editing at the moment. How did that come about?
JK: Well my first foray into editing occurred many years ago when I was asked to edit FTL, the magazine of the Irish Science Fiction Association. I had written a lot of articles and reviews for FTL‘s predecessor Stargate, and when the ISFA’s new magazine was proposed I stepped up to the plate and edited a few issues of it. FTL eventually folded and about a year or so afterward that a few of us in the ISFA decided we’d launch our own magazine, one that was not tied to any organisation. And lo, Albedo One was born. This was in 1993 and since then we have published 40 issues of the magazine, interviewed a host of well-known writers and published fiction by them too, alongside newer talent, picked up a gaggle of awards from the likes of the European SF Society, and have generally had a good time doing it all.
During this time I also used my writing and editing skills in the corporate world, working over a period of ten or so years for two companies involved in managing overseas development aid programmes. I also did some journalistic writing and editing for specialist trade magazines such as AMT (Advanced Manufacturing Technology) and Business and Finance. I then moved on to managing an online writers’ resource called Writing4all, which was a little more in keeping with my personal interests. Apart from the upkeep on the site, adding articles, news and events, I was involved in judging monthly fiction and non-fiction postings to the site and their annual Writing Spirit Award. This culminated in the publication of a Writing4all Best of the Year anthology, which involved a serious level of editing work for me.
Unfortunately, funding for Writing4all was severely cut and I found myself out on my ear and looking for work again at the beginning of 2011. It occurred to me that, while I look for a ‘proper’ job, I might make a fist of cobbling together a freelance career for myself that combined a mixture of writing, editing and creative writing teaching (something I’d done on and off over the years). The editing work, in particular, seemed to visit itself upon me without my having to go out and search for it. Within a three week period, out of nowhere, I was asked on four separate occasions if I would edit a novel or short story and how much I charged. I did my research and came up with an equitable rate and off I was to a galloping start. I set up my own website/blog (http://johnrichardkenny.com) to promote all this and I’ve been snowed ever since.
BN: Sounds great. Tell me specifically about editing Box of Delights. That must have been an interesting journey.
JK: Editing Box of Delights was an entirely different proposition to previous editing jobs I’ve tackled. With Albedo One, there is an editorial team, so the workload is shared, as is the responsibility for having chosen the stories that end up in the magazine. And I’d had a taste of editing one anthology before, Writing4all: The Best of 2009, but most of the stories that featured had been picked as the Best of the Month on the Writing4all website by my predecessor, so I hadn’t read all the postings in order to pick the winners.
With Box of Delights, I was very much on my own in terms of taking sole responsibility for the choices made and having to read all the submissions. From the start I wanted to operate as wide open a submissions policy as possible. Consequently, there was a long submission period (beginning of January to the end of May, 2011) and there was no theme, just the title of the anthology to go by. During that time I got over 400 submissions (including, funnily enough, only one zombie story) and while I tried to give feedback on rejected stories it wasn’t always possible due to the scale of the response to the call for submissions.
In the beginning I was a little worried about not having the back-up of an editorial team to discuss particular stories with, but I’m delighted with the stories I ended up picking for the book. The actual editing process, once I’d settled on the stories going in, was quite involved, some stories needing only a light nip and tuck, others requiring a fair bit of dialogue back and forth with the author before finalising the pieces. While this was hard work, I found the process very rewarding, and the discussion of story specifics beneficial to my own writing.
BN: How detailed was your editing? I spoke to an author who had to six major re-writes after acceptance before his novel was published. How do you determine if a story is worth pursuing if so much work is needed. Why not bin it and go on to the next submission?
JK: For some stories the editing was incredibly detailed. There was extensive line editing and ocassional leaps of logic that needed to be sorted out. On one story, which will remain nameless, I advocated the first 1,800 words be deleted. It was a case of the story really starting further into the piece. All that was then required was the additional of a few sentences here and there to give the reader certain bits of information. On another story, which will also remain nameless, I asked for the final section to be cut down quite a bit. The author came back with too much of the good stuff taken out, so I re-edited that bit to keep in what I thought to be the good stuff while reducing the wordage. On those stories, and a few others, there was a lot of toing and froing, checking out if certain sentences worked or not, before we agreed on the final version. Always, I sought the author’s approval of my suggested edits.
As to why I didn’t just bounce them and move onto the next submission, they were stories that had a certain indefinable ‘something’ that really appealed to me. It’s an entirely subjective thing, which is why I often say to writers that they shouldn’t feel too dejected when their stories are rejected; it can be because the story is irredeemably awful, but it’s often a case of that particular editor not engaging with the story. Anyway, as to that indefinable ‘something’, it’s usually something to do with the main character being convincing, or the particular voice of the story, or a fresh or intriguing angle on the premise that keeps me reading the story and spurs me to entertain the notion that, with a little work, the story can be brought up a notch to deliver a greater punch.
BN: Finally, if you were not a writer but an artist of any other type – painter, musician, whatever – and you could have created aonly one work to be remembered by (one-hit-wonder), what would it be?
JK: Hmmm…. Good question. And a difficult one to answer if I can pick only one other art form and one specific piece. I have a wide-ranging interest in art, music, the theatre and film apart from literature. Of those artistic expressions, art is the oldest, although music has a greater impact on the human subconscious. I think I’d have to pick something by an artist and that artist would have to be Picasso. I reckon he’s the greatest 20th Century artist in that he tried so many different things, was horrifically prolific and innovative, and was unafraid of the critical response (leaving aside the fact that he was an egomaniac and a total bastard to the women in his life). And the obvious painting would have to be Guernica. That one painting captures all the torment and agony of war, along with the injustice of a war crime, and the impotence of those caught in the middle of atrocity. What would also attract me to the idea of being the creator of the painting is the impact it has had since its creation; it has been attacked on numerous occasions, at one point having to be kept behind bullet-proof glass, and still has the power to effect people strongly. Now that’s art.