Jackie Kay: 'Writing is as much a confidence game as football'

Novelist and poet Jackie Kay talks to us about hosting the 2019 Society of Authors' Awards as a past winner, and why poetry is in a state of rude health.

Photo © Mary McCartney

We’re so excited for you to host our SoA Awards this year. What does it mean to you to be hosting these awards?

Life makes its own lovely circles sometimes. It feels hugely important to me to be hosting these uniquely special and important awards. Awards such as these give writers a real boost, and tell them that what they've been doing is worthwhile. Writing can often be isolating. The SoA awards bring writers in from the cold. I'm looking forward to congratulating each and every recipient and to seeing the huge smiles on their faces!

How important do you think these awards are for authors, particularly our new award for debut novelists over 60?

These awards are especially important for authors because they are judged by other authors, and because they are independent – they are not part of some huge sponsorship campaign. There's something lovely and true about them. I particularly like that the SoA Awards support young poets and debut novelists over 60! The awards give the writers a real dose of enthusiasm, boost their spirits and make the impossible seem suddenly possible. Writing is as much a confidence game as football. And writers are often plagued by self-doubt. Awards like this put self-doubt in the cupboard for a while!

As a past winner of one of our Cholmondeley Awards (2003), Eric Gregory Awards (1991) and Somerset Maugham Awards (1994), what impact have these awards had on your work and career?

Winning an Eric Gregory Award was life changing for me. I only heard about them, funnily enough, from my good friend Fred D'Aguiar, and so I applied in the last year that I was eligible and didn't expect anything. It was, and still is retrospectively, one of the most exciting things that happened to me. I had not yet published a whole collection, and I think it made a difference and allowed my first book The Adoption Papers to find Bloodaxe! 

And winning the Somerset Maugham was a delight. I'd always loved Maugham’s stories as a teenager, and loved the idea that I had an award named after him. It gave me a little breathing space, and allowed me to write my second book.

Who or what are you most excited about in poetry and fiction at the moment?

So many wonderful things happening in the poetry world at the moment – across the whole world. Poetry is in rude health. People are turning to it more and more to try and make sense of the world we are living in. In these particular times, poetry finds its place in the world – how necessary it is to hear its pure voice above the hostile rabble of some of what is going on in the world of politics.

I'm particularly excited about the poets I've been reading in this last year: Zaffar Kunial, Tracy K Smith, Major Jackson, Jay Bernard, Hannah Sullivan, Chris Abani, Imtiaz Dharker, Ocean Vuong, Liz Berry; and the poets I've been returning to whose work I first came across years ago: Sorley MacLean, Nan Shepherd, Pablo Neruda, Audre Lorde, Hugh MacDiarmid. The wonderful thing about poetry is the way that the dead poets live, and the way that the living poets manage to still have a conversation with the dead.

About Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay was born and brought up in Scotland. The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe) won the Forward Prize, a Saltire prize and a Scottish Arts Council Prize. Fiere was shortlisted for the Costa award and her novel Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the IMPAC award.

Jackie Kay also writes for children and her book Red Cherry Red (Bloomsbury) won the CLYPE award. She has written extensively for stage and television. Her plays, Manchester Lines (produced by Manchester Library Theatre) and The New Maw Broon Monologues (produced by Glasgay), were a great success. Her most recent collection, Bantam, was published in 2017 to critical acclaim. She is Chancellor of the University of Salford and Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

Jackie Kay was named Scots Makar – the National Poet for Scotland – in March 2016.

About the Society of Authors' Awards

The Society of Authors' Awards are run for authors, by authors, annually recognising the best and most promising voices of the year. This year's event is generously supported by the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and takes place on Monday 17 June at Southwark Cathedral.