From agent to fool

Jennifer Kavanagh
Opinion - Books Monday, 09 September 2019

Jennifer Kavanagh on the voices of fiction and non-fiction


I belong to a community of fools. It's not a part of my life that I often own up to, because the response is usually one of puzzlement. "A fool? What do you mean?" Yes, it's hard to explain what we do. Think of Shakespeare's fools - playful, yes, but subverting the status quo. From agent to fool seems an unlikely transition, but those with long memories may remember certain elements of a publishers' panto which may have pointed the way.

My second novel, The Silence Diaries (John Hunt, October), is narrated by a fool: a fool, what is more, whose practice is in silence.

I'm wary about saying too much about either of the novels I've written, because I like to feel that each reveals itself gradually. The way I describe this one is to say that it's about voices and silence, truth and lies. I won't say I wanted to explore aspects of voices and silence, because for me the process is less conscious than that. It all started when I met a ventriloquist. Once I lighted on voices, silence wasn't far behind.

Silence, both contemplative and helpless, even punitive. Withholding or speaking out. Lies and truth. And a relationship that's built on one transcending the other. Voices, plural and singular. Others' and our own. Maybe, after a lifetime of words, silence is all. Or, maybe not. Sometimes it's necessary to speak out. There are many ways to change the world.

And the book I'm embarking on for Little, Brown couldn't be more different - except it's called Voices from the Edge. Not so much about voices as presenting them.

With three others, I've started working on a contemporary take on Mayhew's 1860s London Life and the London Poor: an oral history of the streets of London. Not just those living on the streets, but those making a living there - from market traders to entertainers to sex workers. Beggars, drug dealers, those selling food for office lunches, or delivering it, or giving out leaflets.

Their voices. It's a long project, and so far listening has been both a sadness and a joy. But the similarity with the novel is not so much in the content as in the process, so much of which is in unknowing. In writing The Silence Diaries I did not know where the meeting with the ventriloquist would take me, and, although the general direction is clear, I don't know now what an interview for Voices from the Edge will reveal - or even on any given day whom my instinct will draw me to approach.

Fiction and non-fiction, both demand a willingness to be open to the unexpected.

Jennifer Kavanagh is a former publisher and literary agent.

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