Kathryn Scanlan: Gordon Burn prize winner on pushing the boundaries of fiction | Books

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‘Taut” is one of the most overused words in book marketing. A novel is nothing if not “irresistibly taut”, “taut and emotionally charged”, or even “bow-string taut and visceral”. It’s become a glib descriptor – the likes of which Kathryn Scanlan would probably detest. Ironically, there’s not a writer today for whom the word is more appropriate.

The author has earned a reputation for turning out slim volumes which trouble the boundary between novel and nonfiction. Her award-winning debut, Aug 9 – Fog, draws from a diary that Scanlan picked up at auction, the entries of which she deconstructed then reassembled. Her most recent title, Kick the Latch, is based on real-life conversations she had with an Iowan former horse trainer called Sonia. The book, which was awarded this year’s Gordon Burn prize on Thursday, is made up of short vignettes (the shortest is just 15 words long), which immerse readers into an insular and often violent subculture. As with Aug 9 – Fog, Scanlan edited and rearranged the transcripts, deploying artistic licence here and there to create something almost true.

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Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan. Photograph: PR

“Barbara Epler, at [the US publishing house] New Directions, doesn’t read agents’ letters, she always reads the manuscript cold,” says Scanlan from her home in LA, the night before her win is announced. “So when she read the book, she thought it was a memoir, and then went back to read [the pitch]. I just really love that you could come to this book and not really know what it is you’re reading. I really liked that sensation when I’m reading a book, of being like, what is this? What am I reading here? It’s an exciting feeling to me.”

Gordon Burn’s 1991 title Alma Cogan, which imagines the pop singer’s life had she survived past the age of 34, gave Scanlan that very sensation. She has been swotting up on his work since being shortlisted for the prize and is part-way through Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son when we speak.

Scanlan grew up next to a “small wooded acreage” in eastern Iowa, surrounded by animals both domestic and wild. They have been a constant theme in her life and work ever since. Her short story collection, The Dominant Animal, interrogates the relationship between man and beast. It was described by the Guardian as “not flashes of fiction or experiments but carefully made works, executed with powerful economy”. Both of Scanlan’s parents were “horse people” and it was her mother who introduced her to Sonia. The pair first met at a flea market in 2018, when the author was visiting from LA, and bonded over a mutual respect for animals. Their first conversation, during which Sonia “talked unbroken for about four hours”, formed the basis of the book’s first draft. Additional phone calls made during lockdown helped Scanlan to revise and eventually complete Kick the Latch. “For the most part, my conversations with Sonia were primarily me just listening to her. I didn’t ask a lot of questions,” she says.

Sonia is a talker, unlike Scanlan, who is as economical with her speech as she is with her writing. But she and her subject share something essential – a distaste for embellishment. “When [Sonia] spoke to me, she didn’t really explain herself, you know,” says Scanlan. “She would speak to me as though I knew exactly what she was talking about, as though I had been there also or I was part of this racetrack community, which I really appreciated. It’s a quality that I really appreciate in books in general. I love to have things told to me in a way that assumes that I can keep up or can understand and I think that the mystery or the tension of the things that I don’t understand … I get a lot of joy out of that.”

Kick the Latch leans all the way into this tension. Written in staccato sentences and completely lacking in sentiment, readers get what they are given and must fill in the gaps for themselves. Scanlan’s prose is more powerful for it, as is the case when Sonia recounts an instance of rape: “The guy sobered up, I knew him, I seen him every day, I knew exactly who it was – it was bad, but anyway, I survived. I cut my hair real short after that.”

Scanlan owes much to her time at the University of Iowa, where she studied English and art as an undergraduate. Here, she was introduced to work by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor and Jo Ann Beard. An adviser pointed her towards Diane Williams, another master of concise American fiction, whom Scanlan now considers a mentor. And her study of painting was equally formative. “[Collage, appropriation and repurposing] is a very old practice in visual art,” says Scanlan. “In writing, those seem like very natural methods to me. That’s probably informed by the fact that I have this training and understanding of different modes of visual work. It shapes how I think about my books and stories.”

In her upcoming titles, Scanlan will continue to mine found materials and real-life testimony. A short story collection is “concerned with children and mothers”, while her new novel is simply “about driving”, she tells me. Bow-string taut to the last, I think.

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