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A Quick Chat with Vivien Kelly
A Richmond Review author interview

Vivien Kelly

Take One Young Man
Vivien Kelly

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We’ve seen all-too-many twenty-something singleton-around-town novels in recent years and almost without exception they’ve been vapid and inane – and certainly not what the average Richmond Review reader would be seen reading on the Tube of a morning. So the arrival on the literary scene of Vivien Kelly – twenty-something, works in advertising, lives in London – might be expected to prompt a somewhat cynical response in the RR editorial offices. And news that Kelly’s debut work Take One Young Man is the story of a twenty-something singleton who works in advertising and lives in London hardly encourages further investigation. Happily, however, Kelly is quite unlike any other twenty-something novelist currently at work in the UK – and far from being the usual banal exploration of banal lives, Take One Young Man is an exceptional first novel which mixes fluent storytelling, thoughful insight, sensitive observation, seriousness and humour, all in perfect proportion.

Take One Young Man‘s central character Sam Glass is just 25 but he’s already in a rut – he spends his days being insulted by bosses and clients and his nights drinking with best chum Henry, and he hates it:


Sam couldn’t help feeling, after he had left university, that his life had somehow stopped. That everything had been put on hold for a few years. In fact, when he thought about it he wasn’t even sure that his life had ever begun. School and university were all preparation, they were all part of the process of getting ready, of building up knowledge and ways of thinking and skills that would be used later on. But used later on doing what? Sam couldn’t help thinking, ‘Is this it?’ Over and over he refused to believe that it was. But when he asked himself what it was, he had no answer. And so he felt that he was waiting. Treading water. Fire-fighting. Taking two steps forward and two back. Twenty-five and waiting for a different life. Waiting for the real thing. Waiting to become somebody. When he chewed his fingers that was what he was thinking. When he stared at the sky those were the thoughts that went through his mind. And it always started with the same question: Is this it?


Unlike his peers in London, however, Sam has a romantic faith in the possibility of redemption from the banality of everyday urban life:


He got up and went back into his room, where he shut the window and gazed for a moment at his maps, remembering the game he had played when he got in last night and looking at where the pin had struck home. Climbing into bed he thought that the answer must lie on one of those maps. There must be some place where things would make sense, where he would do the right thing, where he would stare at the sky to admire its beauty and not to look for an answer.


The chance sighting of an advert for a job in Antarctica provides Sam with his glimpse of where to find the answer and, together with Henry, he endures an arduous selection process – and when the job offer comes through he sets about dismantling his ordered, career-orientated existence with a quietly savage efficiency.

Sam’s romantic conception of Antarctica comes at least partly from the fact that his grandfather Leo had an Antarctic adventure of his own in the early-ish days of British polar exploration. And Leo is the secret star of this novel – an 86-year-old man whose vitality and keen intelligence are both the source of Sam’s dissatisfaction and the means of his redemption. For as well as granting his grandson the vision to test himself by facing life in the Antarctic, Leo has groomed Sam’s soul in such a way that when Sam meets the novel’s love interest Kasia he is able to love and be loved with the authentic passion that has been missing from his peers’ desultory one-night-stands and casual flings. And as Leo is this novel’s secret star, so it’s Leo’s own love affair with Kasia, sixty-one years his junior, that provides the novel’s ironic weight:


‘It’s a shame we can’t see the whole sky at once, all flattened out in one long canvas. Then I could tell you all about the stars in the Southern Hemisphere too. There are more there, and there are fewer cities, so the sky is darker, and the stars shine even brighter.’ Leo cleared his throat and dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘You know the best thing about stars?’ Kasia shook her head. ‘The best thing about stars is that, being so far away, the way we see them is not the way they actually are. The sun is so far away that the way we see it is actually the way it looked eight minutes ago. The moon is nearer, but still the moon we are looking at is the moon as it looked over a second ago. Because the light has to travel so far’. He paused. ‘Sometimes I think it could be marvellous if the same thing could happen to us. So that, despite the fact that I’m eighty-six, you would look at me and see me how I was at twenty-five, so light would take sixty-one years to pass from me to you. You would see me as I was then, and never be able to see me as I am now’.

Neither of them said anything. Instead they looked at the airy darkness above them, still and silent. The question of why Leo wanted Kasia to see him as he was then and not as he was now did not cross Kasia’s mind. The answer was obvious. The answer was just as clear as Leo’s eyes were cloudy, it was as straightforward as Leo’s fingers were bent. It was sitting in every crease and fold of Leo’s papery skin.

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Richmond Review: Take One Young Man strikes me as being the kind of novel that comes out of a lifelong desire to write fiction.

Vivien Kelly: I started off wanting to be ‘a motor-bike man’, which was closely followed by wanting to be ‘a lady-writer’, so yes I did start off wanting to write. However, the desire got lost somewhere along the route to grown-up-dom, and I didn’t really think about it again. It wasn’t until I’d written quite a lot of Take One Young Man that I acknowledged that writing was something I really wanted to do.

RR: You have a busy career as an account handler in advertising – how do you fit the writing in?

VK: I tend to do a little often. Nothing crystalises the mind like spending the day doing stuff you don’t particularly want to, so I usually arrive home determined to do some writing.

RR: Which must make it difficult to find time for research…

VK: Which is one of the reasons I wrote about advertising in the first place since that way I wouldn’t have to spend my life reading Lett’s Guide to Accountancy or grilling homeopaths or whatever….

RR: But you paint a pretty negative picture of the world of advertising in the book – so perhaps that is research.

VK: The whole book didn’t take place in front of my eyes, but there are some scenes which certainly did.

RR: The idea of Antarctica works in the novel as a metaphor for escape from the everyday banality of work, alcohol, anonymous sex and so on…

VK: But also of the values that the advertising industry and society at large holds dear. Advertising deals in the dreams of individuals – it recognizes that most of us are in some way discontented – and promises us that the solution to our discontent lies in a simple but climatic till transaction.

RR: That sense that Sam’s not just rejecting a job or a particular lot in life, but also the very system his job in advertising depends on comes across very clearly in the novel without ever really being made explicit.

VK: Sam’s dream needed to be realisable outside of the purchasing arena. In the capitalist world Antarctica is almost meaningless – since the Antarctic Treaty was ratified in 1960 it can’t be owned or bought and has, thankfully, a limited potential for profit, having been set aside solely and permanently for peaceful purposes and cooperative scientific research.

RR: Somewhere you’d like to go yourself?

VK: It’s the last great wilderness on earth and I suppose in that respect it could be seen as our last chance not to fuck things up environmentally. My visiting the place wouldn’t help.

RR: Sam isn’t at all unusual in that the source of his dissatisfaction with his life is partly his knowledge that his grandfather’s generation was in some way "tested" – either in war or by embarking on expeditions such as Leo’s own.

VK: On the surface there are a number of similarities between the early nineteen-hundreds and the nineteen-nineties: the Labour landslide; localised wars; a feeling of, if not a powerful Britain, then at least a fairly strong one. But I don’t really think that any of these capture what Sam finds so fascinating about the time. He has, like a lot of people, a romanticised view of early polar exploration. He sees its major figures as shining examples of courage, endurance and resolution. It is these qualities which attract Sam – qualities that seem to have no bearing on, or rather no use in, the life he currently lives.

RR: And in the year 2000 it could be difficult to find any place where those qualities would be of much practical use…

VK: These men were the last generation of terrestrial explorers and to a generation motivated by ease and convenience and fully accustomed to the notion of air travel, terrestrial exploration is something which seems so utterly daunting it appears almost impossible. We know that anyone attempting to get to the south pole today would be only a small part of a huge operation; their progress would be monitored live on the web, help would be available at the slightest sign of danger and probably the whole trip would be sponsored by a multi-national drinks company.

RR: Our generation is obsessed with the soldier-poet-explorers of the Edwardian era in a way that Sam neatly reflects – but many of those people could be accused of gross stupidity just as easily as they could be acclaimed for their heroism.

VK: A group of young men doing remarkable things seems to have come to symbolize the whole decade, which is why it appeals to Sam, given his situation and youth. Shackleton said that the qualities necessary to the explorer are first, optimism; second, patience; third, physical endurance; fourth, idealism; fifth and last, courage. Optimism and hope were key to these explorers – qualities usually associated, at least until the aftermath of WW1, with being young. So while it is possible to criticise all these men, or at least the British parties, for oversights, bad planning and all-round amateurism, their spirits, at least in the eyes of Sam, remain unassailable.

RR: You write convincingly – and empathetically – about an old man’s emotions and personality.

VK: Leo provides a contrast to the busy twenty-something London life that was to be the focus of the book. It seems to me that in this country old people are written off way before their hearts stop beating. Again, this is partly driven by a consumerist society, where old people are, on the whole, impotent – they have low spending power, buy in small volumes, and have a limited capacity for loyalty…

RR: Those sound like technical terms…

VK: They’re effectively invisible: they stay in their houses, or they’re put away in homes or sheltered accommodation. Out of sight and out of mind.

I’d been reading The View in Winter by Ronald Blythe, a collection of interviews with old people conducted in the seventies. I began to think about the way we approach old people. It seemed to me that we tend to think of old people as though they have been through some sort of trauma, which we shouldn’t mention and never ask them about. I think that when I’m old, I’ll be exactly as I am now, only older. And that’s how I wanted Leo to be – as close to how he was as a young man as I could possibly make him. And because he is entertaining and lively both Sam and Kasia’s visits aren’t a question of obligation or duty, but of friendship.

RR: And in Kasia’s case perhaps more than just friendship.

VK: The love triangle evolved during the course of writing the book. Sam and Kasia were always going to fall in love, but the love between Kasia and Leo, to use that great morning-after phrase, just happened. Given their characters and their situation it became clear, as I developed different sections of the book, that this was what would occur. I had a fixed idea of Leo’s character from the start and I knew that his role, while being peripheral from a plot point of view, would be significant within the story. Placing his ebullience next to Kasia’s vulnerability created a kind of emotional vacuum – it was inevitable that they would be sucked into it.

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