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Kate Tempest interview: "Rhyming was the first, most natural place for me"

Southeast London’s grit and beauty runs through the veins of the spoken-word poet and author who’ll open this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival

Time Out first encountered Kate Tempest at Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2013. On stage, she lets the rise and fall of her voice tell raw and emotive stories. Shoulders hunched and gripping at her T-shirt, she speaks to the audience about everyday South Londoners like Becky, Harry and Pete in a way that feels like she’s telling them for the first time.

In May, the 30-year-old Ted Hughes Award-winning poet is coming back to Sydney Writers’ Festival as a debut author – only three months since her last trip for Sydney Festival, where she performed her debut solo album Everybody Down, which received a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize in 2014. It might sound confusing, but to Tempest writing is writing – she just works across many forms.

“Rhyming was the first, most natural place for me to invest my creativity,” she says, speaking to Time Out from her home in Lewisham, UK. “I’ve dreamed of being able to write a novel all my life [but] the earlier starts I made were more about wanting to be a novelist rather than actually having an idea. It was some kind of strange ego trip really.”

Her debut novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, is set in her hometown and its characters are people she’s introduced before in her songs and her first play, Wasted. “The two projects were always meant to happen together,” says Tempest. “Getting to the end of this novel has been about getting to the end of a lot of work that I’ve had in my head for the last three-four-five years. It’s like opening a window in my brain and all this air’s coming in. I can move on to other things.”

"She was this passive female character. Like, what the fuck?"

Becky, Harry (Harriet) and Pete move through a love triangle mixed up in a heist. In the first draft, written three years ago, Tempest tells us that Harry was initially written as a man. She was surprised to find that Becky “was this passive female character”, exclaiming, “Like, what the fuck? How have I managed to write a passive woman? I’ve never met one.” By changing Harry’s gender, her female protagonist now had agency and she says “the love story felt more true if Harry was a woman.”

Though Tempest says she’s ready to move on to new characters, she hints “one of them has survived to the next album”. Joking, “I’ve not had a funeral for them or anything. They’re still walking around in my head.”

One aspect of Tempest’s work that’s unlikely to die is her connection to place. She still lives just ten minutes away from her primary school, where she says she’s “learned everything about friendship, love, death – in this tiny little corner of the world.” The two William Blake poems that punctuate the novel speak to the poetic connection of London’s ever-changing borough.

“I feel very connected to this place. It’s inside me as much as it is outside me. It’s home. Even though the book is very localised, and very geographically specific, I think because it’s about home it can hopefully be universal.” Blake is “somebody I turn to in my darkest hours. Also, he’s a South London boy, so his words are entrenched in this soil. I feel him here.”

The Bricks that Built the Houses is available now from Bloomsbury. Kate Tempest is appearing three times at Sydney Writers' Festival and in Byron Bay on Tue May 24.

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