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An Interview With Thomas E. Kennedy by Timmy Waldron | Word Riot

January 15, 2013      

An Interview With Thomas E. Kennedy by Timmy Waldron

Photograph by Mark Hillringhouse

Photograph by Mark Hillringhouse

Thomas E. Kennedy is the award winning author of over 30 books, including novels, story and essay collections, literary criticism, and anthologies – most recently from, Bloomsbury worldwide, the COPENHAGEN QUARTET, four independent novels about the souls and seasons of the Danish capital: IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS (2010), FALLING SIDEWAYS (2011) and, in 2013 and 2014, KERRIGAN IN COPENHAGEN and BENEATH THE NEON EGG. His stories, essays and translations have appeared in numerous publications, and in recent editions of the Boston Review, Ecotone, New Letters, and South Carolina Review. He has lived in Denmark for more than thirty years, but often visits the United States where he teaches in the low-residency MFA program of Fairleigh Dickinson University. His new and selected stories, GETTING LUCKY, have been published this year by New American Press.

Timmy Waldron: How did you go about picking what would be included in this collection?

Thomas E. Kennedy: I chose what was included in this collection first with the previously uncollected stories, the pieces which had not previously fit into any collection, but which were some of my favorite stories of mine. I started with what I considered one of the best stories I had written in some years — a piece that had been published in a fine magazine edited by Mark Mirsky at the City College of New York and called FICTION. That story is near to my heart, called “Is Dog?” And I put a lot of my friends in it, in permutations, a bookstore owner who is a close friend (I transported him from Copenhagen to Manhattan), a Catholic school teacher I have a crush on, an old estranged friend who is a math genius, and a string of beads made of tiger dung that I heard about, and it all seemed to come together neatly — at least I felt that way. Then in the remainder of that first section I included pieces I still loved (none that I do not love, of which there are many) and concluding with the title novella, which I am still very fond of, “Getting Lucky,” which is quite autobiographical and appeared the first time out in South Carolina Review. It was rejected by the first magazine I sent it to because the editor of that magazine and his wife are represented in that novella, but he allowed me to read it at his university, and his wife gave me a big hug afterwards.

Following that section are selections of 2 or 3 stories from my four previous collections in the order in which they were published — UNREAL CITY (1996), DRIVE DIVE DANCE & FIGHT (1997), CAST UPON THE DAY (2007) and LAST NIGHT MY BED A BOAT OF WHISKEY GOING DOWN (2010)… I chose the stories I liked best from those collections, but I could as well have chosen pieces from my essay collections, especially RIDING THE DOG: A LOOK BACK AT AMERICA (2008), which are very close to short stories.

I guess that I have been lying for so long that I no longer know the difference between a lie and the truth, but truth is born of lies. At first I resisted the term “creative nonfiction,” but now I find it very handy to describe what I write – it’s all a lie and really happened, it’s nonfiction that we create.

Screen shot 2013-01-15 at 8.10.31 PMTW: In the introduction to GETTING LUCKY you refer to an image from a Rilke poem of a bare tree in winter and how that equates to writing. What is your unproductive time like?

TK: My unproductive time — especially the 20 years that it took me to get published — was and is a mixture of anxiety, of trying, writing, starting lots pages and taking lots of notes that I want to throw out, but don’t know if I will regret that throwing out – will need them later. When I look at that dark, still tree in winter, I wonder whether it is experiencing the deepest pain inside with invisible grimaces or whether it is content in its process, doing what it has to do, passive or active, to wait for the sap to begin to flow again. Maybe it is telling itself stories about the fine leaves it wore last season or about the blight it went through a few years back which seemed about to kill it — but it survived. It is a mystery. Its language is branches, twigs, knots, inner rings, roots that branch out endlessly in the rich soil, buds, flowers, leaves… It speaks to us, tells its story, in that way. And by dancing in the storm, by growing, by reaching out in an enormous embrace, reaching upward, or by bending until its trunk is curved…

You know there was a poem by a Danish poet — I can’t remember his name off hand, but he was a favorite of Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen a.k.a.Meryl Streep – who seemed to think that when Danes speak English they sound like Poles speaking English) — and this poet said something like, When you walked in the forest, did you not think the many trees and branches observed you, heard what you said? I think that trees are fellow species and point with all their fingers everywhere, telling us to see.

TW: Would you explain how you go about the actual business of writing?

TK: The actual business of writing, for me, is a messy process. There are those who say it can be contained and inscribed on index cards of various sizes and colors and outlined and plotted and projected, but in my experience it is based on scribbles on soiled, ragged scraps of paper that come together, some of them perhaps, into a first draft. Sometimes you get lucky and hammer out a story in a few bangs. Sometimes it takes longer — very much longer. The most recent story I wrote as of this date is called “X’s Xmas,” and it is in its 30th draft now and who knows whether it will be viable, whether it will appear, whether I will come to regret it.

The novella “Getting Lucky” was a gift of sorts. I started it on quite autobiographical terms, and it continued on quite autobiographical terms. The autobiography, however, turned into
a story and there are some similarities with some of the many personal essays/CNFs/stories of LAST NIGHT MY BED A BOAT OF WHISKEY GOING DOWN, although “Getting Lucky” was written afterwards and written, if I may, in a different direction from the “essays” of that collection.

TW: What is the big regret if a story is not viable? Do you see it as a waste of time or a failure? Isn’t there always something to be learned? Or is that just hokum?

TK: I guess I feel it as a failure to achieve what I was after — or a failure of vision; I thought something great was in some detail or other, but maybe that greatness was not in it, or maybe I failed to develop that greatness from it. What, I guess, is to be learned from such a short-coming is that not all ideas are viable, or you can’t make them viable, but you don’t know unless you try. You have to try it all — or try to try it all — lest you miss something really good.

TW: How do you decide how a story will be told?

TK: Purely intuitively. Or nearly purely intuitively. Sometimes I start in one person and think this feels flat and go to another person. Although many people despise writing that is in the 2nd person (I had my personal essay I won the national magazine award for rejected because it is in the 2nd person — not to say that prizes mean much other than that they open doors) but I think it is fun to write that way and what could be more fun than fun?

With 1st person I need to know the character very closely because otherwise I can confuse that character with myself. And for that reason I often choose 3rd person because it helps me to distance myself from the persona. As soon as you say “he” did something or other, you have a free range of action (even if the action is autobiographical).

TW: Your story “L’Auteur des Choses” takes a metafictional turn, more so than the other work included in this collection. What made you go in that direction?

TK: “L’Auteur des Choses” was simply a metafictional riff. I love metafiction and that involved 3 red-headed young women I know with whom I had been in an outdoor bar on the Coal square in Copenhagen one summer day and happened to mention that I admired women’s feet. To my surprise suddenly I had 3 pairs of gorgeous women’s feet in my lap at once, but I got too shy to do anything with such bounty! Instead I started mentally writing a story about those 3 red-headed women and suddenly it wound up in Paris, another city I love. (Actually I originally had the idea for a book about red-heads from Walter Cummins. I know a young Danish writer, Line-Maria Lång, who has red hair and was in Paris and sent me a photograph of her sleeping in the grass, smoking a joint, and I sent it to Walter to share its beauty with him, and he suggested that we invite a bunch of writers to do stories, poems, essays inspired by the photograph — THE GIRL WITH RED HAIR, published in 2010 by Serving House Books).

TW: The opening paragraph of “Bonner’s Women” is the most dangerous writing I have ever encountered. Every time I read it, I put the book down and go on a two day drunk. The sadness, the happiness, the loneliness, and the joy all resonate so deeply. What is the key to writing such emotionally provocative stuff?

TK: Wow, thank you very much — I get tempted to have a martini from that paragraph, too; it was meant to be a kind of verbal monument to martinis and what they do. The thing about that story is that the reader reads the title first, then reads that paragraph and presumably thinks that each paragraph follows from the one before. And each paragraph does follow from the one before, but I did not know the title before I wrote that paragraph. I did not know what the story was about before I wrote that paragraph. But the key to it all was the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel, and what that bar and that hotel suggested to my subconscious mind, and I continued to riff on that — discovered that the guy was going from work to visit his mother in Jackson Heights who was senile (I discovered later), and that while he is in the Oak Bar, telephoning his mother, he spots a former mistress coming into the bar, and so on and so forth. Ideally that’s how I write — from an emotionally charged sense and I go into it and discover what I can discover from that emotion or those emotions. Sometimes — ideally — I get surprised by the discovery of what lies in there. In fact, that story grew to a novel a couple of years later, A PASSION IN THE DESERT (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2007) from which I discovered many more things about that character and the woman he was married to. My girlfriend at the time that I was writing that novel read it in manuscript and said simply to me, “I think that woman, Jenny, is not nearly as nice as you think she is.” And no one wanted to publish it. I puzzled over what that girlfriend said to me for a long time, years, then finally realized she was right. I rewrote the novel with that in mind, and it was published and well-received critically, a finalist for the Foreword Magazine Prize when it was published.

It all reminds me, the discovery that is entailed in writing a story or a novel or an essay or whatever, of the lines from Eliot: “If you came this way,/Taking any route, starting from anywhere,/At any time or at any season…” Eliot goes on in that poem to another place, but those lines evoke for me the creative process and that you just have to start, anywhere, and your language will lead you where you have to go.

    1 comment to An Interview With Thomas E. Kennedy by Timmy Waldron

    • Steve

      Good to see Mr. Kennedy getting some attention. He is, to me, an undervalued resource. A very good writer, and a very nice man.

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