Thomas E. Kennedy’s most recent novel, Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, has been published in Ireland for European distribution. Earlier this year, a collection of his essays on writing, Realism and Other Illusions, was also published.
Kennedy’s short stories, poems, interviews, reviews and translations from Danish have appeared in hundreds of anthologies and periodicals in both the United States and
Europe, including O Henry Prize Stories 1994, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, The Writer, and Poets & Writers.
His previous novels include The Book of Angels (1997), A Weather of the Eye (1996), and Crossing Borders (1990, and he has also published two story collections, Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight (1997) and Unreal City (1996). He is currently finishing up the final versions of two new novels, A Passion in the Desert and Beneath the Neon Egg, as well as another collection of short stories, Small Gray Blues.
Kennedy serves as International Editor of Cimarron Review, served as Guest Editor and Advisory Editor of The Literary Review for the anthology issue of New Irish Writing (1997), and also co-edited the anthology issue New Danish Fiction (1995) for The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Dalkey Archive Press). As a literary critic, he has published studies of short fiction off Andre Dubus and Robert Coover, both published by Twayne/Macmillian).
Born and raised in Queens, NY, Kennedy received a B.A., summa cum laude, in English Language & Literature from Fordham University Lincoln Center, an MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Norwich University, and his Ph.D. from Copenhagen University, where his thesis was titled The Use of Verisimilitude: Fiction as Realism, Imagination, Craft.
Derek Alger: Congratulations on your new book Realism and Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction. That’s an interesting title, could you elaborate a bit on what you mean by realism and other illusions?
Thomas E. Kennedy: Simply that all fiction is based on illusion, regardless of whether it is realistic, post modernist, surreal, or what have you. And we have devices such as the anti-illusion which aim to enforce the illusion by seeming to destroy it. For example, one of John Barth’s first novels begins something like this, “I have never written a novel before, but I have read a few to try and get the hang of it . . “ Immediately the reader enters into a relationship of trust with the narrator who seems to be inviting the reader in to the most private mechanations of his art and craft. In fact, however, the narrator is a fiction, an illusion, thus, an anti-illusion. By seeming to tell you a direct truth, he conceals the fact that the entire book is fiction, hence a lie, or rather, an illusion. That realism is an illusion is not a new idea by any means — you will find references to it in sources as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stendahl, who said, “The realists of fiction ought really to be called the illusionists.”
DA: I think of you as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. You write superbly about the craft of fiction writing and yet you are also an accomplished novelist and short story writer.
TEK: I had to inch my way in from the cold, a process that took some twenty years just to really get moving. My first real published story — purchased by Martin Tucker for twenty dollars for his excellent journal CONFRONTATION — was taken when I was 37 years old, twenty years after I had decided that I wanted to be a writer. I was extremely unhappy about it — my failure to publish was a little bit like an open sore in my soul. In fact, and I never told anyone this before, I almost withdrew the story when it was accepted, I got so confused by the experience.
But what I didn’t realize about that twenty years of not being published was that I was learning constantly. I think if I had realized that it would have been an enormous consolation, but I just thought that I wasn’t writing anything publishable because I was a self-deceived idiot with an overweening ego that craved seeing its name in print. No doubt that is part of it, too, but my point is that those years of trying were part of the process. When finally I published my first story — and I knew as I was writing it that it was going to be the one that sold — I began to understand that I knew a good deal about writing, that I had learned things. And from the first story things began to move faster, I had found my way to the place where my stories are and began to write with more confidence and comprehension of what I was doing and what I wanted to do. Granted twenty years is probably longer than it takes most people and probably a good deal of others quit before they have labored that long without fruit, but 20 years was what it took me and that’s that. Fortunately, the twenty years that followed to today went better.
DA: You have described literary excellence as writing that somehow is a profound expression of our existential predicament.
TEK: Yes, what interests me about literature and art is that the best of it — what I see as the best of it — is more about mystery than manners, to play on the title of Flannery O’Connor’s wonderful book of essays. Ever since I managed to punch my way out of the eggshell of imposed religion, it has simply fascinated me to ponder the fact that: Here we are. We don’t know where we came from, or why. We don’t know where we are going although we have plenty examples of how this little journey will end. Still, we have a kind of idea that we — I, this wonderful thing called ME — might be an exception, we might be let off the hook, we might live forever. But we know. Oh, yes, we also have been created in such a way that we have to eat the flesh of other beings, dead or alive, animal or vegetable, if we wish to survive ourselves. All of this while we are perched on a ball of dirt and fire hurtling through outer space. Now this of course is only part of the stuff of fiction, a kind of constant base and backdrop, but I like fiction that somehow brings me closer to the danger and beauty and wonder of that abysmal ignorance with which we are all created. But of course, try to deal too closely or directly with it, and you wind up writing fiction that is naive and silly, like the worst of Rod Serling.
DA: As a young writer you have said that keeping a journal was a tremendous help. What was the benefit in doing so?
TEK: A professor at CCNY (City College of New York), the first time I started there,
when I was 17 years old, advised me — when I revealed to him in a composition conference that I wanted to be a fiction writer– to keep a journal to loosen up my style.
It was good advice because I had been writing rather stiff, formal, portentous sentences (as to the latter a recent reviewer complained that I occasionally still do — though his complaint was phrased, I thought, somewhat portentously). Keeping a journal helped me find my way to the language that was natural to me. I would recommend it most highly to new writers. I wish that I still kept a journal, but I cannot seem to get sufficiently organized to write everything into a single book. I take scads of notes throughout the day, but mostly on scraps and bits of paper which are littered all over my study and stuffed into various pockets and pouches. I keep them until they are used, whereupon I cross them out and/or throw them out. Most of them, incidentally, are written in whole or part in short-hand — a skill I learned when I was in the army. I hated having to learn it, but it has turned out to be an enormously useful thing throughout my life.
DA: Fear of failure I think paralyzes many beginning writers. Any advice?
TEK: Well, as Beckett said, Fail again, fail better. The idea is to fail on the highest possible level. But that is probably pretty useless advice. Van Gogh said a wonderful thing about this regarding painting. He said that if you sit and stare too long at the idiotic face of the white canvas it will frighten you into being a blank idiot yourself. He said just slap on anything when you see that idiotic white face staring at you, slap on any color, and show that staring white idiot you are not afraid. Clearly this applies to the blank page and words too. When you see the idiotic blank page staring at you, just write, anything, anything. Sometimes that will result in writing that you won’t be able to use for anything, but sometimes . . . Sometimes that is the best way to catch the policemen of the mind asleep, or to take them by surprise — just write! Now!
And the fear has to be abolished, one way or another. Trying to write with a gut full of fear is like trying to dance if you’re afraid of looking foolish — you just screw yourself up. Or, again Barth, trying to make love while picturing how ridiculous the two-backed beast looks from an objective viewpoint. You’ve got to fling yourself out into it, let it take you, let it happen. Beckett said it all happens between the hand and the page.
DA: Although there is no ironclad rule, you believe that attending an MFA program in fiction writing, when you were ready, made all the difference. What were the major benefits of such an experience?
TEK: The major benefit for me was the opportunity to meet other writers, both the faculty and the students, and to find myself suddenly in a population where virtually everyone understood virtually everything I said and vice versa. Because we were all dealing with the same problems, pursuing the same ecstasy — the ecstasy of language, of vision, of story, etc. There were also some of the very very best parties I have ever participated in. The only other profession I know who party with as much abandon as artists are doctors.
DA: Your first book was on the short fiction of Andre Dubus. How did that come about?
TEK: When I had my first twenty dollars from Martin Tucker for my first published story, I carried it into Julio’s bar in Montpelier, Vermont, where I was in an MFA program. I had intended to drink it up. (I’m not going to mention the name of the MFA program to punish them because one editor of the journal just invited me to submit a story and another editor then rejected it with a form note.) There, in Julio’s Bar, with my twenty bucks, I saw two real writers at a table — Gordon Weaver and another fellow whom I later learned was Andre Dubus II. I knew Gordon so I went up to them and explained that I had my first ever fiction honorarium and said that I would be honored if they would join me in turning it into strong drink. They graciously accepted.
We were there all evening, long after the twenty bucks ran out, and in the course of the conversation I suddenly came to realize who Andre Dubus was — that he had written a story that appeared in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES in 1970, a story called “If They Knew Yvonne” which had had a powerful and profound effect on me. This was14 years later, and it seemed to me a wonderful coincidence to be sitting there drinking with an author of a story whose dexterous fingers had virtually worked open a spiritual knot for me. I thought it only right to in some way to commemorate this synchronicity, so I asked Andre if I could interview him. He agreed. The interview went on over a period of half a year and produced five tape cassettes which transcribed to about 120 pages. Those pages became the basis of my first published book, Andre Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction, from Twayne/Macmillan.
DA: What influenced you most about Dubus’ writing?
TEK: A number of things. Some of his sentences create enormous landscapes, and when you go back to them to see how and why, you find that the landscape consists of no more than 5 or 10 words. I also greatly admired his frankness, the entry he gave us into the hearts and minds of his characters. And I very much admire the way he would go into simple, concrete situations and investigate them through the characters which give those situations flesh.
Last year, or maybe it was earlier this year, I published an essay in GETTYSBURG REVIEW that was an analysis of his very first published story, “The Intruder”, which was in SEWANEE REVIEW in, I think, 1962, and the last story he published before he died, which was in EPOCH in 1996, entitled, “Dancing After Hours.” They are both excellent stories clearly the work of an artist, but it is extremely interesting to see the growth of the art over the 30 years between the two. The last story, to my mind, a masterpiece, simply a masterpiece.
I also published a piece about Andre in AGNI about two years ago — a little kind of memoir-essay that I wrote the day that I learned that he had died. It was so strange — that very day I had been looking at a Roland Kirk CD in a record shop, and I thought I really ought to buy that and listen to it and write to Andre that I finally have heard some Roland Kirk, a blind jazz man who Andre loved and wrote beautifully about in his last story. For some reason I didn’t buy the CD, came home and found an email letting me know that Andre had just died.
I went out and bought the CD and a bottle of vodka (I have spent some lovely hours with Andre drinking peppered vodka), went home and played the Kirk, especially his rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Flyin’ High,” and spent the evening sipping vodka, thinking about Andre and writing that little essay.
DA: You also wrote a book about Robert Coover’s short fiction
TEK: Yes, and the short fiction of Robert Coover is about as unlike Andre’s fiction as can be. I enjoy realistic fiction, but I also enjoy so-called experimental or innovative work. I love Coover’s crazy quirky places as I loved Donald Barthelme’s and Francois Camoin’s. Between the two you have the fiction of Gordon Weaver, an outstanding fiction writer who, I am convinced, will one day receive the full recognition he deserves — his The Eight Corners of the World is a large, magnificent novel which appeared one day, got a fine review in the Times , then disappeared shortly thereafter. Oh there are so many wonderful fiction writers. One of the things I most look forward to when I will be able to drop my day job, just about a year and a half from now, is to having more time to read. The only thing near as bad as not having enough time to write is not having enough time to read.
DA: You grew up in Queens and found your way to Copenhagen, where you are today. How did you end up there?
TEK: I think I was always looking toward Europe, for as long as I knew Europe existed, which is probably back when I was eight or ten and used to collect stamps and used to puzzle over the royal portraits on the European stamps. My family, when I was a kid, did not travel at all. The only trip I ever took was a two-day visit to Washington, D.C. when I was 12. We didn’t even go away for summer vacation — I spent all my time in the summer, when I wasn’t at Rockaway Beach or Coney Island, wandering the streets of Queens. As a result, I began to build up an enormous appetite to see something else. I recall I had one of those Viewmaster slide things with slides from various places. I recall one of the Colorado River that I would gaze upon for hours, literally I can still see it if I close my eyes — god, how I yearned to be there! And what a thrill it was for me the day I finally took a swim in the Colorado outside Blythe, California, hitchhiking through.
Anyway, various plans I had to travel did not pan out so in frustration when I was eighteen I dropped out of college and joined the army. That didn’t help much. I wound up in such places as Indianapolis — wrote a story about that experience called “Flies.” also published by Martin Tucker. In the army I read a lot of Kerouac, inter alia, and shortly after I got out I bought a Trailways bus ticket to California to visit a girl I knew in Long Beach and an army buddy in Berkeley. Got into Berkeley just on the tail end of the “Fuck, Verb” movement. (Of course today fuck can be used as any part of speech, but in those days using it as a verb could land you in jail, as the woman who wrote the poem “To Fuck With Loves” knows with her own body.) I spent a few years hitching hiking around the states then, but still looking toward Europe.
DA: It sounds like your personal version of On the Road eventually led you to Copenhagen.
TEK: In 1971 I had a Norwegian girlfriend who was living in the East Village, on East 2nd Street between Avenues B and C and one day, because her faucet was dripping, her neighbor emptied a rifle through her apartment door by way of protest. Miraculously neither she nor her five-year-old nephew, who were both home, were hit, but I saw those bullet holes in the door, I thought, time to go. That next year, I visited Copenhagen to attend a conference for the company I worked for (I had made the transformation from hippie to yuppie, of a sort) and fell in love with the place. I loved its history, the ancient buildings, the manners of the people, the beer, and the fact that the first night I was here I drank too much of that beer, got lost in the narrow winding streets, wandered about alone through these empty streets, hearing my footsteps echo on the cobblestones, and I felt relaxed and safe. Quite distinct from how I might have felt if I had gone astray, say, in Central Park. And I decided I wanted to live here. It took me four years to engineer it, but here I still am, 26 years later, and no regrets.
It’s a lovely place, and I have tried to compose my love-song to it in Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, which is a novel disguised as a guide to Copenhagen’s serving houses, but which also contains just about everything I know, such as it is, on the history, language, culture, jazz, food, drink, and people of Copenhagen. One of the very best things about writing it was the research.
DA: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you how Kerrigan’s Copenhagen came about.
TEK: In late 1996, I decided to learn more about Copenhagen, started buying books about it, visiting places I did not know, studying maps, etc. By 1998, this cursory study had become something of an obsession. That Christmas my partner, Alice, gave me a little book about some historical serving houses in Copenhagen, and she and I began visiting them systematically, along with some of the other 1,535 serving houses. It didn’t take more than a week or two for me to realize that I was writing a novel about all this — within about two years, the first draft was done. By about mid-2001 it was ready to show, but before I had had a chance to show it to more than one or two publishers, I was approached by Wynkin de Worde in Ireland, who had heard about the book in an interview in FRANK magazine, asked to see it, and with astonishing speed bought and published it. I am very happy with Wynkin de Worde, who will also be publishing another of my novels, tentatively titled Blue Hours: A Winter Tale, in September 2003. It is also set in Copenhagen.
So, to answer your question, it took about five years to research, fathom, and write the book. Aside from that I am currently almost finished with another Copenhagen novel, tentatively titled Greene’s Summer. It is the first novel I have ever written that doesn’t have any American characters in it.
DA: Copenhagen has obviously inspired your muse.
TEK: I would like to do a fourth Copenhagen novel — mostly so that I can refer to my “Copenhagen Quartet” — and the fourth will likely be titled Breathwaite’s Fall.
Each of the four novels is set against a backdrop of a different season here. Danish seasons are wonderful, such contrast, from the white nights of summer to the profound dark of winter. No better time or place for a ghost story — like, for example, Hamlet.
In addition I am now completing the assemblage of my third story collection which will probably be titled A View of the World, with a dozen or so stories, each of which is set in a different country. There’s one from the point of view of a black safari tracker in South Africa, one in Cyprus, one from the point of view of a South American torture survivor in Scandinavia, one from the point of view of a British schoolmarm at a bullfight in Madrid, etc. I will soon be looking for a publisher for this one — if Wynkin de Worde doesn’t want it.
Finally, I have two other novels that are ready to be published, one set in Queens in 1964, on the eve of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which made the Vietnam War possible; it is about a bunch of wild young kids in a racist, sexist, nationalistic society who don’t know a war is about to be dumped on them. It is also something of a murder story. The other novel, A Passion in the Desert, is about the life of a hippie thirty years later.