Thomas E. Kennedy Interview, Pt. 1

Today I'm fortunate enough to post the first of three parts of an extended interview with writer and teacher Thomas E. Kennedy, by writer and teacher Okla Elliott. (See here for a review I wrote back in May of one of Kennedy's novels.)


July 30, 2009

Today I'm fortunate enough to post the first of three parts of an extended interview with writer and teacher Thomas E. Kennedy, by writer and teacher Okla Elliott. (See here for a review I wrote back in May of one of Kennedy's novels.)

Okla Elliott is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also holds an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University and has studied at the University of Mannheim, Germany, and the University of Wrocław, Poland. He was a visiting professor of literature and creative writing at Ohio Wesleyan University for the 2008-2009 academic year. His non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in A Public Space, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, North Dakota Quarterly, and the Sewanee Theological Review. He is the author of two chapbooks, The Mutable Wheel and Lucid Bodies and Other Poems and is co-editor, with Kyle Minor, of The Other Chekhov.

A portion of the full interview appeared previously in New Letters. Meanwhile, just after Okla completed his interview, things started happening for Kennedy. In spring 2008 he won a National Magazine Award (an "Ellie") for an essay he had published, which led to a new relationship with an agent (Nat Sobel), who proceeded to negotiate a two-novel contract for Kennedy with Bloomsbury Publishers. Consequently, Bloomsbury issued a press release (an "Acquisitions Announcement") that they intended to republish all of Kennedy's small-press books (novels, stories, essays) in a world format. The first novel will appear in hardback simultaneously in New York and London under the title In the Company of Angels -- the first world-appearance of a novel from his Copenhagen Quartet in March 2010, and it will be followed by another novel from the Quartet in 2011. The information in the following interview has been updated to reflect these new developments.


An Interview with Thomas E. Kennedy

by Okla Elliott

I first encountered the work of Thomas E. Kennedy five or six years ago, when novelist Duff Brenna suggested I read Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight (BkMk Press, 1997). I was an instant fan of Kennedy’s clean yet expansive prose. I also admired his willingness to depict the full range of human experiences, from happy endings to self-inflicted ruin to victimization by political oppression. Fans of Kennedy’s work are a lucky lot, since he is as prolific as he is talented.

He is the author, editor, or translator of more than 20 books. He has published 11 books of fiction, including two volumes in 2007 – the novel A Passion in the Desert (Wordcraft of Oregon) and the story collection Cast Upon the Day (Hopewell Publishing). Other recent fiction includes The Copenhagen Quartet (four independent novels set in Copenhagen, where Kennedy has lived for more than twenty years). He serves as Advisory Editor for The Literary Review, the Best New Writing annual, and other publications. He has also published four books of literary criticism, a book of essays on writing and, with Walter Cummins, co-authored a book of travel essays (The Literary Explorer, 2007). Kennedy’s fiction has received numerous honors including the Pushcart, O. Henry, and Gulf Coast prizes. In 2007, the AWP conference dedicated a panel to his work, all presentations from which have appeared in Cimarron Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Perigee, and South Carolina Review. In 2008, his essay collection, Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America, appeared from New American Press.

Kennedy’s experience as an expatriate lends his writing an insight into both American and European culture that members of either alone could not access. As a literary double-agent of sorts, he can show the best and worst of both cultures with equal fluency. Whether it is as a novelist or nonfiction writer, a translator or an editor, Kennedy aims true and simultaneously enriches and indicts his readers and himself for the flawed and beautiful species we are.

Okla Elliott: You've written a tetralogy, The Copenhagen Quartet, exploring the life of the city. Taken together, these books total well over a thousand pages. Would you discuss your process and influences during the project? How long did the composition take, what was the process of composition, and did you have the shape of the whole project before you started, or did the four novels emerge separately?

Thomas E. Kennedy: In 1996 it abruptly occurred to me that I had been living in Copenhagen for twenty years and knew very little about the place. I decided that I wanted to really know this city. I had just acquired an apartment over the east side street lakes with six windows looking out onto Black Dam Lake – which had been the place in Copenhagen I had originally fallen in love with when, strolling its banks one sunny afternoon, I happened upon a very beautiful and very purely naked young woman, eyes closed, sunning herself in the grass. It was on those very banks that the anti-hero of Søren Kierkegaard’s surprisingly modernistic 1840s novel, Seducer’s Diary, strolled, dreaming of the object of his cynical affections who lived across the lake.

Anyway, in ’96, I began exploring the city, bought books about it, its history, its sculpture, its graveyards... For Christmas ’98, my then girlfriend gave me a guide to the Humble Establishments of Copenhagen – a succinct array of about a hundred old serving houses, and we decided to visit each one of them, during which I got an idea of writing a novel disguised as a guide to Copenhagen’s serving houses, in which each chapter took place in a different pub. There are a total of 1,525 bars in Copenhagen, so I had plenty to choose from.

I wanted this book to include all that I had been learning about this ancient kingdom and all that I had picked up about Danish ways since the mid-‘70s, and I wanted it to be a real guide to real places that people could visit, and a novel as well. The book began to take form, I discovered the voice that it needed, we began to exceed the limits of the original guidebook we were following, and I began to learn more about my counterpart, Terrence Einhorn Kerrigan, and the contemporary incarnation of the destructive goddess Kali who is pursuing him, and after about three years my novel was done, Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, A Love Story.

Flashback to 1996, at which time, enraptured by the deep dark noir of Danish winter, I had begun (and later completed, late in 1998), a novel about a divorced man in his mid-40s, whose soul is dark and frozen as the city. The winter of ’96 was an icy one. Being noir, the novel is about the seamy side of the city, which I had also been learning something about at the time. So I had two novels completed, both about Copenhagen, one set in winter (which would come to be entitled Bluett’s Blue Hours), one set in spring (Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, A Love Story).

At around this time I was interviewed by an American expatriate in Paris, David Applefield, for his magazine, Frank: A Journal of Contemporary Writing & Art. In that interview I told about Kerrigan and Bluett and about the plan that had begun to unfold in my head to write a quartet about this city – four independent novels, each set in a different season, and each written in a different style. Bluett had been noir, Kerrigan experimental. So I would do two more – the summer and the fall books. I had boxes of notes for these books, knew vaguely that the summer book would be about a torture victim being treated in the city’s Torture Rehabilitation Center, for which I have done some translation and editorial work throughout my years here. I pictured that novel as a traditional one with a social conscience. And I had some ideas about the fall book being a satire about a Danish firm with lots of characters.

The interview was published in Frank, and I received an email in February 2002 from a publisher in Ireland who asked to see the Kerrigan manuscript. The publisher was a man named Roger Derham who had just launched a new press called Wynkin de Worde; he offered me a contract for Kerrigan, and the terms, for a small press, were pretty good. He also told me he would do launches in both Ireland and Denmark, would fly me over and put me up, and he just generally was a dream-come-true for me, since I have struggled all my years to find publishers willing to publish what I’ve written while it is still fresh and important to me. He did a beautiful job on the books – lavished care upon them, on the printing, the cover art, etc. And at some point in there, he agreed to do the noir novel as well, same terms, and agreed to go with the idea of a quartet of novels.

So Kerrigan was published in the autumn of 2002, Bluett in autumn 2003, by which time I was nearly finished with my book about the torture survivor, which, in keeping with the title style of the series, I was calling Greene's Summer, although when it is published in the US and the UK by Bloomsbury in March of 2010, in a considerably revised edition, it will be titled In the Company of Angels. (It is available for pre-order.)

In brief the novel was inspired by several case stories, the horrific details of which I had to exorcise from my soul by writing in a fictional form about a torture victim in a Latin American cell, who had been there for months and lay there completely demoralized spiritually and mentally and physically broken, on the floor of this filthy place, realizing that it was summer outside and that he would never see the beauty of that season again, and just as he decided that he would allow himself to die, two angels suddenly were there in the cell with him. They apologized to him that he had to experience such inhumanity and that they were not allowed to release him, but told him that they had secured permission to take him out of the cell for five minutes so that he could experience the beauty of summer. And although they would have to bring him back to the cell again, they assured him that at some time in the future, he would be released and that he would know the beauty of life again.

Naturally I was profoundly moved and troubled by the stories of all these torture survivors. I had tried to approach the material before by writing a short story on it in the early ‘90s, but I wanted to expand into a novel. Originally I pictured it as a very short novel – something like Albert Camus’ The Stranger. This was around the time that a small percentage of the Danish people had begun to grow xenophobic, wanting to keep their social democratic paradise to themselves. But as I was writing the book, another character appeared and began to take over the major force of the novel—this was Michela Ibsen, a Danish woman who had also survived violence—a violent marriage. And she began to assume the role of central consciousness of the book. Other characters appeared, too—the doctor who was treating the Chilean, and a younger boyfriend of Michela, and Michela’s agéd parents… And the novel grew and was ready to be published in the autumn of 2004, by which time I already had a pretty stable vision of what the fourth book of the Quartet would be.

Meanwhile, Professor Greg Herriges of Harper College in Illinois had hatched a plan to make a DVD documentary about my Quartet. He was doing a series of such documentaries – had done one about the beat poet Pommy Vega, and another about Michael McClure and is currently doing one about T. C. Boyle. Well, I had been visiting Harper College on an annual basis for years to give readings there, and Herriges—himself a fine novelist and film-writer (check out his wonderful memoir about J.D. Salinger from Wordcraft of Oregon)—began to film my readings with the help of their masterly AV man, Tom Knoff, and the DVD was completed just about the time that Greene’s Summer was ready for press. The DVD was released and screened, and 10 clips of about two minutes apiece can be viewed on my website.

By then, I was into Danish Fall—originally conceived as Breathwaite’s Fall, but I changed it to Danish Fall—about a dozen characters, all of whom behaved very cooperatively in satirical fashion. I love the people in that novel – even the idiots and the nasties. They feel so human to me. Now the first two volumes of the Copenhagen Quartet are being issued worldwide by Bloomsbury Publishers. The first volume, In the Company of Angels, about the torture victim, will be released in March 2010, the second volume in March 2011, hopefully to be followed by the other two and, according to Bloomsbury's announced intention, my other books as well. One can hope. The titles of all the books will be changed, by the way, each reflecting an aspect of angelic intervention and inspired by diverse sources such as Rilke and Rafael Alberti and Allen Ginsberg and the contemporary Finnish composer Rautavaara, who has composed a series of incredible symphonies about angels.

That’s how the Copenhagen Quartet came to exist. And for the past two years I have been working at a kind of coda to the Quartet entitled The Christmas Lunch at Emdrup Pond, which I expect to have done in about another year or two.

OE: What caused you to first move to Europe, what has caused you to stay there, and how do you think it has affected your writing? I'm thinking of Gore Vidal as another writer who has spent most of his career living abroad and much of that career critiquing American history and politics. How has the perspective of your expatriate experience altered your writing as an American author?

TEK: My reasons for moving to Europe were multi-faceted: First of all, ever since I was fifteen and began reading seriously, I was very taken by European authors – Dostoyevsky, Camus, Gide, Huxley, Turgenev, Conrad, and of course, Joyce, to name a few. And Joyce identified for me the place in my heart that had already fled – the experiences he describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although taking place in Dublin, were so like my own experiences as a Roman Catholic Irish-American youth in Queens that I might as well have been in Dublin and preparing to break away and move into European exile already at 17. When I visited Joyce’s grave in Zurich (see Web Del Sol's "The Literary Explorer"– “Limmat Run Past Joyce and Nora”) I was keenly aware that I was visiting the grave of my spiritual/aesthetic father—“Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.”

And when I finally did move to Europe in 1974, it was very much with the spirit in my heart of Joyce’s great declarations from that book: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.”

My secondary motivation was that New York City, where I lived in the early ‘70s, was a bloody violent place. In ’71 I had a girlfriend who lived on East 2nd Street between Avenues B and C, whose neighbor had fired a rifle through her door because the dripping of her faucet was disturbing him. When I saw the bullet holes in the door, I thought, Jesus, let me out of this madhouse… And along with that, one year later, I was sent to Copenhagen to participate in an international conference, and it was love at first sight.

My third motivation was that I had gone completely stale at home in New York . I had done my thumbing around the country in the ‘60s, bounced back and forth between New York, southern California and San Francisco half a dozen times or more and traveled through most of the rest of the country by bus and thumb, looking for Jack Kerouac, unaware that he was back in Queens, living with his mother, right across town from my own mother. Also, at the age of twenty-nine, I considered myself a failed writer—even if I did have a big-name agent, had been sent to New American Library by Theodore Solotaroff with the suggestion that I write a novel for them and had received a three-year grant from CUNY’s Goodman Fund for a novel-in-progress. But nobody wanted to publish anything I wrote.

Then I had the good fortune of being invited by my company to relocate to France. From there I was offered a job in Copenhagen, where I moved in ’76. I continued to try to write, and although my stories continued to be set in America, I think that being in Europe enabled me to see America through the lens of this new society. Finally, in 1981, precisely 20 years after I had decided I wanted to be a writer, I sold a story. And I knew while I was writing that story that it was going to sell. I knew that I had finally found the place where my stories were. The story was “The Sins of Generals,” and it was published in Confrontation magazine, out of Long Island University.

I started doing a low residency MFA at Vermont College , still living in Denmark, but commuting. And with the $20 I was paid for my story, I went into Julio’s bar in Montpelier, Vermont, and saw some real writers sitting at a table there, one of whom was Andre Dubus père; another was Gordon Weaver, who had just had the same story in both O. Henry and Best American Short Stories. I went over to them and introduced myself and told them I had in my pocket the first twenty bucks I had ever made as a writer and invited them to drink it up with me. Kindly, they agreed to do so.

During the course of that evening, in fact, I discovered that Andre Dubus had written a story that had appeared nearly fifteen years before in Best American Short Stories, which had been extremely important to me both as a person and as a writer. This coincidence seemed so striking that I asked him, on the spot, if I could do an interview with him. He agreed, and the interview turned out to be 120 pages long and formed the basis of the first book I ever had published – a study of Dubus’ short fiction. That interview was like a tutorial for me. A few years later I would have his son as a student in one of my workshops—though I certainly do not presume to say that I had anything to teach him; he did just fine for himself!

If you would like to know more about how my expatriate experience altered my writing and my mindset, please see the lengthy essay about this entitled “Life in Another Language,” published in a cross-issue of The Literary Review and Frank magazine ((TLR 47:1/Frank 19, 2003), and republished in an updated version in my 2008 essay collection Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America. Generally, I think life in Europe opened the fist of my mind.

To be continued....


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