Thomas E. Kennedy Interview, Pt. 2

[Here is the second of the three parts of Tom's interview, conducted by Okla Elliott. Read Part 1 here. --Churm]



August 3, 2009

[Here is the second of the three parts of Tom's interview, conducted by Okla Elliott. Read Part 1 here. --Churm]


OE: Many of the main characters in your new short story collection, Cast Upon the Day, are middle-aged, divorced men. This is also true of earlier collections, but it's very pronounced in this new one. What draws you to these characters?

TEK: Well, the main characters in my three collections of stories and my eight novels are not all middle-aged and divorced men, although I can understand the temptation to view them as such because, of the 11 stories in the new collection (Cast Upon the Day), seven have main characters who are divorced, though they are not all middle-aged and some of them are in new relationships, some of which, admittedly, are also failing, although some seem to hold promise of possible happiness and devotion (e.g. Finley, Dittel, Brighton, Gurb, and the unnamed character in "Small Grey Blues.")

But in the earlier collections, Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight's eight stories include, for example, three more or less happily married men (Bonner and the unnamed characters in "Burning Room" and "Landing Zone X-Ray"), one unhappily divorced young woman ("A Clean Knife") whose emotional life is debilitated by the stringencies of her career as a forensic doctor, and one young man who seems to find the way to a happy life ("Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight").

Unreal City's 11 stories include a couple of divorces, a couple of surviving but unhappy marriages, one man who learns to love his wife better ("To the Western Wall, Luke Havergal"), one man who is dead and looking back on his life ("Gasparini's Organ"), one child who is playing mind games with his parents ("Seeing Things"), and one happily betrothed man who because of his blithe belief that he can speak what he perceives as the truth is murdered by a priest, a judge, and a scientist ("The Heat Death").

Of the eight novels, there is a wide variety of happily and unhappily married men and women, people seeking happiness, people courting misery, widowers finding love late in life, etc. In one of my recent novels, Danish Fall, there are a dozen characters in all varieties of marital and non-marital states of happiness, unhappiness and agitation, and three young people who are very skeptical about the state of their parents' lives who are confident they can do better, but do not exhibit much capacity to do so, although they seem to think they will and seem to be having a great lot of fun trying. In my most recent novel, A Passion in the Desert, the main character is a man who seeks to create a reality in which he loves his wife, although his past is stalking him, and he has perhaps blinded himself to the facts of who his wife really is.

So I think hope trust pray that I am exploring a greater variety of human experience at all ages and levels than middle-aged, divorced men, although I will grant that in the one collection, Cast Upon the Day, it might seem that that is my main theme. And perhaps that was the theme of central focus in that book.

Why? I would suppose that the reason for that might be found in the fact that for a period of about two years I found myself contemplating the fact that marriage as an institution seems to have changed considerably. I don't know the exact statistics at the moment for how many marriages survive and how many break up, but I would guess that it is about fifty-fifty. Almost every month I hear about seemingly devoted couples who suddenly separate and go each his/her own way. No! Has Linda left Jason!? Has Jack left Jill?! How could that happen? I really thought they would make it! They seemed so right for each other! The sky is falling!

Human beings still want to live like swans in life-long monogamy; the fact is that we tend not to have the capacity of swans to do so. But we would like to and would like to think we can, and some of us do—but, for some, at what price?

Social conditions have changed over the past few decades. We are no longer subject to the social pressures that previously prevailed upon us to stay married. Many of us have witnessed parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and older siblings who maintained miserable relationships just to stay married. Was it good that they did so? As Aristotle said—or was it Socrates?—whether you marry or not, you will regret it.

Why do human beings stay together? There are many reasons and many lies that keep us together. Practical, emotional, financial, "religious" reasons, laziness, inertia, hope for better days, fear of censure . . . We abandon our spouses because we think we can do better. But do we? Sometimes we move on for pathetic reasons—because of a meaningless attraction. Instead of trying to outlast temporary discontent. Sometimes because we have run aground trying to hold alive an emotional bond that is dead—but is it dead? These are, I think, interesting questions, and perhaps that is one of the aspects of existence I was trying to explore in Cast Upon the Day.

OE: Despite the aforementioned attraction to writing about unhappy or broken marriages, I've noticed a willingness in your fiction for things to ultimately work out all right for your characters. I'm thinking specifically of "Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight" which ends on a more positive note than much contemporary literary fiction does (including other work of yours, in fact). Could you discuss why in certain cases you feel it is best to end on a positive note?

TEK: I can't say that I "feel it is best to end on a positive note" in a given fiction. At the risk of sounding mystical, the vision that inspires the fiction decides the form it will take, including the conclusion. Generally, happy endings seem to me bunk—the product of self-imposed Hollywood-type commercial bullshit—since one of the prime impulses to create art, I feel certain, is the necessarily unhappy ending of existence itself. I think it was Walter Benjamin who said, "All stories end in death." And Sophocles who said, "Count no man happy until he is laid in his grave." Quite the irony that. Yet occasionally it happens that one of my characters manages to break out of a cocoon and emerge into a more desirable stage of existence.

"Drive, Dive, Dance & Fight" is certainly an example of that, where the main character is paralyzed by fear as the result of an automobile accident long before the story opens. Even though he was not injured physically in that accident, he is crippled emotionally, by fear. That fear is the fear of death and it is not until Twomey directly confronts death—in the diving incident—that he is freed of the immobility that can arise from an awareness of death. As one of the characters says to Lord Jim in Conrad's wonderful novel about fear, "In the hated element immerse yourself."

But whether or not a story or novel ends positively for its characters or main character seems to me less important than how the fiction affects the reader (and indeed the writer). "DDDF" ends with a dance, and that's of course fun, but it is a dance that follows immediately an image of "the dark feast."

"Dust," for example, ends in a kind of immobility—Frederick Volk, unable to choose, is locked in the embrace of a madwoman. Paralyzed by compassion, he cannot see what he must do. Hopefully, however, the reader does. Aristotle said that the spectator at a tragedy experiences "pity and fear" at the inevitable demise of the tragedy's heroic protagonist and that experience is what produces the catharsis of art. To insist on an "upbeat" ending would be to reject that sort of catharsis. Could Hamlet have a happy ending? Would Oedipus Rex be better, more palatable, if we just took out the incest bit? Or stopped short of poor Oedipus poking out his own eyes? Joyce's epiphanies in Dubliners give insight into a number of characters experiencing a variety of paralyses. In "Eveline," for example, would it be a better story if she managed to walk up the gangplank and board the ship and sail away from the demands of her father? Or would we feel that was dishonest to her character? The epiphany of "Eveline" occurs in the reader, who realizes at last that Eveline is hopelessly paralyzed and cannot change her fate.

In my novel In the Company of Angels, which I personally think is my most successful work of fiction, you have about half a dozen characters who are battling a variety of forms of evil, and at least four of them make some headway in that battle—the unnamed doctor who is drowning in the images of extreme evil that his torture-survivor patient is feeding him manages to hang in there, the torture survivor himself seems to as well despite having been subjected to horror almost beyond belief, as does Michela Ibsen who has survived her violent marriage and must learn to overpower the passivity to which she has been conditioned as a woman. And, finally, even Voss Andersen, the young fool of a lawyer, metaphorically sheds his skin at the end and, presumably, evolves to a slightly higher plane of possibility as a human being—I remember when that scene appeared on the page as I was writing, and he stripped off that leather coat, seized by self-hatred, and flung it into the lake.... It was the kind of moment I live for as a writer—the surprise of its inevitability was tremendously invigorating for me, still is. However, I certainly did not set out to "end on a positive note" for any of these characters—their endings are not happy but stages in their evolution as human beings. In a sense you might say their endings are not really endings but rather conclusions of an emotional or existential arc—and, of course, beginnings, too.

My novel Danish Fall has a dozen characters who end at various stages of existential evolution, and some of them—Frederick Breathwaite and Harald Jaeger, for example—end amidst the ruins of one life but perhaps with the possibility of a new kind of life stripped of certain material encumberments.

So, in brief, positive things may happen in fiction even if we are all going to die someday. Joyce, after the "scrupulous meanness" with which he drew all the fates of the Dubliners, then went ahead to write one of the greatest novels of all time which ends with a great big fat "Yes"!

OE: Angels show up in In the Company of Angels, and you have another novel titled The Book of Angels. How do angels function in your work, and what is your attraction to them as literary subject matter?

TEK: Yes, I am interested in angels, in the concept of angels. In fact the multi-artist Gladys Swan (novelist, poet, painter, potter – and distinguished at all four) has written an essay entitled “Angels and Torture in the Fiction of Thomas E. Kennedy,” which was delivered as a paper at the AWP and appeared in Cimarron Review.

I think my literary interest in angels started when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” in the early ‘80s, but also from a magnificent Swedish film from the ‘70s, I think, titled “A Simple Murderer,” about a retarded man who is treated unjustly by the wealthy man he works for and finally is visited by angels in full regalia who lead him with booming glorious music to the wealthy man’s house to kill him.

A couple years later, a story came to me entitled “Angel of the Lowlands ” (published in Other Voices around ’88 and in my first collection, Unreal City, in ’96). This was a story about a college professor who is “visited” by an angel—I use quote marks because you don’t actually see the angel, only his words. The angel encourages the professor to engage in all manner of forbidden behavior—he has orgies in his office, drinks to excess, etc. With his misbehavior, he rises in the university system and is convinced the angel has been sent to help him distinguish himself among men. But his ascent peaks and the system turns against him—he loses the department chairmanship, loses tenure, loses his wife, loses his mistress and teaching post to a young venomous colleague. When I sold the story to Other Voices, I was asked to drop the ending—where the professor goes out into the desert with a prayer rug at sunset and kneels to sing the praises of the lord; they wanted me to leave it with him being decked by the young colleague and laying there looking up at the sky, realizing that the angel who had visited him had not been his own, but his colleague’s (the penultimate scene in the original version). It worked either way, but I still preferred my original version and reinstated it for the collection, Unreal City.

Shortly after that, I had a visit from Paris from Gladys Swan and the Jungian analyst Monique Salzman, and we were sitting in the sunlight on a square in Copenhagen when the two of them suddenly turned to me and said, “We have decided that you ought to kill your angel.” I had no idea what they meant (although Gladys speaks about it in her essay) but had an immediate image in my mind of an angel cowering in a basement. That image became the story “Murphy’s Angel,” which won a Pushcart Prize in ’90, about a man who has an angel living in his basement and whose wife keeps nagging him to get rid of it.

The next occurrence of angels in my fiction was inspired by a case history in the psychoanalytic handbook of the torture rehabilitation center here—I was hired to edit the book—in which a torture survivor to the best of my memory (I may have embellished this) tells how at the depth of the horror of his months-long torture in Latin America, he was visited by two angels, which I recount above with regard to my third Copenhagen novel, In the Company of Angels, but which a decade before it became a novel became two stories. When I was finished editing that handbook, I was horrified by it, literally possessed by ugly visions which felt as though they were damaging my soul and which I needed to be liberated from, so I very quickly wrote two stories—one about the torture victim, entitled “Flying Lessons” (published in Gettysburg Review around ’93), the other entitled “The Burning Room,” about the physician who treats that torture victim and finds himself becoming obsessed by the evil that had been perpetrated upon the man (published in New Letters around ’94). Ten years later, these two stories were transformed and incorporated in the novel now published as In the Company of Angels.

That novel was also influenced—as were all four Copenhagen books—by the music of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928- ), who did a series of very modern and compelling symphonies that deal with angels. One of them, “Angels and Visitations,” is based on his experience as a boy feeling that an angel kept visiting him at night, seeking somehow to overpower him. He resisted for a long time, but finally gave in and only when he surrendered to the visiting creature did it finally leave him in peace; that experience is interpreted or presented in that symphony – it's very eerie music, compelling, and at the moment that the subject gives in to the angel, the scream of a man breaks through the mist of sound. Quite effective. Rautavaara tells how his childhood experience had been forgotten but returned when he read some lines by Rilke (“...should an angel suddenly press me to his heart, I would perish by his more powerful presence....”)

To go back in time, The Book of Angels is not really about angels, but about a black magician who seeks to capture and enslave the imagination of a writer who has written a story about necromancy. The magician is convinced that the writer can help him to contact a person he has driven to her death for the very purpose of learning necromancy. It took me a long time to write that novel, maybe five years, and I did a good bit of research about magic for it. There was an agent in New York who believed it would sell big, put it up for auction and so forth, but after three years it was still unpublished so I brought it to the excellent small press Wordcraft of Oregon, showed it to David Memmott there, and he published it in 1997. This particular book caught the interest of several film-makers who have inquired about the rights from time to time—at present a Danish film-maker is looking at it. I think it would be hard to film because it is so closely related to the power of language.

Only one other story as far as I can recall is about superhuman creatures: “What Does God Care about Your Dignity, Victor Travesti?” (published in New Letters in ’89). It, in fact, introduced me to that magazine, which has been enormously encouraging and supportive of me ever since. Its former editor, Jim McKinley, and current editor, Robert Stewart, have been responsible for a large part of my keeping the faith as a writer—as has Walter Cummins, long-time editor of The Literary Review, a fine story writer himself. Anyway, that story is not about an angel, but about a man who bumps into God one day by a series of accidents, and he makes the mistake of asking God for some money.... I’ve also published an essay about how that story was written, which appeared in a special issue (“Stories & Sources”) of The Literary Review in 1998. That particular story is one that was reprinted quite a few times.

But you asked what angels mean to me. I think the best way I can answer that is simply to refer to the stories in which the angels appear. Hopefully the stories and novels will reveal that writing them was my way of trying to explain what angels mean to me. You may ask if I truly believe in creatures that are angels. I don’t know. I am an agnostic Gnostic.

To be continued....


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