Okla Elliott: You publish the occasional piece of fiction online, write blogs about literature, and joined the MySpace literary community. What thoughts, worries, hopes, et cetera do you have for the relationship between literature and the internet?
Thomas E. Kennedy: I recall many years ago, my old friend, the amazing innovative writer Lance Olsen, who is about a dozen years younger than I, asked me if I had something which he called “email.” What’s that? He explained it was a kind of electronic post. I thought, How weird. Lance and his artist wife, Andi, have always been cutting edge. I remember seeing an email return address on his letterhead paper—we exchanged many letters—with that weird ‘@’ sign. I never expected to have that in my life.
But in fact, it didn’t take long before I couldn’t believe how much easier a computer made my life as a writer. I’m old enough to remember how very difficult it was to revise a novel, even a story, written on a typewriter. Then suddenly you have a machine that makes it possible to revise and revise, producing clean, perfect manuscripts. Some people complain that the computer makes us write too much and too fast, but I have never been more exacting with what I write—now that changes can be made with such ease. In writing Greene’s Summer when I was doing the very final proofing of the manuscript before delivering it to the publisher for printing, I suddenly conceived a whole series of episodes that I wanted in there, threaded throughout. If it hadn’t been for the computer, such a change would have delayed production for a year or more.
Email and the internet took me a little longer to incorporate into my life, but the result was similar. Shortly after that, I got my first cell phone, a triband so that I could coordinate the international reading tours I had been doing for years much more easily.
It took me a few more years to rid myself of the feeling that something was not published unless it was published in print and to learn what an advance it has been that so much information and so many services are now available on line. I began to understand that when Amazon.com started stocking my books. Small presses have difficulty being distributed and stocked in the gigantic book chains so the existence of online sales has been a terrific boon for writers like me who are published mostly in literary magazines and by small presses.
My good friend, Duff Brenna, among the best American novelists at work today, became fiction editor of an online magazine entitled Perigee and published a story of mine, “The Baboon Dream,” which is a pretty edgy piece of work but which he made available and people read it and gave feedback. And finally I began to understand that online publication is not merely a supplement to print publication, but an area of publication in its own right. Now I've become a contributing editor for Perigee.
What all of this will mean for copyright holders and for intellectual property rights, I do not know. As a writer, I have always been most interested in, first of all, writing what I wanted to write, and second of all, getting it published so that I could stop worrying about it and using time on it so that I could go on to my next project. Small presses and literary magazines are most amenable to those interests. I no longer even think about spending a good deal of time trying to sell a book to a mainstream publisher. If an opportunity arises—as it did with Bloomsbury—of course I will give it a try, but if I get even a scent of someone beginning to tell me what I would have to change to get the thing published, I’m out the door. No—I will listen to what is being said and if I think it makes sense I will consider it, but usually it doesn’t make sense, usually it is someone else trying to impose his imagination on your work.
But—although I am beginning to make more use of the Net, have a fairly elaborate website up, do two online columns with Walter Cummins on WebDelSol (“The Literary Explorer” and “Writers on the Job”) and do a blog (“A Shout from Copenhagen”—which is accessible via my website and three other blogspots, including through the website Absinthe: New European Writing)—still I think primarily of print publication for what I write. I like to hold the book in my hand. And I like to read books. I am not crazy about reading online—certainly not for very long. And I write my first drafts by hand—I have a lovely Montblanc ballpoint with which I wrote my last seven books by hand, the first drafts. So I am definitely still a pen and paper man.
What, in the long run, the Net will mean for literature, I do not yet know and do not have the imagination to predict. However, only last night, just to see what might be happening with my work, I Googled my name and discovered a great many of my critical essays are being sold online without my permission. I don’t mind if a journal makes a piece available online to researchers, but I don’t very much like the idea of someone making a profit off my work without sharing that profit with me and without first requesting my permission. I have not yet decided what to do about that. But let me turn this process around. You are about half my age and clearly have a much keener grasp of the Net and how it works and how to use it. What do you think the Net will mean for the future of literature?
OE: Despite being raised around computers—and even entering college as a physics and computer-programming double-major—I still have a certain distrust of online publishing, since any teenager can build a website these days. It's more democratic, but it also seems to water down the quality, as a rule. That said, some of the finer literary journals around are either entirely online or have a strong online component. I think for shorter prose pieces and poetry, online publishing will keep growing, but for longer prose pieces, which are just plain annoying to read online, the print medium will continue to dominate. Where I see the real purpose of the internet in relation to literature is in the promotion of small press and lesser-known books, something you mentioned. I think we need to take the indie music scene as a model in certain ways. There are bands selling thousands of records without giving in to major labels, and they're doing it largely via the internet. The networking possibilities of something like Facebook or MySpace—which was conceived as a place for indie musicians to network—is slowly doing lots of good for writers as well. This is mostly because we're a tribe of Luddites who are just now—long after the musicians, the visual artists, the desperately lonely, and the sickly predatory—learning to use technology to promote our and others' work online.
TEK: Well said.
OE: You have done translation in the past. Would you discuss the process of translation, the joys and obstacles of it?
TEK: Actually I find myself doing more translation now than I ever did before. The way I got into it was that when I first moved to Denmark, after I had some of the rudiments of the language but did not quite have a functional ability with it, I would translate things into English for my own sake, to try to get a sense of the English equivalent of something I’d heard or read in Danish. This taught me as much about English as it did about Danish, made English clichés take on a new delight, gave me a more immediate sense of the power of English, but also, eventually, made me more humble about my own language. English is the lingua franca of Europe. Even the French speak English now. But it is so easy for a native English-speaker to think that English is more important than other languages—an intolerable arrogance.
I started translating to try to grasp more deeply what I only weakly understood in Danish, twisting the syntax until it could fit into my head. I had discovered years before that I had a fairly good ability to translate from French into English—this might sound odd, but my ability to translate from French was better than my ability to speak or understand French. I was just good at eliminating my lack of comprehension by putting it into English. I did the same, at the start, with Danish. And in the beginning I translated somewhat impatiently – trying to get to what I seemed to see as the English that was waiting behind the Danish. This was an arrogant approach and at one point it got me into trouble when I became too energetic in transforming the Danish to English. Then one day I was speaking with an American woman I know, Stacey Knecht, who translated a couple of novels by Marcel Möring from the Dutch and is clearly very good at it. I asked her what makes a good translator, and she said, “You have to put yourself second.” Which is exactly what I, as a writer myself, was not doing as a translator. So now when I translate I try to remember that advice – although to some extent you have to bring your writer’s intuition with you, so you put yourself second but you also let your intuition share the driver’s seat. And having two drivers of one vehicle can be tricky.
Anyway, the whole process also had the effect of strengthening my grasp of the language, and slowly I began to think in Danish and to enjoy speaking it, and when I got to that point, I began to feel very much more at home in Denmark, when I could go to a party, say, where no one was speaking English and I felt at ease (despite my accent which still gives me away instantly).
But then I found that I also began to enjoy translating from Danish to English— mostly poems, the occasional short story. And most Danish writers want their stuff to be translated into English. It vastly increases the potential audience.
When I translate, I select what seems interesting to me—at present I am particularly interested in a few poets. I have a grant from the Arts Council to translate a poetry collection by Henrik Nordbrandt, who is an amazing poet—some of my translations of his poems are scheduled to appear in American Poetry Review and Agni and The Literary Review, and the New Yorker has also expressed interest but so far no New Yorker cigars.
Among others, I have also translated quite a few poems by Pia Tafdrup, also a highly celebrated poet especially in northern Europe--and have done a bunch from the new collection of a young talented poet named Martin Glaz Serup, whose work I like a lot. Samples of all these were included in the special Danish issue of The Literary Review which I guest-edited in Spring 2008. And I am currently most deeply involved in translating the poetry of Dan Turèll, an amazing cult poet here who died in '93 at the age of 47. I have had two grants from the Danish Arts Council to translate his work and it has so far appeared in New Letters and Absinthe: New European Writing and Perigee, and I am about to record the translations as a CD with musical background of an amazing Danish composer named Halfdan E.
The other book I have just finished is by Thomas Larsen, a biography in interviews of Inge Genefke – the Danish physician who was the prime mover in the establishment in Copenhagen of the Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims and the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, both of which have inspired the creation of other such centers throughout the world, resulting in treatment being offered to hundreds of thousands of torture victims. The book is entitled The Meeting with Evil: Inge Genefke’s Fight against Torture. For more than thirty years, Inge Genefke has been fighting against torture and struggling to ensure that treatment is available for its victims and to make known the fact that torture exists and is being used in the world. Which, unfortunately, is no longer any surprise to Americans. Or fortunately.
The literary journal New Letters, out of University of Missouri Kansas City, published a series of articles carved out of that translation—the first of them, in the Fall 2007 issue, is about the dreaded Villa Grimaldi, a torture center founded by Augusto Pinochet in Chile. I also did an interview with Inge Genefke—and her husband, Bent Sørensen, a surgeon who joined her in her fight about 20 years ago—that came out in the on-line magazine Exploring Globalization, published by Farleigh Dickinson University. Inge Genefke has also been nominated repeatedly for the Nobel Peace Prize. Odd to think she never got it, but Kissinger did.
Inge Genefke’s work was a direct inspiration to the Spanish director Isabel Coixet with her very powerful film The Secret Life of Words, about a torture victim, starring Tim Robbins and in which Inge Genefke herself is played by Julie Christie. Julie Christie, in fact, has written a blurb for my translation of the book about Inge Genefke, as has Tim Robbins and Isabel Coixet. And US Congressman Tom Lantos—who was himself a survivor of the holocaust—has written a foreword for the book’s American edition.
OE: You sound busy.
TEK: I’ve got enough to occupy myself for the moment. The way I see it is, How many productive years do I have left? Twenty? Ten? Less? Time to make hay.
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