William Kennedy: a life in writing (some of it spent in the Caribbean)

This article by Emma Brockes on American author William Kennedy’s fiction for London’s Guardian highlights important connections to the Caribbean throughout his writing career. Here are the relevant excerpts. For the full article follow the link below.

There is a page on the wall of William Kennedy’s townhouse, ripped from the notepad of Gabriel García Márquez, on which the Colombian novelist has written, in a combination of English and Spanish, a list of words describing what goes into fiction: love, humour, politics, nostalgia, tristeza, vida, muerte and, the final ingredient, three question marks. Kennedy, who turned 84 last month and is publishing his ninth novel, spent years trying to figure out his friend’s question marks – the alchemy of a successful novel – and complete the move from journalist to fiction writer. “Fiction has to come up from below,” he says, frowning in the late afternoon light. “It has to be generated out of what is not necessarily the consequence of surface events. I talked to myself about this when I was trying to write my early short stories and even my first novel.” He smiles. “It was a long conversation.”

We are in Albany, New York, the location of so many of Kennedy’s novels, the most famous of which, Ironweed, won the Pulitzer in 1984 and was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and which is part of the eight-novel “Albany cycle”. The writer’s interest is rooted in the Irish-American community and Kennedy, who is tall, robust, reddish of hair and skin, has, he says, become more Irish as he has aged: “Being Irish was the only thing I couldn’t resign from. I stopped being a Catholic and I stopped being a Democrat.” His secondary interest, Latin America, stems from the years he spent as a journalist on newspapers in Puerto Rico and Miami, where he covered the Cuban diaspora, and on which he draws for his latest novel. Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes fictionalises the era of Hemingway’s Cuba, introducing both Hemingway and Castro as characters in the story, and if Kennedy belongs to a stylistic school, it owes something to that hard-living vein. There are not, surely, too many people of whom Jack Nicholson might be moved to remark – as he said of Kennedy – “That man can drink.”

. . .

Those early short stories generated some “friendly rejections” but nothing else and after a few years, Kennedy began to get restless. “I got away from Albany because I was bored with it. I thought the editors were mostly brainless. I had to get out and do something different.” When a job offer came up in Puerto Rico, he jumped at it and decamped to a newly founded newspaper called the San Juan Star.

This was when he started to pursue his fiction writing in earnest. Saul Bellow happened to be in Puerto Rico teaching, and Kennedy sent him a manuscript, which he enjoyed and sent to his own editor and agent. (“None of that worked.”) It was a slow, painful process, which, given Kennedy’s quick start in journalism, he found hard to deal with. “It was baffling that I couldn’t make a breakthrough in fiction. And I was working in isolation. I didn’t have access to any expertise.

“But I began to read everything, to re-educate myself. I would take 35 books out of the library at the same time. Just trying to get a sense of comprehension of what the hell fiction was, and what I had to know in order to do it. You come up against that question: what is it I don’t understand? The feeling was, give me enough time and I’ll figure it out. And that’s what happened.”

He never met Hemingway, but was mindful of his advice about the risk to the would-be novelist of a long career in journalism. “He thought it would deaden you and you’d become a victim of the pattern of thinking in terms of how you cleanse your mind every day to start fresh on tomorrow’s news. Whereas, the writer has to train himself to remember everything. I think there’s a deadening element when you stay in the business too long in terms of imaginative writing. The pattern will be unbreakable.”

But, he says, “it’s a very difficult apprenticeship. It’s only rare birds like Hemingway, who started young and got into the news business and fiction writing early, who are successful at both.”

While he slogged over his novel, Kennedy was having a good time at the newspaper. It was a product he was proud of, he says, although it was shabbily organised and distributed. It was the kind of place where at 9pm, the city editor walked out of the newsroom to do a show on his local radio station, while the managing editor tore his hair out over missing copy. Kennedy, who was, he says, “the only one who really knew how to edit copy and keep it moving out the door”, eventually ran the place for a while, before the newspaper folded and he moved, with his wife, Dana, to Miami.

There is a short tribute in his new novel to the strengthening experience of failure. Of a young journalist, trying to get a job as a stringer in Havana, Kennedy writes: “Failure can be a creative act … how truly exciting this quest for failure can be.” And so, in spite of the fact that no publisher had yet taken him on – after sending around the manuscript of a novel, he had received encouraging notes as well as a line, from one impressed but apologetic editor, that said: “I cannot add another book to my list that will not make money” – he decided to quit a cushy job as a columnist at the Miami Herald.

“I was trying to write 7am to 9am and then go to work at 9.30am. And after work, at 10pm, I’d do a couple of hours, and fall asleep. I realised I couldn’t do both jobs … In September 1957, I read a review of On the Road, in Time magazine, and I thought, goddamn, I gotta get on the road myself and do something. Or I’ll never do it. This is the time. I wanted to write a novel. I had failed as a short-story writer, so I decided I wanted to fail at something bigger.” He failed again, failed better, got published, and after three modestly well-received novels, in 1983 reached a tipping point.

. . .

His best writing is still set in Albany, although the new novel opens dramatically in Cuba just prior to the revolution. Kennedy met Castro several times in 1987, at the house of García Márquez (“Gabo”), where on one occasion he was introduced thus: “I was in the rocking chair. And Gabo came in and said: ‘Bill, would you mind moving? The comandante is coming and he likes the rocker.'”

He recalls that Castro never took his hat off. That he was very interested in Latin American movies. That he couldn’t understand why American movies cost so much to make. “We talked about books, how much he loved to read. He’s a great storyteller. His explanations are so lucid. That’s when I interviewed him about how he survives and how he views himself as a survivor. It’s in the novel.”

The action in Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes flips from Cuba to Albany (which is where some of the characters flee after the revolution), and takes up the story years later, during the civil rights era. With great precision and control, Kennedy writes about those who have lost it; in this case, a man in the grip of dementia, a city in the grip of a riot, and those involved in a series of bar-room brawls. His characters talk in the stylised, cinematic mode – “If I ever see him again I’ll give him a swift kick in the candy”. It makes Kennedy such fun to read and the narrative races along. George has it explained to him that he has had a good day: “You got lost in the city, you got cut and went to the hospital, you had a romance, you were in a fight, a race riot, and a shooting, you went to a house of prostitution and a concert, you danced a waltz, and you serenaded a very lovely woman who seems to be in love with you.”

Kennedy says that these kinds of high-octane scenes have been informed as much by cinema as by reading. “The perception of action: I’ve been going to movies all my life, since the early 30s. This has to have an effect. It got into my blood.” That, and the influence of newspapers: “The idea of telling a narrative: what, where, when, why, how – all of that. And not having anything that isn’t essential. The movement is what creates the action, and the action is what creates the story and then you’re into more movement.

“You keep perpetuating the flow. If it doesn’t pertain to what’s relevant to the instant, when you’re trying to describe the action, then it shouldn’t be there.”

That evening, I watch Kennedy read from Chango’s Beads in a bookshop in a town near Albany. He is a great, energetic reader, while his wife Dana, a former ballet dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, looks on proudly. As Kennedy discovered all those years ago, the point of the question marks in García Márquez’s list is they can’t be articulated – although a room full of people, watching him read, knows that he found the answer.

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/24/william-kennedy-life-writing-interview?newsfeed=true

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