Interview with Thomas E Kennedy

tom kennedy photoI first heard Thomas E Kennedy read at the Geneva Writers’ Conference in 2008 and fell in love with his prose. We are both published by Bloomsbury and share the same editor. Tom is the author of over 20 books, and his most recent In the Company of Angels has already received fabulous reviews.



What took you to Denmark?

When I visited Denmark to attend a conference on medical education in 1972, I fell immediately in love with the city and decided, “Here is where I will live.” It took me four years to engineer my transplantation – first I was offered a job in France, then met a Danish professor there who offered me a job in Copenhagen. Then I fell in love with a Danish woman and had two kids here, and I’ve never regretted the move – I love the Danish light (the long days and light nights of summer, the short gloamy days of winter), the narrow cobblestoned streets of Copenhagen with all its sculpture, the many green parks, the bookstores and the serving houses! I was born to live here.

What keeps you in Copenhagen?

All of the above – as well as the humanistic attitude of the Danes, the fact that everyone receives the health care they need, everyone gets the education they are qualified for (even a small salary from the state while studying), and I love the fact that you can walk everywhere – I don’t have a car anymore, haven’t even driven since 1997. And I like the Danes and their language, their quiet self-ironic humor. And the Danish lunches! And the Danish serving houses (Copenhagen has 1,525 pubs!) I could go on forever.

What books are on your nightstand?

Oh that stack never gets shorter – it only grows! The top seven, all of which I am reading at the same time, are: But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (a nonfiction novel about jazz); Hans Christian Andersen’s Forty-two Stories (translated by M. R. James); Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; James Wood’s How Fiction Works; Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Soon to be added is a new novel by Janet Skeslien Charles which I heard her read from at the recent Geneva Writers Conference – Moonlight in Odessa. Recently removed from the pile, because I finished them, were Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Duff Brenna’s The Book of Mamie (which I reread – a fabulous novel!), Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo; Greg Herriges’ JD: A Memoir of a Time and a Journey; and Michael Lee’s In an Elevator with Bridget Bardot. Also, stashed beneath my blanket, is volume 36 of The Great Books of the Western World – Swift and Sterne.

What advice would you give to struggling writers?

Stop struggling and let it happen. By which I mean, let your stories write themselves, allow them to happen. As Robert Coover once told me, “My best stories are the ones I simply allowed to be written.” Or as Samuel Becket said, “It all happens between the hand and the page.” I spent so many years struggling under the misunderstanding that I had to understand what I was doing, that I had to think a story through before setting words to it, and of course that led nowhere. It led me to unpublishable, unreadable, overworked stories. It was not until I allowed the language within to lead me that I found my way into the deep place where all the stories are snuggled up like fish against the mossy rocks.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

That would probably be from Rainer Maria Rilke who told his young poet, in Letters to a Young Poet, something like, You must look into your heart and ask yourself must I do this? If your answer is no, then you have learned something about yourself and saved yourself a lot of heartache. But if your answer is yes, then you know that you must continue and have equally saved yourself a lot of agony. In that book he also said that a tree in winter seems to be dead, but it is not; it is simply gathering force to bloom.

How does living in a foreign country affect your writing?

Living in another country and in another language has helped me enormously. Although I strove to write for many years when I lived in America and despite that I received much encouragement, friendly letters from editors, had an agent, received grants, I did not manage to write anything that was publishable. It was only after I moved to another country that I began to see my life and my experience through the lens of another culture and eventually began to write things that were viable.

Can you tell us a little about the rewards and challenges of writing a quartet? Did you plan the four books before you got started? Can you talk about your process?

Well, the four novels of The Copenhagen Quartet are, I suppose, as far as I am qualified to judge, the best work I’ve done in my twenty-five years of publishing. Those four novels took me all told about ten years to write. I did not realize at first that it would be a quartet. I wrote the second book first, not realizing that it was one of four. Then a few years passed and I started writing the first and only when I had finished that did I realize that the earlier novel I had written was the second in the series. Then I really had steam and wrote the third and fourth – which were perhaps the best work I had yet done. Bloomsbury is publishing the third and fourth as the first and second – this must sound very confusing, but it makes sense to me. The idea and the challenge and the reward of it all came at the point when I realized that I was in the process of writing a Quartet and the challenge I set for myself was that the four novels should be independent of one another, so that they can be read individually and in any order (after all, which season comes first?!), but united in that they all took place in the Danish capital, that each of them was set in a different season and was governed by the light of that season, and that each of them should be written in a different style: one was innovative, a novel disguised as a guide to the serving hosues of Copenhagen with each chapter taking place in a different pub; one was noir, that was the dark winter novel and was steeped in jazz and sex and liquor and violence and death; another was a novel with a social conscience, a love story about a Chilean torture survivor who meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage – that was the summer novel; and then there was a satirical novel about the downsizing of a Danish firm and how it affects the lives of twelves different people. The latter two novels – In the Company of Angels and Everyone Is an Angel – are being published by Bloomsbury worldwide as the first and second of the Quartet. Of the 25+ books I have published, I consider these four to be the core of my oeuvre (which sounds like a terribly self-important word – forgive me!).

You asked about my process also. My process is essentially one of discovery. It is important for me not to understand what I am doing, to allow the mysterious process of language to lead me onward. If I ever get to the point that I understand what I am writing before I am done – and this has happened – the book or story tends to die on me. Because then it is no longer necessary to write it. Somebody or other once said, No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. My writing, my process thrives on the surprises which the language offers me.

What is your favorite place to write?

This has varied throughout my years. When my children were new-born, I rose at five in the morning most or many days and tried to get in a couple of hours before they began to require attention. When the kids were a little older, I loved best to write sitting on the sofa in the living room in the evening with the kids playing on the carpet, the television on, my wife (ex-wife) reading or watching TV or doing research (she was a doctor). Now I find that I write anywhere – sometimes at home in my armchair or on my sofa; sometimes in an outdoor café on the Coal Square in Copenhagen; sometimes in a serving house in the city. I also like to write on trans-Atlantic flights, on trains. I don’t write according to a plan – some write three hours a day, but I don’t. I write sometimes for hours, sometimes only for minutes. In fifteen minutes, you can get the core of a scene done. Sometimes a few days pass without my writing anything. But really I am constantly writing, taking notes several times a day, observing the world around me, the gifts that a writer witnesses constantly. It is necessary to always be observing – both outside of oneself and within, watching the movement of one’s own thoughts and perceptions. Writing for me is the closest thing to a spiritual discipline that I have – and that discipline is practiced nearly all the time.

CompanyAngels, US cover]What’s next?

I’ve just finished a memoir of the ’60s titled Chasing Jack. New American Press, which published my essay collection Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America in 2008, will next month also publish a story collection of mine titled Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down. And I’ve been spending a good deal of time translating from Danish to English (or American as the Danes say – which used to be pejorative but now is probably positive) and in two weeks will publish a book of translation of the late Danish poet Dan Turèll, who is tremendously popular here – though this is a limited edition with original signed and numbered lithographs that sells for an impossible price. I am also recording the Turèll translations in a sound studio with the musical back-up of the Danish film composer Halfdan E. But my major anticipation is focused on the appearance from Bloomsbury of In the Company of Angels (coming out on March 15th in New York on June 7th in London, and in August in Australia-New Zealand) and then, in March 2011, of the second Copenhagen novel, Everyone Is an Angel. I hope that their performance on the market will merit Bloomsbury’s doing the other two volumes of the Copenhagen Quartet.

Otherwise, I have an idea for another Copenhagen book which I have been puzzling over for the past three years or so, wrote 170 pages of but it wasn’t right – too much intellect! I hope that I can stop thinking about that long enough to allow it to get written. And I hope that I will fall in love once again. And I hope to spend a lot of time in the sunny south islands one of these days. And I am looking forward to speaking with my grandson, Leo Kennedy-Rye, when he begins to speak! I held him in my hands a few weeks ago and whispered to him, “Oh, Leo, you and I are going to be such good friends!” and he rewarded me with the biggest smile! That’s enough to stay alive for!

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