William Kennedy


The roadblocks of great writers:
Mario Vargas Llosa—self-doubt
Ralph Ellison—ego
William Styron—depression
F. Scott Fitzgerald—death

It’s commonplace (and accurate) to observe that William Kennedy has done for Albany what Joyce did for Dublin, Bellow did for Chicago, and what, in different ways, Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez did for Macondo. But it’s not only Albany that comes alive when you’re in the company of the seventy-eight-year-old author of the ongoing Albany cycle (including Legs [1975], Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game [1978], Quinn’s Book [1988], Very Old Bones [1992], The Flaming Corsage [1996], Roscoe [2002], and Ironweed [1983], which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award). The longer you talk with Kennedy, the more you begin to feel as if you’re in conversation with an artist who has somehow gained direct access to all the significant creative projects of the last two hundred years, and then some. In addition to being a world-class novelist, journalist, historian, and screenwriter, he is also, essentially, an anthropologist of art and politics. A typical conversation with Kennedy moves from Hunter S. Thompson to Fidel Castro to Louis Armstrong to Ingmar Bergman to Diane Sawyer to Francis Ford Coppola (with whom he worked on The Cotton Club) and Meryl Streep (who starred in the film version of Ironweed). The subtitle of O Albany!, the stunning work of nonfiction Kennedy published in 1983, describes New York’s capital as a city full of “political wizards, fearless ethnics, spectacular aristocrats, splendid nobodies, and underrated scoundrels.” Kennedy knows that cast of characters personally, and he writes about them better than anyone else.

When Kennedy received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award (also in 1983), he used some of the award money to start a writers program at the University at Albany, SUNY. “It is my longstanding feeling,” Kennedy said at the time, “that literary conversation is the best conversation in the world.” With that feeling in mind, Kennedy has served as founding director of the New York State Writers Institute, which has brought close to a thousand writers to Albany, as well as numerous workshops, film series, and conferences, all free to the public and full of conversation.

This interview took place during two evenings of conversation and dining in early 2006. I had been hoping to lure Kennedy out to bowl while we talked—he’s had a storied career as a bowler, in addition to his better-known career as a writer—but I happily settled for a few games of pool. Kennedy trounced me in game one, then kindly scratched on the eight ball as he was trouncing me in game two.

—Edward Schwarzschild


THE BELIEVER: Hearing you describe Hunter S. Thompson makes me wonder how writers manage to remain inspired and excited and productive without veering into destructive behavior. Thompson went his way, and Fitzgerald went his way, and other people have gone other destructive ways. Maybe this question is too innocent or naïve, but how does a writer exist in our society in a healthy, productive way?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: I make no claims to mental health but I am still producing work. I had a vision of what I wanted to write, and it was fiction. And I kept at it in solitude, teaching myself what I knew was the work of my life. It started consuming me after college and when I was in the army. I was devouring everybody on the shelf, and even into the sixties I would have thirty or forty books out of the library and I wanted to read them all. I wish I were a better reader but I’m very slow, methodical, and I get bored easily. But I’d found writers of incredible value this way and when I did find one I’d go through the whole shelf: Graham Greene or Borges or Nathanael West or Camus, so many. It’s as if I were sketching a rough draft of what I was going to imagine—and this was early on. It then became my obsession, my assignment to myself, to flesh it out, to discover the use of language, dialogue, structure, suspense, discover how people think and then behave or misbehave, a learning process that’s always changing. And for many it doesn’t seem ever to be easily done.

Self-destruction happens often, when the writing ceases to be central and the life takes over—remember Yeats’s famous line—“the intellect of man is forced to choose, perfection of the life, or of the work.” Sometimes when the work becomes difficult the only way forward is to repeat yesterday’s success, and then the game is over. It always has to be new. I hear about this ongoing struggle over and over again, even from the most achieved writers. I just saw an interview with Orhan Pamuk where he said that in the novel he was writing he was having a problem about how to bring a person into the room [laughs]—this at a stage of life when he’s considered the greatest writer of his country.

Mario Vargas Llosa, after four decades of creating a shelf of very distinguished novels, said he has a tormenting lack of confidence about writing. He doubts himself, and it gets worse with time. Hemingway certainly underwent that in his late years, really lost his gift. It’s precarious, what we go through, but it’s also not something to be surprised about. The imagination gets you into this novel you’re working on, using all the knowledge of craft, design, theory, character, structure that you’ve been learning all your life, and then you grapple with the unknown, an endless struggle to find the way, and you finish, at long last. And when you start over it’s a brand-new game. You don’t forget how to ride a bicycle, but you might forget how to get from Albany to Troy on a bicycle. [Laughs]

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the novel Responsible Men (Algonquin), which was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the best books of 2005. His short story collection, No Rest for the Middleman, will be published by Algonquin in fall 2007. He currently teaches fiction writing and contemporary literature at the University at Albany, SUNY. For more info, visit responsiblemen.com.

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