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Bookshelf: Summer Q&A Footnotes, Douglas Kennedy '76


DouglasKennedy ’76 has been described by book critics as a master storyteller with a trademark genius for writing serious popular fiction and is currently one of the bestselling novelists in Europe. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages, and in 2006, he was awarded the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Even so, Time magazine has called Kennedy “The most famous American writer you never heard of.” But that’s starting to change with Simon and Schuster’s recent American publication of Kennedy’s latest novel,  Leaving the World. The following is a transcript of an interview by Maine Public Radio News and Public Affairs Director Keith Shortall ’82 that aired in June.

Douglas Kennedy '76

Shortall: In his novel Leaving the World, Douglas Kennedy tackles big themes. The story follows Jane Howard, a brilliant academic, who discovers in the course of her adulthood that the world can be cruel, and that life is written largely by a series of random events.

Kennedy: I think that’s very true, I mean, in one sense Leaving the World is about dealing with everything life throws in your path. On another level it’s also actually about a character who, though very accomplished and very capable, resists happiness. I don’t think that’s a very uncommon theme in a lot of people’s lives—certainly, in my experience. Jane Howard is a brilliant woman. You never really meet brilliant women in fiction. Generally these days, you meet women who are either desperate housewives or single women in cities with big jobs who want to be desperate housewives. I wanted to write something about a very accomplished, intelligent woman, a Harvard academic who, anything she does, she succeeds at. The one thing she can’t succeed at is, frankly, with her own sense of self—and that goes back to childhood miseries.

Shortall: We don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but needless to say, she goes through a lot in the course of that journey, has to struggle with some of the most unthinkable tragedies that can befall a person. Some writers might shy from that, but you’re really interested in it.

Kennedy: Well, I’m actually interested in adversity and I’m also interested in the fact that, I think, on one level we all try to control life and yet on another level life just happens to us. I remember my daughter lost her best friend at the age of 10, she got out of a car the wrong way, another car was coming—this was two blocks from our house in London—and this little girl was killed. And, my daughter’s childhood cracked. I tried to explain to her afterwards a few seconds here and there and the result would have been completely different. I’m fascinated by that, I’m fascinated largely by the way also people cope with tragedy. I think actually if you talk to anybody, you will discover that there is always a tragic dimension in everyone’s lives. We tend to sort of ignore this. The one kind of statement I’ve always thought about the human condition, which I approve of, is from a German poet, Novalis, and he said that ‘character is destiny.’ I think that is absolutely true, and this novel is very much about a woman who because of childhood things, basically because of parents who didn’t want her, she has spent much of her life looking for a father, and that has influenced her choice of men, very bad choices. And yet at the same time, she’s someone for whom everything she touches professionally, works. She can’t right that, and then she discovers motherhood. And, then, well, you’ll have to read the book.

Shortall: You are also interested in this idea that people, for whatever reason, either don’t have the courage or the ability to get out of lives that don’t make them happy.

Kennedy: I think we all fall victim to that one way or the other. Frankly, if we are honest, speaking as a man who was in a marriage for 25 years and knowing for about 10 of it, it really wasn’t there. But, that also in itself is interesting. ‘Man is born free but everywhere in chains,’ as Rousseau said, but the chains, really, in modern western life, are largely self-imposed. That is another thing that intrigues me a lot as a writer and just as a human being—which is how we often trap ourselves into cul-de-sacs of our own making and wonder why have we done this. Why does Jane Howard, as capable and smart as she is, make these very, very bad decisions? I think there’s a larger issue here, which is, frankly, the question of do we merit happiness? Or, do we actually, in one way or another, is it part of the human condition to frankly self-sabotage?

Shortall: The fact that you are so popular in France and in England, but really couldn’t get noticed in the U.S., does that say something about publishing houses in the United States or about the readers in the United States?

Kennedy: I think frankly it really came down not to the quality of the books—and my agents were always saying this—it came down to the fact I have had a commercial failure, and in New York that is very much punishable by death, or at least by a certain kind of black list for a long time. I think it was maybe a failure of nerve among certain editors (they know who they are), but then again, Sarah Branham at Atria, Simon and Schuster, read this book, fell in love with it, and...they are now publishing all my back list. So, everything that has not been published here over the last 10 years is about to be rolled out here in the next 18 months and it’s very sweet.

Shortall: We’re here in your very beautiful home in Wiscasset and before we started going on tape here, you started to tell me about how you found it and bought it. I thought it was kind of funny; can you share it?

Kennedy: Of course, I’m very happy to share it. It’s all down to the fact Wiscasset doesn’t have a by-pass. August of 2007, I was borrowing a friend’s farm in West Bath with my then-wife and two kids. We were driving north to have lunch in Rockland; we got stuck in Wiscasset with the bridge traffic. I said ‘to hell with this’ and I turned right down a certain street. I parked in front of a house. I looked up. I thought, ‘that’s the perfect New England house I’ve always wanted,’ and there was a ‘For Sale’ sign; and an hour later, I made a deal that was accepted and I bought it. Life is happenstantial.

Listen to the interview

Posted July 28, 2010