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An Interview with William Kennedy

[AUTHOR]
“IF YOU DON’T HAVE FAITH IN A BREAKTHROUGH YOU’LL GO CRAZY OR STOP WRITING.”
The roadblocks of great writers:
Mario Vargas Llosa—self-doubt
Ralph Ellison—ego
William Styron—depression
F. Scott Fitzgerald—death
by Edward Schwarzschild
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with William Kennedy

[AUTHOR]
“IF YOU DON’T HAVE FAITH IN A BREAKTHROUGH YOU’LL GO CRAZY OR STOP WRITING.”
The roadblocks of great writers:
Mario Vargas Llosa—self-doubt
Ralph Ellison—ego
William Styron—depression
F. Scott Fitzgerald—death
by Edward Schwarzschild
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with William Kennedy

Edward Schwarzschild
12 Snaps

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

I.“I DECIDED I COULD MAKE A DECENT PIECE OUT OF ANYTHING.”

THE BELIEVER: Your career as a writer started with journalism, and you’ve done scores of interviews over the years. How did you learn to become a good interviewer?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: I started out very hesitant about interviewing and even about being a reporter. I wondered whether I’d even recognize a news story when I came across one. I had nightmares about going out on a story and missing it entirely. I started as a sportswriter on the Glens Falls Post-Star, writing an occasional column, and when I was drafted during the Korean War The Post-Star gave me a column—“This New Army”—three dollars a pop and write whenever I wanted. Everything I wrote they published and sent the three bucks home to my family and they put it in the bank. I probably made a hundred dollars in the two years I was in the army. Sumptuous beginning.

BLVR: What were the columns about?

WK: My first column was about how lousy the food was at Fort Devens. Then we were sent to Fort Benning to form the 4th Infantry, which I later found out was a division Hemingway had attached himself to during World War II. The 4th came home after World War II and disbanded and now they were reconstituting it from scratch. We thought we were going to Korea, but they sent us to Germany, the first American troops to go to Europe during the Cold War. At Benning, I was in a heavy-weapons company and writing columns for The Post-Star. What I didn’t know was that a recruiting sergeant in Glens Falls was clipping them and was very pissed off that I was making fun of the army, especially one about a general. I thought it was funny, but the sergeant didn’t. I got a call from a Major Zimmerman and he said, “That was a good column you wrote in The Post- Star about the general.” I said, “Well, thank you, Major.” And he said, “Don’t write any more. But come up and see me and maybe I’ll give you a job.” Major Zimmerman was putting together a Public Information Office for the division, and after basic training he had me transferred out of the heavy-weapons company. I went to PIO, working with visiting newsmen, writing, and when we got to Frankfurt we started a weekly Division newspaper, about sixteen pages, and I became sports editor. I spent the Cold War covering golf and baseball and home-run hitters, and a fellow who pitched a perfect game and whose wife turned out to be a spy. You asked about interviewing and I remember an Italian private in the 8th regiment who had been a club fighter in New York. I drove up to Bad Nauheim where the 8th was headquartered and watched this fellow teaching guys to box. There was no real story but I wrote it anyway and decided I could make a decent piece out of anything.

BLVR: Did any of your interviews go badly?

WK: I remember one with Arthur Miller when After the Fall was about to open in New York. Miller had an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel. We talked and talked and talked and it seemed all right, but nothing extra. I wanted to sit with him during a rehearsal but he wouldn’t let that happen. He was keeping the play a secret. I tried to get him to tell me what it was about and he evaded the question and said, “It’s a lot of fireworks going off all over the place.” At no time did he hint that it was, in good measure, about Marilyn Monroe. It was a vapid interview—what he said and didn’t say, and also what I wrote. I’d rather remember the day in 1956 in Albany when I went to see Louis Armstrong at the Kenmore Hotel. I didn’t know what to expect but I was a fanatic about him and he was a sensational interview—so open, so original. He had great verbal talent on top of being a musical genius. When I was walking down the corridor to his room, he was practicing a tune he said was called “Nevada.” He stopped, let me in, and then said, “Wait till I hit the high note.” Here’s what I wrote about that moment: [Kennedy consults his collection of selected nonfiction called Riding the Yellow Trolley Car (1993)]

He blew some low notes, then a few higher ones, and finally he hit the high one and held it for about a week and turned it like a corkscrew and flattened it out two or three ways and sharpened it up and blew it out the window. Then he put down the horn and smiled. “Solid,” he said.

I drove up to Glens Falls after the army to a high school prom so I could hear Duke Ellington. I remember leaning on the piano as the Duke played and talking to him. I don’t know what he said or I said, and I never wrote a line about it, but it was a great moment.

II.“A FUN CONVERSATION WITH FIDEL ABOUT SPORTS”

BLVR: It seems like sports has been one of the passions you’ve had your whole life—it runs through your work, from Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game to Roscoe. I suppose it’s an American trait on some level, but your devotion seems deeper than that.

WK: I was more passionate at a younger age when I followed everything, but then I realized that I wanted to write about the larger world and I left sports, but always came back to them. I didn’t want to write about politics either, and I can’t stop writing about them. The passion for sports was from my family. My father and my uncle were rabid baseball fans, and Hawkins Stadium, where the Albany Senators played in the Eastern League, was in my backyard. We also had an open field across the street from my house where we played baseball all the time. I played first base because I had a first baseman’s mitt. I hit a home run over the fence one day and the next week they moved the diamond to the other end of the field and I could never hit another one. The fence was a mile away.

BLVR: There’s always someone moving the fence, raising the bar. Or are sports more of an escape from our lives?

WK: No, it’s absolutely a segment of life that is very valuable—the idea of gaming, that’s the theme of Billy Phelan. The urge to play, the element of play in the life of the human being. [Kennedy reaches for a copy of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and quotes the epigraph, which is from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens] “The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start.” That became clear to me at a later date. I didn’t have it in mind when I was hitting that home run. I also had a hole in one and a 299 game. I had a great career in sports and then I retired. The hole in one was up in the Schroon Lake Country Club. I was twelve. A par three and I hit it with my junior driver—off the tee and into the cup. My father was with me and one of my uncles and a friend from New York, and they couldn’t believe it. The 299 game I wrote about in Billy Phelan.

BLVR: It’s only the best bowling scene in American literature!

WK: I told that 299 story when I went to Cuba. I was in García Márquez’s house and Fidel Castro came in just after we had lunch. Norberto Fuentes, a writer who had invited me down, and Gabo [Gárcia Márquez], who knew my work because I’d interviewed him, had both mentioned me to Fidel, so he came by to say hello. And he said, “I have your books.” We talked a long time and then he visited again the night we were leaving Cuba. He said he had read the books and loved Ironweed and said I should write another book about Francis Phelan, which I did. He’d also read Billy Phelan and couldn’t understand this 299 game, how it was even possible. He said he bowled now and then and had access to any bowling alley in Cuba. “But my high game is 169,” he said. So, I told him the story, how it happened.

BLVR: How did it happen?

WK: It was 1938, ’39 maybe, and my uncle Pete McDonald was bowling at the Knights of Columbus, a five-dollar-a-head match game, and my father was on his team. Pete rolled 299 but another man on the team rolled 143 and they lost the match. It got into the newspaper and Pete used to tell me, “When you roll 300, kid, come around and talk to me.” He was keeping score one night, about 1948 or ’49, and we were bowling in Thorne’s Alleys in Watervliet and I was hot. I had something like a 215 average for four or five games, and then I rolled eleven strikes in a row, and on the twelfth I had a perfect hit, one of the best hits of the night, and the four pin never moved.

BLVR: I hope nobody hexed you the way Scotty hexed Billy Phelan—

WK: I don’t think anybody hexed me, not like in the book, but who knows what kind of voodoo is ever going on behind your back? Pete putting the hex on me? No, he wouldn’t. Anyway, I pulled even with him, both of us with 299 from then on. And Fidel couldn’t get over that. And when I told him that not only had Billy Phelan done it, but I had done it, he seemed really awed and he changed the subject. He told me what a great shot he was. He invited me to go duck hunting with him in the south of Cuba. He said he shot ducks in competition—millions of ducks go to Cuba for the winter—and he won the prize for marksmanship—101 ducks with 99 shots—

BLVR: The equivalent of a 301 game, I guess.

WK: A fun conversation with Fidel about sports. It was telling.

III. “AGE MAKES THE WORK MORE DIFFICULT ”

BLVR: I’ve been re-reading the pieces you’ve written about García Márquez and they seem particularly important to me. You were working as a journalist and you were writing your novels and then One Hundred Years of Solitude came across your desk in 1970. You read it, loved it, and raved about it in one of the earliest reviews of Márquez in the U.S. [The opening line of the review is: “One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.”] Then you arranged to interview Márquez in Barcelona in 1972. When I read that interview, it feels like I’m eavesdropping on a separated-at-birth reunion. You were both born in the same year, you both moved from journalism to fiction, and you both pushed against the boundaries of traditional realism. It wasn’t like he was doing something that then inspired you to do something. Instead, it was as if you were both doing similar work simultaneously in different parts of the world and you finally crossed paths. Was it like meeting a kindred spirit?

WK: It certainly was. And because of all the things you say. He was a journalist and we were the same age and he aspired to write literature and we shared a love of the movies and the Surrealists. It was enlightening to see how he viewed himself and explained his work, and the great wit with which he wrote and conversed. He was a funny guy and he loved to tell stories. So we got along and we’ve kept up a casual friendship over the years.

BLVR: I read recently that Márquez didn’t write last year. He said it was the first year he could remember not having written and he didn’t know if he would write another novel, though he felt he could if he were inspired.

WK: Gabo has had a lot of physical trauma in recent years, but the last we talked he seemed to be past that. Bill Styron was silenced by his depression and never went back to his war novel. And ego can do it, as it did to Ralph Ellison, who couldn’t publish a second book that might be compared negatively to his masterpiece, Invisible Man. Gabo never had the ego problem, even after One Hundred Years of Solitude. But for most writers I do think age makes the work more difficult.

BLVR: Is that how it feels for you these days?

WK: I don’t think it’s entirely the aging with me. After floundering around for years with two unpublished early novels, then writing Legs over six years and finally publishing it, I said, “Maybe I know how to do it now.” I wrote Billy Phelan in two years and Ironweed in seven or eight months. That was unbelievable and I thought I was home free; but then it was four or five years with Quinn’s Book, which was interrupted by the movies.Very Old Bones and The Flaming Corsage were both tough, and Roscoe was a killer. This book I’m involved in now seems endless. I wrote a page and a half today which took me forever; but it’s always that way, and you don’t seem to carry over certain elements of your experience. You learn craft, but creating out of nothing is still like building the Tower of Babel every day. You get up so high, but without a clue where it’s going; and you’ll never get to the top. How high is up?

BLVR: That’s a tough question to answer.

WK: I remember one night in the newsroom up in Glens Falls, the composing room foreman, Jimmy O’Neil, was listening to two reporters talking about how tough it was to be a writer. And Jimmy said out of the side of his mouth, “Yeah, the guys up in the slate quarry in Granville got it tough, too.” You can’t pity yourself. If Gabo can’t figure it out, who can? Hemingway couldn’t figure it out. Fitzgerald, for years and years, couldn’t make his second act work. Finally he had the Hollywood novel going and was on his way to something pretty good when he died. Whether he could have pulled a Gatsby off again nobody knows.

BLVR: You’ve said more than once that one way in which you got your education as a writer was by talking to other writers.

WK: When I left Puerto Rico in 1963 and came back to Albany, I felt totally isolated. I had no friends who cared about literature. I also had to do something on the side to pay some bills. So I started to freelance and I connected with The National Observer. Because I’d been in Puerto Rico [working as managing editor of the San Juan Star] they sent me Latin American novels, as if I were an expert. That’s how I got One Hundred Years of Solitude. After a while I connected socially with some university people who were writers or teachers of literature and finally there was somebody to talk to. I was the apprentice in those years, trying to learn how it was done and I sought out established writers to profile, and pick their brains. “How did you do this?” “Why this way?” I also remember the importance of making it all real—the world of publishing and writing—because it was only a fantasy world for me when I was in Europe and Puerto Rico. I had no real connection to New York City.

BLVR: Were there any particular revelations that you remember from those early days?

WK: I got by osmosis from these writers what was essential in their attitude toward their work—their seriousness, their commitment, how they confronted the problem of creativity. I couldn’t conceive of anybody being more committed than I was then, but I wasn’t at all secure. I might never write a book that anybody would care about. That’s the early nightmare. Bernard Malamud was up the road in Bennington and I was a great fan of his writing, especially his dialogue, and I got to know him over the years. Granville Hicks lived nearby in Grafton and he’d been a character of great complexity and influence in the 1930s as editor of The New Masses. I did a long piece on him and his history and on his attitudes toward contemporary writers, which was illuminating. I talked to Norman Mailer and James Baldwin in New York; Saul Bellow and John Cheever were down the river. Saul was brilliant as usual and I remember him saying that the sources of real power in America will never be revealed to innocents and underdogs.

BLVR: Hunter S. Thompson was a writer you were in touch with back then, as well.

WK: Well, I knew Hunter when we were both very young people. He was younger than I was but I was still young and new to fiction. We spent a lot of time talking. Hunter was a very smart guy and very committed to literature. Ultimately, he didn’t do that. He found a way to live as a journalist, and he was so successful at it that he stopped writing fiction, though he returned to it late in his life. But I give him very high marks for something else—for extending the boundary of literature into the new dimension of gonzo. Some of what he wrote is as good—as fiction—as anything written by any number of established high-level fiction writers. I keep arguing on behalf of his being considered a great comedic fiction writer, but people will probably always consider him a journalist. I think he was extremely gifted both as a user of the language and as an inventor of himself, and that self-invention was the raw material of his work. You could say the same of any number of first-person writers in our century. Hemingway and Mailer immediately come to mind. Mailer broke ground using his own persona as the narrator. Bellow was probably our most brilliant first-person fiction writer and even when he uses third person it seems like first person. His capacity to invent an individual almost full-blown on half a page with his insights is extraordinary. I go crazy with Bellow’s prose; how could anybody write that well? His language and his intellect are endlessly astonishing. I’ve been rereading Humboldt’s Gift—wonderful, wonderful prose, a maestro on every page.

BLVR: Could Thompson have done that in fiction if he’d stayed away from journalism?

WK: Not like Bellow, who was all by himself. But there’s no telling what Thompson might have accomplished if he had gone directly into fiction and stayed there; but he didn’t. The originality of what he did speaks for itself. The way of life he entered when he wrote Hell’s Angels changed him forever. He was already on the way to becoming the maximum extrovert, and once he presented his bizarre persona to the world, he felt he had to keep it up ever after—extending his imagination into wilder and wilder feats of outlandishness, often dangerous and self-destructive. The incredible abuse of drugs, the willingness to create very wild public scenes—he carried this to extreme degrees until the end of his life. His later years are full of horror stories about what happened with his body as well as his mind. Nevertheless I always thought him in some compartment of his strange brain to be one of the sanest people on the planet, and as smart as they come, and extremely funny. There was always great conversation with Hunter, even during his most dire final days. He was a great friend for a long time, a man worth knowing.

IV. “GENRES MOVE IN CYCLES, AND ONLY NEED A WRITER WITH NEW VISION.”

BLVR: 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?

WK: 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]

BLVR: Do writers lose touch with their assignments? Is that why some writers are unable to continue to create?

WK: When you get older I suppose one thing you lose is the adventurousness of the quest and the great feeling of having done something absolutely original. Emerson wrote about the wisdom of the man who utters his own thought with a divine confidence that it must be true if he heard it there. In your late years that’s difficult, but it surely is the way to proceed. The question is always the same: what’s new about this subject? When I was writing Legs, about Jack Diamond, the gangster novel and movie were clichés; the genre was a cliché. But it came back with The Godfather and again with The Sopranos. Genres move in cycles, and only need a writer with new vision. I believed there was something new to be found in the story of Diamond’s life, and in how the world looked at him, and I think I found something. I’ve changed much since those early days, but I still have that assignment I gave myself so long ago. I haven’t finished, haven’t given up. I’m still here, still writing. So far, so good.

BLVR: Another potential danger for writers is their relationship to politics. How have you come to think about that over the years?

WK: I’ve always been very leery of it. Not of politics as a subject, but a political point of view as a theme or argument. There are writers who would not exist if they did not have that political point of view—literature as a vehicle for social change. A writer like Camus was an incredibly political man with intense moral fervor in his life and his work; but he separated himself from partisan commitment to pursue a larger dimension. In his allegorical novel of 1947, The Plague, he was faulted for being insufficiently engaged—should have been tougher on fascism, the Nazis, the French collaborators. But he was after a subject that transcended even those horrendous war politics—which is the defining of the human behavior that begets such plagues. He wrote in one of his notebooks, “Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have reached his conclusions.” I keep coming back to Camus as an inspiration toward an attitude that is political but that does not strangle on its own politics. He said something to the effect that if you weren’t able to write about… wait a minute. I want to say this right. [Kennedy picks a book off his shelf and finds the Camus quote he’s looking for]

It would appear that to write a poem about spring, would nowadays be serving capitalism. I am not a poet, but I should have no second thoughts about being delighted by such a poem if it were beautiful. One either serves the whole of man, or one does not serve him at all. I like men who take sides more than literatures that do.

That idea has been a guiding principle for me from very early on, long before I read Camus. I came to it, I suppose, by rejecting novels that were dated either because of their politics or because of facile manipulation of history. In service of what? The cause or the theory of the moment? Proust said that a work with theories in it is like an object with the price tag still on it. Some element of me always wants to be political and I think much of my writing has been that—Ironweed, for instance. But I never intended that as the politics of any moment, or any movement. That was never what literature was about for me. The struggle is always the revelation of the individual spirit that you’re creating. That’s the mystery that prevails throughout the quest. And if there is a political theme it should be woven into the fabric of that spirit. Roscoe is all about politicians but it’s not an argument. It is, I hope, a personification of political power in an ambiguously moral rascal. There are a lot of those out there, and Roscoe illuminates one of them.

BLVR: But aren’t you still tempted, occasionally, to put an explicit political position in your work?

WK: Well, yes. I have a great urge right now to write something that would help get rid of the Cheney-Bush administration, the most secretive in our history, which is relentlessly hacking at the established rights the nation has so carefully nurtured for so long. The press is their enemy and is targeted as such; we’re mired in a hateful war, and in the rape of the environment, and we’re subsidizing incredible plunder. Many American writers feel this, and it’s come to be comparable to what European writers felt in the oppressive days of Communism and Fascism. The dangers in this country now will surely find their way into our literature, but whatever I write on such matters will be carried through obliquely. I write speeches about it all, but not novels.

V. “I WANTED TO TAKE ALBANY THROUGH THE AGES”

BLVR: When did you have a sense that you were going to be deep in Albany with your novels for a long time?

WK: I would say that it started in the early sixties. I came back here to work in Albany because my father was sick, and I got an assignment to do a history of the neighborhoods in Albany for the Times Union. And in doing it I discovered how much Albany had to offer. I knew it had a great history and I’d heard about it for years, and I loved that about it. But I didn’t think it was necessarily my turf, because when I left Albany I didn’t want to come back. I figured I’d roam the world and do the expatriate number. That’s what I did, in a sense, for six years in Puerto Rico. Then I got my belly full and came home. I remember somebody saying, “You don’t really know why you’re going back to Albany, but you’ll find out when you get there.” And I did.

BLVR: Did your Albany cycle start soon after that?

WK: I came across a note to myself from 1964 about writing this big book on Albany, long before I ever thought about such a thing as a cycle of novels. I didn’t know what it would be like and I didn’t have a model. But I wanted to take Albany through the ages and cover all the wars and the presidents and the railroads and the Erie Canal and the gangsters and all the immigration and the church and the wacko politics, and in my imagination it was a single book, which was absurd. When I came across that note I realized I’d forgotten totally how far back that idea went for me. The reality set in when I started to write a novel on modern Albany politics, and put Legs Diamond in as a secondary character. But he took over the book and shoved out the pols, and I saw the unmanageable immensity of my old plan. And I settled for one novel at a time. I was tracking Diamond through all the newspaper morgues of Albany and New York City, and I knew that the ancillary stories I kept finding would be part of future novels—the kidnapping of the political boss’s nephew, Thomas E. Dewey trying to bust the political machine in 1938 and again in 1942 when he became governor, the city as a transportation hub, the Erie Canal as the way west, the vast fortunes made in railroads and lumber—in my neighborhood—all the arrests for gambling, which was so intimately tied to politics—and I had gamblers in the family. One of my buddies put himself through college running a horse room in the back of a barbershop. I grew up betting horses there. That convergence of worlds galvanized my imagination and Billy Phelan came into existence.

BLVR: But how did you get to the specific Albany families? The Phelans, the Quinns, and so on?

WK: The first novel I wrote was terrible and I destroyed it. The second was gloomy and episodic but not bad. I called it The Angels and the Sparrows and in it I established the whole Phelan family. It didn’t work, but those people were very alive to me, and the manuscript received some serious attention. I’m glad it wasn’t published, but it did form the foundation for much of my future work; and eventually I rewrote it entirely as Very Old Bones. When I was writing Billy Phelan I had to give Billy a family, so I brought in those old Phelans. In The Angels, Francis Phelan was a bum on the road, unmarried, coming home for his mother’s funeral. He was in his thirties, and mean-spirited, but when I put him into Billy I improved his disposition. He drops his infant son Gerald while changing his diaper and the baby dies, and Francis in shame abandons the family for twenty-two years. He comes home in 1938, meets his grown son, Billy, and finds out that his wife, Annie, never told anybody he dropped the baby; he is baffled and amazed and becomes a different character. That incident of dropping the baby and running away gave me the forces that shaped the man’s personality; and in time I knew I could take Francis forward into a novel of his own. That was Ironweed. By this time I had also invented other families—the McCalls and the Conways, who held the Irish-Catholic political power in Albany for decades, along with the Fitzgibbonses, wealthy Protestants who also coveted political power and achieved it for more than a century; and the Daughertys who had an artistic and religious bent, and, like the Quinns, also had journalism in their genes, and so on. I saw ways of structuring these lives so I could talk about the forces that move them, and how such inheritances pass on generationally. I felt that with these characters I could frame a historical panorama— which was part of what I had wanted to do early on. Also, as I went along, I saw that I would always have more and more people in a complex social framework to move through time. But even with all this there’s still the vexing question of writing it—personifying it—which is a very mysterious process. Creating unknown people out of your imagination is a ridiculously difficult procedure. And why I have to do it, I don’t know.

BLVR: Calling it a “procedure” makes it sound almost systematic.

WK: I wish it were. The procedure is to talk to yourself every day as if you’re solving a mathematical problem. I have no comprehension of mathematics, but I know it’s fairly difficult to arrive at E=mc2 . It’s also difficult—less difficult—to arrive at Francis Phelan. Right now I’m again in the midst of a mystery, not at all sure where I’m going. I keep telling myself I’ll figure it out, but it’s a faith-based pursuit. And if you don’t have faith in a breakthrough you’ll go crazy or stop writing.

BLVR: Are you still surprised by the way things come back? I’m thinking, for example, of how you worked on Legs for six years more than thirty years ago. You couldn’t get that book out of your head, but then you finally did. And yet, decades later you wind up working on Roscoe and Legs Diamond reappears in that story. Is that kind of reappearance something that catches you off guard, or is that part of the faith as well?

WK: These characters are always lurking there in the back of the mind, like old friends or family we don’t see for years; and suddenly they turn up, and chaos, or joy, or trouble ensues. The imagination is equivalently random. It’s as if you have an imprint of a cosmos and suddenly something urges you to focus here—like those magnifying glasses on the internet when you’re looking at a painting—the Death of Socrates or Las Meninas; something in the corner grabs your attention—Plato is off-scene so you zoom in; Velázquez’s gaze is telling, but it’s small, so you zoom in. Staring at anything long enough reveals the unexpected. It’s the way I’ve always worked, going back in time and finding old characters who still seem valuable. I keep an eye on them, hoping for something new, and when I get lucky they come to life.

VI.“IF I KNOW TOO MUCH TOO SOON I’LL STOP WRITING OUT OF BOREDOM”

BLVR: Can you talk about what you’re working on now?

WK: I can talk about it up to a point. I’m not exactly sure how much I want to say because I know it’s going to change. Everything is fluid. What’s your question?

BLVR: It takes place outside of Albany for the most part, right?

WK: Somewhat. But the Civil Rights era in Albany is a dominating element. The Bobby Kennedy assassination, for instance; there are allusions to it, to that whole horrible string of assassinations and never a satisfying resolution to any of them, or to the veiled purposes behind them. But I also touch on the Cuban Revolution and events before and after it within Cuba. For years I wanted to write about that. The book is emerging slowly and I feel I’m on the way, but it’s a peculiar journey and it may not be like any of my other books. The voice will be my own. I can’t change that. But I seem to have a different narrative structure. The end is not in sight, so who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be like all the rest.

BLVR: Is there a working title?

WK: I wish I had one. Have any ideas?

BLVR: I need to know a little more about it.

WK: I’m not going to tell you any more. You’ve got enough. Just give me an idea, out of the blue.

BLVR: How about Out of the Blue?

WK: [Laughs] It’s been done. I asked my son Brendan the other night and he said, “Don’t worry about it.” “That’s a good title,” I said. And I went up and I made a title page, Don’t Worry About It, and I showed it to Brendan and then threw it out. [Laughs] I don’t know what the title is because I still don’t know what the book is about.

BLVR: I don’t believe that.

WK: I know a few things. But if I know too much too soon I’ll stop writing out of boredom. Tracking the mystery is what keeps me going. Tracking the Mystery—rotten title.

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