Winter 1993, Volume 10.1
Very Bountiful Bones: An Interview with William Kennedy
Tom Smith is Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute and Professor of English at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He holds degrees from New York University and Harvard University. He is co-producer and host of "Public Radio BookShow," and the author of many articles on modern and contemporary literature.
William Kennedy was born in Albany, New York, on January 16, 1928, where he was educated by the Christian Brothers and graduated from Siena College in 1949. After a two-year stint in the U. S. Army in the U.S.A. and Germany (1950-52), working on army newspapers, Kennedy became a reporter in Albany, and later in Miami, Florida, and Puerto Rico, where he became the founding managing editor of the San Juan Star, the English daily, in 1959. His journalistic assignments included sports, politics, literature, and especially film criticism which led him to co-author the film The Cotton Club with director Francis Ford Coppola in 1984. He also wrote the screenplay for his own novel Ironweed, filmed in 1987 in Albany under the direction of Hector Babenco. In 1961 Kennedy gave up journalism to write serious fiction and has since taught creative writing at Cornell University (1982-83) and the University at Albany, SUNY, where he is currently Professor of English.
After Kennedy was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1983, he founded and directed the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for Ironweed and the New York Governor's Arts Award, both in 1984. Kennedy lives with his wife, Dana, a former professional dancer, in Averill Park, near Albany. They have two daughters, Dana and Katherine, and a son, Brendan.
Written after The Ink Truck (1969), Kennedy's acclaimed "Albany Cycle" of novels includes Legs (1975), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), Ironweed (1983), Quinn's Book (1988), and Very Old Bones (1992). His non-fiction works include O Albany! (1984), and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, a collection of essays, memoirs, reviews, and reportage, scheduled for publication in 1993. With his son Brendan he has co-authored two children's books, Charlie Malarkey and The Belly Button Machine (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (forthcoming).
I interviewed my good friend William Kennedy on a cool night in Albany at the time of the publication of Very Old Bones in the spring of 1992. Our unrehearsed, spontaneous conversation (one of many) took place while we sat before a crackling fire in the much-used party room of Kennedy's home in Averill Park, NY, a short distance form his native, mythic Albany. Kennedy's world-class pool table stood in the background with the spirit of Billy Phelan hovering close by.
Read a play written by William Kennedy.
Smith: Bill, Very Old Bones is your sixth novel, the fifth novel in what's called The Albany Cycle by this time. Now that Very Old Bones is launched to the world, do you look upon it as a kind of fulfillment or perhaps even a culmination of one mighty torrent of your fiction, the whole sage of the Phelans and the Quinns of Albany and all the things that get embraced in those families? Is there something, perhaps not finality, but is there some kind of fulfillment or culmination that Very Old Bones represents?
Kennedy: There's a completion in a certain sense that at the end of Bones, Orson is speculating on the future and he says, "We're not long for this house." You know, how long can Peter, his father, live, and then I'll be out of here, God knows what's going to happen to me, and so on. And that really brings to an end that particular family coherence that began for me back in 1959, which was when I created the Phelans for the first time. That first book was The Angels and the Sparrows and Bones is an extension of it. Certain elements were already present there, certain plot lines, and characters. Francis was there, Molly was there under a different name, Sarah was there, and the parents were there under different guises. That family cohesion was there from the beginning, and it seemed to me a strength on which I drew as I created all these various Phelans, and also the spinoffs from them, the Quinns, and Billy's life, and Francis's outlaw life and so on. George Quinn's life is still to be told, as is Danny Quinn's, but those first Phelans were a nucleus around which I could invent freely, and with great variety, the kind of life I had seen and observed but hadn't ever penetrated very seriously in any other way except through fiction. Even personallynot knowing the profound insides of my family. I never got that close to them. We were always a close family but to talk about history or ancestors or what was the influence of your mother or grandmother, etc., etc. I didn't have that, and certainly I never could write about it in journalism or essays of any sort, or biographies or autobiography. Autobiography is unthinkable except as a casual thing in O Albany. But this way, this continuity of family, was a way of looking at something important, and in Bones, I came to an ancestral influence that seemed to be at the heart of a lot of things I knew about people of this kind.
Smith: Now you're talking about the Malachi episode back in the nineteenth century, the prehistory of the Phelans of Colonie Street.
Kennedy: Right, yes. You know there are episodes in history in Ireland that are parallel to the Malachi story and there's also a certain element that is ongoing in Irish historythe relationship with the church, and the superstitions, and the profound ignorant behavior of some people; and I saw how it could have affected subsequent lives. That was central to me in the culmination of this book.
Smith: I want to go back after a while to some of those ancestral roots, both in the novel and also the whole cycle, but when Very Old Bones ends, I mean in the final page in 1958, there are still Phelans and Quinns alive, so we can't talk about absolute finality, which is not to say that you are going to write a sequel to it tomorrow. But not only is Billy Phelan still alive, but the principal narrator and focal character of Very Old Bones, a new character in the cycle, Orson Purcell, Peter Phelan's bastard son, is still very much alive, too. Now is there some significance that this whatever it is, fulfilling or culminating novel, is told mostly by a bastard son of the Phelans?
Kennedy: That's an evolutionary event. I started to tell it through Daniel Quinn who, in a certain sense, being the son of George Quinn and Peg, was somewhat akin to myself. And I could not make that work. I felt that that was artificial. I was full of constraint. I find it very difficult to invent out of my own personal life. But when I was able to find parallel figures in my own acquaintances who could be coalesced into a single character and who would behave quite differently from me, have experiences quite different from my own, then I was able to see a narrator and hear a narrator and believe a narrator. Until then I couldn't. I didn't believe it. Whenever I was going to use a parallel to my own life, as Daniel Quinn, if I tried to invent outside of my own experience, and if I reached too far, I would say, "That can't happen. I would never do that. Danny Quinn would never do that." But of course, Danny Quinn very well might do such a thing and it's a fallacy that autobiographical fiction is really commonplace, for it isn't really. I think there must be an awful lot of writers like me. I don't believe Hemingway was like his prototypes, his principal characters, the Jake Barneses. I think that he may have been closer to them than I am to mine, but he had to invent, he had to find a way to leap out of his own skin. And that's in a certain way what I did when I found Orson. Orson was able to go crazy and be outlandish and have experiences that were really very, very far afield of my own. His World War II experiences, his whole experience with the Nazis in Germany, was very much different from what I was ever involved in. But, I knew about people who had comparable experience, and I was able to fuse all that. The principle I suppose is that you can't lie, and the lie is the contravention of your own self and your own capacity. And that contravention would be a lie; whereas if you invent this wild man, then anything is possible and it's not a lie anymore.
Smith: Well, you've actually anticipated and really gone a long way toward answering my next question on the strategy, the literary strategy of having a bastard and a mad man tell this enormously complicated chronicle of Very Old Bones; and I suppose with the equal emphasis on the bastard and the madmanthe kind of liberating aspect and the different kind of vision that the Phelan and the Quinn saga would get from someone who was a bastard and someone who goes crazy right in the middle of the novel, as a matter of fact.
Kennedy: Well, Orson was capable of it and, because he was a bastard he had far more interest (than Quinn) in this family that he chose to acquire. And so instead of alienating himself from it because of his bastardy, he chose, perhaps involuntarily, but maybe it wasn't so involuntary, to go crazy in New York and know that the chances were he'd wind up in Albany, being cared for by his aunts and uncles and so on. And so maybe that drive to madness was to find an honorable way to move into the family's life and then chronicle it, and chronicle his own life as well. Quinn's Book was comparable to Bones in the sense that Quinn was looking back from an advanced age to his childhood and young manhood, whereas Orson is looking, not only at himself, but at everybody around him, trying to comprehend, and put into some profound family focus, what really was the underpinning behavior of this peculiar family. And he discovers Malachi, although it's too easy to explain it away with just Malachi. But you also have Malachi's influence on a woman as strong-minded as the mother of this family, Kathryn Phelan, a matriarch of great, great strength and will. And however wrong-headed she became in the subsequent years, the foundation of her beliefs, and the beliefs she imposed on this family, were rigorously moral and comprehensible. It's just that as time moved along, they became corrupting. They didn't change with the times, and it is this inflexibility that we see in the church todayin terms of abortion, birth control, celibacy of priests and so on. The disintegration of the church is before us all the time because of these things. That wasn't really why I was writingnot to have a parallel to the churchbut just to know that these strong-willed people who are influenced by these incredibly powerful historical events, are moral in themselves too. You know, they are not villainous people.
Smith: I want to get back to that soon about the whole way that Irish-American Catholicism is part of this mighty torrent of your work, as I put it before, but I still want to talk a little bit about the character of Orson in terms of that tradition. Where did that character come fromquite apart from the literary strategy of having the bastard and the madman tell this story which you talked about? In the mythology of the Phelans and the Quinns as you gestated them over the years, from 1959 on, was the character Orson Purcell lurking somewhere? Where did that character really come from?
Kennedy: When I started to write this book I had him as a cousin who was considered, as George Quinn calls him, a floo-doo, whatever that means. He was crazy in some way. I had him behaving in a very negative way, burglarizing the family home after it's closed down, stealing things he felt he either should have or could profit from. I had him stealing one of his father's paintings that was in the house.
Smith: Yes, Peter Phelan, his father is Francis's younger brother and the artist who creates the Malachi suite, which is very much a part of Very Old Bones.
Kennedy: That version of Orson existed in several early drafts when Danny Quinn was telling the story. But then I began to have this trouble trying to create Quinn, because he didn't have the experience Orson had. Orson was wilder. Orson was known as a madman, and he looked to be a likely candidate for a narrator, a very smart guy who was a navel-gazer of a kind, but who also had a sense of history and had this profound interest in the family. It didn't seem profound at first glance, but as time went on he became more interesting to me; and I rejected the idea of him being this second-rate cousin who's really a cheap burglar and winds up in a kind of scandalous moment at the end of the book with a woman and the police. It was a terrible ending for Orson, even though it was the kind of life he was living. So I chose not to go in that direction, for as Orson began to talk, he made sense. He came to see Billy Phelan, talked to Billy, heard Billy confess things to him; and then he began to confess himself, for he trusted Billy in a way he had never before trusted anybody. So he tells Billy his story about Germany, and his cheating at cards, and his magicianship, and so on. I felt Orson had evolved into a much more interesting character than the sleazeball, lost, crazy-headed, sex-crazed cousin he was originally.
Smith: It's very significant that, in addition to being a bastard and madman, he's also a magician. Magic as practiced, and as metaphor, figures very prominently in your work in the Albany Cycle, certainly in Ironweed and Billy Phelan and Quinn's Book, and very much so, in many ways, in Very Old Bones. And I'm thinking of Orson, his talent as a magician and also well the whole phenomenon of the dark world of witchcraft and things like that, that go back in the Malachi episode in the 19th Century, that wonderful dramatic blasphemy that's part of that episode. Is this some kind of full circle?
Kennedy: I would think so. I think that magic has always been central to the Irish, from the Celts forward, the belief in the mythic life of people and birds and creature, on through to the miracles of the church, and the witchcraft trials. And magic is the basis for the church, the whole foundation of the life of Christall those miracleswalking on the water, and the loaves and the fishes multiplied, water into winethese wonderful, magical concepts that have galvanized the imagination of the entire world for two millenniums, and which have, as their foundation, the infusion into the minds of the children this belief that magic is possible, and miracles are real. You must believe in the Trinity, which you can't even explain. It's an anomaly, but don't try to fight it, just believe it. That was definitely in my makeup, and also I had a magician's kit, and I read Mandrake the Magician when I was a kid, and I always wanted to be able to fool people, but never got the hang of it. Then later I got to know about card thieves, which is magic of another order.
Smith: There's a kind of paradox in the Irish tradition that I think is crystallized in your novels, and particularly Very Old Bones, perhaps as dramatically as anywhere. On the one hand, this is how James Joyce referred to the Irish, the most priest-led race in Europe, and, by extension, the world, and tremendously under the sway of the imperatives of the church, the theology of the church, the strictures of the church. On the one hand, there are the imperatives, the theology, the strictures of the church and the official mysteries of Catholicism, while on the other hand, there is the great tradition of pagan magic. You put those things together very dramatically in the history of this family. And I wonder if that paradox is something you felt all along as you were gestating not only the grand design of the Phelan-Quinn-myth, but also maybe your own consciousness?
Kennedy: Well, I don't know about my own consciousness but I can see that the idea of putting the church and magic together is not anything except historical perception. The church put it together. When you read the Malleus MaleficarumThe Hammer of Witches, a book that was quite widely accepted by Popes and hierarchy of the church, and affected a great many lives, you can see that here was a belief that there were such things as witches, those pagan figures who worshiped Satan, yes, but God knows what else they worshiped. They were viewed as heretical, out to destroy the civilized world as the church tried to represent it, out to overthrow the priests, out to emasculate men, out to denigrate women. Everything evil that you could do to a society was being done by these witches, and the church ganged up on them, found a way to put them away, put witchcraft away to burn them, destroy them, crucify them, whatever they needed to do to maintain a grip on this utterly false front of legitimate miracle.
Smith: Wasn't there always a tension, an ironic discrepancy, between the miracles of the Church and that other kind of renegade "magic"?
Kennedy: Magic was everywhere in my life, legitimized and not. And both forms were absolutely fascinating. I discovered that these pagan rituals from the Middle Ages were still being carried out right up until the late 19th Century in Ireland, and probably in this country as well, so I just moved it all, in Very Old Bones, as I do with everything, to Albany. If it can happen there, it can happen here.
Smith: Time-present in Very Old Bones is 1958 and much of the action takes place in the 1953 to 1958 frame with significant episodes from earlier times. Is 1958 simply a very plausible, strategic date as far as the ages and the experiences of people in that particular family? Or, do you think that that is a kind of culminating time or at least symbolically so for that whole era?
Kennedy: Well, it was the year the Albany Senators baseball team went out of business.
Smith: Well, that's very significant.
Kennedy: It was there when these Phelans were coming into their, what is it, senectitude, is there such a wordDe senectuteand they were just dying. Orson just happens to be privy to the final illumination of the line through his father, who is about to die almost any minute, but who has, through this great force of will, completed this suite of paintings, the Malachi suite, which has brought into focus all of the anomalies that he's been monitoring for so many years, that he was witness to when Francis came home but couldn't understand then; and, as he points out, Francis went to his grave not knowing why his sister and mother wouldn't let him come home. Francis probably assumed it was the bitterness over Katrina and such things, but without understanding what underpinned those things, and what was so profound in their motivation. I felt that at some point, in an arbitrary year, something had to happen. There's a certain logic that dictates how far you can go in time, and I think it had to follow on the heels of the Korean War, if I was going to use that experience with Orson where he goes apeshit in Germany, and then his marriage falls apart. How does it every come back together? And, if it does, under what circumstances? If Giselle does have a career, then she has to have time for a career. So five years is not unreasonable for her to extend herself in to the world of photography and then think, well maybe there is something else in life. And so her return is possible. Also, Molly's getting old, very old, Tommy's dead, Sarah's dead, the house is going to go up for sale pretty soon, Peter's going to die. Molly would just as soon live in Saratoga, especially if Orson doesn't stay in the house. So all of these things are cumulative, and you just finally decide on time logistically, such as, where is Billy? When did Broadway close down? That was a contributing factor, for Broadway was still around but fading very fast in 1958. I remember when I came back in 1963 it was practically gone. So it was on the wane in '58. I may have hastened its waning a little bit in the book, but, more or less, that was what was happening. It was vanishing.
Smith: In other words, the historical particularities of Albany, the real Albany, Albany history, intersect with the fictive trajectory of these characters and the family. But is there some, you know, even more external vision that you have of 1958, or the end of the 1950s, as really the historical and mythic end of a way of life, or of a mentality that those generations, particularly of Phelans and Quinns, seem to express; that perhaps you'd write a whole different kind of cycle of novels about the next, and the next generations that would go through the '60s and '70s and '80s?
Kennedy: Yes, that's true. I have thought about a novel in the 1960s that would have theological, ecclesiastical conflict and I'm not sure I'll ever write it, but I might. The church, after Vatican IIthose were extraordinary times for Catholics, and for most of the Irish and so I know this in hindsight now. And perhaps that was a contributing factor to Very Old Bones, knowing I couldn't come into the 1960s without acknowledging the hippie movement, and the open church, and the guitar-playing friars, and the folkies singing at mass, and mass turning into English, and Pope John XXIII, and everything that went with that, which was quite that opposite of the church in the time of Pius XII, his predecessor. And so in Very Old Bones, it is the time of Pius XII. He lived well beyond his years, in some kind of collusion with the Nazis, and on into our time of great liberation and demarcation. So that undoubtedly contributed. I'm not denying that. These things are conscious as you write. You know these historical periods. You know how far you can go, when you have to restrain yourself from getting into situations that you don't want to explain, that do not relate to the story at hand.
Smith: But you grew up in the historical period before Vatican II, and went to school in the 1930s and the 1940s, raised in a conventional working-class, middle-class family of Irish Catholics, went to a solidly-Catholic Christian Brothers Academy in Albany, and then to Siena College, long before there was any revolution in Catholic higher education.
Kennedy: They were Franciscans at Siena.
Smith: The Franciscans, right. Now, when you think of your particular environment at that time, and I'm talking about your education in the Henry Adams sense, what was the loss and gain of this? The Phelans and the Quinns were really haunted by a kind of morality, and a kind of logic of both belief and sin and punishment. I'm talking about things that might be free-floating, like the anti-intellectualism, the kind of goad to piety that we see in so many of the Phelan women particularly, that self-denial and also sexual repression, that had all kinds of consequences. Then there were, as you said before, mysteries and maybe the structure. What was the loss and gain of going through a very parochial education during the '30s and '40s?
Kennedy: Well, I think the gain is the acquisition of mythology, and of a theology that grounds you in every way, prepares you for any number of encounters with the rest of the world that does not happen to coincide with your belief. But if you understand Catholicism, it's not a big leap to Buddhism. If you're a believer in the communion of saints you're not uncomfortable with the Greek gods. They make a great deal of sense to you and you just put them, as Joseph Campbell did, into a wonderful fusion of human psyche, how it came to be. I feel that my education was restricted because of the emphasis on religion. I felt that they overdid it in high school and college with the philosophy, with the restricted philosophy of Catholic theologians and Catholic philosophers, and with the formalized imposition of religious dogma, even when you were a senior or junior in college; and it became really silly by that time. But it's not easy to shed those beliefs and those imposed attitudes that you've gotten in your head since you were in grammar school. From first grade on they sent us over to the nuns, and three times a week I was getting religious instructions. So from the time I was six years old untilyou know that's fifteen yearsuntil I graduated from college, there was nothing but the imposed Catholic religion; and it took me a while to shed it and respect it. I respected it originally out of fear, but eventually out of appreciation. I came to understand the difference between the meaning of the church and its individual priests. I couldn't separate those in childhood. And as I grew older, the negative elements of it, the fear of sin, fear of hell, fear of damnation, this ridiculous purgatory, and limbowhere you went after death if you were not baptized, for nobody who was not baptized could enter the kingdom of heaventhese things I swore I was no going to impose on my children, for however much I admired the church, I did not want my kids to grow up with this medieval idea of the afterlife, and so I haven't. If they come to any kind of crisis concerning the afterlife it'll be of their own making, their own discoveries. They didn't have it shoved down their throat. If they have any guilt it'll by genuine guilt. They'll have to have done something to earn it, and not be plagued by the gratuitous guilt that's imposed on you, like original sin. I had an argument in Puerto Rico one night about everybody being guilty, and I really think I argued that that was the truth. I think I was somehow still reflecting my catechism at an advanced age; I must have been 26 or 27. Whatever guilt we have it's certainly not earned under those circumstances. It's a delusion that's imposed on you.
Smith: I wonder if that overdeveloped sense of guilt that involves formidable moral structures and moral imperatives is something that really does inform your novels? There's no doctrinaire aspect of it, but what people do really matters. I mean, they are haunted people, but on the other hand there is that sense that we are responsible, and we have to live with our consciences. I just wonder if that's part of this loss and gain.
Kennedy: Yes, I think when Francis comes home and we see him in his great conflict of loyalty to the family, and abandoning of family, and guilt over dropping the child, and the guilt over running away, he knows there's something here that really is important. There is a moral imperative that has been driving him all these years so that he keeps coming back to Albany; and yet he never can go home. And we see in Very Old Bones that he comes home to his mother's funeral and he's ready to, maybe, confront his wife, but he never does. Four years go by before he meets his son Billy Phelan, who bails him out of jail and then gives him the signal that it's time. And the drive to go home is still there, this internal machinery that has been imposing guilt on him for how long, and he says "without my guilt I have nothing," and he does go home and he assuages that guilt. It's his purgatory, that's what the book is based in, his purgatorio, and Dante's. And the whole feeling I had when I was writing it is that he has this kind of escalating series of encounters that parallel some of the language in Dante, which was a moral construction that helped me look at Francis's escalation into a time of paradise, his liberation from that guilt, his feeling that he had at last entered into a kind of paradise where he was able to forget, which is what happens when he crosses the rivers into paradise out of purgatory. He encounters two rivers at the end and he does begin to forget. He forgets the marks on Helen's soul, and he forgets the way Gerald looked in the grave, and he's at ease with himself in a certain way. A good many people thought that was because he had died. But he had not. He had just, in a certain sense, begun to live with himself.
Smith: I remember Humphrey Bogart once said, "I don't trust anybody that doesn't drink." I've modified that to mean, " I don't trust unfallen people," and that's what maybe this is all about, that whether it's Francis with his guilt, or everybody, all of us, we are all fallen people, and that sense of guilt, if it doesn't kill us, gives us a kinship with humanity. And I think that that's what is so powerful in your books and why the Albany Cycle is "moral" in a non-doctrinaire and non-pietistic way.
Kennedy: I suppose that it's a triumph for the church in a certain way. Even when you get out of it you don't get out of it.
Smith: When you were going through your own religious education, now this is in the late 1940s when you were at Siena College, what were you allowed to read as far as the sanctioned literature that had any impact, and then at the same time what was your underground literary life when you were a college student? Or had that not congealed yet?
Kennedy: No, it hadn't. It just was beginning to congeal as I was getting out of school and getting to know something about Hemingway and Faulkner. I had really a simplistic childhood education. In college they taught us Keats and Byron and Beowulf and Shakespeare, classic works, but I never got a modern writer. I never got a Hemingway story. I never got a Joyce story. Yeats was in the text, but we never got to Yeats.
Smith: Well, Joyce of course, at that time, was very much a heretical writer, and Yeats was a Protestant, even though they were these two great Irish giants.
Kennedy: They somehow found their way in to our literature book, but they weren't taughtnot to me. And there was also a Hemingway story in the textThe Undefeated, but we never got to it. So modern literature was a foreign country to me.
Smith: During the decade of the 1950swhich, as we were saying, is also the decade of most of the action of Very Old Bones, in Albany, but after you finish Sienayou became a newspaperman, not in Albany at first but in Glens Falls. Then you were a journalist in the Army, back to Albany and then on to Puerto Rico. You had really quite an education, after college, in the newspaper business and just about every aspect of journalism, isn't that right? How did that work as part of your education as a writer?
Kennedy: Well, just to correct the chronology, what happened was that I came out of college and went to work as a sports writer, went in for two years of writing Army sports, back for three and a half years to The Times Union as a general-assignment reporter and all sorts of things, including being weekend city editor, and then to Puerto Rico as a reporter/columnist, and I wound up as assistant managing editor. And all that happened in Puerto Rico in nine months. Then I went to the Miami Herald for about eight months and I made the decision there to quit journalism, went back to San Juan and free-lanced for a couple of years, became the Time-Life stringer, The New York Times tourism stringer, the Vision Magazine stringer and so on.
Smith: What years were these?
Kennedy: In 1956 I went to San Juan for the first time, then to Miami in '57, and back to San Juan later in '57 until 1963. In the summer of 1959 we started The San Juan Star, an English language daily in the bilingual community, and it's still going, and it's now owned by Scripps-Howard. Then it was owned by Gardner Cowles of Look Magazine, and I was the managing editor. Bill Dorvillier, who is still alive up in Woodstock, New Hampshire, was the editor, and Andy Viglucci, who is now the editor, was city editor; and the three of us really put the paper together with some business men who handled the business end of it. I had a good time for two years and then I quit, which was my swan song as a full-time journalist. I realized that after those years as managing editor, which is as high as I ever aspired, I wanted to return to fiction. The editor's job was an offer I couldn't refusestarting a newspaper from scratch and helping it grow in two years to 20,000 circulation, and be very influential. The editor won a Pulitzer Prize that first year for our editorial campaign against the church.
Smith: How appropriate and prophetic.
Kennedy: But I felt that that was as far as I wanted to go, and that if I didn't get out soon I'd get to the point of no return.
Smith: Now, while you were managing editor of The San Juan Star for two yearsthat would have been 1959-61during that particular period you had a momentous and significant encounter with your future as a fiction writer. That's when Saul Bellow came to Puerto Rico and you connected with him. You want to talk a little bit about what the nature of that significance was?
Kennedy: Well, I was working full-time as managing editor and, in our first year, I think it was 1960, Saul came down. We ran his picture in the paper and the story with it said he was accepting applications for a fiction-writing course he was going to teach. So, I said OK, I'll give it a whirl, and I submitted the novel that I was working on and he accepted me. And he also accepted a couple of my friends. And we all wound up seeing him individually at the faculty club. You went over and spent an hour shooting the breeze with him, and he would have read your chapter or your story, or maybe he'd read it then and have it fresh in his mind, and then you talked about it as long as was necessary. He was highly critical of the first things I showed him, but he had accepted me, and he felt that the chapters were substantial, even so, and were on the way to being something. He gave me this criticism, and it was enormously helpful, for when I gave him a revised version two weeks later, he said, this is terrific, this is publishable. And that was the first serious encounter I had with anyone in the literary world who understood what was really publishable. A lot of my friends were aspiring writers with literary educations but they did not know what the publishing world was, didn't know the dimensions of the critical apparatus of that world, or how it would view such a thing as this book. But Bellow did. Well, he was wrong, it turned out. That book, when I finished it, didn't get published. But it almost did and it got me an agent who tried for a couple of years to sell it and failed.
Smith: Now what specifically, what piece of fiction was it?
Kennedy: This book was The Angels and the Sparrows.
Smith: Which, as we said sometime ago, was really the first version of the creation of the Phelan family.
Kennedy: I hadn't written anything like that before, and it's where I really began to feel that I was working out of some kind of strength. I had never felt that when I was writing short stories about North Albany in the old days at The Times Union because I was such a beginner. And I never felt it in what I wrote about Puerto Rico from 1956 to 1960. None of those stories seemed to engage what was deepest in me, and what seemed to be worth reading. But this book did, and a lot of people, not only my friends, realized that this was good and probably publishable. But it wasn't, ultimately, and I remember Belle Sideman, who was the wife of the circulation director of Look Magazine, and who was an editor at Random Houseshe read the book, whose title at that point was, I think, One by One. And she said this is very good, but it's not going to get published. And the reason is that every time you read another chapter you know that that person's dead, or is going to die, or is useless, or forget about it. So it was a mistaken exercise in the construction of a novel. It wasn't a novel. It was a series of episodes, as is Very Old Bones, but in Bones, they're all integrated. The Angels just brushed against one another in each one of their stories, an amateur effort with a certain primitive power in the writing.
Smith: Now, these characters, were they called Phelan?
Kennedy: Yes, they were.
Smith: Which characters really survived, obviously transformed as your writing evolved, but which characters from that first, unpublished novel, really survived in the form that we know them in the Albany Cycle?
Kennedy: Well, Francis was there, but he wasn't married, and so he wasn't really Francis yet. Peter was totally different. Peter was bright but weak. Molly was there, but I think she was called Mary, which is Molly's real nameMolly is just a diminutive of Mary. Sarah was there, only I called her Sate and I think that was short for Satan. There's an allusion to that in Bones where she wants to be called Sate because her mother was called Kate. She wanted to be everything that her mother was. In Bones she's Sarah. Tommy was there, the moron. The father was very different, but the father is dead in Very Old Bones, long since. He dies in 1895, in a train accident. The mother, Kathryn, is more or less the same, but much more complex in Bones. The china closet episode was there.
Smith: Is that right?
Kennedy: Yes, but for totally different reasons. Molly's pregnancy, the taking of her husband's corpse, were both there. Molly's was a far more clandestine marriage than in Bones.
Smith: But the fact that that cast of characters was there in association with each other and with also some of these major themes that, granted, were much transformed in both style and form; but I think that's quite remarkable. Now, when Bellow read this, did he encourage you to become a serious novelist and get out of journalism, at least full time, as soon as you possibly could?
Kennedy: Well, the impetus to get out was there from the beginning, and if I had never met Bellow I would have eventually left journalism; and I would also have published, because I had that drive. Nobody was going to stop that. I was going to become a novelist. There was no way out of that. It might have taken me another ten years. But it took me years as it was. I mean we are talking about 1960. I didn't sell a book until eight years later. Whatever my encounter with Bellow was, it was not instant access to fame and glory and money. When I sold The Ink Truck in 1968 I made $3,500. That was hardly big money, but for me it was a mountain of gold. I didn't care. I would have accepted $500 just to get the book published and confirm that I was a writer. Because that was a very isolated and excruciating decade for me.
Smith: That's the 1960's you're talking about?
Kennedy: Yes, the '60s. I mean it was also a great decade. My children were just beginning to grow up, and I was free to write, and I was also free to starve, and I was working at The Times Union and having a great time covering the Civil Rights Movement and slum lords and becoming a movie critic, all these things with a very low level of income, so inadequate that I used to go out of the house in the morning with a dime in my pocket, a dime to make a phone call in case of an emergencyso I could call and get money from somebody else.
Smith: This was after you had returned to Albany and you were working?
Kennedy: I was working part time for The Times Union, working for $100 a week. I came back in the summer of 1963.
Smith: But, before you did, and we'll get back to that particular period and what came out of that, what really came out of that connection with Bellow? Was it mostly a symbolic or inspirational encounter, or did he actually have an editorial impact on you manuscript?
Kennedy: He didn't have an overview. He never read the whole book, for it wasn't finished then. He read maybe four of five sections of it. Some of the sections he'd tell me, These are good, I don't have any complaints; and another one he'd tell me that the writing was fatty, clotty, and he corrected my sentences. You know he said, you're saying everything twice. That sort of criticism was very important. He also said something I never forgot, which was the idea that you should be prodigal. He said, just think about it, the billions of sperm that are expended in any given act of sex, but it only needs one to make a life. So, he said, be prodigal. Write as much as you need, to get what you want, and throw the rest away.
Smith: Many, many people have, in one way or another, noted the tremendous vitalism in your fiction. Were you aware that in Bellow's fiction at this time, and I'm thinking particularly of the two novels that he had written prior to when you encountered him in 1960, The Adventures of Augie March and Henderson and the Rain Kingthat in both novels there's a kind of almost heroic vitalism about the characters, and they also have the prose that goes with it. Was that something you noted at the time and is it something that you feel somehow evolved in your own fiction?
Kennedy: Well, I had read Augie March partially, I think, before I met him, and I was reading Henderson when I was studying with him. I had been reading it before that. I loved Henderson and I liked Augie a lot. I had a harder time with Augie only because of the extent to which he went in developing characters. These were not necessarily story-related expansions of the characters. They were character expansions for their own sake, it seemed to me, and then the story would resume. My experience with Henderson was that it was one man moving through this exotic world; and it was always his consciousness. Everything was an impulse forward, no matter how many digressions there were. He was always central to the story. And in that sense I thought it was a better novel than Augie March. Yet there is so much in Augie that is terrific. What Henderson did was make me feel that I was a rank amateur, that I would never get anywhere with that kind of noveland I still can't aspire to that sort of novel. Bellow has a mind that is far more learned and far more interested in ideas than mine could ever be. My world is the world of event, and speculation, and language, but certainly not the expatiation of ideas or philosophical attitudes.
Smith: Many of your characters seem to be the embodiment of a kind of life-forceincluding Francis Phelan. Bill, I'd like to talk particularly about the making of Ironweed. We've talked in the past about the evolution of the Phelan and the Quinn families going back to The Angels and the Sparrows. But I'd like to talk about how the individual characters crystallized in certain novels. Now, for example, you said that Billy Phelan was inspired by your uncle Pete McDonald. And of course he is one of the centers of consciousness of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. How about the Francis Phelan of Ironweed? How long did that character evolve in the context of that novel? I mean, who is Francis? Where did he come from? I know you said when you were doing Angels and Sparrows Francis was there, but in the making of Ironweed, the novel, how did he come about?
Kennedy: I wrote the first Francis in Puerto Rico, and he was a young guy, thirtyish maybe, who was already drunk, and who had left home and was sort of a bum on the road. He finds out his mother's dead and he comes home, and he's a bad and nasty drunk. He comes into a saloon and they give him some "hellos" and he's nasty even to his old friends. Then he goes out and he gets really drunk and winds up at the mission. He comes out of the mission and goes to confession. He is not interested in the preacher at the mission to confessbut he's impelled to go back and respond in some way to his own past, his own peccadillos, whatever they were. That confession was a clichZ, but Francis did have an original vitality in that book, which I liked. And so when I did Billy, I reached back and lifted Francis out. In the meantime, I had done some reporting on winos in Albany and there was this guy I came across and I called him Buddy. I called him that in a series of articles that I wrote about the wino life. Buddy was a very articulate, funny fellow, a desperately-defeated guy at the bottom of the world getting drunk every night, a real wino, but with this very engaging intelligence. There was something that caught my attention in that ideathat here is this incredible intelligence in a human being at the bottom of the world, and you know he was almost hallucinating sometimes when we'd talkhe's be rambling. And that idea pervaded my creation of Francisthe idea that here was a man at the bottom of the world, and yet he is still witty, resilient in a way, ready to get up tomorrow and start over, but not in any way that moved toward personal redemption or success in any form whatever. The opposite really. He was driving obviously towards self-destruction. At the same time he was riding on a rainbow of hallucinatory, boozy arcs. Rising up, peaking, going down, depressed, drunk, getting up in the morning, rising up again. That was a remarkable thing, and it struck me, when I began to write it, that that's probably the way Francis lived. He gets up out of an old field full of weeds, snow in his ears, and he walks towards the bridge to commit suicide because he doesn't want to stand another night like this, but he can't kill himself. He turns around and he goes on and lives his life. I suspect that I had this feeling that Francis also had a drive toward redemption. Where that comes from, I don't know, but I suspect that that was the way I felt about the man who belonged in this particular story, for that's what the story was about. It wasn't a tragedy of disillusion and dying alone. Even Helen's disillusion and dying alone isn't a tragic thing in itself because she's somehow justified, and at peace with death, through her own thought. That's the way I felt about her anyway.
Smith: Now, when you started to write it, and we're talking about the genesis of the novel Ironweed, you had completed Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Francis had made a brief but significant appearance in that novel. When did this crystallize? You've created many unforgettable characters in your novels, but Francis Phelan is one of the gigantic, memorable, fallen characters in contemporary fiction, maybe twentieth century fiction. Readers all over the world seem to be able to empathize and identify with this character who is a drunk, a renegade, a runner, a killerone could go onand yet, he's a character of enormous moral complexity, which is why he is this gigantic character. Where did all that moral complexity come from in your development of Francis Phelan?
Kennedy: I'm not sure. It comes out of me, obviously. The moral complexity of Francis is somehow my idea of what a man would be, given this incredible matrix of psychological, psychic, physical suffering and, at the same time, he would still be a man of moral means, a man who had a populist, quasi-heroicalmoststreak in him from childhood, who was a daredevil. It's like juxtaposing the daredevil element of a life with the worst that can happen to that daredevil, and then seeing what comes of it. I mean the physical, psychic, and moral odds against him are staggering. He must strive constantly to stay alive physically, psychically, psychologically, sexually, professionally as a baseball player, and emotionally as a family member. He's always challenged at every level you could imagine a man being challenged at, and he survives.
Smith: And, of course, Francis appears again, and finally, unforgettably in Very Old Bones. How about the title, Very Old Bones, for this very complex, elaborate, brooding and yet ebullient novel about these Albany families? When did you know that that was your title?
Kennedy: I had it as a working title for a long time and I called it Old Bones. I didn't like it that much. So I added "very".
Smith: That was my next question. Why Very Old Bones?
Kennedy: Well, the story of Malachi, and the dredging up of that skeleton in the family closet, so to speak. I felt that that was one element of bones. There were other bones. There were the mastodon bones and . . .
Smith: Very ancient relics.
Kennedy: . . . also Billy's broken leg and Tommy's chipped backbone, and Peter's arthritic hips, and the corpse of the infant in the cellar; and there is that final skeleton dance in the last chapter. But this was a book about ancestry, and its influence on the contemporary family. I felt that was an apt titleto think of those old bones moldering in some pauper cemetery somewhere in Albany and still exercising an influence three generations later. Not only thatthese old bones being a product also of much older bones. The antecedents of the pernicious attitudes of Malachi are absolutely central to what he becomes in his own time, and what he does to affect the lives of those who come after him.
Smith: There's a wonderful sentence right at the end of the book which I wonder if you could elaborate on in terms of this multiple meaning, multiple resonance for the title. This is Orson, who at the tag-end of Very Old Bones says, "We are, after all, a collective, a unified psyche that so desperately wants not to be plural. I am one with the universe, each of the Phelans say, but I am one. It's a problem we have."
Kennedy: It's the idea of the Phelans being what they were; and what they had become in Orson's mind. He sees the collective behavior that distinguishes the Phelans from other families. He know they're not so different from other families, and he has been able to perceive the similaritiesthe weirdness in their lives, the religious zealotry that has warped so many of them, the fear of life that existed in them, the clandestine life of Molly. Not that that is so unusual, but when Orson looks at it all together, he sees this behavior and considers it a collective. He says, "we want to be plural." They're all striving for their individual destinies, but they seem afflicted, somehow, by this code that they don't even know exists, but had been promulgated before they were born, and has worked its way into the consciousness of their parents, their grandparents, and their ancestors of untraceable distanceand it has made them what they are"You made me what I am today, I hope you're satisfied."
Smith: And all the while that you have been writing this great cycle of novels about individual character and collective fate, you have also been writing journalism, nonfiction, moviesincluding movies of your own novels. But the main focus is on your fiction, is it not?
Kennedy: The only thing that makes me tick is my novels. If I were doing only journalism and movie scripts, I would be a very unhappy person because I would not feel like a serious citizen of the world. I don't think I'm as serious as I can be in journalism, and I'm certainly not in the movies. Movies are great fun and journalism is wonderful, but all these are composite operations that have to deal with approval by other people, even approval of yourself to deal with the other people. You have to really wonder how movies ever get made, once you get into the movie business, because it is so ridiculous as a life pursuit. I would never do that and I'm counseling my son Brendan not to do it either. But it's fun.
Smith: OK. All these composite activities, or changes of pace, which are fun and rewarding in various ways, and stimulating in various ways, do you worry at this point that they'll undercut your energy or your focus to go on and on and write novels, write serious novels which obviously come from the depths of your imagination?
Kennedy: I don't think that they will undercut it. If I thought they would, I would stop doing them. I think of them as a source of diversion and money. You do make money when you write novels but that's not really why you write novels. You can think of any number of things to do over a four-year period that would make you more money than you get writing a novel. But I'm always writing novels. I'm accumulating novels now. I'm going back and discovering what I had in my notebooks, five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago and exercising the imagination on that old stuff which isI don't know really what it is. The more I discover, the more I wonder what it means.
Smith: Well, I was going to ask you. I have heard serious novelists say that they were worried at some point that they would exhaust their material. If you lived to be 150, do you think that you would exhaust your material for what we now call the Albany Cycle of novels?
Kennedy: I don't know. I think that I have an awful lot of books in my head. But they're not all equal. All pigs were not created equal. Some are more equal than others, and those are the ones that leap forward and get written. Some of them have too much water in their blood at this stage, but usually that's a product of insufficient thinking, insufficient imposition of the imagination on the material; because you never like the book when you start it. If I lived to be 150, which is not that far away, it's only 86 years, I have maybe five books right at this moment that I could begin to focus on. There's always five out there somehow. Because the more I go, the more I learn about these various moments in history, and then more and more people demand attention. I mean, Quinn of Quinn's Book is an incomplete character. Whatever happened to him? Well, I'm going to have to figure that out sooner or later. Whatever happened to Maud? Where did George Quinn come from? Where did Danny Quinn come from? Six novels. I forgot about Puerto Rico. Somewhere I've got to do Puerto Rico, but I don't know how, and I'll probably be as transient about it as I was in the treatment of Germany.
Smith: Well, more and more I've thought that there is something Balzacian about you, that you're a kind of nineteenth century novelist in the twentieth century, and I'm not alluding to Quinn's Book, but in the sense that the more you create, the more is there. That both you and I think your attentive readers wonder about, yes, what indeed happens to Maud and Quinn at the end of Quinn's Book, and then you could go on and on. So it really is inexhaustible in the way it was for the great nineteenth century novelists.
Kennedy: I hope so, because that's really all I want to do. I have this world at my fingertips, really. It's as far away as the library and a shelf of Albany books, and a decision to enter a particular column of time that seems significant for me. I have a political novel about Dan O'Connell, the old Albany political boss and all of that crowd. I have a novel about the '60s somewhere. I have a fragment of a Puerto Rican novel. I have the conclusion of Quinn. I have a novel about the making of the play The Flaming Corsage and the beginning of movie-making in this country, the silent movie period.
Smith: And those six novels will generate six more?
Kennedy: Maybe. I hope so. And one of the things I'd love to do is go back and do a novel about the colonization, and the old Dutchmen that were around here.
Smith: Seventeenth century.
Kennedy: Really early seventeenth century, a wilderness novel maybe. I haven't figured that one out yet. That's really problematic and seems a long way away. There's also a very good Revolutionary War novel here with a lot of the principal figures of the Revolution being present.
Smith: That's a great omission in serious contemporary letters. We need a good Revolutionary War novel. Do you have a Watergate novel, a War of 1812 novel?
Kennedy: No, not yet. But there is a great history in the Revolution and there are two great characters. Three. There seems to be high drama there. I'm not sure I want to take it on at this stage. It might be something I'll save for a later time, when I get older. In my nineties, maybe.
Smith: There is a sense that your fiction seems to gravitate towards hope, towards deliverance, towards an ultimate redemption even. I think of the great endings of your novelsthe ending of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Billy's deliverance back into the world again, back into the only cosmos in town. I think of the ending of IronweedFrancis Empyrean, both his spiritual and emotional home, he has a vision of it at the very tag-end of Ironweed. And I think of that wonderfully satisfying, maybe the ultimate happy ending, the union of Quinn and Maud (at least for the time being) in Quinn's Book, and then of course that magnificent, mythic lunch on the 26th of July 1958, which ends Very Old Bones. Yet, on the other hand, Joshua, the run-away slave in Quinn's Book says what I think is maybe the quintessential, or one of the quintessential, Kennedy lines, " If you lose, it's fate, if you win, it's a trick." And what I'd like to ask you, two things, is there a contradiction there and what are the odds?
Kennedy: Well, I don't think there's a contradiction. I think what's inherent in that is that both things are eminently possible, both visions are eminently possible. "If you lose, it's fate. If you win, it's a trick." And Francis is trying to obviate that at the end of his life. I mean, he's won in certain ways. He's won psychologically and psychically by getting away, and he's won also by having gone home and found redemption. But he's also killed somebody else unpremeditatedly, and he's on the run, and so he really is nowhere again. That's hardly a totally happy ending. It'a a psychically happy ending for Francis because he really has redeemed himself in a way that's very significant and very clear to his soul. He's a man who has arrived at a certain form of peace, found a way to live in the world without trying to kill himself constantly out of guilt and self-hate. But his fate is that he's again alone on the road. Billy Phelan, well, Billy is redeemed for the moment but, as you know, he doesn't go along with everything, and it looks like his victories were maybe just a trick. Or maybe just fate? Either one, it doesn't matter. He's still wondering where the hell he is in the world. I never feel that these endings are the ending of life. It's not a finale to a film or anything like that . . . and they lived happily ever after. It's a moment in which these characters become defined up to this point.
Smith: Sort of interim reports.
Kennedy: For instance, Orson and Giselle. What's going to happen there? They're going to remarry and have a child, but where is the future? I have no idea. I don't know where Maud and Quinn are. I don't know where Billy Phelan's going to go from here, but he's still alive in 1958. He's only 51 years old.
Smith: That's young.
Kennedy: You bet.
Smith: Well, in other words, there is no contradiction between those apparent "deliverances" or genuine redemptions, and Joshua's observation,"If you lose, it's fate. If you win, it's a trick."
Kennedy: Well, it's especially poignant to hear that coming from a black man, because the ways of the trickster are how so many blacks felt that they survived. That's why they loved the trickster figure in slave literature or spoken literaturethe idea that you are always tricking the white man. The other side of that is that you're black and you're going to be a slave forever, and die a slave. That's what's happened to so many people. And it's still a terrible life for so many black people today.
Smith: And we are still working with those odds. You're still working with those odds for all those characters past, present and future. You're a novelist with a highly developed historical and social imagination. As we approach the millennium, are the odds nine-to-five or six-to-five, as you conjured with in a recent non-fiction piece of yourswill we make it?
Kennedy: Damon Runyon's idea was, I used to think, that "all life is nine-to-five against." Peter Maas corrected me on this and said the line was that "all life is six-to-five against, just enough to keep you interested." I'm interested, but I'll go with the nine.
Smith: Well, that's about as optimistic as one can get, I think, for the moment. So this is not our last conversation between now and the end of century. But maybe we ought to end it on that.