'Dublin corrupted me'
The cruel capriciousness of life, which for author Douglas Kennedy included divorce and the shock diagnosis of his son as autistic, has left him with a desire to control his environment, says Emily Hourican
Published 22/05/2011 | 05:00
DOUGLAS KENNEDY'S new novel, The Moment, has a great quote from Tolstoy, about journalism: "It's a brothel, and like most brothels, once you become a client you keep returning regularly."
Which makes Kennedy himself something of a reformed john. These days, his novels are more than enough to keep him busy, and rich, but back in the days when he was moving from failed Abbey playwright to highly successful author, it was journalism that paid the bills, as well as teaching him how to write fast and how to grab his audience's attention.
In fact, he learned his trade so well that he still gets accused of being too engaging a writer. "I think it was The Sunday Times that said, 'The problem with Douglas Kennedy is he's too readable ... ' That should be on my tombstone," says Kennedy with a laugh. But he's only semi-joking. "There's that idea that if it's readable and also if you sell, why, then it can't be literature. That's rubbish. I have a very 19th-Century idea of the novel -- I want to keep you up until three or four in the morning, but I want to talk up to you at the same time."
As we chat, several things strike me about Kennedy. One is his flexibility -- of form, as well as mind; he has crossed one leg so high on the other knee that I suspect he's double-jointed -- another is his remarkable self-confidence. He tells me later that this is a veneer that hides plenty of self-doubt, and that a girlfriend once described him as "an interesting mixture of confidence and vulnerability", but it all seems very convincing to me. He describes particular phrases as "Kennedy-isms", for example, while something else is "the Kennedy Theory of Human Behaviour". It's the kind of self-confidence that is only enhanced by his few brushes with failure; yes, he has had bad times, but he has come through them, stronger than ever. This gives a kind of bedrock to his confidence; a "tried-tested-did-it" dimension to his self-belief.
One of these bad times was the recent break-up of his marriage, and that's the third thing that strikes me about him. Marital breakdown is very much on his mind. Partly it's conscious -- he tells me: "I was in the middle of a really difficult divorce and what do I do? I write a book about love" -- but partly it seems unconscious. When he talks of people making decisions that later they are baffled by, the example he uses is: "The amount of people I've spoken to who have said, 'On the eve of my marriage I knew this was a bad mistake ... ,'" and later, on the subject of those who complain about their situation without trying to change it, he illustrates this by saying that he knows men who complain endlessly about their wives and their rotten marriages, but do nothing to escape them.
And I mention it mainly because it strikes me as reflective of the Kennedy Theory of Human Behaviour, which he explains thus: "Behind most human decisions, five things are going on, three of which we ourselves don't understand." So, yes, he knows he wrote a book about love in the middle of a nasty divorce, but I'm not sure he knows just how much it's all preying on his mind.
The Moment is full of bad marriages, but it is also, as he says, a love story. It's a book about Berlin, about the Cold War and about betrayal. It's a bit John le Carre, a bit Graham Greene, both writers he admires, but with Kennedy it's always the personal first, and so it is primarily a book about "why and how we fall in love; being young and our first proper love".
Kennedy's parents were unhappily married. Both were from Brooklyn, his mother was Jewish, his father "lace-curtain Irish" and Kennedy, the eldest of three boys, was brought up in Manhattan. His escape from what he describes as "not a happy family" came when he got into Collegiate, a very good private school, where he was given a classical education, which took him to Bowdoin in Maine, an excellent liberal arts college. As part of his course, he spent a year abroad, at Trinity College.
"Dublin in 1974 was like walking into the back end of Brooklyn," he drawls. "I was a little startled at first." That seems a massive understatement given that he lived in a flat on Pearse Street, which was perpetually damp, where electricity came courtesy of 10-pence pieces fed into the meter, and heat from a three-bar, plug-in electric fire. But by the end of a year, Dublin had worked its magic. "I didn't want to leave," he says. "I directed a play at Players. I had a girlfriend -- I began my involvement with Irish women ... it was wonderful. I went back to Bowdoin and finished up, but I was always missing this. Dublin corrupted me."
It also left a legacy, in the form of Alastair Fitzsimons-Ross, a key character in The Moment; a dissolute, drug-addicted yet fastidious Anglo-Irish artist, who has learned his class code of maintaining appearances: "You can destroy your family fortune, you can kill all the things you love, but never, never, appear in public with an unpressed pair of trousers."
After Bowdoin, Kennedy returned home and was working "off-off-Broadway" as a stage manager, but his family circumstances hadn't improved, and the excellent education he'd received proved something of a double-edged sword. "With an American education, there's always a cause-and-effect thing," Kennedy explains. "If you've gone to one of the good colleges, there's a tremendous amount of pressure to achieve, achieve, achieve." His father was the main culprit in this, insisting that Kennedy go to law school, and eventually "the whole thing just got on top of me". So he left, flying to Iceland, then Luxembourg, then travelling overland, before arriving in Dublin "wearing a trenchcoat, with a backpack, a carton of cigarettes and about $300 in my pocket".
It was a good time to be American in Ireland, or perhaps just a good time to be Douglas Kennedy. He set up Stage One, a fringe theatre company, which prospered -- "Liam Neeson did a lunchtime play for us; I knew Jim Sheridan, he was running the Project; Gabriel Byrne was around" -- and, after 18 months, got a job at the Abbey, running the Peacock. That was in 1978. "I had a very interesting run at the Abbey," he recalls, "and I
survived there, which was not an easy thing. I once said, 'After the Abbey, I think the Reichstag in 1939 would have been easier ... ' It was a hotbed of intrigue, shifting allegiances and internal politics on a level that was breathtaking. At the same time, it was a fantastic education. The level of talent in that building was extraordinary."
He left in 1983 -- "go before you're pushed" -- and by then was starting to write seriously, with a couple of plays on RTE Radio and Radio 4, and a column in The Irish Times. His first play, Send Lawyers, Guns and Money was accepted by the Abbey, opened well, and then "fell flat on its ass", becoming "one of the biggest flops in the 100-year history of Ireland's national theatre". Four weeks later, Douglas Gageby retired from The Irish Times and Conor Brady, the new editor, cancelled Kennedy's column. It was, he recalls now, wryly, "an interesting moment ... "
By then, Kennedy was married, to a Cork girl and had bought a house on the South Circular Road. It was a bad time to find himself without visible means of support, but then, sometimes major life changes require trauma. "Maeve Binchy called me up -- she's one of my great friends -- and she said, 'You keep working, you don't write that letter, you don't say anything to anyone. You shut up and get on with your book and you'll get out of this. It's a setback and we've all been through them ... ' That was the smartest advice -- 'disappear and work' -- and I did." He borrowed his in-laws' car, went down to Cork, and wrote, finishing Beyond the Pyramids in six months.
It was to be the end of his time in Ireland. "The book came out in 1988," he says. "I moved to London and used it as a calling card; I went round every major magazine and newspaper in London, and they were very receptive." He got enough commissions to pay the rent and continued writing books. "I kept my eye on the prize."
And the prize paid out, although Kennedy would have recourse to Binchy's excellent advice again before too long. His second novel, The Big Picture, earned a major six-figure advance, but his third, The Job, failed to live up to expectations. Then he delivered The Pursuit of Happiness, written in the female voice and not, as his previous books were, a thriller. It was the book that made him in Europe, but in America it was poison and his publishers dropped him like a stone. "I couldn't get arrested in New York for a time," he jokes now, "until Time magazine wrote this big piece, 'The most famous American Writer you've never heard of,' and Simon & Schuster then published the entire back list."
"It was hard," he shrugs, "but it's also part of life. Sometimes things are just not fair. What do you do? You keep working. What else can you do? Drink yourself stupid?" The best revenge, of course, is living well, something that Kennedy clearly does, with homes in London, Paris, Berlin and Maine; two of his books have been made into films, starring Catherine Deneuve and Kirstin Scott Thomas, and in France, where he is huge, he is a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres ("I don't wear the order; I'd look like someone from Village People"). This honour may have been partly bestowed because of his excellent French -- the French are suckers for a bit of effort, particularly from Americans -- but is also, as he says with satisfaction, down to the fact that they have "great taste".
Even so, the fundamental unfairness of life has manifested itself in far more devastating ways for Kennedy than any career setbacks. His son Max was diagnosed as autistic when aged five, after an appalling epileptic seizure that left him catatonic for five months. "He could not talk or function." There were indications from age three onwards that all was not well, but the diagnosis, and the fit that preceded it, were "a huge shock" to Kennedy. "My life changed after that, my world view changed," he says. "So did my writing. You can try to build your life brick by brick, but the unexpected will always arise."
Kennedy set up a school at home for Max, with teachers using a breakthrough system devised by Dr Ivar Lovaas and the results were excellent; Max is currently doing media studies at University of Bath, as a mainstream student, with plans to go to the States next year to study. "He is a fantastic guy," says Kennedy, "and he's going to have an independent life."
The experience of life's capricious, often cruel side, has had a profound impact on Kennedy. One such is his obsession with interior design, as an antidote to chaos and a way of controlling his environment, the other is his active need to write. "I write six days a week, no matter what," he says. "When I write, I can control a certain fictional reality."
And yet paradoxically, another result has been to ram home the lesson that control is simply an illusion, as is the notion of closure. "It's the word I hate most in the modern American lexicon," he says. "It's bulls***. Closure is for wardrobes, not for people. What you have in life is accommodation." With failure, success, pain, joy, fear and wonder, all equally.
The Moment, by Douglas Kennedy, is published by Hutchinson and is priced £9.99
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