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7328 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Thomas E. Kennedy’s Dangerous Songs

by Tom Andes

I met Thomas E. Kennedy—Tom—on a rainy Friday afternoon at a café on Place St. Sulpice. Three nights before, after I’d seen him read at the American Library in Paris, a mutual friend had introduced us and suggested I ask him for an interview; graciously, Tom had agreed. Though he’s known mostly as a writer of fiction, I had discovered Kennedy through his critical writing, particularly Realism and Other Illusions, a volume of essays about the craft of fiction he published in 2002. Besides the insight into the art of fiction it offers, Kennedy’s critical writing is distinguished by his generosity toward younger writers, and by his willingness to discuss his own struggles as a writer. By now, he’s published twenty-five books and more than 100 stories and as many essays, and his fictional oeuvre is held in such high regard that, in 2007, the AWP devoted a panel to his work. Nevertheless, paradoxically, in 2010, when Bloomsbury published In the Company of Angels, the initial novel of his Copenhagen Quartet, a series of novels set in the city he’s called home since the mid-eighties, it marked the first time Kennedy’s fiction had appeared on a large press. “What a pity,” writes Jonathan Yardley, who selected the book as one of his two favorite fiction titles of the year, in the Washington Post, “for [Kennedy] is a writer of real skill and sensitivity.” When I confess to a minor case of nerves before the interview, Tom tells me I’ll do fine. “I’m a bigmouth, anyway,” he warns me, in an accent that’s identifiably New York, even after two-and-a-half decades as an expatriate.

TA: Over the years, you’ve done a fair amount of critical writing, and you’ve published book-length studies of other authors. How does your critical writing inform your fiction, and has the relationship between your critical and creative work changed over the years?

TEK: I’m happy you asked that because people tend to forget, or maybe they didn’t know in the first place, that I did three books of critical writing, four if you count an index I did for Macmillan, and I did a lot of interviewing of writers, as well as essays and essay reviews about specific books. I did that simply to learn. I wanted to grow as a writer, and the best way to do that is to become intimate with other people’s fictions. In order to write a book or an in-depth essay about someone’s fiction, you really have to become intimate with it. To interview a person adequately, you have to read a lot of his or her stuff. I stopped doing critical writing about fifteen years ago. I still occasionally interview a person, but it’s usually for fun. I started publishing twenty-five years ago, after twenty years of trying, twenty fallow years. By the mid-90s, I was publishing a lot. By then, I felt I had my voice, or my voices, and was following them, so I didn’t need to learn as much basic stuff. Although you always have to learn; it’s always a new thing.

TA: The study you did of Andre Dubus’s fiction started as an interview, right?

TEK: That’s right. It was a 120-page interview.

TA: Was it all one session?

TEK: No. We’d met in a bar. I had the first twenty dollars I’d ever been paid for a short story. I knew he was a writer, but I didn’t know anything about him. His new wife—I think his third wife or fourth wife—was a student in the program I was studying in, at Vermont College. I introduced myself to him, and I asked him if he was willing to help me drink up the twenty dollars. He was willing to do that. In the course of our conversation, I realized he was the author of a short story that had been in Best American Short Stories in 1970, which had blown me away. How I made this connection, I don’t know, but suddenly I understood this is that writer. I said, “This is kismet; can I interview you?” He said, “Sure.” A few days later, I went back to Copenhagen, and I wrote down 120 questions. I wrote each question on a sheet of paper, and I thought he would write his answers, or type his answers, but he took a tape recorder, and he started answering questions. He did it in several sessions, so I’ve got five tapes of him answering my questions. I keep meaning to copy them and give them to his son, but I haven’t done it yet. His son, Andre Dubus III, is a great guy, and an outstanding fiction writer himself. His latest, The Garden of Last Days, is beautiful.

TA: I have a friend who grew up in Northern California, who thinks Dubus has no setting. I grew up in New England, so I think Dubus has a strong setting, but Raymond Carver [who set many of his stories in Northern California] has no setting.

TEK: It’s funny, because after I moved to Copenhagen, I didn’t know enough about Copenhagen to set any stories there, but I was getting experiences, so I had to interpret my stories back to a New York setting, and it gave them this strange surreal effect. Andre read the first story I published, which is called “The Sins of Generals,” after the night we had spoken, and he said, “That story could have been set anywhere.” It was because I was avoiding the Danish setting, but I didn’t have a New York setting for it, either.

TA: Do you tend to write about the place where you are, or do you find yourself looking back?

TEK: I do a lot of travel writing now, and travel writing has led me from fiction to the personal essay. Mostly, I don’t know what I’m writing now. I don’t know if it’s essay; I don’t know if it’s fiction. The way you interpret your experience into language changes it and gives it some artistic shape. I don’t even know anymore whether what I’m writing is literally true or is fiction. That’s why I called my last book—the book that came out this summer, from New American Press, who published a book of essays of mine called Riding the Dog—and this new book is called Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down, which is itself a line from a contemporary poet named Steve Davenport. They called that a novel in essays. What does that mean? That expresses my confusion about it.

TA: I’ve read what you’ve written about suspending your intellect when you write. Do you find yourself following your intuition with these forms?

TEK: More and more, I feel that I follow my language. There’s this source of language in you, and it’s really mysterious. Wright Morris wrote a book called On Writing, and one of the things he said in it which really had a powerful effect on me, he said, “How do I know what I want to say until I’ve said it?” It was so obvious, but it was revolutionary for me, that I don’t have to understand what I’m writing until I’ve written it. Sometimes I never fully understand it, but I feel that it’s right. I read that book in 1979, and that had a powerful effect on me.

TA: What do you find your relationship is to form? As you follow the language, do you think about form, or do you feel like the form invents itself?

TEK: I don’t think so much about form. Form is something that I feel. Sometimes I can see it’s not working. It’s just not gelling. But sometimes the curvature is just right, and it ends at a resonant note, and I more or less feel it. This is not always true because some things I’ve written, like the second book of the [original] Copenhagen Quartet, which will become the third book of the new Copenhagen Quartet [published by Bloomsbury], which was originally called Bluett’s Blue Hours, and will be called, probably, Beneath the Neon Egg, the form of that novel, I set out in an attempt to imitate the form of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. At first, I wanted to write something that imitated that jazz symphony. I wanted to end part four in the kind of cacophony that he ends it in. I don’t have a great understanding of music, but to me, that last part is pure vibration, like he’s seeking the essence of sound, and I wanted to imitate that in language. But I couldn’t make it work. I mean, I admire Jack Kerouac’s novels, but frankly, his ocean poems bore the hell out of me. “Slurp, slurp, slurp,” etc. So I ended it with symbols of things dissolving. The book’s set in winter, and the lake outside this guy’s window is frozen solid. He walks across the lake every day. At the end of it the lake is melting, and the neon egg, which is a symbol of Copenhagen—it’s a supermarket advertisement, but it’s been there for so long—and it’s a chicken laying an egg, a neon egg. The chicken appears, then the chicken lays an egg, and the egg lights up; then the egg disappears, and the chicken lights up. So the egg is melting into the lake. That was the way I used dissolution. I was very conscious of that form. That was not necessarily intuitive, although partly intuitive.

TA: Do you revise as you go?

TEK: I really follow Wordsworth’s idea of a spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility. I write everything by hand, in the first draft. I just let it go. Sometimes I’ll be writing, and part of my mind will say, oh, that word was not good, and I’ll go back and cross out that word and substitute another or cross out that sentence or something like that, but usually I don’t do a great deal of revision as I’m writing. Once I have a whole notebook filled with handwriting, I’ll key it in, and that might be forty or fifty pages of manuscript. Then I’ll start revising and continue from that. So it’s a constant process of writing about forty or fifty pages, revising, and then continuing, and so on and so forth, until it’s done. Of course, at the moment, I’m writing personal essays, short personal essays. I’ve never written things this short before, ten or twelve pages. It’s kind of liberating not to have to write twenty pages, and not to have to try to sell twenty pages. It’s easier to sell ten pages.

TA: Gore Vidal talks about how contemporary American fiction seems to be divided into two schools, into realistic, so-called traditional stories, and then willful experimentalism. One of the things I liked about the title of your book, Realism and Other Illusions, was that it implied these choices weren’t actually opposites, that there’s a range of aesthetic choices, and I was wondering where you saw yourself in that continuum when you wrote that book ten years ago, and if that’s changed for you since then.

TEK: I started out with only one idea, and that was to write realistically. It was not even a conscious choice. At some point, I think it was when I was reading a book by John Cheever, Bullet Park, there’s a scene where this guy looks out his front window in Connecticut, and on the lawn he sees this giant swamp turtle has crawled out of the woods. He takes down a .22 caliber rifle, and he goes out and he shoots the swamp turtle. I’m thinking, man, that is surreal. You don’t think of John Cheever as surreal. Suddenly it occurred to me that all of realism is an illusion, and I can modify that illusion in any way that I want to. Then there came about 10 years where I was writing a mix of surrealism, fantasy, whatever other kind of genre you want to call it, where everything realistic in fiction appeared to me as totally surreal, like, you have a glass on a table in a story, and you think, how weird, a glass on a table in a story. I went through all of that, and then the weirdness started to level out. I started writing realism again, but sort of informed by the weirdness.

TA: Do you feel like living outside the United States and being outside the prevailing winds of American literary culture has affected the way you see those things?

TEK: It’s hard to say what my life would have been like if I had stayed in the United States. First of all, just to backtrack, I don’t think of myself as an expatriate writer, but I guess I am because I’m living outside my country of birth and writing. When I moved to Copenhagen, I had been writing for over 10 years without any real success; I’d gotten a lot of praise and encouragement, and I got some grants, but nothing published. Then I was 31, and fourteen years had passed without any great progress. I decided I had to really get to work because otherwise I would be a failure. I would be a failure because writing was the only thing I’d ever wanted to do. I was having success meanwhile in my business life, but that was almost ironic. That was almost damaging to my soul or whatever, although it was good for my family, and it was also a lot of fun. The Danes, contrary to general opinion, are fun people. I traveled all over the place, to most countries in Europe, to South America, Africa, Israel, Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, all over Canada. What am I talking about? It was a great job! Anyway, I decided that I really had to get into this now, and I had to understand what writing was. Every so often in my life, I reach a point where I come up against the wall of my own ignorance. I’d done that before when I was 22 years old. I had been reading hundreds and hundreds of books since I was 15, and suddenly I said to myself, I don’t understand anything that I’ve read. It terrified me in a sense, but it also was kind of liberating. I thought, I’m going to understand the next book I read. The next book on my table happened to be John Barth’s The Floating Opera. That was lucky because that’s a metafiction, and it’s all about the process of fiction, or partially about it, and that helped. Anyway, in my 30s, in Denmark, I started subscribing to American literary magazines and ordering back copies and reading interviews and reading short stories and reading all the Best American Short Stories and O’Henry Award stories, and so in a way, although I was living in another culture, I was reading the contemporary artistic product of American culture at the same time.

TA: I imagine immersing yourself in American literary culture but not living in America, those things might fall on you differently.

TEK: I think that looking at my culture through the lens of the Danish culture helped inform me about myself and about where I was coming from. I would do things that my Danish wife would object to vociferously. “How could you ever do that? How could you sit down at my father’s table and raise your glass and say, skål, when you’re not the host?” And I thought, wow, nobody told me. Then I started thinking, well, is that true in the United States, too? Do you wait for your host to toast? In that way, it’s sort of a key to the whole idea of culture. To paraphrase Eliot, you can start from anywhere, and you’ll still reach the same place of understanding.

TA: I was going to ask if you felt like being an expat has shaped your writing and your critical perspective, but I know you’ve covered that in essays.

TEK: I would refer anyone who’s interested in that question to read the last essay in my book, Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America; it’s a long essay called “Life in Another Language,” which is all about that and about how learning another language really changes you, too.

TA: How many languages do you speak?

TEK: At one time, I could almost speak French. I lived here for a year-and-a-half, and I was starting to get it, after three years of high school French and four years of high school Latin. But then I moved to Denmark, and I started learning Danish, and it just displaced it. Every time I try to say a sentence in French, it winds up being Danish. Every time I come here, I think, if only I could speak French. But I’m just not good at languages besides English.

TA: I’m curious what you did during the years before you started publishing, how you functioned working and writing and what the relationship between those things was. Was that relationship uncomfortable? And raising a family. How did you negotiate those different identities?

TEK: It could be a little bit difficult. I remember at one point when my kids were very small, and I had to be at work at nine in the morning. I lived, at that time, about a half-hour outside of Copenhagen. I used to get up at five in the morning and try to write until everyone else woke up. Usually they would wake up around seven. I did it almost every day for a long time. It’s sort of like they say that in Los Angeles, people get up at five in the morning in order to have that laid-back look at three in the afternoon? I definitely had that laid-back look at three in the afternoon. But mainly, I was writing every chance I got. I used to take the train from Hillerød, where I lived, where my wife was a doctor in the hospital. It was a 32-minute train ride, right to the door of where I was working, and that was 32 minutes where I could either read or write. Even today, when I’m on a plane, I’ll often write. Even on a bus, a 10- or 15-minute bus ride, I’ll jot some things down. I think it’s important that when you get impressions from the world, that you write them down. I have all these notes—I always have a notebook in my back pocket—and I’ll bring them out when I write. Sometimes I’ll incorporate them into what I’m writing, and sometimes I’ll look at a note that I’ve taken and say, I don’t remember seeing this, which underscores the importance of writing it down, because what you don’t write down, it just runs through you. It’s like Coleridge. You know his introduction to Kublai Khan? It’s a paragraph where he says, I had taken a grain of opium for a severe case of dysentery, and I fell asleep. In the opium sleep, I dreamed these lines. I started to write them down, and then a business caller knocked at my door. I went to answer it, and when I came back, the rest of the poem was gone. I feel that’s sort of metafiction or meta-poetry, that introduction. People don’t agree with me on this, but in other words, experience is like diarrhea; it runs right through you, and you take something to stop it, but the call of business brings you away.

TA: You got your MFA at Vermont College. You got your PhD at the University of Copenhagen in English Literature? Did you ever teach as an academic?

TEK: In American Literature. Actually, the title of my thesis was very much like Realism and Other Illusions; it’s called The Uses of Verisimilitude. I’ve never really taught literature. Although that PhD thesis was a study of three American writers, Andre Dubus, Gordon Weaver, and Gladys Swan, with a lot of side business on Robert Coover, who I also wrote a book on.

TA: Do you think an MFA is an important thing for a young writer to have?

TEK: I’d say that getting the MFA was the best thing I ever did for myself as a writer, and not necessarily because of the degree, although it sort of makes you feel like, I am now officially a writer. But the best thing about it was that suddenly I was with other writers. I didn’t know any writers when I was first living in Denmark, and I didn’t know any writers in New York, either. I was trying to talk about things that nobody really understood among my intimate circle. Suddenly, when I went to Montpelier, the summer of 1983, I was surrounded by people who understood everything I was saying, and I understood everything they were saying. To me, most of what happened in the MFA program happened in conversation with my peers, and in conversation with my teachers, because the teachers at Vermont College were tremendously generous with their time. We ate with them, we drank with them, we partied with them, and we spoke constantly with them. It’s the same at a low-residency program, like the Farleigh-Dickinson MFA program that I teach in now. I know a lot of the students very well, and we talk. We talk writing, mostly, because that’s what we do.

TA: You seem like you’re invariably generous to younger writers. You also seem like you really understand what it’s like to struggle with learning how to do the work, and with the identity of being a writer. Did you have any experiences that still inform your sense of what that struggle is like?

TEK: I think the fact that I had twenty years of not of getting published, and of mostly not knowing writers, although I took a course with Edward Hoagland once, and I learned a lot. I had a 20-minute tutorial with him once a week, and God, how much I learned in that 20-minute personal tutorial. Other than that, I didn’t really have anybody to help me see the way until I finally published that one story and then went to Vermont. Suddenly I saw all these other writers. You could sit down next to them and ask them questions, and they would answer you—you were a human being—and that was so enriching for me. It’s like a great conversation. I wanted to continue that conversation with younger writers. It sort of never stopped over the last two or three decades. I have a lot of friends, actually, who are young Danish writers, sometimes young, rather pretty Danish writers. But you know, I’m an old dude now.

TA: Who do you read in Danish, and who do you recommend?

TEK: I do a good deal of translation, and mostly the Danish writers I read are the writers I translate. There’s a poet called Dan Turèll. He’s got a cult following. He died in 1993, at the age of 46. I discovered two years ago that he had never been translated into English, or into what the Danes call American, so I met his widow, and she gave me permission to translate him. I’ve been publishing a few of his things in literary journals in the States now. Another guy named Henrik Nordbrandt. I had five of his poems in American Poetry Review about two years ago, and the day I left on this tour, I got permission to translate his new book, We Danes. Usually you get money from the state to translate these things. I don’t translate the whole book. I do what we call a trial translation. I translate between six and ten poems, depending on the length. Usually there’s a literary journal that would like to publish them. In 2008, I guest edited a special issue of The Literary Review devoted exclusively to contemporary Danish prose and poetry. I’m also translating a young woman called Line-Maria Lång, who has a beautiful head of red hair. I saw this picture of her lying in the grass at Versailles, and I showed it to my partner at Serving House Books, my very good friend Walter Cummins, who was editor-in-chief of The Literary Review for many years and has published many books and stories himself. He said let’s do a book of stories and poems and essays inspired by this picture, because it’s a beautiful picture. I got Line-Maria to write a story, also, as well as other Danes (and red-heads!) including Dorthe Nors, a young Danish writer who was introduced to me by Junot Dìaz with whom I read at a PEN function in Copenhagen. Both Dorthe and Line-Maria have begun to appear in leading American literary magazines, by the way. Anyway, Line-Maria is going to be at the AWP in February in Washington, DC, because we’re doing a launch of the collection, The Girl with Red Hair, and she’ll probably read that piece.

TA: You’ve mostly published on smaller presses. To what extent has that been a decision that you’ve made?

TEK: If I said that it was a decision I made, it would be like what the Danes call hanging your pictures where your nails are. I’ve had numerous agents over the years, but no one until now sold anything for me. An agent would try to sell one of my books for two years and get 35 rejections, rave rejections, but rejections, and then I would go out and sell it myself to a small publisher. One of the great things about America is that we have all of these literary magazines, and we have all of these small presses. It keeps the culture alive because so few people have a chance to publish in a large publishing company. The only things that I managed to publish in large houses were my critical writing. For years, I published on small presses—Wordcraft of Oregon, BkMk Press, New American Press, others. Then in 2008, I wrote an essay about a cancer scare that I had, an essay called, “I Am Joe’s Prostate.” That was published by New Letters magazine. Bob Stewart, the editor, unbeknownst to me, nominated it for a National Magazine Award. It won against Stephen King writing about Harry Potter, of all things. It won against a New Yorker essay and an Atlantic essay. It was really nice for New Letters magazine that it got this recognition. It was also nice for me because I got an agent, and he consequently sold these Copenhagen books to Bloomsbury.

TA: You sound like you’ve done more to get your work out there than a lot of your agents have done.

TEK: I’ve had about six different agents over the years, and none of them ever sold anything except Nat Sobel now. He sold this, and he sold it for pretty good money, which I was amazed and delighted by. But the other agents did not manage to sell anything, although they did try. I got to the point where I thought to myself, I’m a small-press guy. I’ve lived an honorable life. I’ve published 25 books, and I’ve published a hundred stories and a hundred essays, something like that. The AWP ran a panel on my work three years ago, and that was nice. Then suddenly this happened. This could unhappen, too. You never know.

TA: This quartet of books appeared under other titles, and you’ve re-titled and revised them significantly, is that right? And they’re coming out in a different order?

TEK: Yes. This first book was the third book of the old quartet. The original quartet was published because David Appelfield, the editor of Frank magazine, which is about to stop publishing; he published a beautiful issue nine years ago, which featured an interview with me—it was featured on the cover—in which I talked about this Copenhagen Quartet that I was writing. This Irish publisher, Roger Derham, happened to read the magazine and contacted me and asked to see the first of the books. I sent it to him, and he really liked it and eventually agreed to publish all four of the novels. He published them between 2002 and 2005. In 2006 he went out of business. I thought that was the end of the story. Thankfully, he returned the copyrights to me before the press went bankrupt, so I had the copyrights, and then suddenly this other stuff happened. Bloomsbury got interested.

TA: At what point in that process did you realize you wanted to re-envision the individual books and the way the quartet went together? Have you revised them fairly extensively?

TEK: I wouldn’t say extensively, but I have made some revisions. It’s always nice to have another chance to go through a book. I added a little bit, subtracted a little bit. My Bloomsbury editor in the US, Anton Mueller, has been great. He has not required anything of me. He’s made a couple of suggestions, but then he always pulls back and says, “See what you think.” He had some really good suggestions, too. For example, I revised the ending of the next book, Falling Sideways, at his suggestion. He didn’t suggest how to change it; he just said, “There’s something about that ending; it’s a little bit sentimental, and I don’t want you to feel foolish.” I looked at it, and I said, “Boy oh boy, he’s right.” I changed it, and I’m very happy I did. It’s really nice to get another chance. When I put out a collection of short stories or a collection of essays, I sometimes change things in them. Sometimes I change things for a reading, and then I’ll really start to like the reading form of the piece. Sometimes I delete stuff that would seem extraneous for a reading, and then I think, why was that there in the first place?

TA: Are you familiar with contemporary Latin American writers who have written about torture? Has that informed anything you did with this book, or is it mostly your work doing translations for the center in Copenhagen?

TEK: Mostly that. Actually, I have not read that many Latin American fiction writers, but I’ve read quite a few Spanish and Latin American poets. Pablo Neruda is a big influence on me. And Rafael Alberti, who wrote Concerning the Angels. And Lorca. I really like some Latin American poets who are American but of Latin American descent, like Alberto Rios. Obviously I’ve read a little bit of García Márquez. But most of my reading was done between the ages of 15 and 45. Mostly, I’m engaged in writing now. Of course, I do read. I’ve read a lot of Irish writers over the last ten years. I’ve reread Joyce, who’s had a tremendous influence on me. At the moment I’m reading Flann O’Brien. I read the first chapter of At Swim Two Birds, and I love his language, but I was falling asleep. Then I started reading The Poor Mouth, which I believe that he’s translated from Irish, unless he’s taking the piss on the reader. The language again is great, but I thought the humor was a little bit obvious. But I’m really enjoying The Third Policeman. Did you ever see David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive? There are so many similarities between The Third Policeman and Mulholland Drive. There’s a box in it. There’s two people who start the book, but their identities are crossed.

TA: Do you find yourself reading more for pleasure now, or do you still find yourself reading to learn? Are there writers you reread, besides Joyce?

TEK: I think there’s an occupational hazard in being a writer, and having been a reviewer, and having been a critic, in that I can’t let a sentence alone. I’m trying to teach myself to read quickly again because I had such joy out of reading for those 30 years. I read hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books. I was an amateur reader, and I was just enjoying it. My first wife used to see me, after I started reviewing. I’d be reading a book, and I’d have a notepad. I’d be taking notes and underlining. She’d come over, and she’d take the pencil out of my hand and take the pad away. She’d say, “Just read.” She was right. But once you go there, it’s hard to come back. It’s very difficult for me to read without either agreeing with a sentence or editing it.

TA: In In the Company of Angels, there’s a sentence where you say, “There had to be a limit to caring.” And yet the book itself seems like an act of compassion that reaches beyond the limits where you would ordinarily stop. How conscious of the implications of this as an imaginative act are you during the process of writing, or are you just trying to write the best story you can using what’s at hand?

TEK: I do go back and revise, and a lot of that process is mysterious. It’s like trying to remember something that I can’t remember. But I do remember that particular line, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s the psychiatrist. It’s because he’s being consumed by his attempt to help Nardo to heal. That’s behind every failure in our lives. I no longer care about this person. I’m not going to get involved in this woman’s life anymore. I’ve cared enough. That’s a point of failure. Fortunately, he persists long enough so that he gets to the moment where Nardo finally goes back to the place of the screaming and goes back to the thing that really destroyed him. Then he pulls back. He says, well, that job’s done. Now I’m going to focus on my family a little bit. I think that when I wrote that line, I did not completely know what was going to happen. I sort of knew that it was going to work out okay for Nardo, that he was going to come out on the other side in some respect, although he’s a very damaged person. But I did not know at what point the psychiatrist would give up because he already has cured his arm. That was in a short story called “The Burning Room,” which was published in New Letters, and it was also published in my short story collection Drive Dive Dance & Fight. I don’t think it happens in the novel. They only refer to it in the past tense, but in that short story, he gets him to use his arm again. It’s psychologically damaged, the arm. It’s not physically damaged, and he feels that he can’t use it.

TA: You said the book started as stories. Is that the story that started it?

TEK: There were two stories of the torture victim, one called “Flying Lessons,” from which the first chapter was taken, that was published in Gettysburg Review. Then there was “The Burning Room.” I have a habit: I write short stories, and then suddenly I’m in a novel. Some of those stories are related to the novel, so I pull parts of them into the novel. It’s sort of like double dipping. My first novel, Crossing Borders, was essentially three or four short stories that I suddenly realized were about the same character and were in progression, and they just had to be melded together.

TA: Did you feel like you needed to write a novel?

TEK: Well, there’s a problem. Most agents will say, these are great short stories, do you have a novel? But I was convinced that I was only a short-story writer. I loved short stories and only wrote short stories for some years. Then finally I wrote one short novel, called A Weather of the Eye. It’s about 110 pages. I got a grant for a novel-in-progress from City College of New York in 1969. They gave me about $3,000 dollars, which was a lot of money then. It’s still a lot of money, but it was really a lot then. I could live for a year or two on that. They gave the grant on the basis of one chapter of the novel. Then I sat down to write the novel, and I didn’t know where to go next. I put it away, and I rediscovered it after I moved to Copenhagen, fourteen, fifteen years later. I found this chapter, and I said, wow, I’d forgotten about that. I reread it, and I could see exactly where I was going, so I wrote the novel. I finished it in 1985. A short novel. But then it took me eleven years to get it published, so that’s a long trip, 1969-96. But it’s among my favorite things I’ve written.

TA: Those twenty years before you published that story, were you actively engaged in sending stuff out? Obviously you were applying for grants. Were you active as far as doing all those things?

TEK: During many of those years, I was. During the last eight years or so, I was very consumed by it, and I was really unhappy. If I hadn’t started publishing, I think I might have become a really bitter guy. I invested everything in this. I really believed that I could write. Then suddenly the world is saying I can’t. I was getting personal notes from editors. They were really encouraging. The Hudson Review, there was an editor there. There was an editor at the New Yorker that kept sending me notes. I’ve never published anything in the Hudson Review. I never published anything in the New Yorker but a letter to the editor. But they sort of kept me alive. These and others were editors who cared enough to see something in what I was doing and thought, this guy could use a helping hand, this guy could use a pat on the back, and that was great. But in terms of the novel, I really thought that I was only a short-story writer for many years. I wrote that novel, Crossing Borders, but it was like four short stories, and one of the reviews of it said this is more like a long short story than a novel. Then I set out to write not only a novel but a literary thriller, so I wrote something called The Book of Angels, about a magician who tries to capture a writer’s imagination. My current agent was really enthusiastic about that novel. They sent it out to 35 places in the early ’90s. Finally they had to give up, and I got it published by Wordcraft of Oregon. That’s the agent I have now, Nat Sobel, and he said, let’s send that book out again, so I’m hoping.

TA: Margaret Atwood says, if you’re a writer, you have three choices:: you can write for the market, you can marry or inherit money, or you can get a day job. What is your relationship to those ideas? Have you ever thought of yourself as writing for a particular genre or market?

TEK: I always say this to my students: The pleasure and the reward has to be in the writing itself. If you’re writing for some market, you might as well be in a nine-to-five job. You’ll make more money. I got about a year of my salary as a department head executive in my advance from Bloomsbury. And being an executive was easy. But it doesn’t give you that reward that writing does. It’s at the moment of creation that the writing really gives you the reward. All that other stuff is extraneous—how much you publish, how much money you get, how many readers you have, and so forth. Those things are important. But it’s that moment of creation that really keeps you alive. If you turn against that, if you say, I want to try to write something that Isaac Asimov Magazine will publish, that’s another kind of writing.

[Note from SHJ Webmaster: Asimov’s Science Fiction is the actual name of the magazine.]

TA: There’s a scene in this book where a character is talking about there not being any dangerous songs in the West. Sometimes it seems like you can do and say anything in Western culture. And yet the price we pay for that seems to be that we can have a degree of comfort, but what we do doesn’t make the same impression on society. Do you feel like our songs should be more dangerous?

TEK: I have been asked not to read certain things in certain places. I won’t name the places, so I’m censoring myself, but it’s because there are friends involved. I have a line in Kerrigan’s Copenhagen, which was the first book of the original Copenhagen Quartet, where Kerrigan is making love to this woman, and she says into his ear, or he thinks she says, “God is a cunt.” He’s not sure whether he heard it. He can’t get her to say whether she said it or not. He says to her, “Did you or did you not say that?” She says, “Well, one says so many things.” He can’t get an answer out of her. I was asked not to read that in several places. I asked one fellow, who hosted one of my readings, can I read the “God is a cunt” part, and he said, “Oh shit, I’ll probably get fired for it, but yeah, go ahead.” I didn’t read it. Another time, I read a story, which was a satire about the male sexual ego, and I could see afterward that the whole audience was horrified. This woman came up to me, and she said, “I hate to think of that story existing in the same universe as my children.” I thought, holy shit, you didn’t think it was funny? Then this great big lesbian came over to me, and she put her hand behind my head. She pulled my face to her, and she said, “You delicious filth.” There is a certain degree of censorship in the United States. Another time, I was giving a reading in the South. It was in the late eighties, early nineties. I said to my host, “I was thinking of dedicating this reading to Jesse Helms.” He looked at me—this is a poet with a national reputation—and he said, “That’s pretty funny, but you have to be careful around here.” I didn’t say it. There are some songs that are dangerous. But the danger is not that you’re going to get tortured. The danger is that you’re not invited back to give another reading.

TA: You get marginalized.

TEK: Exactly. Recently, I wrote a poem, the first line of which is, “What is it that you most want me not to say?” If you ask yourself that question, it’s very difficult to answer. What is it that you most want not to hear? You don’t know what are forbidden topics. In the mid-fifties, when I was a Catholic high school student, someone showed me Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, the scene where he says, “Oh, Tanya, Tanya, where is that cunt of yours? I have six inches of hard bone to satisfy it.” I’m reading this, and I’m 15 years old. I say, this is just filth, and I give it back to the guy. I go home, and I’m really excited by it. This is the language that we spoke in the streets. But we pretended not to. What language do we speak now that we pretend not to? It’s impossible to know. Not impossible. Very difficult. Those are the dangerous songs.


—Previously published in South Carolina Review (Volume 44, Issue 1, Fall 2011); reprinted here by author’s permission


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Tom Andes

Writing by Tom Andes has most recently appeared in Harp & Altar, Cannibal, The Rumpus, and Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He lives in New Orleans.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury