Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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2605 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

An Interview with Thomas E. Kennedy

Sara Byrd

1. How long have you been in publishing?

By publishing, I’m assuming you mean publishing my written works? Or perhaps you mean how long have I been a publisher? Primarily I am a writer, and I have been a writer since I was 17 years old and decided, after about 2½ years of very intensive reading of novels and short stories, that the only thing I wanted to do with my life was to be a writer. That was in 1961 and it took me until 1981 to have my first short story published, but then it went more quickly; and in the next 30 years, I wrote and published about 28 books—novels, short story and essay collections, literary criticism, and anthologies—as well as hundreds of short stories, essays, poems, interviews, articles and translations—you can see more about them on my website (

Only last year did I become a publisher of books—a small not-for-profit venture which I started with my friend and colleague Walter Cummins (who was the editor of The Literary Review at Fairleigh Dickinson University for nearly 30 years and is a widely published writer himself). The publishing house we started is called Serving House Books, and the reason we started it is because we were aware that many established writers or very talented new writers were having great difficulty getting their books into print. Walter discovered an extremely inexpensive method of producing fine-looking so-called Print On Demand (POD) books, and he has such technical expertise that we have already published 20 books in the first year of our existence as a publisher. As mentioned, it is a non-profit venture; we only want our expenses covered—all profit goes to the authors themselves. Walter is the technical expert, the sina qua non of the venture, while I am a kind of consultant and talent scout.

2. Was this your original post-graduate plan?

I didn’t have any post-graduate plan—or, for that matter, any solid under-graduate plan. I was a very immature young fellow who decided at the age of 17 to be a writer. At the time I was a freshman in college (the City College of New York). I had done quite well in high school, but I was not mature enough to be in college, and I convinced myself that a writer did not need a college education—after all (my argument went), John Steinbeck didn’t have a college education; William Faulkner and Jack Kerouac didn’t have a B.A., etc. So I took a leave of absence with the plan of traveling around the country and writing, but I couldn’t even find out how to do that. At that time, every young man was subject to being drafted into the military, so I went ahead and volunteered to be drafted, got my time in the Army out of the way—which, like most (though not all) things in my life, turned out to be a piece of dumb luck—because I did my time in the Army before the Vietnam War started—so I was out and free by 1965 when the first official battle of the Vietnam War took place. That was the same year—1965—that I started my “life on the road.” I started hitchhiking around the country and traveling by bus and bicycle for the next several years, trying to be a writer or trying to pretend to be a writer (I recently completed a memoir about those years, entitled Chasing Jack, A ‘60s Memoir). I read a great many books during those years, but did not manage to write a great deal. I suppose I didn’t have much to say. In 1969, I won a grant for a novel-in-progress and a New York publisher expressed interest in the book, of which I had only written one chapter, so I moved out to the desert in northern California and rented a typewriter and a room on a commune and sat down every day and wrote until I had what I thought was a novel. It was, of course, promptly rejected by the publisher which had expressed interest and was never published and was not worthy of being published. Finally, 10 years after I had taken my leave of absence from college, at the age of 27, I enrolled in a B.A. program at Fordham University in New York City, and by June 1974 I had earned my B.A. in language and literature summa cum laude. I was 30 years old by then and was offered a job in France, then offered a job in Copenhagen, which I had visited and fallen in love with two years before. That same year I also fell in love with a Danish woman and we got married and in the course of the following few years had two children.

I was still trying to write fiction throughout all these years but without much luck. Finally, in 1981, the year my second child was born (a daughter, Isabel), I sold (for $20) a story, and on the strength of that “success,” I decided that I wanted to systematize my understanding of writing and literature and to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing, enrolled in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College, commuted back and forth between there and Copenhagen for a couple of years and finally, at the age of 40, earned my master’s degree (Master of Fine Arts).

Since my wife was a doctor (an M.D.), I thought that the only way to maintain my self-respect was to earn the right to call myself Dr., too, so with that MFA, I applied to the Ph.D. program at the University of Copenhagen, and in 1988, successfully defended my thesis in American literature. That was the same year that I published my first book, a work of literary criticism about the short fiction of the great story writer Andre Dubus (who was the father of Andre Dubus III, now famous for having written House of Sand and Fog) and two years later published my first novel, Crossing Borders (1990). Meanwhile I had started commuting back and forth between Copenhagen and Vermont because I had been hired to teach in Vermont for a couple of years, but I still held onto my day job as the head of the international department of the Danish Medical Association.

20+ books later (all of which were published by small presses), in 2004, at the age of 60, I was able to give up the day job and write full-time, living off my income as a writer and my savings. In 2008, an award that I won for an essay (a National Magazine Award) brought me to the attention of an agent in New York, who then won a two-novel contract for me with the large publishing company Bloomsbury (publishers of the Harry Potter books), so that was my first world-wide publications—In the Company of Angels in 2010 and Falling Sideways this year, 2011. According to the plan, Bloomsbury will publish two more novels as well and other of my books. I am very very happy with Bloomsbury who have treated me handsomely, but I still publish the odd book with the small house New American Press, which I am also happy with. In 2008, they published an essay collection, Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America and in 2010 a so-called “novel in essays” titled Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down. In 2012, they also plan to publish a volume of my New & Selected Stories.

3. Is writing all you expected it to be? Did you go in with expectations at all?

Nothing, it seems to me, is ever what you expect it to be. I thought I would be a successful novelist with a beautiful wife and very very happy. Well I wrote novels and I did have a beautiful wife, but it is never quite like the dream. As a character in a story by Dylan Thomas says—and this is one of my favorite quotes: “’Nothing is simple,’ said old O. Jones as he attempted to waltz on the slippery rocks.”

I have lived my life by instinct and dumb luck, and I have been reasonably lucky, though I could have been a whole lot luckier. I’m far from rich, but I have enough to live on without worrying where my next meal or my next drink is coming from, and I have managed to do what I decided was the only thing I wanted to do with my life nearly 50 years ago: to be a writer. Now I am able to publish almost everything I write, and that gives some satisfaction. And I have two grown children which I thank my lucky stars for. My daughter, in fact, is just about to turn 30, and she gave birth one year ago to a little boy, Leo Kennedy-Rye, who seems to like his old grandfather pretty well, and the admiration is mutual—he’s a merry little soul. And my son, Daniel, is just about to finish his M.A. in history. Unfortunately neither my formal marriage nor my informal marriage worked out—the first lasted 22 years, the second 15, and I am sad about that, but hey, I have a girlfriend who I see from time to time, and I still have fun. I love living in Copenhagen, a delightful ancient city where you don’t even have to own a car—you can walk anywhere, or ride your bicycle, or take one of the excellent buses or city trains. There are lots of outdoor cafés where you can sit in the sunlight and savor a pint of golden beer. And I have a good many friends whose company I enjoy.

So, no, nothing is as I expected it to be, but in some ways it’s better than I could have imagined.

4. What level of higher learning would you recommend for someone interested in publishing?

Whether it is writing or publishing that you are referring to, everything that you learn is important and contributes to your understanding of the world around you and your life as a writer. My mother told me an important thing back when I was 14 or 15; those were the years that rock and roll first came to the world, and I was crazy about Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly, and for a while I wanted so much to be a guitarist and singer. My father bought me a 20-dollar guitar and I took lessons for a few months, and I used to strum that guitar and try to sing, even wrote a song, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had no talent at it, and that depressed me a bit. But my mother said to me,, “Don’t worry about it. Everything you learn in life makes your understanding of the world greater.” And she was right—I was no musician, but I had learned the basics of reading music, I’d learned a little bit about how the guitar worked, etc. And in fact ten years later, I did write a few songs, some of which were recorded by a rock group and are still selling today, 40 years later.

I’ve got off the track. You asked how high a level of education do you need as a writer. Some writers have BA’s, some have masters or doctor’s degrees, some maybe don’t even have a high school diploma. The more you learn the better it is for you as a writer. And sometimes just having a degree gives you confidence that you might not have without the degree—it’s like in the Wizard of Oz when the Scarecrow is unhappy because he doesn’t have a brain, and the Wizard, who is a fake wizard but anyway knows a thing or two, tells him that he can already think, that all he needs is a diploma to give him confidence in his thinking. And of course, a diploma or a degree is invaluable on the job market—because probably 99.8% of writers are unable to live from their writing. You need to have a day job. My parents encouraged me in my wish to write, but they always said that I needed “something to fall back on.” That used to infuriate me. I didn’t want to “fall back”—I wanted to leap forward into the world of a successful writer. But it wasn’t that easy. It wasn’t easy at all. When I was in the Army they sent me to school to learn stenography, which I considered kind of unmanly, but my parents said, “That’s an excellent skill to fall back on.” In retrospect, they were one hundred percent right. I got my first job because of my skills as a stenographer and typist and was quickly promoted because of my writing skills, but I used the stenography all my life. Even now, when I’m writing, sometimes when the ideas are coming fast I write them down in shorthand. Sometimes a practical skill is even more valuable than an academic one. You can have a Ph.D. in literature and not be able to write a short story, but a carpenter might be a fine musician and song-writer, while knowing nothing about literary theory.

The more you learn as a writer the better, the more you think the better, and of course, the more you read the better. That is a problem that many young would-be writers have to face—the problem of reading. You’ve really got to read hundreds of books—but you only have to read one at a time. That’s more important than having a degree. To read books, lots and lots and lots of them. Probably you’ve got to love to read. Why would you want to be a writer if you didn’t love to read?

5. Any other pieces of advice/information you deem important or valid?

The best piece of advice I ever heard is contained in the lovely little book by the Austrian poet, R. M. Rilke, titled Letters to a Young Poet. Which I would recommend to every young writer—to every writer of any age, to every artist—in fact, there is a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe sitting and reading that book. It’s just a slender book but like many a slender book, it’s full of wisdom. In it, he says something like, You’ve got to look into your heart and ask yourself, “Must I do this? Must I write?” And if your answer is yes, then you have settled that struggle once and for all—you must write, so you continue to keep trying. But if your answer is no, “No I don’t have to write,” then you’ve learned that about yourself, too, and you don’t have to waste any more time trying. Because to succeed as a writer, you really have to be compelled to write; there are no half-hearted writers—you have to commit yourself to writing, you have to give it your heart and your will and your time and your spirit.

Another of the very wise things that Rilke said in that book is that sometimes it takes years, and sometimes during those unproductive years, you feel like a dead tree that is not flowering. However, in winter, most trees look like they’re dead, but in truth, they are preparing themselves for the spring when they will bud and flower and be resplendent with their greenery.

“...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