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The Ecotone Interview with Thomas E. Kennedy

The third novel of Thomas E. Kennedy’s Copenhagen Quartet appeared in the United States in June 2013, in the United Kingdom in November. The Quartet consists of four independent novels set in the Danish capital, each in a different season and each written in a different style: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen, A Love Story (2013), and Beneath the Neon Egg (forthcoming in 2014). Kennedy has written many other books of fiction and nonfiction, and his stories, essays, and translations appear regularly in such journals as the Southern Review, New Letters, Epoch, Ecotone, and American Poetry Review, among others, and have won, among other awards, a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Prize, and a National Magazine Award. For the past three decades, Kennedy, an American born in New York, has lived in Copenhagen. He teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing.

            This interview was conducted in March 2013 in West Orange, New Jersey.

McLean: Jazz and music are featured in the Copenhagen Quartet, particularly in the new volume, Kerrigan in Copenhagen: A Love Story, and in the forthcoming final volume, Beneath the Neon Egg. Could you talk a bit about this?

Kennedy: Jazz has always had a welcoming home here in Copenhagen. Tom Kristensen, in his 1930 novel Havoc, features jazz as a part of the main character’s (“Jazz” Jastrau) return to “primitivism,” which I touch upon in Kerrigan in Copenhagen. Jazz musicians, who were persecuted in the United States due to racism, were early recognized in Copenhagen as true artists. The great tenor sax-men Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and Stan Getz spent years here. Oscar Pettiford died here. Ben Webster described Copenhagen as the only place he could go out at night without his knife. And there is a great jazz club here called Montmartre, among many others, such as the terrific Jazz Klub in the squatters’ settlement in the center of Copenhagen—Christiania. Every July since 1979, top artists have met here at a Jazz Festival and hold concerts on the streets, in the cafés, in concert halls…

So jazz is an important part of the life of Copenhagen, as is music in general. Billy Cross, who was lead guitar for Bob Dylan, chose to settle here (he does the best version of “Blue Suede Shoes” I’ve ever heard, including the original by Carl Perkins). And I would no more exclude music from my Copenhagen books than I would exclude its light or the architecture or literature or history.

McLean: You also structured Beneath the Neon Egg, the final novel in the Copenhagen Quartet, in imitation of John Coltrane’s four-part A Love Supreme. Do you also imitate the sounds of the music?

Kennedy: I try to describe the music in prose, but I don’t think that prose can really imitate jazzor really any music. Poetry can come near, but not prose, I don’t think, even though Kerouac tried. What I did with the Coltrane symphony was to structure Beneath the Neon Egg in four parts like A Love Supreme, and I named each part after the four parts of Trane’s great work: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. And I tried to reflect the spirit of that powerful symphony and to touch upon some of its themesColtrane approaches pure vibration in his music, and I tried to imitate that with symbolism. At the end of the fourth part, for example, there is complete disintegration in the music, but I couldn’t do that in language, in prose, so I tried to do it with symbols. For instance, the book takes place in winter, and as a street lake outside the main character’s apartment begins to melt, he comes to terms with the ungodly elements with which he has been dealing. It is after all, a noir novel with all that’s included in that genrejazz, violence, alcohol, and sexall those fun things.

The music of Miles Davis also plays a central part in Beneath the Neon Egg and focuses on a fusion symphony that Palle Mikkelborg, a Dane, wrote for him in 1989, two years before Miles died. Mikkelborg is a phenomenal musician and a phenomenal human being. The symphony he wrote for Davis, called Aura, has an agreeable bombast to it, which seems to me to personify the Copenhagen winter. At times when Miles plays his trumpet in that Mikkelborg symphony, I can close my eyes and picture a great beast slouching across the frozen lakeagain, the ungodly which battles the godly.

Actually, every chapter in the book derives its title from a song or piece of musicfrom “No, Woman, No Cry” to “Night in Tunisia” to Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy to Fall in Love,” which has a particular ironic twist in the novel, to Arab on Radar’s noise rock, “A Rough Day at the Orifice.”

McLean: So you don’t emulate the rhythm and sound of the music, in the same sense that Matthew Arnold emulated the rhythm of waves in his poem “Dover Beach,” which I notice you mention in your Copenhagen novels.

Kennedy: No, I try to describe the music and use symbols and images to emulate it. But Coltrane, Davis, Mikkelborg, and my love for this music all cooperated with my writing of it, as Rautavaara’s incredible Finnish symphonies about angels did in Kerrigan.


McLean: Both Kerrigan in Copenhagen and Beneath the Neon Egg have been considerably revised since their first publication by Wynkin deWorde, a now-defunct Irish press, in 2002 and 2005. Why and how did you revise these two novels in the Quartet?

Kennedy: I wrote the original versions of Kerrigan and Neon Egg fifteen and sixteen years ago, and I would be a very static individual if I did not grow as an artist in all those years. So, although I was happy with the earlier Quartet, I was enormously happy to have a second chance with Bloomsbury and not just in Ireland and Denmark but worldwide. I didn’t change the first two novels (which in the original Quartet were the third and fourth) all that much, because I was in my stride with them, on a roll with them, and I did not have to change that much on the redux. But I changed considerably the original first two novels in the Quartet, which became the third and fourth novels in the Bloomsbury incarnation. I retained the basic structure, but the back story changed considerably. I am as grateful to Bloomsbury for giving me this chance to redo the four novels as I was to Roger Derhaman Irish physician, writer, and explorer who decided he wanted to be a publisherfor the chance he gave me back in 2001 when he read the first two books and said that he would take the chance and publish the whole Quartet. That is the kind of gesture of confidence that gives a writer the courage to undertake a project like this.

McLean: Some of your protagonists can be perceived as extremists. For example, the protagonist in Kerrigan in Copenhagen decides to write a guide book to Copenhagen’s drinking establishments, of which there are 1,525. Kerrigan’s plan is to visit and imbibe at each onean extreme goal.

Kennedy: Kerrigan is a man who was betrayed by his young wife, almost unforgivably so, and he more or less vows never to love a woman again, but he is in love with Copenhagen and tries to clothe himself in her language, her history, her architecture, her lightand her serving houses, which is a fancy word for a bar. He takes a contract to write the Danish book in a series of books titled The Great Bars of the Western World (which of course is a play on The Great Books of the Western World). His volume will focus on the best hundred bars in Copenhagen, a project he embraces with gusto because, as Raphael Holinshed said in 1577, “Whisky: It abandoneth melancholy, it relisheth the heart, it lighteneth the mind, it quickeneth the spirit” and for Kerrigan, it also keepeth the reason from stifling. So he has been extremely betrayed and responds extremely.

 

McLean: So Kerrigan sets out to investigate the serving houses and gain knowledge before writing about themwhat you refer to in the book as “tavernological studies.” Do you believe that young writers should confine themselves to what they know and not risk writing about the unknown?

Kennedy: In fact, it took me twenty years to get publishedfrom the age of seventeen, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, until I was thirty-seven and sold my first story. The reason it took twenty years is because I was laboring under the misconception that I had to understand my story before it was written. I did not realize that a writer writes his way toward understanding, discovers his story in the writing. At least I do that. So, do I write about only what I know? I know something about it before I start, but in writing fiction you only have to know enough to create the illusion of verisimilitude. If you’re writing a story set in San Francisco, you have to know enough about San Francisco to create the illusion that you know what you’re talking about. But fiction is about wisdom, not about knowledge, Moby Dick notwithstanding. Fiction is full of factual errors. For example, Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, has Jake Barnes walk up toward the Contrescarpe in Paris and turn in a route that would have him walking out to the middle of the River Seine. In a fabulously beautiful sonnet, Keats has Cortez, not Balboa, discovering the Pacific Ocean. It doesn’t matter. Fiction is about wisdom, not knowledge, about humanity, not factsbut you do have to know enough to help your readers suspend disbelief. Sometimes I contradict that belief, but to quote Walt Whitman: “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

McLean: In the Copenhagen Quartet documentary film (produced for Harper College by Greg Herriges and Tom Knoff), you mention that you prefer discovering what occurs when you write a novel, and that if you know the ending in advance, the writing becomes dead for you. Could you expand on that idea?

 

Kennedy: Sudden enlightenment came to me after about eighteen years of trying fruitlessly to get publishedI had written a lot, received grants and encouragement, and even had an agent, but no cigar. Then I read Wright Morris’s book about writing in which he said, “How do I know what I want to say until I’ve said it?” Suddenly that aspect of writing became clear to me. We have to go into the darkness and discover what’s there. We don’t know before we write, but we discover in the writing. It’s really very simple, but it took me many years to find out. Once you discover where your first story is, however, you remember the way back there.

McLean: Most of your protagonists are male, yet your female characters are just as much a part of your writing as your male characters. Do you find inspiration for your female characters from merging characteristics of various women you have known, from your “dream woman,” or from a combination of these?

Kennedy: From a combination of them, but what surprises me is that when I write from the point of view of a womanmost notably Michela Ibsen in In the Company of Angels, the first Bloomsbury Copenhagen novelI tend to become that woman. Even when I start from observing a woman or women I know, at some point, if it is a successful characterization, I become that woman. It is an eerie process. I became Michela. I became a woman for that role. It was strange and liberating as well. And some of my own experience was interpreted into her character. Actually, the book started from the character of Nardo, and I thought he would be the main character, but as soon as Michela appeared, she became the primary consciousness of the book.

Someone asked me once whether women have ever complained about that character, that I got her wrong. No women have ever complained about Michela, although a lot of women complained about Voss, her boyfriend, because they despised him. The only person who ever vocalized compassion for Voss was an inmate in a writing group I visited in a maximum security prison, and he said, “I understand Voss. He’s honest but insecure.” I was moved by that. Obviously Voss came out of me, too, and I didn’t much like him either, so I was grateful for that inmate’s understanding.

Same with the green-eyed research associate in Kerrigan in CopenhagenI discovered things about my attitude toward women from the fifties and sixties. How unfair, how unthinking those attitudes were. What a bad deal women got in the fifties and sixties and even later.

McLean: If you had to choose one theme from Kerrigan in Copenhagen that you yearn to be a key word in your writing legacy, what would it be, and why? And for Neon Egg?

Kennedy: Well, who knows if I will even have a writing legacy? It is so easy to have your work forgotten quickly after you die. Maybe it lives on in the minds of a few peoplesome image, some sentence, some character that a few people remember. I think with Kerrigan the important thing is that the more you know (and I know that this conflicts with what I said earlier), the more you know about any given place, the more present you become when you’re there, the more alive you become. For example, when I sit in the White Lamb serving house on the Coal Square in Copenhagen, eating my sardine lunch and drinking my draft beer, I know that it was founded in 1807, the same year that the Duke of Wellington shelled Copenhagen for three days, killing nearly two percent of the civilian population, and blew the roof off the White Lamb. In addition, I know that about twenty-five years later Søren Kierkegaard lived just about twenty yards away in a first-floor apartment and would have been able to see the White Lamb from his window. The White Lamb currently provides live jazz every night and plays CDs all day on the sound system. The Duke of Wellington is dust in his grave now, but the draft beer still flows on in the White Lamb, and the only Duke that blows the roof off the house now is Duke Ellington!

I also knew a singer, Asger Rosenberg, whom I heard sing there many times; he had a terrific voice and knew so many songs and the whole formal introductions to them. Asger is dead now, but he gave me such pleasure. I think he’s mentioned in all four of the Copenhagen books I’ve written, and he knew that, too, and always said a warm hello to me. The awareness of all that enriches every moment I sit in there and write and sip beer and maybe eat a sardine. The more you know about a place, the more your life is enriched. I hope readers get that idea from the novelboth in general, about the places they themselves live, but also about Copenhagen, which after all has a thousand-year-old history. And I also hope that reading the book will give people pleasure, tooand make them think and feel their place in history as well.

The theme of Beneath the Neon Egg probably harks back to the way I felt when I was fifteen and first began intensely reading fiction. Almost immediately I understood that by reading a book I could enter into the mind of another human being. And I realized something elsehow basically alone I wasbut I gradually began to understand that everyone is equally alone and that reading can make you feel less alone. So it is a book about the ultimate solitude of all the characters and how they try to transcend that lonelinesssome try to do it via extreme sexual behavior, which relates to your earlier question about extremist characters.

McLean: Isaac Babel said that food for the soul comes from writing new stories. Do you agree?

 

Kennedy: I believe that one of the highest spiritual points I can achieve is at the moment of creation, at the moment of discovery of what resides at the core of a fiction or a creative nonfiction, a piece of writing. And I might not understand that discovery with my intellect, but I do feel it, am an attendant to it, allow it to happen by clearing the path for it. And my consciousnesslike the consciousness of the unnamed narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hungeris continuously starving to express itself and to reach that moment of discovery. So perhaps it is a kind of food for the soul.

 

Roisin McLean holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize. She has published fiction in Perigee, Serving House Journal, Fiction Week Literary Review, and Pithead Chapel. Her essays appear in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging and in OH SANDY! An Anthology of Humor for a Serious Purpose. An earlier interview with Thomas E. Kennedy appears in The McNeese Review. She is currently revising a linked story and novella collection and works as catalog administrator for Passaic County Community College.