In anticipation of the November 25 release of my novel, The Perfect Mother, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of bestselling author, Douglas Kennedy. Here's what he divulged on the art of noveling, his trademark complex heroines, the circumstances that keep up tethered to our own unhappiness, and his latest book, Five Days.
Five Days centers around a woman who is in stasis. She is dissatisfied, but unable to imagine a departure from the only life she knows. Is Five Days meant to inspire readers to bravely pursue change in their own lives?
Pop psychology -- especially of the afternoon television variety -- is full of exhortations to change yourself. Indeed, the notion of self-reinvention is as American as "you can be what you want to be" (another specious directive). But, without question, the verb "to change" is one of the more daunting in this or any other language. As such I wrote Five Days, in part, as an exploration of the vertiginous nature of change -- and how desperately hard it is to enact... even when you realize that it is the one and only conduit out of personal despair. But underscoring this thought is a thorny existential question with which the novel also grapples: is unhappiness also a choice?
Your novels lead readers to question whether one is responsible for one's own happiness. When our lives go terribly wrong, are we ourselves to blame? Or are we only to blame for how we deal with what life hands us?
I have friends whose lives are something akin to the Book of Job -- desperate tragedies (like the loss of a child), immense personal dilemmas, huge professional setbacks -- and who have still managed not just to carry on, but to actually live. Just as I have known others for whom a setback or a reversal of fortune triggers a downward spiral into an abyss. In life, everything is interpretation. And how you interpret a calamity speaks volumes not just about your worldview, but the way you grapple with the most arduous problem going: yourself. For this reason I do believe very profoundly that even when fate deals you some truly terrible cards, there is choice as to how you play them... and how (or if) you recover from them. To revert to my very existential perspective: we are alone in a frequently hostile world. And we are ultimately responsible for our own actions and decisions and choices in the wake of everything (both good and bad) that life tosses into our path.
The modern American psyche seems ingrained with many conventional moralities to which we adhere out of a sense of obligation. Your protagonist Laura, in Five Days, is conflicted between her rigid sense of duty toward family and career and her sudden realization of the endless possibilities of love. How does one reconcile such moral complexities?
I have lived, part-time, in France for the past fifteen years. I have attained fluency in their language, and my work as a novelist has been so embraced by that extraordinary country. The French have a rather Cartesian standpoint when it comes to compartmentalization -- the idea that you can have manifold different rooms within your intimate life. As such, adultery is not considered the massive character flaw that it is looked upon in the States. And one of the questions that certain American readers have raised, vis-à-vis Five Days, is: "Is the novel a defense of an extra-marital affair?" In truth, the novel is asking: when you have reached that juncture when you are no longer responsible for the day-to-day welfare of your children - and when you accept that your marriage has flat-lined -- what then? I fully believe that the only person responsible for your happiness (or lack thereof) is yourself. And again, everything is a question of choice. Say you are in a relationship where your partner undermines your sense of self. It is ultimately your choice to stay or go (and yes, we can all cite financial/familial/practical reasons why to stay put, even if we know it is bad for our emotional health). Just as it is also a choice to step over the threshold into an extra-marital affair as a way of perhaps precipitating necessary change, or to (conversely) remain faithful to someone you no longer love. The fact is: I have big problems with people who act the role of Puritan Hanging Judge when it comes to matters of fidelity and the complexities of the human heart. We cannot impose a Manichean standpoint on matters of sex and long-term relationships. In such realms, there are no black or white answers: it's all intriguingly grey. Which is what makes it so interesting for a novelist.
My novel, The Perfect Mother, also centers around a woman at the crossroads of middle age, largely defined by her role as wife and mother. What is it about these women that create such deeply compelling stories?
My mother was a highly educated woman with professional aspirations who, in classic mid-century American style, became a housewife after her first child (yours truly) was born. My parents had a wildly combustive marriage - so, from the outset of my life, I had a ringside seat at this ongoing pyrotechnic display of domestic dysfunction and toxic self-entrapment. Owing to all that I have a profoundly feminist point-of-view as a novelist (and as a man). And even though there has been so much progress made in the sexual equality realm since my childhood, the fact remains that the question of individuality and maternity is one with which so many women still struggle. There are many quarters within modern society where the unapologetically careerist woman is looked down upon as seemingly unfulfilled. Just as the woman who is not interested in marriage and family - and (shock, horror) is comfortable with transient sex (like so many men) - is also still considered by many to be aberrant. Sexual politics - especially vis-à-vis the roles we are told we still have to play - forms an underpinning for so many of my novels. Because these politics so inform the way we live now.
You have talked publicly about some of the highs and lows of your personal history. How much have your own experiences with marriage and parenthood dictated the choice of this subject matter in your work?
Outside of a story once commissioned by the BBC, I have never written anything directly autobiographical. Having said that all fiction is, on a certain level, autobiographical. Even if you are writing about people and circumstances far removed from your own you are still grappling with the pathologies and angsts that drive your own life. As E.L. Doctorow once noted: 'Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.'
Like myself, you previously had a career as a writer, but not as a writer of novels. What led you to make the transition?
I left the United States at the age of 22, fleeing familial mère and paternal pressure to do something "sensible," like become a lawyer. I ran away to Dublin, co-founded a fringe theatre company, and then was appointed to run The Abbey Theatre's experimental studio, The Peacock. I started to write late at night (I still do), and sold my first play to BBC Radio when I was 24. I quit my job at The Abbey in 1983, determined to become a writer. I had five subsequent plays produced (none very good), and paid my bills by writing for Irish newspapers. I was even a columnist on the famed Irish Times until a new editor arrived and showed me the door (he didn't like my style). But that setback proved revelatory -- as it forced me to finish my first book and move to London. When Beyond the Pyramids was published by Allen and Unwin in 1988 (and subsequently by Henry Holt in the States), I also began a parallel career as a freelance journalist, writing for such disparate publications as The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, and the British editions of GQ and Esquire. London journalism at the end of the last century was, in a word, a blast (until the internet and Murdochization set it back significantly). But I used it to support my book habit, and wrote two subsequent narrative travel books and my first novel during my first five years in London. In 1996 I delivered my second novel, The Big Picture, and had my first taste of major international success -- but the fact that I was 41 when I had this first great breakthrough meant that I already understood that success is a fragile veneer, and that a key to a long literary career (and I am about to see the publication of my twelfth novel in 2015) is about perseverance and (as my maternal grandfather was fond of noting) never falling in love with the aroma of your own perfume. Which is wise counsel that I repeat to myself every morning before writing my daily quota of five hundred words. A long career is also about discipline -- especially as writing still remains, for me, a confidence trick you play on yourself.
Douglas Kennedy is the internationally bestselling author of 11 novels, which have been translated in 22 countries. His most recent novel, Five Days, was published to critical acclaim in 2013. You can find Douglas at: www.douglaskennedynovelist.com, or read his latest musings on Facebook and Twitter.