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Douglas Kennedy: 'What's more important to me than living well is living interestingly'

Novelist Douglas Kennedy discusses travel, divorce, and how he has discovered a new lease of life now his children have grown up

By Emily Hourican

Published 06/06/2015

Writer Douglas Kennedy
Writer Douglas Kennedy
Douglas Kennedy and son Max
Douglas Kennedy and son Max

Douglas Kennedy is a man delighted with himself. Recently turned 60 - on New Year's Day - he looks at least 10 years younger. He has just published his 12th novel, The Heat Of Betrayal, and carries with him still the exuberance of a man, and an American at that, whose writing career took off late-ish, but has consistently gathered pace since. He has sold nine million books in France alone (the French love him, having made him a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) and was once called "the most famous American writer you've never heard of" by Time Magazine. He has since remedied that, and is now pretty famous in America too, although there is, he reckons cheerfully, "more to come" there. Further cause for delight.

In addition, his two children, born during his first marriage, are semi grown-up, which, for a man who takes parenting as seriously as Douglas does, is a source of comfort. "I believe there are two types of adults," he says. "Those with and without children. I'm not saying that negatively. All I'm saying - and I'm being a little subtle here, a little nuanced - is, having children gives you a different world view."

His son, Max, was diagnosed as autistic when he was five years old, after an appalling epileptic seizure that left him catatonic for five months. Kennedy set up a school at home for Max, with teachers using a breakthrough system devised by autism expert Dr Ivar Lovaas, and the results were so good that Max is now, Kennedy says, "at one of the best arts schools in America, doing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography. He's very independent, he travels alone and comes to see me up in New York and in Maine. He has an assistant at college, a tutor, but fundamentally he has a very independent life. And he has a girlfriend."

Meanwhile, his daughter, Amelia, 18, is throwing herself into the acting world. "She did very well in her A-levels, and probably could have got in just below Oxbridge, but she wants to be an actress. She's a little young still to get into drama school. But she did a big audition with a major London agent, with 40 other students who had been recommended from drama schools and coaches, and this gentleman only signed two of them. So at 18 she has an agent. She's now living in my pied-a-terre in New York and my flat in London when I'm not there. When I come to London, I stay in a hotel."

Lucky her, I say. He agrees, adding, "what does it mean to have money? It means that my children are reasonably secure for the future. And that I can have an interesting life. I like design, I like travel, I like living well. To me, what's more important than living well, is living interestingly."

In fact, so seriously does Kennedy take parenthood, that he is determined never to do it again. "You never feel more vulnerable than you do with kids," he says. "It's so interesting, but I was very determined after my divorce that I would never do it again. I see these fathers in parks, about my age - 55, 60 - with the pram, and they all look like they have buyers' regret!" he laughs heartily at this. "I was very clear when I was involved with anybody after my divorce - if you want children, I'm a bad call. I've done it and I'm not going to do it again." He laughs again, still delighted.

And so, now that his two children are grown, he has moved back to the States, to Maine, where he has a house, and occasionally New York, where he has his "pied-a-terre." Kennedy has a lot of property, in the States, London, Paris and Montreal. "My theory of life? Everything is far better with a return air ticket. The knowledge that you can walk away." His second - "and I'm pretty sure my last" - wife, practises as a psychoanalyst. "Yes, I married a shrink," he says, all but throwing his hands in the air, then adds, dropping his voice low, "I can only be with a very bright person. I can't be with somebody where, as we say in baseball, there's no depth in the outfield."

Of the property, he says "I have this habit of buying places in areas that were not that well known. I bought in Shoreditch in London in 1996. I bought in the tenth arrondissement, and at the time my French lawyer said, 'le Dixieme? Il n'ya rien,' but that whole area has come up."

In Kennedy's life, the areas always seem to come up.

The Heat of Betrayal is set in Morocco, and tells the story of a relationship, based on psychological frailties, that comes to a head in the intense heat and otherness of North Africa; "an adventure story that turns into a nightmare," as Kennedy describes it. It has the sensibilities of a thriller but is rooted in the domestic. "The CIA is not pulled into it," he agrees. "It's her life, and his life, but with the hallmarks of a thriller. There is a chase, a pursuit, a betrayal."

The betrayal again is domestic, but with far-reaching implications: "I have a very devious mind when it comes to being a novelist," Kennedy laughs. "I was thinking, 'what is the worst betrayal you can have between a man and a woman? What is the thing you can't really come back from?'"

Even without the drama, this is a marriage with many problems - familiar Kennedy territory. And indeed, "we fall in love for all sorts of reasons, probably five of which we don't understand," he says. "You convince yourself this is right, but are you looking at a mirage? The unknowingness of other people is only matched by the unknowingness of yourself. Can you actually really know someone else? Are we all only ever one revelation away from our lives being shattered?" It's an interesting question, and one that does a neat job of encapsulating Kennedy's novels, where little is ever exactly as it seems, least of all in the area of love.

"I was very conscious, from an early age, of the difficulties of forming a life with someone," he admits. Those difficulties came from his own parents, a Jewish mother and "lace-curtain Irish" father, living in Brooklyn, in a marriage without love. "There was this ongoing dissonance, tension and anger between my parents. I was very aware that they were fighting all the time." His father died last May. "We were not close," Kennedy says. "He was a very difficult man, and someone who made a huge amount of mistakes and had a sadly self-destructive streak. I certainly couldn't save him from himself. I only began to understand him when I had children, and when there was a rupture between us. Then, I began to think about him, and began to have a proper cognisance of what he was about, and that came out of the sadness of things falling apart between us."

Did that kind of understanding help?

"It helps as a writer," is his answer. "You can take all that from your own life and refract it in different ways through characters. You're also - what draws people to my work is the fact that I'm taking situations that are quite domestic, but I'm looking at them with a certain clarity. For example, why do people choose unhappiness? But they do, and they choose it again and again. They have to scratch that itch. We all know people like that, have been involved with people like that. That interests me. I won't judge them, but I will build a very interesting story around them."

Kennedy, eldest of three boys, got into Collegiate, a very good private school where he was given a classical education that in turn took him to Bowdoin in Maine, a prestigious 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 says, adding wryly "I was a little startled at first." Startled, but charmed too. Enough so that he returned after his degree.

Dublin, clearly, was good to him. "It was a fantastic period of my life and gave me a tremendous amount of freedom that I wouldn't have had if I had stayed in New York. New York operates on an ethos that I call 'The importance of being fabulous'. Now, I have a different relationship with New York. I'm not trying to make it. I've got a publisher, I have my friends, I love strolling out of my apartment to go and hear an amazing jazz band at 11pm, go to a movie at 1am. I like being back among my own. But that is very different to starting out there, clawing your way up."

In the years before publishing his first novel, Kennedy set up Stage One in Dublin, a fringe theatre company, which prospered, and where Kennedy came into contact with Liam Neeson, Jim Sheridan and Gabriel Byrne. After 18 months, he got a job at the Abbey, running the Peacock, from 1978 to 1983. By then he 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 "a total disaster".

Four weeks later, Douglas Gageby retired from the Irish Times and Conor Brady, the new editor, cancelled Kennedy's column. This adversity, though hard, gave him the spur to finish his first novel, Beyond the Pyramids, published in 1988, and to leave Dublin after 11 years.

By then he was married, to a woman from Cork. "She worked for the Film Board. We met when I produced a film directed by Kieran Hickey, The Tractor, written by William Trevor. This was 1982 and I was still at the Peacock. We were together 25 years and moved to London together."

He lived primarily in London from 1988 until 2011, publishing a novel every two years - including The Big Picture, made into a film with Catherine Deneuve, and The Woman In The Fifth, filmed with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas - growing steadily in reputation.

The end of his first marriage was naturally painful, involving a difficult divorce, but even so, Kennedy is enough of the novelist to understand that nothing emotional is simple. "Everything in life is an interpretation," he says. "I said this during my divorce, to the two very brilliant women who handled it. When the whole thing was done and dusted, we went out to lunch and I said, 'there was a marriage, now there are two competing versions of what happened. Who's right?' The answer is no one of course. It's all just storytelling, and it's up for renegotiating."

There is one thing in Kennedy's life that is less than satisfactory. "Sleep is the one thing in my life that is a problem. I get five hours here, six there. I've had insomnia for 10 years, it's a part of my life that I just accept. But I'm not complaining. I seem to be able to manage on four or five hours a night. Its not that I'm waking up with great existential or metaphysical dramas, I'm just a little over-charged and I know it."

However, even here he can spin a positive: "As Leonard Cohen said, '"The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.' And he's right. It's true!", he laughs.

Yes, still delighted.

The Heat of Betrayal by Douglas Kennedy, £12.99, is out now, published by Hutchinson

Belfast Telegraph

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