Douglas Kennedy: a storyteller grappling with the larger things in life
Six million books sold – and still the author of ‘The Big Picture’ is always fretting about the next one
Life stories: ‘I want to be a popular novelist who’s also serious, or a serious novelist who’s also very accessible,’ says Douglas Kennedy. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Douglas Kennedy settles into a chair, polishes off an espresso and begins to talk about his new novel, Fi ve Days . An expert at the interview game. Kennedy has published 14 books in 25 years and sold six million copies, three million of them in France. Alongside a trio of travel books – about Egypt, the American Bible Belt and high finance – his novels span topics from murder ( The Big Picture ) through American conformism ( State of the Union ) to unexpected pregnancy ( Leaving the World ). His narrators are, as often as not, high-flying women: writers, academics, librarians or journalists. He can set his suburban nightmares as convincingly in Berlin or Paris as in London or a small town in Montana.
Five Days is narrated by Laura, a technician in the radiology unit of a hospital in Maine. It’s full of Kennedy’s trademark sparky dialogue but also has much detailed discussion of health-related – or, more accurately, illness-related – matters.
“When the plot came to me, I spent a day in my local Maine hospital,” Kennedy says. “I thought, This is extraordinary work. As one of the technicians there told me – and it went right into my notebook – ‘In my work, nothing is the best result.’ Never tell me anything. I’m grabbing it.”
The narrator’s children have grown up and gone, and her husband has been laid off. The marriage has, as Kennedy puts it in an apt medical metaphor, flatlined. And then, at a weekend conference, she meets an insurance salesman. “It’s a Brief Encounter story. Two people who have talked themselves into lives they don’t particularly like, and perhaps don’t really want. We thwart ourselves all the time. And here is an opportunity. The big question is, do you want to take it or do you want to continue with the thwarting?”
As we talk about Laura and her dilemma, it strikes me that we might be discussing a mutual friend rather than the heroine of a novel. “I want to talk about the larger things we all grapple with in life, within the context of a story,” Kennedy says. “I want to be a popular novelist who’s also serious, or a serious novelist who’s also very accessible.”
What I want to know is how he manages to write anything at all, given his bicontinental lifestyle. He spends some of his time in Maine and some in New York. His second wife, Christine, a Canadian psychoanalyst, has an office in Montreal; he has a daughter in London and an apartment in Paris. “I’m two weeks on that side of the Atlantic, two weeks on this,” he says. “Basically, I have been able to train myself to work anywhere. Yesterday at London City Airport I was on a very early flight to Dublin, and I sat there with a cappuccino and wrote three of these philosophical blogs I do on Facebook. And then I finished a piece about my agent for Publishers’ Weekly , which I had started on the way over from the US. Tomorrow I will go back and I will write 500 words for the next novel.
“I’ve been known to write on the Underground in London and on the subway in New York. I have two or three cafes in Paris that I go into. I find a corner with a little shade, and I can work. In Montreal there’s a corner of the sofa with a leg extension. I have an office there, but I like working on the sofa, just on my laptop with a pad and a fountain pen nearby.”
Kennedy’s work ethic offers a masterclass for aspiring novelists. One of his own models in this regard is the Belgian-born French writer Georges Simenon, who is now mostly remembered for his Maigret mystery novels. “ Three Bedrooms in Manhattan , which he wrote in the late 1940s, was about a depressed man from France wandering around Manhattan at night and meeting a femme fatale. It really influenced my book The Woman in the Fifth . It’s a very Edward Hopper-esque vision of New York.
“Simenon was fascinating. He was a machine. He was brilliant on urban isolation. He could write a novel in 10 days. He wrote 200 books. And he was also a wild womaniser. And he would be doing this between four different women. He had a marriage and a very tolerant second wife, but he was just always falling into bed with somebody. I mean, it was sort of compulsive. But he could write 40 to 50 pages in one go.
“There’s this idea that if it’s art, it has to be pulled out of you. And there are cases of that. Look at Flaubert. Seven years for Education Sentimentale and seven for Madame Bovary . But Dostoyevsky wrote quickly because he was a gambler and he had debts. And Mozart wrote the 36th symphony in four days because he had to. I’m very steady. There’s a book every two years, with a lot of living going on in between. But still . . . there’s the work.”
Kennedy’s French connection began when he moved to Paris in 2000. “I bought a tiny apartment in the sixth arrondissement, which you could do then for the price of a fancy car – and not even that fancy a car. Not an Aston Martin or anything.”
He began an intensive language course, which was lucky because when his first two novels, The Dead Heart and The Big Picture , gained cult status his French agent insisted that he do all his interviews and press in French.
“It took about eight years to achieve complete fluency,” he says grimly. When The Pursuit of Happiness was published, his French readers “really embraced the book, and the change of direction I was making, and it just grew exponentially”.
Kennedy has since graduated to a bigger apartment and was made a knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2007. He is, by any standards, a success, not just in France but in the anglophone publishing world as well. In real life, how does this success manifest itself? “Outside of the fact that my children’s future will be reasonably secure; reasonably . . .” He shrugs. “Success is a very fragile veneer. I get wary of people who embrace celebrity. It ruins people. I get to live here and there, but I still have most of my same friends. I live pretty quietly. I’m not the sort of person who goes to parties. I have my children, I have my new life with my second wife. I have my cultural life, which is hugely important to me. Nonetheless, there’s always work to do.
“With a novel, no matter where I am in it, I’m fretting about it. Every time I write a book it starts with great forward momentum. Then there seems to be a period where it slows down a bit, and other things intervene. Then I gain momentum. There’s always a moment where I have a huge period of doubt about the whole thing, which I fight through, and then I pick up rhythm towards the end. I’m not saying it always works that way, but pretty much. The important thing, for me, is to be able to do it day in and day out.”
Five Days is published by Hutchinson