How to make a million ... dollars ...
Interview with Douglas Kennedy : ...Fake a credit card, or write a yuppie-in-crisis thriller about somebody who does. Suzi Feay meets novelist Douglas Kennedy meets Douglas Kennedy sold his second novel, a yuppie- in-crisis thriller, for pounds 1,128, 750. writer wr
Sunday 04 May 1997
The Dead Heart, set in the Australian outback, filtered the pursuit- thriller genre through the sarky, observant wit of a journo with three quirky travel books under his belt. The follow-up, yuppie-in-crisis thriller The Big Picture, speaks with an eloquence fathoms deep about the angst of the family man. Ben Bradford is a frayed suburban New Yorker in a crumbling marriage, who assuages the emptiness within by heroic splurges of spending on fancy photographic equipment. He's just about keeping all the balls in the air, but the dread steadily intensifies from page one.
Like Ben, New York-born Kennedy has a moneyed lifestyle, demanding small children, a great measure of success; it is tempting to read quite a lot of Kennedy into Ben. For a start, I had him down as a keen photographer. After reading this book you feel you could hold forth in a camera shop with aplomb: "An amazing piece of equipment: five-point auto-focus with multiple metering patterns for optimum results ..." Kennedy laughs this off: "I hate cameras." And he's at pains to point out that the terrible battle of attrition between Ben and his wife Beth was drawn from "a friend's marriage. Certainly not mine. And my dad never pressured me, he's not like the father in the book - I've made that clear in every interview!"
Not only could readers descant knowledgeably about lenses and shutter speeds after perusing The Big Picture, they could embark, like the floundering Ben, on a career of serious malefaction: "There's a lot that's obviously fact-based, like how to get a false credit-card, how to disappear, cut up a body, blow up a boat." Fellow thriller-writer Philip Kerr obliged with a formula for home-made explosives: "It was like Delia Smith, two novelists exchanging recipes: `Potassium sulphate? How much of that?' Of course the lawyers here vetted it and it was completely in contravention of the Prevention of Terrorism Act."
The Big Picture is ferociously plotted with Ben's descent into self- loathing, murder and a qualified rebirth, but rather than begin from a foundation of swotty research, Kennedy wings it on detail. "I'm not that nuts-and-bolts. But I do a lot of careful fact-checking when it's done. You can get too Freddy Forsyth about this, but everything in the book is accurate."
The spark of the book came on a visit to his agent's place in Western Connecticut. He found himself driving through Old Greenwich - model for the novel's New Croydon - the town to which his parents "dragged me screaming for eight summers". He went to the station where he used to wait for his father, a commodities broker, on the 6.08 from Grand Central. "And all these suits got off - but they were now my age [he's 42]. I thought, no one has actually written about the suburbs in my generation. Everyone has written about life in the fast lane in New York, what it's like to be hanging around in clubs, not that whole John Cheever-John Updike territory that was so explored in the Fifties and Sixties."
When Jay McInerney et al were writing about the drugs and clubs of Eighties' Manhattan, Kennedy was in Dublin, working for the Abbey Theatre. He had spent a year as a guest student at Trinity: "I couldn't stand Dublin initially: coming from this Manhattan upbringing, it seemed small, shabby, not buzzy, no sense of sophistication. And yet by the end of that year I was desperate to come back at any cost." A two-week visit in 1977 turned into 11 years after a Dublin friend said: "Let's start a theatre company." Failing as a director, Kennedy administrated the Abbey Theatre's experimental space, the Peacock, and wrote for radio.
"I had a stage play done at the Abbey in 1986 called Send Lawyers, Guns and Money which was probably one of the biggest disasters in the theatre's history. All through rehearsals and previews everybody had said, `it's going to be a great hit!' and it just died a death. Incredibly bad reviews. What do you do in a situation like that? Either go into a tailspin or take a deep breath and go back to work. Which is what I did."
Today, he talks with only a faint air of bemusement about the day when the publishers' auction for The Big Picture took place. He'd taken his son to school, been up early with his two-month-old daughter, finished a piece for GQ. Then his American agent started ringing every 20 minutes, and every time the price had jumped by $60,000. "As I kept saying to myself at the time, this is what I used to earn in a year: about pounds 30-40,000." Finally his agent, Wendy Weil, told him to get a pen: "Write down this figure. One-one-two-eight-seven-five-zero." Or $1,128,750.
"The thing is, I've known quite a bit of failure along the way," he points out. "Watching your play, which you've worked on for a year, play to nine people ... " Frustratingly, up until now, he couldn't get published in America. "My travel books [one about the Bible Belt] didn't happen. The Dead Heart - amazingly - didn't happen." He still receives bracing bursts of rejection, most recently being fired as screenwriter on The Dead Heart. "My agent said, don't write this. Don't write this. You'll get fired. And that's exactly what happened. I was a little stunned, but relieved. You cash the cheque, that's all. Though it was Wardour Street money rather than Wiltshire Boulevard money!"
His debut was gloriously cinematic with its fast pace and wide open spaces, but the circumstances of its completion were rather more prosaic. He couldn't crack it: his son had just been born (there always seems to be a small child wailing in the background in Kennedy's anecdotes), he needed to find a quiet place to finish the last third of the book. "I thought, what is the most dreary place I can think of? The Forte Crest at Gatwick! I locked myself in a room there for a week and all but finished the damn thing. There was a gym downstairs, so I could exercise. I could eat in Garfunkels in South Terminal. There were only the bright lights of Crawley to distract me ... So all this big, visual stuff was written in a little room in Gatwick."
He loves what he calls the "anti-hype" of his adopted city, London, and counsels visiting New Yorkers in the art of obliquity: "Look, the road system here is based on the roundabout, not the intersection. Now work it out." But his favourite story involves the New York media trainer who was grooming him for an appearance on American TV. "Do you think," asked Kennedy, "that anyone will say, `you've written this novel and it's a commercial success - are you selling out?'" The media trainer looked at him long and hard and said: "How long have you lived in England?"
Douglas Kennedy, `The Big Picture' (Abacus pounds 16.99).
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