“At the Mercy of My Passions and Opinions”: A Conversation with William Kennedy

Cynthia Haven speaks to author William Kennedy, who is sheltering in place in his beloved Albany, New York.

“At the Mercy of My Passions and Opinions”: A Conversation with William Kennedy

FLORENCE HAD DANTE, Dublin had James Joyce — so Albany, New York, has the celebrated author William Kennedy, recipient of a Pulitzer and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, as its literary voice. Kennedy has described himself as “a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man needs for the life of the soul.” 

His “Albany Cycle” began as a trilogy, but eventually expanded to encompass eight novels — as well as films, plays, and a screenplay, which Kennedy considers part of the cycle as well. The former journalist writes of an era when Albany was a provincial state capital, known for its corrupt political machine and its Irish bosses. He celebrates a mythical demimonde of bums and winos, prostitutes and pimps, gamblers and gangsters, politicos and pool sharks. Yet in his hands, it is also a metaphysical city, infused with spiritual intimations and the occasional miracle.

The Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow was an early fan, praising Kennedy’s prose as “vigorous, full of energy […] At a time when so much cold porridge is served up in the literary world as hot stuff, here is the real hot stuff.”

Stanford’s Another Look book club chose Kennedy’s 1978 novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, for its spring 2020 event. The book is based on the Depression-era kidnapping of the nephew of Dan O’Connell, the city’s most powerful powerbroker.

It is the second time Another Look has featured a living writer (the first was Philip Roth). I reached out to the 92-year-old author, who was sheltering in his home outside Albany for the duration of the coronavirus plague. “I’m glad to rethink the Billy novel because he’s my favorite character,” he responded in an email. The eponymous hero was modeled on the uncle who was his favorite relative: “He lived a life something like my character, and he knew most of the players in the kidnapping in the story, which was a real event in 1933. He also taught me a few things about playing pool.”

Thanks to that same virus, the Another Look program is now in limbo, but this interview will meanwhile give readers new and old an opportunity to discover more about Kennedy’s work and life. When we were finished, he told me: “This now feels like a chapter in my autobiography.”

Photo: NYS Writers Institute at the University of Albany.


CYNTHIA L. HAVEN: You began as a reporter at the Albany Times Union in the 1950s — eventually, it became the setting for your books, such as Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. Of course, the action of that book takes place two decades before your arrival. Was it an odd experience “fictionalizing” your own workplace? How did you separate the “real” Times Union from the one you were creating?

WILLIAM KENNEDY: Fictionalizing my workplace? Pretty easy. I didn’t feel the need to separate the two city rooms. The real one was a blueprint for the fictional. I retooled some personality traits of friends as they became characters in my imagination. But I’d been mythicizing newspapers and their reporters almost from the time I started to read. The Times Union was always in my house, plus two other Albany daily papers, and in a later year the New York tabloids — the News and the race results, the morning line, Ed Sullivan, Walter Winchell, Dick Tracy — so by eighth grade I was often reading five newspapers a day. By age eight or nine, I had already seen maybe five movies with Lee Tracy as a reporter, and I think they planted the idea in me that a reporter is never bored, and lives in the middle of the action.

By high school I was in the library searching bound copies of newspapers for certain reporters of the 1920s and ’30s — Mencken, Runyon, Heywood Broun, Don Marquis. By college I was focused on Red Smith, James Agee, Hemingway. Some lived dangerously, some were great wits, many had exceptional language, and most were reporting the news by telling stories, which made me want to do the same, and nudged me toward literature, where I was already headed. But first I wanted to be a columnist so I wrote one for the college newspaper, and also for three other papers I worked for in the ’50s.

By the late ’50s and ’60s I was reading a new generation of freewheeling writers — Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and a klatch of others, most of whom were labeled practitioners of the New Journalism, which Tom Wolfe, a notable New Journalist himself, codified in a book of the same label, proclaiming his gang a replacement battalion for contemporary fiction writers. They were terrific journalists — some already fiction writers — producing works of high literary merit for newspapers and magazines, and causing Wolfe to write rhetorically to Saul Bellow, “Damn it all, Saul, the Huns have arrived.” I taught Wolfe’s book and admired his gang, but I never thought journalism would replace literature.

Of course, journalism changed a great deal over those years …

The Runyon and Red Smith journalism that I loved and grew up with faded, and many of the print newspapers where that golden age flourished, are gone. But in the major papers that survived, one new form of personalized reporting has emerged as a method of properly covering the fake newsmaker in the White House. When he lies to the world in his speeches, interviews, and brief encounters with the press, it has become normal, as well as necessary, for reporters, in the service of truth, to inject their own knowledge of his subject into their coverage to reveal or rebut the presidential lie — a new subjective form of objectivity. I greatly admire how the major papers and TV reporters have evolved their presentation of the news in the past four years. This is a dynamic era for journalism but a perilous one, with the established media and the First Amendment under relentless attack from a truculent, authoritarian, prevaricating, solipsistic president.

How did the Times Union editors respond to their transformation into fiction, and to literary fame, in your books?

One editor who didn’t like the civil rights and antiwar stories I was covering for the paper (“I’m sick of those dirty people”) was at my desk when I was opening a letter from a friend congratulating me on selling my first novel — a major moment in any writer’s life, and fairly unusual; for sadly, many reporters never sell those fabled novels in their desk drawers. I showed the letter to this editor and all he said as he walked away was that my friend had misspelled congratulations.

I did have enthusiastic reactions from many in the city room as I published one book and immediately sold another (Legs, a novel in progress). And when I won the Pulitzer for Ironweed in 1984, every day for a week the Times Union printed two or three full pages about my entire life.

One friend said the only time he’d seen equivalent coverage was for a dead pope. A drinking buddy of mine from the copy desk, Jim Davey, had told me that one day I’d win a Pulitzer and I mentioned this prediction in remarks I made at a Newspaper Guild dinner. Later Jim said, “Oh yeah, I told that to everybody.”

You have said you moved to Puerto Rico and got out of Albany “because I was bored with it.” And elsewhere, “I had exhausted the city in a certain way.” What changed in you, or in the city?

My exhaustion with Albany wasn’t Albany’s fault; the town wasn’t exactly pulsing with vitality, but maybe I wasn’t either. What drove me away was the paper’s lack of journalistic purpose. The editors were workaday guys who wanted tomorrow’s paper to be just like yesterday’s. There was no coverage that would alert the public to rampant political plunder or abuse of electoral power, nothing with the public welfare in mind. Nothing critical could even be contemplated about the reigning pols, for they were spending $150,000 a year or more on legal advertising with the paper, and that could not be jeopardized.

Also, there was little appreciation of the offbeat-type story I was fond of writing. I had a hilariously rare interview with our greatest jazzman, Louis Armstrong, when he came to town, and the news editor tossed it in the wastebasket as “just another band leader.” I retrieved it and another editor published it, but I left Albany soon after that for San Juan.

I signed on at a very lively new daily paper, the Puerto Rico World Journal, with a superior journalist, Bill Dorvillier, as its editor. In five years, on another newspaper, he would win the Pulitzer for editorial writing.

The World Journal was building an audience and after two months when Dorvillier fell ill, I ran the paper, rose to assistant editor, and was also writing a column. But we folded after nine months, the business end of the paper being a fiasco. Then I met a Puerto Rican beauty, Dana Sosa, a ballerina and Broadway gypsy, and married her a month later.

I moved to the Miami Herald, got the Cuban beat, great — covering Fidel, who was up in the hills, and his allies and enemies who were ubiquitous in Miami. Also, morning and night, before and after my workday, I was falling asleep at the typewriter writing short stories and a TV play nobody wanted. I valued The Herald, great place, smart editors, but I truly needed to write fiction full-time. The editors offered to make me a columnist, the job I’d been coveting since Lee Tracy. I said thanks a lot, but no, and I quit the paper, quit full-time journalism, and went back to San Juan to write a novel, wrote two.

The first was a calamity and I destroyed it, I hope utterly. I wrote four chapters of the second one and then in mid-1959 Bill Dorvillier was given a pile of money to start another newspaper and he tapped me for managing editor. I couldn’t say no; I loved the idea of starting a newspaper from scratch; also my wife had become a model and TV-and-theatrical celebrity, but we had two daughters and were usually broke. So the novel sat on my desk untouched while we worked 16-hour days assembling our newspaper, The San Juan Star — which would last 49 years.

I kept at the novel (I called it The Angels and the Sparrows) on weekends, creating the Phelan family, and my writing changed. In reconstituting assorted dead relatives from a nebulous, long-ago yesterday, my prose became more substantial, I was able to move people around effortlessly, and I intuited how they talked, what they talked about. My language broke through into respectability — I seemed to be raising it to another level. I was working with two Old Albany picture books, and they took my imagination on a carnival ride through the city’s extraordinary history — as long before the revolution as after. It was a major American hub, also the way west via roadway, river, canal, and rail.

My knowledge of the city was threadbare, yet oddly, I was also writing with an authority I didn’t realize I had. That came from real experience, but I was also accessing knowledge my brain had accumulated when I wasn’t looking.

You’ve discussed how failure can be a creative act, and the quest for it exciting. That’s certainly an uncommon point of view. Could you share some of your thinking on that?

I’ve always told young writers that succeeding with early work is against the American grain, and failure is what to expect. But since only your unconscious knows you’re failing, it’s creatively thrilling, and equal to succeeding in terms of what you learn. Once you’ve failed, you know it could happen again, but if you’re serious about writing, you will perceive that any failure is only a temporary condition and you just go back to work. Nick the Greek, a noted gambler, knew this. “The next best thing to playing and winning,” he said, “is playing and losing.”

Hemingway wrote: “Everything changes as it moves. That is what makes the movement which makes the story. Sometimes the movement is so slow it does not seem to be moving. But there is always change and always movement.” It’s a thought you echo more than once in Billy Phelan, for example, when you write: “We are only as possible as what happened to us yesterday. We all change as we move.” You’ve said, “The movement is what creates the action, and the action is what creates the story” — which in turn creates more movement. Clearly, you’ve thought about this a lot. Could you share a few more thoughts?

I must’ve been deeply persuaded by Hemingway’s lines to have lifted them without crediting him; but I always listened to what he said about writing. In The Angels and the Sparrows, I created Francis Phelan, a wino in his 30s, a clever, obnoxious loner returning home for his mother’s funeral (she kicked him out), who stops at a neighborhood bar for a beer and is hostile to the bartender. It was a good scene. He was a sad, broken young guy, but I disliked him seriously, even as I was creating him, and didn’t want to carry him forward.

Then, maybe 15 years later I started to write Billy Phelan and I reinvented the Phelan family. I had to get rid of Francis as that antipathetic young wino. He still had to be a bum, but I aged him into a tortured figure at the bottom of the world who was Billy’s father, and his life immediately became an open-ended challenge to my imagination. It turned out that he had abandoned his family 22 years earlier after his 13-day-old son, Gerald, slipped out of a diaper while he was changing him, fell off a table, broke his neck and died. In the fall of 1938, Francis drifts back to Albany to vote in a Democratic primary election, knowing the machine will pay him $5 for this; so he votes 21 times, earning $105, and is put in jail. Billy, the gambler, hears he’s in town and bails him out. The new Francis, after living through 16 years of shame and guilt over dropping the infant and running off, became a pitiable but likable human being. I don’t know where Gerald came from. There was no such incident in my life, nor can I remember hearing of one; perhaps I forgot it. But years ago I decided it was a gift from my unconscious, a fruitful one. In Billy, Francis was so vitally real that he leaped onto my typewriter and demanded his own novel. So I wrote Ironweed for him.

Which earned you that 1984 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

You’ve said that journalism is useful because it puts you into situations you would not normally experience, and forced you to be “objective” in situations that would normally arouse your passions and opinions. It has some other strengths, of course: it forces you to write. You have to meet deadline whether or not you “feel” like it. Did this training help when you became a novelist — that is, not to be at the mercy of your passions and opinions? Perhaps most of all not being at the mercy of moods, not waiting for “inspiration.” You have been so relentlessly productive!

As a novelist, I’m always at the mercy of my passions and opinions, and without them I’d be a retired editor or freelancer. Billy Phelan began in the early 1970s when, researching Legs, I came across coverage of a major 1933 crime in Albany: local gangsters kidnapped the nephew of the boss of Albany’s Democratic political machine, Dan O’Connell, who’d been running the town since his organization took City Hall in 1921.

Kidnapping was a popular criminal pastime after the Lindbergh case in 1932, and gangsters were also kidnapping one another. I heard all the embellishments of the O’Connell case from Times Union editors and reporters who had covered it, and who were still on the paper when I arrived in 1952.

I also heard details from my uncle, Pete McDonald, a gambler, pool hustler, and serious drinker. I once asked him if he wanted a drink and he said, “The last time I refused a drink I didn’t understand the question.” I liked this line so much that I’ve used it in four books, and hope to use it in whatever else I may write. Pete was also my favorite relative. He was an illustrious citizen of Albany’s nighttown, where the kidnappers sometimes drank and gambled, and he knew them all.

I’d spent quality time in the nighttown through the years and thought it a fit setting for the political kidnap story, so I interviewed Pete at length about the kidnapping and his life gambling and playing pool. But I also wanted to tell another story — of the machine’s eventual 62-year uninterrupted control of the city and the county governments, its reduction of the Republican Party to irrelevance for half a century, the absolute power it held over every level of life in this town, and how it used that power against perceived enemies, from the governor on down to a lowly pool hustler like Billy. I knew a lot about the machine, my father, some uncles (not Pete) and cousins being small parts of it. I’d written about it for years — in the ’60s during the civil rights era I’d been one of the machine’s public enemies; and I had a trove of knowledge from all the politics I’d covered.

But I still felt that my take on it was mostly from the outside. Insiders didn’t talk turkey to the press unless the reporter was on the machine’s payroll, and I knew four, maybe six (on two newspapers), who were. I didn’t know how the inner machinery actually functioned at the highest levels and I’d never know unless I talked to the people who ran it.

When I started writing Billy, I had left the Times Union, no longer a public enemy. I’d published two novels, was freelancing to magazines, and was also an adjunct at the University at Albany, teaching journalism. So I took my reporter’s fedora out of mothballs and started calling people. I called Dan and he said come on over, a miracle; he never gave interviews, one or two in the 20-year period I was on the paper. We talked maybe three hours and later on the phone. Eventually I talked to most of the surviving insiders, two dozen or more, and I began to feel I had the goods for a novel about those old boys. Twenty-five years later I wrote it — Roscoe.

Saul Bellow was the first to encourage you as a writer. Can you tell us a little what he taught you?

The Star ran a story that Saul Bellow would be teaching a writing course at the University of Puerto Rico. I’d never taken a writing class but I’d read The Adventures of Augie March, and was halfway through Henderson the Rain King, which was masterfully comic and joyously exuberant, so I sent him my four chapters. He accepted me and about nine others, and we each met him one-on-one at the faculty club in Río Piedras — eight meetings in the semester — and we’d talk for an hour or more, about my current pages and maybe suggestions for change. He liked my writing but saw flaws: my language was fatty, clotty, repetitious, and I used too many adjectives. So much for my new respectability. But from my years as an editor I wielded a tough pencil when editing reporters’ copy, and that was how I attacked my novel. When Bellow read my revised draft at our next meeting he looked up from about page 30 and said, “Hey, this is publishable.” I think I cracked a small smile to keep down the glee, but when we finished talking I went home, bought champagne, and convened a party with Dana and friends to celebrate my milestone headline:


Bellow had confirmed I had some talent and might even write a serious work one of these days. Refortified for the struggle I again quit journalism forever, resigned after two years as the Star’s managing editor (people thought I was fired) and became weekend editor. Working five-plus days a week writing, I finished the novel, restored respectability to its language. A literary agent circulated it for a year, and got a dozen or more rejections, some of them glowing. But however publishable the book was, it wasn’t published. I rewrote it radically 28 years later and published it in 1992 as my sixth novel, Very Old Bones.

What was he like and how did he influence you?

Saul was the most effortlessly brilliant person I ever knew. Even his small talk was substantial. His wit was constant, and basic to his conversation. I can’t calculate what he taught me. We were friends for years and I never stopped learning from him. Once in San Juan he suggested a writer shouldn’t be parsimonious with the work, but prodigal, like nature: think how many billions of sperm are used to create life, and only one is needed. That’s how he wrote Augie March. This was a memorable remark, and it’s not coincidental that in writing my second published novel, Legs, I produced several acres of notes, eight prodigal drafts, and took six years to finish it. When complete, my pile of paper was taller than my son, Brendan, when he was six.

In Billy Phelan, the journalist Martin Daugherty condemns Albany as “the asshole of the northeast. One of the ten bottom places of the earth.” And yet he returns to it after his youthful wanderings “because he sensed he would be nothing without his roots.” You also returned, and a few years later, in your Paris Review interview, you said, “I still can’t get enough of the place.” You have found the city to be endless … and certainly an endless inspiration and foundation for your books. What accounts for the switch, and what accounts for the ongoing fascination?

After six years in San Juan, the illness of my father pulled me back to Albany. I decided to stay until he got well, then find a way to go back to San Juan, so I took back my old job at the Times Union, which the publisher always said was there if I wanted it. The newspaper had changed radically and was at war with the political machine, a courageous new era for Albany journalism.

I’d work half-time and write whatever I wanted. The city editor suggested I write a history of the city’s neighborhoods, which was providential. So, I interviewed everybody I could find in their 90s, haunted the history room of the Albany Public Library, and spent four months discovering and chronicling Albany — from the days when Henry Hudson first sailed up his eponymous River, on through the arrival of the English, Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Poles, blacks, and others, and into the contemporary moment, all of which turned into a 26-article series. I continued writing series — on slumlords, on bootleggers and Prohibition (Albany was again a major hub), on racial segregation, on the history of our political parties, on the state capitol and Nelson Rockefeller’s South Mall, each in their time the most expensive constructions in America; and all of this rooted me ever more deeply in the city, offered me an infinite domain for my fiction, and confirmed that place would be a major factor in all that I wrote.

I also came to feel that the city’s role in the creation of this country was something to revere, and that it was in so many ways a singular town. I’d been reading William Faulkner’s shelf of novels for 15 years, especially The Sound and the Fury, taken over by that book, and by his turf, Yoknapatawpha County. Faulkner was a superlative writer and I would never write anything comparable, but I certainly could stake out some territory, as he had, and declare myself its literary proprietor. Other writers had done this: Joyce, Salinger, Bellow, and on.

Not long afterward I sketched a plan for an epic novel that would roll out a narrative from Henry Hudson up through Dan O’Connell’s perpetual motion machine, an absurd project I’d probably never finish. I later reduced all the historical elements to just the political machine’s story, but that was also 45 years of history, and I just didn’t know enough about it. What I had was my awe at its longevity and omnipotence, and a lot of hearsay.

Then from my night city editor and others on the Times Union, I heard about Jack “Legs” Diamond, a notorious gangster of the 1920s who’d been murdered in an Albany rooming house, and whose celebrity was at the movie-star level. He was in all the papers almost every day for about nine months in 1931. He wanted to run beer and booze into Albany but the pols were the official city and county bootleggers and they told him to get lost. A rumor circulated he’d been killed in his bed by political emissaries, and Jack kept urging me to claim him as an Albanian and tell his story in a novel, so I did. That kidnapping coverage I had come across while researching him became the frame of my next book. Billy Phelan was marked lousy by the political boss because of his link to the kidnappers, and his story evolved into a struggle for the individual’s moral right to play pool. By this time, I had six more books to write. Leaving Albany was unthinkable.

I’ve read that you have a large section of books on film and film criticism in your library. What attracts you to the genre, what cross-fertilization connects film with fiction?

I was an early reader, but even an earlier moviegoer: I’d guess six or seven. I mentioned Lee Tracy films but I remember many Westerns: every Buck Jones film, and Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy. By Christmas ’35 I owned a projector, a kiddie 16 mm. Excel. It still works. I had Popeye and Pluto cartoons and a boring rodeo short, Let ’er Buck, which I watched endlessly because of the magic of any film. Joe Keefe, a childhood pal, remembered I’d see two movies a week (a dime each) because my weekly allowance was a quarter; his 15 cents (one movie). In 1968, I became a movie columnist for two years, and sometimes saw five films a day. Some friends and I created Cinema 750. For $7.50 you could see, in a former silent-movie house, five foreign or classic films that weren’t shown locally. I promoted the films in my column, and we often filled the old nickelodeon.

In 1975, when my novel Legs was optioned by Warner Brothers, I bought a grown-up 16mm film projector and for a few years, weekly, showed films at home for friends in my late father’s apartment, which became known as “Upstairs at the Upstate.”

In 1978, Billy Phelan was published and dozens of people saw it as a movie. I saw it as a book, but came to see its potential as a film. My literary agency did not, and trashed it in their coverage for Hollywood marketing. So I left the agency and went to William Morris, where the vice president became my agent, took me to lunch with a producer, I talked up a film idea (not Billy Phelan) for 15 minutes and got $15,000 to research and write a treatment, more than I’d made all year as a novelist and adjunct university teacher.

I was still broke, still spending 80 percent of my time writing fiction — two novels, two aborted novels, two almost respectable short stories published in San Juan. I also wrote a couple of screenplays and got paid, though they went nowhere.

You wrote The Cotton Club screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola, and the film was released in 1984 — the year after Ironweed was published. Were you working on both projects simultaneously? What was it like to write alone and also as a collaborator? And of course within a few years you would write the screenplay for Ironweed, too.

In 1982, I taught fiction as a visiting writer at Cornell (no longer broke), was given a MacArthur Fellowship (overnight a plutocrat) the same week (January 1983) three of my novels (Legs, Billy, Ironweed) were published as a trilogy — which they were not, for I was already working on a fourth novel. I was calling those four, and more to come, the Albany Cycle, after O’Neill’s cycle of plays. I had a call from Francis Coppola’s producer, Fred Roos, inviting me to visit Astoria Studio in Queens where Francis was about to direct The Cotton Club with Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, and Diane Lane. I went down and found that Francis had read and liked my dialogue in Legs and he asked would I come to Queens and write dialogue for his script/treatment. About six weeks of work, he estimated.

I was maybe a hundred pages into a new novel, Quinn’s Book, but I took the job. I tried working on the novel at night after I left our office on the set, but you need time for a novel, especially this one, which spans two decades at mid-19th century, and I was groping my way through that distant past. But there wasn’t time for anything but the script, sleep, script. Some days Francis and I hardly slept at all — a cat nap maybe. Once we worked 37 hours straight to finish a draft so he could rehearse the actors. We had started over and revised the script radically, and the pressure never let up. It was like putting out a newspaper, always on deadline. Eventually we wrote 40 scripts — madness, madness — and my six weeks of writing dialogue turned into a year and a half. I even wrote the dubbing script (we dubbed much of the movie). We also had the world premiere in Albany, plus the party of the year after the show.

By this time, all three of my novels were optioned for films. In early 1984, when The Cotton Club shut down to wait out the winter, I wrote a script for Billy, which had been optioned. Francis also decided he wanted next to direct Legs with Mickey Rourke as Jack Diamond, and after The Cotton Club I went out to his home at Napa and we finished the script. In mid-1986, the Argentine film director Héctor Babenco contacted me about filming Ironweed. He came to Albany in 1986 and we shaped the script, I wrote it, Héctor flew it to Los Angeles, gave it to Jack Nicholson, who said, "I’ll do it." Meryl Streep then signed on, and we quickly found money to do a film with the two greatest actors in America.

So what was it like? What did you learn from it?

Working with these cosmic figures was a young screenwriter’s fantasy; but for me it was immersion in an art form I loved and had lived in vicariously since childhood. The screenplay has secrets not easily revealed to a novelist, and one is that prodigality doesn’t cut it; frugality is essential. What Francis taught me was that what I wrote yesterday, cut in half today. Those 40 scripts weren’t prodigal, but an exercise in unending change and concision.

The experience also convinced me I should never put the novel aside for something else. When time came back into my life I wasn’t able to call up some of the complex threading of plot lines that existed only in my head and had never been turned into notes. Henry James’s advice to the novice writer was to be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” I tried. But those threads had been cut by my focus on the film scripts and I had to redesign Quinn from scratch, a year’s work scrambled. That was 1985 and no matter what else I’ve done in the past 35 years, the novel-in-progress (four had been published) is always part of my workday. I also wrote five more screenplays, one with several drafts, three plays, and a radically new version of the Billy Phelan screenplay, which Fred Roos is now trying to produce as the circle reconnects.

The accusation occasionally surfaces that the novelist wrote his book so it could become a movie, which is an idea propagated by feebleminded people who know nothing about novels or movies. Some needy writers may actually do such a bizarre thing, and sometimes, in the upside-down commercial rights cosmos, novels are even written after the movie is made. But the novel is so difficult to write, and so fundamentally different from a movie, that only an inverted masochistic schizo would think of entering into such a bizarre bargain with the fates.

So how many versions of Billy Phelan are there now?

I have written too many versions of Billy Phelan to count — I’ve worked with five or six directors and none ever found the secret to filming the most filmable of my novels. It’s possible that just as The Angels and the Sparrows was publishable-but-not-published, Billy may be my most-filmable-but-never-filmed. And yet I wrote the new Billy script prodded by the belief that my versions of the script kept it from being made. Dick Sylbert, the production designer on The Cotton Club, Chinatown, and many more major films, optioned Billy in 1983, and after I wrote it he sent it to a major director who rejected it.

That script was faithful to the novel: Billy brings about the capture of the kidnappers and recovery of some of the ransom money. It’s a mystical finale: Billy tells the McCalls that the kidnappers will go to Newark, and that’s where they’re caught. No one has told this to Billy, it’s intuited from his knowing their past hangouts, but the kidnappers themselves had no plan for Newark and going there was an impromptu decision.

A newspaper columnist writes that Billy’s knowledge was “touched with magic, or spiritual penetration of the future.” Dick Sylbert thought I should change the ending, that Billy should strap on his guns to save Charlie Boy. Two directors I worked with thought the same, and I tried something like that with one of them, but I got rid of it. I never wanted Billy to have anything to do with gun heroics. Billy never was made (neither was Legs), but the potential of this film nagged me to try again; so recently I wrote new scenes for the entire climax of the story. To keep myself honest I wrote them first as fiction. Intuition remains an ingredient in Billy’s behavior, but he now personally engages the kidnappers — without a gun; and I’m not going to say anything else. See the film.

I can’t resist asking: What was it like meeting Fidel Castro?

I wrote about Fidel when I was in Miami, and then in 1986 I met a Cuban writer, Norberto Fuentes, who came to see me because of what I’d written about Hemingway. He was part of a circle that was close to Fidel, and I showed him some pieces I wrote about the 1957 revolutionary scene in Miami.

I’d wound it up with The Cotton Club two years back, and we were about to start shooting Ironweed in Albany. I’d also done the first biographical interview in the United States with Gabriel (Gabo) García Márquez, who lived part of his time in Havana, and had written an introduction to Norberto’s book, Hemingway in Cuba. So Norberto invited me to Havana for the Cuban Film Festival, also to be on hand for the opening of Gabo’s film school for Third World film aspirants. I missed the festival but in early January 1987 I flew to Havana with my wife and son Brendan.

Gabo invited me to give the first lecture at his school, and I also met Fidel at Gabo’s house soon after our arrival. We talked of books and movies and the brand-new Cuban scotch, Old Havana, that he had recently launched, and I also asked him things I would’ve asked if I’d gone to the Sierra Maestra when he was up there in 1957. We talked of my books, which he had just been given, and he said he’d try to read some of them during the nine days I was in Cuba. The night we were leaving he came to our house with Gabo and Norberto and we drank some Old Havana. He said he loved Ironweed and thought I should write another book with Francis Phelan, which I did. He was also amazed by Billy Phelan because in the opening scene Billy bowls a 299 game. “How did he do that?” Fidel asked. I have all the bowling alleys in Cuba when I want them, but my high game is 169. I commiserated with him and explained that it was my Uncle Pete who rolled the 299 game, and I had Billy do the same in the novel. I added that after Pete rolled his 299 he said to me, Kid, when you roll 300, come around and see me.

Then, one night in 1949, Pete was keeping score when he and my parents and I were bowling, and I was hot and rolled 11 strikes in a row. Then I rolled for the 12th, which was a perfect hit, but the four-pin stood up, just as in the Billy novel. Fidel said, “You rolled 299?” I said, “Yes.” And he changed the subject and told us how millions of ducks migrate to Cuba in the winter, and that he had won a duck-shooting competition — 101 ducks with 99 shells, which is like bowling 301.

I talked to him for another hour or two about his time in the Sierra, and he told me some great stories I used in my next novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.

He invited me to go duck hunting someday, and I never did. But I spent a lot of time with him in Havana in 2003 when Russell Banks and I went to Havana for the Cuban publication of our novels, Affliction and Roscoe, and I reminded him of our duck-shooting talk. Ah, yes, he said, but I don’t do that any more. I’m now on the side of the ducks.

What are you working on now? It’s hard to imagine you idle.

I would prefer not to talk about the novel I’ve been writing. I will say that it takes place in 1979 and concerns a middle-aged, newly famous film director who is shooting a movie in Albany, his home town; and there is a historical sweep to the plot of his film. Perhaps at a later time I’ll expand on this.

You are very optimistic about the muse’s visitations even into advanced age — very important in a time when our lifetimes keep expanding into our 80s and 90s and beyond. Explain your philosophy in this regard, please. How do we keep whatever we have in us that is alive, alive?

As to keeping alive, I blame that on my writing. I struggled to make it my life’s work, I’ve never since wanted to do anything else, and have no thought of retiring. I had two close friends, writers, who gave it up, claiming their brains were worn out, and all they could do was repeat themselves. I tried to talk them into trying one more time, but they preferred not to. Philip Roth announced he was retiring, hadn’t written anything in two years, and decided anything he’d write would be inferior to his best work. When people close to García Márquez said he wouldn’t write any more he denied it and added, “the only thing I do is write.” (At the time he was writing a love story and a memoir.) Asked if he’d publish any more books, he said his job was “to write not to publish.” Three years later his brother said he had dementia, an involuntary path to retirement.

I try to write every day but I’m at that point with my brain when I wonder whether it’s driving me to write because it knows that that’s what keeps me alive, or whether it’s shaping a realizable novel that can actually be realized. My preferred take on my brain is that it’s still capable of respectability. Also 15 boxes of notes, files, and pages are spilling out of my office, so I know that prodigality is back in town. Then again it all may be illusory and I’m actually in a state of secret dementia. I am 92, and there’s a virus abroad, so there are enemies to reality everywhere.

To be continued.


Cynthia L. Haven, a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, is the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. Her new volume Conversations with René Girard: Prophet of Envy is out this spring. She is currently working on a book about Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz in California.

LARB Contributor

Cynthia L. Haven has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and World Literature Today. Her work has also appeared in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Die Welt, Zvezda, Colta, Zeszyty Literackie, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, The Georgia Review, and Civilization. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures, and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czesław Miłosz: Conversations was published in 2006, Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003. An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, will be published by Michigan State University Press in early 2018.


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