William Kennedy turns turmoil of ’60s into new novel

Most area readers know that William Kennedy is the one responsible for putting our area on the liter

William Kennedy

WHEN: Reading: 8 p.m. Monday, Page Hall, University at Albany’s downtown campus. Seminar: 4:15 p.m., Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center, uptown campus


MORE INFO: 442-5620, www.albany.edu/writers-inst/

Also: Meet the Author at the Schenectady County Public Libary at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5

Most area readers know that William Kennedy is the one responsible for putting our area on the literary map. He did it back in 1983 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for his novel “Ironweed.”

“Ironweed” became an award-winning film in the late 1980s, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Kennedy was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1983, which was the genesis of the very successful literary organization he founded, the New York State Writers Institute.

Some people may forget that before becoming such a successful novelist, Kennedy worked as a journalist at The Post Star in Glens Falls, The Times Union, and newspapers in Miami and Puerto Rico.

His work in journalism covering the Cuban revolution in the 1950s and the civil rights struggles in our own country in the 1960s are the basis of his latest novel, “Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes” (Viking Press, 304 pages, $26.95).

“In the late 1950s I was right in the thick of a lot of the revolutionary action, interviewing many Cuban exiles,” said Kennedy in a recent phone call from his home in Averill Park.

“I was covering the story at newspapers in both Miami and Puerto Rico, and when the bourgeois culture was overthrown and the plutocrats fled, a lot of them ended up in Miami and San Juan. It was a great time to be a journalist.”

His latest book begins with journalist Daniel Quinn in Cuba during the revolution. He’s trying to get an interview with Fidel Castro. He meets Ernest Hemingway in the Floridita Bar in Havana, and he also meets Renata, a beautiful Cuban socialite and revolutionary.

Missing Hemingway

“I actually never got to meet Hemingway,” said Kennedy. “I almost did when I was in Miami. I was covering the Cuban Revolution and I got a phone call from somebody that Hemingway was in a bar close to the Miami Herald newspaper where I was working then. I went over to the city editor and asked if I could go talk to Hemingway and see what he thought about things in Cuba. The city editor said, ‘No, I’m sick of that guy.’ ”

For most of his life Kennedy has been a fanatical reader of Hemingway. “When I was a kid and a young writer, I read those short stories over and over. They were galvanizing for me. They taught me a lot about writing and the world.”

Kennedy did get to meet Fidel Castro in 1987. “I was invited by another author to visit Cuba,” he said, “and I spoke with Castro for over three hours. We had a great conversation about many things. I found him to be quite knowledgeable. At that time in the late 1980s I thought I was going to write a nonfiction book about the revolution and not a novel. The story kept gestating through the years and finally I got around to writing it.”

On Monday, Kennedy will read from his new novel at 8 p.m. at Page Hall at the University at Albany’s downtown campus. Earlier in the day, at 4:15, he will give a seminar in the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the uptown campus. Both talks are free, open to the public, and presented by the New York State Writers Institute.

The new book begins in Cuba and concludes in Albany in 1968, immediately following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. The city is in danger of erupting into a full-fledged race-riot.

“I always thought there were a lot of similarities between the Cuban revolution and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s,” said Kennedy. “In the 1960s the whole social fabric of our society was being transformed. Every day there was a new development, another form of repression, and another form of resistance, just like during the revolution in Cuba.”

Struggle goes on

Kennedy believes the civil rights struggle is still happening today, but it’s not being talked about as much. “A lot of what was struggled for back then has been achieved,” he said.

“There’s much more integration today of the black culture in today’s society in terms of education, housing, the arts, business, music and cinema. Blacks are no longer on the outside looking in, and now the Hispanics are beginning to change everything as well. It’s like two minority cultures transforming this society in totally different ways.”

He knew at the time how lucky he was to be a journalist and covering such epic events. “The things I was writing about in the Times Union in the 1960s were topics that had never been written about before in that paper. We were very much in the forefront, and because I wrote so much about civil rights and political corruption, these issues became an important part of my life and the writing I would eventually do.”

His new book is filled with memorable characters, politicians, jazz musicians, civil rights activists, journalists, religious leaders, and many of them are based on real people. “They all get transformed and the story takes over,” said Kennedy. “Characters begin to behave in ways you never imagined. They take over. They have to, and the author often must change time elements and situations, condense things so the story doesn’t spiral all over the place. Life is untidy, and you have to tidy it up when writing fiction.”

Even the main character, Daniel Quinn, seems awfully close to the young journalist William Kennedy. “Some of the things I went through went into the book. I never did get into the hills with Fidel the way Daniel Quinn does in the book, but years later I did go to Cuba and explore that area. I didn’t marry a debutante revolutionary, but I married a beautiful show girl and fashion model. I used myself as the connective tissue to tie all these events together from Cuba to Albany.”

This book, like so many of his others in the Albany cycle, includes corrupt politicians. “Corruption is often the nature of the business,” he said. “Politics lends itself to many opportunities for graft, but I don’t think all politicians end up that way. Certainly Hugh Carey wasn’t corrupt and neither was Mario Cuomo.”

Compelling dialogue

As in all of his other books, one of his great literary strengths is his ability to write compelling dialogue.

“I was very fond of that kind of writing, which is why I enjoyed reading Hemingway so much. When I was a young writer crafting short stories I always used dialogue. I also grew up a child of the movies where the spoken word is very important. I learned early on to listen to dialogue. I paid attention to it. I also took a lot of notes through the years as a journalist, and that has helped me so much in my fiction writing.”

He’s not sure what he’ll be writing next. “There are all sorts of possibilities,” said the 83-year-old author.

“Nothing is jumping out at me now, but I can’t guarantee that won’t happen in the future. Usually one of my books would evolve into my next book, and there are plenty of possibilities about picking up from the end of this story to see where it will take me.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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