When I was 17, I read a story by Katherine Mansfield that infuriated me, “Miss Brill,” about a lonely old woman ridiculed by thoughtless youngsters. To my mind Katherine Mansfield was responsible for the old woman’s pain — she had done this to her. It never occurred to me the “woman” was just words, a character … I decided to send Miss Mansfield a scolding letter. Then I discovered from the book jacket that she had been dead for forty years. I was startled. To think that the words of a woman
so long dead could reach beyond the grave to touch my heart …
I decided that was what I wanted to do — be a writer.

—Thomas E. Kennedy, from “Something to Fall Back On”

About the Author

Note: Thomas E. Kennedy is also known in some literary contexts as Thomas Kennedy, or, in his incarnation as a song-writer, Tom Kennedy.

Brief Bio

Thomas E. Kennedy was born in New York City – in Queens – in 1944, the youngest of four children. His mother had been a grammar school teacher, and his father was Vice President of a small chain of banks on Long Island, but a poet in his spare time. When Kennedy was fifteen years old, his father gave him a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment which ignited the boy’s love of serious fiction. Two years later, in 1961, inspired by a Katherine Mansfield short story, he decided that all he wanted to do with his life was to be a writer. A year after that decision, he dropped out of City College of New York and volunteered for the draft, narrowly missing the Vietnam War.

At the beginning of 1965, he started traveling around the United States by bus and hitchhiking, crisscrossing the nation many times and living in various cities until 1971, when he returned to college in New York and earned his B.A. in language and literature (summa cum laude) in 1974. The same year, he was offered a job in France as News Editor of World Medical Journal and, two years later, an international position in the Danish Medical Association where he worked for 28 years in various executive and editorial posts. All the while, he continued to follow his passion for writing.

During those years, Kennedy traveled extensively throughout most of Europe and parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. During that period, he also served as a translator and editor for Copenhagen’s Rehabilitation Center for Torture Victims as well as assisted in the drafting of various international statements and declarations against torture.

Despite encouragement from teachers, editors, and agents, and several grants for a novel in progress, twenty years would pass between the day in 1961 when he decided to be a writer and the acceptance by Confrontation literary journal at Long Island University, in 1981, of his first published short story, “The Sins of Generals.” He was then 37 years old, married to a Danish physician with whom he had two children and an expensive house to support.

In 1983, he entered the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program at Vermont College, received his MFA in 1985, and joined the faculty there through 1988, the same year he completed his Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Copenhagen (thesis title: The Uses of Verisimilitude: Fiction as Realism, Imagination, and Craft). The publication of his work had begun to pick up –short stories, essays, and literary criticism. His first book – a study of the short fiction of Andre Dubus – was published by Macmillan in 1988; and his first novel, Crossing Borders by Watermark Press in 1990, was favorably reviewed in the New York Times.

The next several years would see the publication of hundreds of stories, essays, poems, interviews, and translations in American and European periodicals such as Kenyon Review, North American Review, Missouri Review, New Letters, Southern Review, Sewanee Review, American Fiction, Frank, Paris Transcontinental, The European, Fredag, and scores of others. His stories won an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, the European Competition, the Frank Expatriate Writing Award, and other prizes, and were cited many times for excellence in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories volumes.

By 1997, he had published five books of fiction and four volumes of literary criticism, and had edited several anthologies. He also took on functions as International Editor of several journals, most notably Cimarron Review and Story Quarterly. In addition, he guest edited several issues of The Literary Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and now serves as columnist and Advisory Editor for Absinthe: New European Writing. In 2002, Wordcraft of Oregon, which has published four of Kennedy’s books, came out with his Realism & Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction.

In 1996, after twenty years in Copenhagen, Kennedy began to develop an idea for four novels under the collective title of the Copenhagen Quartet – four independent novels set in the Danish capital, each in a different season and each written in a different style; the novels could be read in any order and the reader did not have to read all four or even more than one. It would take Kennedy nearly ten years to complete the project.

In 2002, an Irish publisher out of Galway, Wynkin de Worde, read about Kennedy’s plan for this Quartet in an interview in the Paris-based American magazine Frank; and expressed interest in publishing the first two and, later, all four of the novels. The Copenhagen Quartet, published in Ireland between 2002 and 2005, though largely ignored by the mainstream press, received critical acclaim in Ireland, Denmark, Chile, France and the United States, as well as two Eric Hoffer Book Awards.

In 2007, Kennedy’s work was celebrated in a panel during the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference with presentations by six professors, editors, and writers. All of the presentations were later published in literary magazines, and South Carolina Review devoted two issues to Kennedy’s work. That same year he published another novel, A Passion in the Desert, which was a finalist for the Foreword Magazine award, and another collection of stories, Cast Upon the Day.

In 2008 and 2010, New American Press published two of his essay collections, Riding the Dog: A Look Back at America and Last Night My Bed a Boat of Whiskey Going Down. In 2008, an essay written by Kennedy and published in New Letters magazine at the University of Missouri Kansas City received a National Magazine Award – winning over the finalist essays from the New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper’s, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly.

As a result, the New York agent Nat Sobel of Sobel-Weber Associates read the AWP presentation which novelist and professor Duff Brenna had written about the Copenhagen Quartet and decided to try marketing them in the United States. A year later, Bloomsbury Publishers offered Kennedy a lucrative two-book contract for the first two books of the Quartet and issued a press release announcing their intention to publish all four of the books and other of Kennedy’s works.

In 2010, the first volume of the Quartet – a novel about a Chilean torture victim being treated in the torture rehabilitation center of the Danish capital – was published world-wide under the title, In the Company of Angels, to positive critical acclaim from, among many others, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer; and, in England, The Times, the Guardian, and elsewhere. The book was praised on National Public Radio by Leonard Lopate and on Minnesota Public Radio by Kerri Miller, as well as on French television’s France24 Journal of Culture by Eve Jackson.

The paperback edition of In the Company of Angels appeared in the U.S. in January 2011, and is scheduled for release in the U.K. in June 2011. The second volume of the Quartet – Falling Sideways, a satire about a downsizing Danish firm – appeared in hardback in March 2011, and the last two books will follow: a noir novel set in the dark of Copenhagen winter and imitating the structure of John Coltrane’s jazz symphony A Love Supreme; and a novel disguised as a guide to the serving houses of the Danish capital, with each chapter taking place in a different pub.

Harper College, in Palatine, Illinois, produced two films in its contemporary author documentary series about Kennedy’s work – the first, a 29-minute documentary about the Quartet, the second a 10-minute film focused on In the Company of Angels.

At present, Kennedy is focusing on personal essays and translations from the Danish, particularly of the Danish cult beat poet Dan Turèll and the highly respected Henrik Nordbrandt; the essays and translations appear regularly in such journals as Epoch, New Letters, The Literary Review, Serving House Journal, Absinthe: New European Writing, and elsewhere.

In fall 2010, the literary magazine Ecotone, out of University of North Carolina Wilmington, published a 10,000-word segment of his 1960s memoir, which has not yet appeared in book form, Chasing Jack. Another 12,000-word segment of that memoir, under the title of “Chasing Jack,” appeared in 2009 in New Letters magazine.

Kennedy has lived in Denmark for more than thirty years, but often visits the United States where he teaches in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU). He is on frequent reading tours throughout the country as well.

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