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.
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
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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