'Writers are part of the cultural currency in France'

American author in Paris Douglas Kennedy tells Jessica Knipe how and why he has become part of the French literary furniture

24 May 2017
Douglas Kennedy
By Jessica Knipe

American writer and France’s literary darling Douglas Kennedy owns homes in London, Berlin, Montréal, Maine and New York. But he spends the most of his time in Paris, and the French love him all the more for it. 

Far from the 5ème arrondissement in which one of his most famous novels is set, when this rolling stone laid down his hat, it landed in the heart of the 10ème. Tucked behind the Canal Saint Martin and the very bridges from which Amélie Poulain flicked her smooth stones, the quartier has become significantly more bobo in recent years. Tiny restaurants crammed with people eating Korean bibimbap sit opposite vegan canteens, also packed to the rafters. Further along, fashionable 'co-working' spaces rub shoulders with the Liberté boulangerie, where tall people in rolled-up trouser hems and statement eyewear buy their wholegrain pain de campagne. It’s so hip, it hurts.

But behind the giant wooden doors of Kennedy’s Haussmannian building, the bustle of the street fades away. A tidy stone courtyard leads to a winding wooden staircase up to his flat. The door opens, and sounds of opera spill out on to the landing around a man clad entirely in black. 

The apartment is impeccably decorated. Antique parquet floors complement modern furnishings, like the imposing purple B&B Italia chair sitting in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror. “It’s simple,” says Kennedy. “I like clean lines. Life is chaotic and messy enough. I love that I can come back here and it’s quiet.”

Kennedy plucks a pencil from a pot on the marble table basse, before sitting down. “I always put a pencil in my hand for interviews,” he says, “I don’t know why… It’s equilibrium.”

This man’s sword is most definitely his pen. “I always hoped I’d be a writer,” Kennedy admits. “At first I thought I’d be a theatre director, and I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t great. Then I thought I’d be a playwright, and I wasn’t bad but I wasn’t great. And then I started writing books, and I don’t know if I’ll say I’m great, but I started thinking, ‘this is my calling’.”

His readers seem to agree – after three travel books, 12 novels (soon to be 13) and a memoir, Kennedy has now sold more than 14 million copies of his books, and has been translated into 22 languages. His most recent book, Toutes ces grandes questions (sans réponse), is a philosophical introspection into his own story, written just after his first divorce. “I had a lot of questions about the nature of the mess that is anyone’s life,” says Kennedy. “I’m not unique. Everyone has a degree of ‘merde’ in their life.”

Waxing philosophical

The mood is sombre. Kennedy looks tired. He is in the middle of his second divorce. “Ahhh life,” he shrugs, as he heats the teapot before brewing a batch of Kusmi tea. There is something gallic about his resignation to the trials and tribulations of his existence. And it’s not just in his recent memoir – Kennedy’s books have had an increasingly philosophical slant recently. “That’s the thing about getting older,” he muses. “You face up to the fact that time is finite, that you won’t be here forever… Which pisses me off actually!”

Through the darkness in his eyes comes suddenly a light twinkle. So life’s not all that bad? “Oh yeah, I love life! It’s not easy, but I love it! Even when it’s really hard, I appreciate it. We are the architects of our own problems. Always. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that unhappiness is a choice.”

Kennedy's existential questions have always been the fabric of his novels; his entire life is hidden between the lines. But this memoir is the first time that he has taken an honest, unfiltered look at his history. “I wanted to look directly at my own experience and what it meant, how it turned me into what I am,” he says, then adds, with a cheeky grin and a wink, “with my manifold contradictions. Everyone is contradictory, it’s one of those things I always think about when building a character. What’s going on with this person? How do they screw up? How do they repeat? Because we all repeat…”

Perhaps it’s Kennedy’s training as a historian that has made him so conscious of the world’s inexorable repetition of mistakes. “I think there’s a degree of this in myself, and I would be the first to admit it,” he says. “It’s very hard to accept happiness.”

Kennedy blames some of his own mistakes on his stormy upbringing. “My parents were at each other’s throats all the time. It was a small apartment, my father was travelling a lot and he had a lot of women, it was a genuinely unhappy relationship. They were both cases of arrested development. They couldn’t stand each other, and it was all wrong. It made me a very anxious man growing up, and I still have that in me. It made me very wary of love because there was not a lot of it around.”

This experience has also given Kennedy the capacity to tap into the essence of human nature. His books are an adroit mix of literary sensitivity and popular topics – there’s something in there for everyone. And everyone is hidden within the books, too: Kennedy is always on the lookout for themes and personalities to inspire him. His daily blog, which has 35,000 subscribers, regularly describes someone that he has observed from afar, or someone who has fleetingly played a part in his day, and the psychological impact that it has had on him. In fact even before I have had time to ask him a question, Kennedy is already asking me all about me – he is intrinsically interested in others. 

 

An American in Paris

In Paris, as everywhere else, Kennedy leads a normal life. “I’m not somebody who dates actresses or pop stars,” he says. “I’m on the TV, people know me, but I’m very low key about it.” Kennedy takes the Métro like any regular Parisian, does his shopping locally, doesn’t have an assistant. “I don’t hide,” he says. “I’m always very friendly with people who approach me and I think that’s important. Success has an interesting responsibility to it. C’est plus simple de rester sympa.” Kennedy peppers his answers with French, as naturally as if they were in his mother tongue.

“Oh no, I have no milk!” exclaims Kennedy with his nose in the cupboard. He hasn’t stocked up because he is leaving for Berlin early the next day. Tomorrow it’s Berlin, today Paris, and last night Kennedy was in London, watching a play with his son. “I have a ping-pong ball life, I’m here and there,” says Kennedy. “There are only two constants in my life – my writing and my children. I’m a perpetual outsider, even at home in the States.”

Kennedy is no stranger in France, though. Ask most French readers about him, and you’ll soon hear: “Mais je l’adore!” Kennedy has been a household name in France since books like Five Days and The Moment hit number one on the bestsellers list. He has been a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres since 2007, and in 2009 he received the first ever Grand Prix du Figaro. France loves Kennedy as much as Kennedy loves France. “They have such good taste!” he laughs.

Joking aside, “I think it’s a couple of things,” explains Kennedy. “One, there’s a big fascination with America, and everything American. Two, I have the kind of American sensibility that chimes in well here – I’m critical of my own country, I’m critical of the culture, I’m curious.” 

His success is also a result of him being a master at melding those big-stroke, plot-driven ideas that make you want to turn the page with a more intellectual, reflexive literary style that explores the human condition – anyone reading him can find something to take away for themselves. “I had a French girlfriend who was a student at the École Normale Supérieure,” says Kennedy, “and she very much liked my books. But my concierge also likes my books. And cab drivers will say ‘Ah! Kennedy! La Grande Librairie! Or Vivement Dimanche!’ because they have seen me on TV. It’s very pleasing.” 

For decades, French literature has centred heavily on ideas, without a great focus on narrative. Kennedy manages to take those same heady ideas and apply them to Hollywood-worthy scenarios, making his novels both a respectable read and a guilty pleasure, all in the same moment. The cinematic nature of the books is not just an impression, either: in 2010, his novel The Big Picture was made into a movie with Romain Duris and Catherine Deneuve (L’Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie), and The Woman in the Fifth, based in Paris, became a film with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas. Kennedy will soon be in every French person’s living room, too: France’s TF1 channel is adapting one of his books into a TV film, starring Alexandra Lamy. His transition to the French screen is complete.

 

A French education

So, did Kennedy choose France, or did France choose him? “I’ve always been a francophile,” he says. “I grew up with French cinema as an adolescent, fleeing the domestic warfare at home in the safety of the Cinémathèque at the MOMA in New York… I grew up with the nouvelle vague, with Rohmer, Truffaut, and Godard, even though he’s Swiss…” 

In his 20s, Kennedy decided to give working in Paris a shot, but writing opportunities led him instead to Dublin and then London. In 1999, though, Kennedy was in Paris again for the promotion of his third book, The Job. “I was being taken out to dinner with my publishers,” he recalls, “and they were all talking English, just for me. I thought, ‘this is bad. You’re a civilised, cosmopolitan 45-year-old man, and you only have one language’. So I found a teacher the following year and started learning.” It took Kennedy four hours a week for eight years, but he is now fluent, making regular appearances on French TV shows without even the shadow of a translator.

Following his decision to seriously learn French, Kennedy bought a pied-à-terre in Paris, in St Germain. “It was a little studio sous les toits that I bought for the price of a good car,” he recalls. “It was in the same building as the Éditions de Minuit – the publishers of Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, les gens comme ça. I remember running into Jean Echenoz once in the corridor…” While still working full-time in London, Kennedy made a habit of visiting his French pad at least once a month. And soon the French adopted him.

And when the French adopt a writer, they go all the way. France has a deeply engrained reading culture, even if the numbers are not what they used to be. “France is one of the few places left where writers count,” says Kennedy. “Writers are very much part of the cultural currency. That’s wonderful. Bless the French for maintaining that, it’s crucial.”

This support for the arts is increasingly important, especially in a world where corporations are buying up publishing houses. “We cannot all reduce down to a Murdoch or a Trump view of the world,” affirms Kennedy. “It’s a very Manichean view of life – all black or white. But the fact of the matter is, in the great scheme of things, all the great ethical questions are grey. Nothing is right or wrong.” This theme runs strongly through Toutes ces grandes questions. “I remember saying it to the two very bright lawyers who helped with my divorce,” says Kennedy. “There was a marriage, now there are two competing views of what happened – who’s right? (Well, me of course! he laughs) But the truth is: no one.”

And with this Kennedy explains his entire appeal: he’s not a writer, nor a celebrity – he’s just one of us, with all of our faults and foibles. From within the calm, clean lines of his Parisian apartment, Douglas Kennedy is full of the same turmoil, asking the same questions as the rest of us.

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