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November 19, 2011

Douglas Kennedy: Guilty as Charged (a guest post)

I'm happy to introduce to you an internationally loved and New York Times best selling author, Douglas Kennedy. This week Mr. Kennedy had his novel The Moment published in the US after it debuted in France as a #1 best seller in French translation. Mr. Kennedy graciously agreed to visit Girl Who Reads as part of his publishing kick-off events. Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, for stopping by and providing the wonderful guest post on being an internationally read author.
When asked how and why I ended up being published in twenty-two languages - and waking up one morning (so to speak) to discover that I was now perhaps the most read contemporary American novelist in France - I put down this success to perhaps two specific things. The first is that my novels - stylistically accessible, yet (I hope) highly intelligent accounts of the way we live now, and the dilemmas that run constantly through our lives - seemed to chime in with a certain French sensibility. The fact that the novels also have a philosophical underside to them - but are also page-turners - has also meant that I have a readership in France that extends from taxi drivers to professors at the Sorbonne. The other key element to my success in France is due to the fact that, ten years ago, I made a conscious decision to learn French. At the time I was married and living in London - and my novels were just taking off in France. So I found a French teacher in the UK and forced myself into a routine of four one-hour private lessons per week. I also found a studio apartment in Paris, and started living in the city one week a month. And I insisted with all Francophone that I only spoke ‘dans la langue de Moliere”.

My press person at my French publishers, Belfond, then dropped me in the deep end, by insisting (a year after I started my lessons) that I do all interviews in French. Trust me, this was baptism by fire - but within three years my conversational skills had improved wildly. Now, a decade on, I am completely at ease in the language and think nothing about going on French radio for an hour and blabbing away in a language which has become like a second skin to me. But - and I must emphasize this - fluent French is not obligatory for literary success in the country that still considers writers to be truly special. I know that Paul Auster speaks excellent French (and is hugely respected here). But there are many American writers - Philip Roth, Jim Harrison, Colum McCann (who, like me, is also Irish), Jonathan Franzen - who do amazingly well in France, and are not fluent in the language. The French love writers. But they will love you even more if you do speak their language... as fluent French is also understandably taken to be a sign of respect for the country. And I have a huge respect for France - and the fact that they still consider language, ideas, all realms of cultural endeavor, to be an essential part of the ongoing human argument.

Of course, with a life based around homes in London, Paris, Berlin and Maine, I am constantly diving in and out of different languages, different cultural identities, different national nuances. Three years ago, after thirty years outside the United States, I decided to return to America and buy a house in coastal Maine. Your country is like your family - it’s the ongoing argument. And I very much wanted to be back home, and be part again of its argument, its day-to-day life. Of course, all my years outside of the States - and my ongoing constant travels - have shaped both my world-view and my fiction. The theme of flight - of running away from a life you don’t want, or the self-entrapment with which we all engage - is everywhere in my novels, as is a perspective on being an American that has, no doubt, be formed by both my own sense of national identity and by looking at my country from outside its borders for so long. It’s very good to be home... but I also like the fact that I continue to roam the planet. As an ex-girlfriend of mine once noted when we were breaking up, “It’s hard being involved with the geographic equivalent of a ping-pong ball”. To which I could only think: ‘Guilty as charged”.

The Moment: A Novel
When a mysterious box arrives in the mail, a solitary American writer haunted by the long shadows of Cold War Berlin is forced to grapple with a past - and an intense love affair - he has never discussed with another living soul. From the back cover.

Twitter: @DouglasLKennedy

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