2/14/2016 9:39:57 AM

Conversations with William Kennedy '49

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On the heels of the release of his new novel Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, Pulitzer Prize winning author William Kennedy ’49 discussed his career with aspiring authors and members of the Board of Trustees at his alma mater.

Kennedy told the students his passion for writing blossomed at Siena College. He joined Siena’s student newspaper before he registered for classes. Despite his interest in writing, Kennedy struggled at first. While he received a byline for his first article in the student paper, Kennedy said his work was “unrecognizable.” Because his piece was so bad, Fr. Matthew Conlin, O.F.M., Ph.D. re-wrote it before the paper went to print.

Kennedy’s writing and story coverage improved during his time at Siena. He became the paper’s editor during his senior year and after graduation, Kennedy became a professional newspaperman. “I started as a newspaper writer, but I was always somehow pointing to a career in literature,” Kennedy explained.

His career began at the Glens Falls Post Star. He was then drafted into the Army where he became a columnist. After leaving the service, Kennedy continued to work in the newspaper business for the Albany Times Union and a newspaper in Puerto Rico.

“Journalism is a great experience for just getting your feet wet,” Kennedy said. “I loved it. I was never bored.”

While living in Puerto Rico, Kennedy took his first crack at writing a novel. “It was no good and I threw it away,” Kennedy said. Still, he continued to write long-form pieces, including works of non-fiction, screenplays and novels. While pursuing his literary career, Kennedy taught writing and journalism at Cornell University and the University at Albany.

Kennedy’s journalistic experience in Albany motivated him to write novels based in New York’s capital city. His most famous and critically acclaimed novel Ironweed was released in 1983. The book earned Kennedy the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Kennedy then turned the novel into a screenplay for the 1987 film Ironweed, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. “It was great fun and very profitable,” Kennedy said smiling. “I had the time of my life.”

The success of Ironweed ignited Kennedy’s literary career and has led to the publication of several novels, plays, screenplays and children’s books. Through it all, Kennedy has remained true to his roots and committed to the creative process. Kennedy told the students that the time consuming process of writing a novel begins with research. Then, he said, the challenge becomes digesting the information and finding its meaning. “It becomes part of you,” Kennedy said. “The creative act is the formation of meaning out of this chaotic assault that you made upon your own brain.”

Contact: Ken Jubie

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