Pagan Kennedy is the author of Stripping and Other Stories,
and The Spinsters, a novel nominated for the Orange Prize
for Women’s Writing in 1996. She studied creative writing at John
Hopkins University and now teaches the subject herself. She has
also written a reference book on 1970’s pop culture, and ‘Zine
an anthology of extracts from her self published fanzine,
Pagan’s Head. Pagan Kennedy has described herself as ‘Martha
Stewart for the slacker generation’ and ‘the Noam Chomsky of lifestyle
writing’. Always having been fascinated by and immersed in pop
culture and alternative lifestyles, Pagan Kennedy now professes
to be saying farewell to that scene and moving on. Her latest
novel The Exes, is a tense and well paced four part narrative
set within the Boston indie music scene. During the author’s recent
visit to Britain, The Richmond Review met up with her to
find out whether or not The Exes really is Pagan Kennedy’s
final fling with pop.
PR: You have said that you see The Exes as a kind
of farewell novel to a certain place and a certain lifestyle.
Does that mean that you’ll be giving up your lifestyle writing?
PK: I’ll always be interested in observing the way people
live now and the way we make our exes into family, whether that’s
in my fiction or non-fiction. In a way this novel was about saying
goodbye to that kind of world but I still have plenty of friends
who are in bands. In fact I was doing a reading from the novel
and I asked some friends if they could form a band called The
Exes and I gave them the book and told them they could take whatever
they wanted from it. They didn’t have enough members so they used
a mannequin to make up the numbers, but they formed a band called
The Exes and now they’ re recording the songs. They’ll play a
club, and then a bookstore, and it’s great fun. It was great for
me to hear what they came up with from just a few lyrics from
PR: I wanted to ask you about your involvement with creative
writing classes. You said in another interview that at John Hopkins
University, the teaching focused heavily on plot and structure
and that when you came to write Spinsters you found that
you had to abandon a lot of what you had learned.
PK: Yes, we did talk a lot about plot at Hopkins – all that
classical shape and structure. I’ve heard a lot of people say
that literary fiction is more character based and that popular
or genre fiction is more plot based, so it was really interesting
when I went to Hopkins to be exposed to classes when they wanted
to talk about plot. Ideally you would do both, but its hard to
carry. I mean, sometimes I find when you’re really concentrating
on the person – what would that person do – and you let them run
amok with their character, you can’t really rely on any kind of
plot. You have to let your character go wild, do what they want.
All the plans you had, how its going to end in this beautiful
scene in London, with the fog or something….and you find that
your character doesn’t want to do that at all. You have to be
open. Its always a struggle but I usually let the character have
their say in the end.
PR: I was interested because I find the idea of teaching
creative writing in an academic environment a little self-contradictory.
Do you feel that you can actually teach people to write creatively?
Now that you’re teaching creative writing yourself, do you feel
that your experiences in writing a novel can be used to help your
students in their own writing?
PK: Well, I don’t think there’s as much creative writing
teaching in universities in Britain as there is in America but
I really think that a lot can be taught. It’s fashionable to say
that you’re either born with it or you’re not. Obviously you can’t
create a genius. It’s like teaching the piano. You can only take
someone to a certain level. But I think its enormously important
to people to be able to write better in their daily lives. If
you can write a good love letter, a hate letter, a letter to a
lawyer, you have so much power, if you can write creatively, a
really funny letter or a really charming letter. I tell myself
that that’s why I’m doing it rather than training more people
for a tiny market. I struggled to make it as a fiction writer
and it would be depressing to think that I’m training my students
to compete with me for this tiny little patch. I just want help
people achieve the power to write a really strong letter or a
really strong proposal. If you can write a short story, you can
PR: Do you think that teaching has helped your writing in
PK: I don’t know if teaching has taught me anything about
writing. I’ve learned a lot about how people learn, and I’ve learned
a lot about group dynamics. A writing class is such an emotional
cauldron. Your dignity goes on the line, and you’re showing people
things you really care about. People feel as if they’re being
judged, told whether or not they have talent. They work really
hard. I want people to just have a good time and not worry too
much. I want to show them that OK, one day you might do something
that nobody liked that much, but tomorrow you’ll do something
great, and just not to take it too seriously. Everyone has their
bad days. They all come in, hoping not to be crushed, but I try
to make it good fun. It’s taught me a lot about people, a bit
like giving a party. It hasn’t taught me too much about writing
but its taught me about the emotional side of my own creative
You can only teach people so much, though. In The
Exes I feel that I went against a lot of what I was taught
at writing school. I wanted to write a fun, pop culture novel.
Generally at writing school, people’s models were more literary.
I wanted to do something more fun, more mainstream.
PR: You say that The Exes was for a more mainstream
audience but its set within a very specific time and place, in
a very insular and self-referential scene. The Boston indie music
scene might not mean much to those outside it. What do you think
it is about The Exes that would make it appeal to a wider
PK: Well, I hope it does. I was thinking about the different
kinds of people that I know and I had the feeling that those types
are everywhere. I tried to get four characters that were very
different from each other, but hopefully I picked out things that
people would recognise and that the ephemera, the clothes they
wear, the music they listen to, wouldn’t matter too much.
PR: One thing that I liked about The Exes was the
way in which you portray the contemporary sexual culture of serial
monogamy. People more and more have to get used to living with
their ex-partners around them, to working with them and accepting
them into their daily lives. It was interesting to read a novel
written around that issue.
PK: I’m glad you mentioned that because that was something
I was thinking about a lot when I started and it became so familiar
that I almost forgot that it was an important idea. I wanted to
observe that kind of interaction and I’m glad that it comes across.
PR: Your non-fiction writing displays a lifelong interest
in pop culture and TV, and it struck me when reading the Exes
that it is very episodic, very visual and the scenes are almost
cut like television. Do you think that TV has strongly influenced
the way you structure your narratives?
PK: Oh God, I hope not. I don’t watch TV at all now, but
maybe there’s a residual thing from having watched too many sitcoms.
When I was writing the book I was listening constantly to college
radio. We have really great college radio. I was trying to capture
the feeling of the music and the weird things they do on these
radio stations. They’ll play water dripping over the music, Noam
Chomsky reading over the music…
PR: I was going to ask you about Noam Chomsky. You have
said that you’d like to be seen as the ‘Noam Chomsky of lifestyle
writing’ and there are also a couple of references to him in the
Exes. What’s the fascination with Chomsky?
PK: I am kind of obsessed with Noam Chomsky. Boston doesn’t
have much going for it but Chomsky’s our boy. I’m a big fan. I
love what he has to say and I love the fact that he’s an intellectual
but he’s out there speaking to a wide variety of audiences and
he doesn’t marginalise himself like most academics. I love the
fact that he’s done a movie but also that he really stands for
something, unlike someone like Camille Paglia who has gone a little
too far in that pop direction. She’s too in love with the shock
value of what she says.
PR: You wrote a reference book on 70’s pop culture and you
seem to have a real fondness for and affinity for that era. You’ve
now written The Spinsters, your 60’s novel, and The
Exes, your contemporary novel. Have you never been tempted
to fictionalise the 1970s?
PK: I’ve written a lot of short stories, and whilst they’re
not specifically set in the 70s, in my mind they’re happening
in the 70s.
PR: Your collection of short stories was very well received
and so was Spinsters which was nominated for the Orange
Prize. Did the critical success of Spinsters put additional
pressure on you when you were writing The Exes? Did you
suffer from ‘second novel syndrome’?
PK: Well, the thing about the Orange Prize is that nobody
in the US has heard of it. I was thrilled to be nominated and
to meet all the other authors, but when I came home it felt like
something that happened a long time ago, in a land far away. I
feel more like I’m having second novel syndrome with my third
PR: Where will you take your writing now? What comes after
PK: I’m writing a novel that I hope will be really different
from The Exes, because The Exes was about as different
from The Spinsters as you could get. I’m writing one with
a male protagonist who is a history professor and he becomes obsessed
with this new memory drug. Its all about history and memory. That’s
yet another world for me and I’m doing a lot of research into
historiography and memory and how memory works. Its really interesting.
My remaining involvement in pop culture is my involvement in an
alternative anti-ad agency.
PR: I read about your anti Nike campaign.
PK: We did an ad about Nike’s involvement in sweatshops.
It just went out this month on cable. It was our first one. Nike’s
policies are changing so we might not be able to use it anymore.
We’re a little scared of gettting sued. We’re also doing one on
Sports Utility Vehicles and how they damage the environment. Its
good fun and really exciting. I’m interested in the way we can
use images to help people get messages across.
PR: From what I’ve seen of your non-fiction writing, you
do seem to have defined yourself as a voice for the slacker generation,
for people who have dropped out of mainstream society. You say
that you’re saying goodbye to that scene, so how do you think
you will define yourself now?
PK: That’s a really good question. I’m trying to figure
that out. I didn’t sit down and decide to become a mouthpiece
for Gen X slackers. What happened was that when I got out of college
there was a lot of stuff about what our generation were supposed
to be. We were all supposed to be stockbrokers who voted for Reagan
and made tons of money. I looked around and thought, where did
this come from? I don’t know anybody who lives like this. There
was a whole undocumented world out there and when the whole Gen
X thing happened I was glad because the only way that you can
have discussion about something in the media is if it has a label.
That meant that people who lead other kinds of lives could get
documented, get talked about. I found that exciting and got really
interested in promoting underground culture. I still get so much
e-mail from 14 year old girls who are writing ‘zines and that
just makes my day! They tell me that they’ve read my book ‘Zine
and now they’re doing it too. They tell me that they’re stuck
in a wasteland, they say ‘everyone at high school hates me’ but
now they’re doing this. It makes my day to hear that. But its
strange that even an underground culture has to define itself
within these media labels like ‘Gen X’ and ‘slacker’. Its got
to be about more than dying your hair or buying the right image.
What makes me really happy is making stuff and being with other
people who make stuff. I’m excited about DIY culture. You have
all these 14 year olds making their own websites or ‘zines, just
doing it for the fun of it, saying whatever they want. Its impossible
to control, impossible to define. That’s why it’s so exciting.
Copyright © 1998 Polly Rance