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A Quick Chat with Pagan Kennedy
An author interview by Polly Rance

The Exes
Pagan Kennedy
Simon & Schuster
London 1998

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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 the book

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 write anything.

PR: Do you think that teaching has helped your writing in any way?

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 life.

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 audience?

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 novel.

PR: Where will you take your writing now? What comes after The Exes?

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


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