Aha Moment: William Kennedy
Friday, March 09, 2012
In the 1980s, Marion Roach was a party girl and aspiring writer, clerking for the New York Times by day and hitting the clubs by night. She was in love with New York and — like a lot of New Yorkers — felt she was living in the center of the universe. But she sensed that there was more to a writing life than she was seeing.
One day she was handed a copy of William Kennedy’s Legs, a novel about a Prohibition-era gangster set in upstate New York:
I have vivid recollections of Jack and the press meeting in the hallways of courthouses, at piers and railroad stations in New York, Philadelphia, Albany, Catskill. I remember the aggression the newsmen always showed, persistent in their need to embarrass him with gross questions, but persistent also in their need to show him affection, to laugh harder than necessary at his bons mots, to draw ambivalent pleasure from his presence — a man they loved to punish, a man they punished with an odd kind of love.
Roach was enthralled, then shocked to discover that Kennedy lived and worked in Albany, a city she only knew from grumbling Times reporters. “No one ever who worked covering the legislature wanted to spend an extra second in Albany,” she remembers. “It was one of those places that people talked about as being completely moribund.”
Kennedy’s achievement, far from the centers of literary glamor, planted a seed for Roach. “I think that we are so sure that most serious artists live in New York, Paris, London,” she says, “that I needed to be told, that art is here, art is everywhere. Write from where you are, or go where you want to write.” When Roach was assigned her first big article, she went to upstate New York to do the work. She stayed, and lives today near Albany.
Roach is the author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.
The actor Tim Kirkpatrick read passages from Kennedy's book.
→ Is there a book — or a movie, album, or other work of art — that has changed your life? Tell us in a comment below or by e-mail.