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.

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Comments [6]

Gailc from 34698

A friend recommended "Follow the River" by James Alezander Thom. Surely, I could overcome the heart break of a divorce if this woman could walk back home to Roanoke, VA from and area that today is known as Cincinati. Roughly a 1000 miles, heroic, sad, thought provoking and I can't put it down book.

Mar. 12 2012 10:37 AM
Laura from Queens, NY

The one book that leaps immediately to mind is Robert Pirsig's memoir "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." It gave me a real, workable perspective on life and how to live it. In addition, prior to reading ZMM, I knew nothing about the Trojan War and the concept of arete, which can be roughly defined as excellence or virtue. I later went back to college to complete my BA degree and took (outside of English major) a class on Ancient Epics and Tragedies and read Homer's Iliad for the first of many times, which gave me a vision of humanity that spans many centuries and many cultures.

Mar. 11 2012 02:17 PM
Trish Ponder

Is there a book that you has changed my life? Yes, all of them!

Mar. 11 2012 01:00 PM

When I was officially, finally diagnosed as bipolar, my father read Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind," and I read it as soon as I was able to post-hospitilization. If we hadn't read her book at that time, I never would have known that I could hold a job, live a full life. It was a given, after I read "An Unquiet Mind." I met Dr. Jamison last year, and told her how her book saved my life. Since then, I've been offered a promotion, which gives me time to develop some programs to help others with bipolar who may not have had the same start. Thank you, Dr. Jamison.

Mar. 11 2012 12:23 PM
Susan Rose from Douglaston, NY

The actor Larry Luckinbill changed my life. When Larry lived in Douglaston, he was recruited by the founder of The North Shore Friends of Opera-Edith Mugday- to do a theater workshop at the Community Chruch of Douglaston. About 8 (?) of us were privileged to be a part of that group. We were about 15 years old. Not sure. Because of that experience, I went on to become a stage and musical director for over 60 profssional and non-professional productions. Even today, I use those skills in public speaking and directing musicals for charities.

Larry Luckinbill-'Boys of the Band' and other stage and T.V. credits.

Mar. 10 2012 05:27 PM

hesse's "steppenwolf",gave me an understanding of the pain that is inflicted on humanity, by the accelerated change, brought on by an industrialized civilization. it was, sort of a beautiful fictional prequel, to toffler's, "future shock",about four decades removed from one another.

Mar. 10 2012 01:40 PM

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