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Novelist Douglas Kennedy on trying to hold onto success

Kai Ryssdal Apr 24, 2012

Novelist Douglas Kennedy on trying to hold onto success

Kai Ryssdal Apr 24, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Success in your chosen profession — really big success that comes fast — can make for a great story. All too often, though, it’s a cautionary tale as well, when followed by a precipitous fall from grace.

Author Douglas Kennedy tells his version of that tale in his novel “Temptation,” a semi-autobiographical story about a screenwriter named David Armitage who hits it big with a TV series, then makes some short-sighted decisions. The paperback version is out today.

Douglas Kennedy, good to have you with us.

Douglas Kennedy: Great to be here.

Ryssdal: Why did you want to write this story of rags to riches to…? I won’t give away the ending.

Kennedy: When I was starting to write “Temptation,” I was thinking what happens when success comes your way, and you can’t hold on to it? In 1996, a novel of mine, “The Big Picture,” had a huge auction in New York. I was paid an enormous amount of money, it was sort of greeted as sort of the second coming of Christ. And the book came out — wonderful reviews, didn’t do very well. After a second novel which didn’t do very well, I was shut out of New York publishing for about nine years. Meanwhile, my career jumped in Europe. So that was the impetus for the book.

The other thing was I’m a writer who’s had 10 novels published, three of them that have been filmed. So I was also very interested in the dynamic of Hollywood, and in the fact that as David Mamet once said — and I think this is a paraphrase: ‘Writing for the movies is like the beginning of a love affair — it’s full of surprises and you’re always getting screwed.’

Ryssdal: Let me back you up for just a little bit and ask you about that line you had about how you can’t hold onto success. Does trying to hold on to success mean you can’t, you know what I mean? Don’t you just have to be with it?

Kennedy: I think you do have to be with it. I think success is something we all strive for. Once you have it, then what? That’s the kind of interesting kind of moral question behind the book: ‘Then what happens?’

Ryssdal: This idea in the book that David Armitage writes a television series that takes off, of course brings to mind Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men,” it brings to mind Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing” — whose work everybody loves or millions of people love, but who are literally one in a bajillion. Because you guys — writers — you say this yourself, you’re like spare tires out there. You’re just all over the place.

Kennedy: Well that’s what David says at one point, a writer is like the spare tire, and you know, basically if a producer decides this tire doesn’t work, well he can’t throw it out and get another tire. I think it was Jack Warner, who back in the golden days of Hollywood, called writers ‘shmucks with Remingtons.’

Ryssdal: Typewriters, not the gun.

Kennedy: Yeah, not the guns, no. And fundamentally, there’s always that. I consider myself profoundly lucky.

Ryssdal: You are what I will politely call a seasoned writer, you’ve been around for a while. Which means you probably have young writers coming to you saying, ‘How do I do what you did? How do I have that success?’ And other than, ‘Write better,’ what do you tell them?

Kennedy: I say three things, always: ‘Do you like being by yourself?’ And I’m not just talking physically, but actually existentially. Can you deal with being by yourself? Secondly, ‘How well do you cope with disappointment and rejection?’ Because there’s going to be a lot of it. And thirdly, ‘Do you have 20 years?’ Because even if the first book hits, there’s going to be another one afterwards.

Ryssdal: Douglas Kennedy, thanks a lot for your time.

Kennedy: Thank you.

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