Surprisingly, my decision to become a writer when I was seventeen years old did not prove to be a hopelessly romantic illusion. Yet I could have derailed at any of a number of junctures, could have ended living a desperate life watching my kids eat the bitter fruit of my failure.
In 1961, I began at university and joined the R.O.T.C. I would have graduated as an infantry lieutenant in June 1965, just in time to get killed in Vietnam. But there was already a rift in the fabric of my life. In 1959 when I was fifteen, my father gave me Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and nothing was ever quite the same. It shocked me into an awareness of the secret life of the mind. From then on I read book after book, and by the time I was in the R.O.T.C., I had decided that all I wanted to do was write fiction. I wanted to learn to portray in language the invisible life of the mind and heart.
So I left college and volunteered to be drafted to get that out of the way. Discharged at twenty, I set off by thumb and bus to see my country, worked my way around the US, trying to learn to write. I spent a couple of nights in jail, slept in fields, on lake banks, by the Big Sur River, narrowly escaped a good many years in prison for carrying pot into Arizona, faced pistols, a beating, fell in and out of love and lust, almost got trapped into marriage by a woman pregnant with another man's child, stood helplessly by while a woman pregnant with mine bartered her body with a doctor for an abortion (pre-Rowe Vs. Wade)
In retrospect, having survived these things, it all seems like an adventure; but at the time I didn't know I would survive. I survived. In 1974, at thirty, I got my B.A. and was offered a job in France. Then, on a visit, I fell in love with Copenhagen and lucked into an even better job there. I kept writing fiction—no luck. I was a failure. I got married, had two kids, bought a house in Copenhagen. I rose at 5:00 a.m. most mornings and wrote for a couple of hours. At thirty-seven, I had written four bad novels and a couple of dozen bad stories—received encouraging rejections, but no cigar.
Then, in 1981, twenty years after deciding to become a writer, I sold a story—for twenty dollars. I must have learned something, though—soon I was publishing half a dozen stories a year. Then a book. Then another book. Forty years into it, I'd published ten books and had perhaps 200 stories and essays in various little magazines and small presses. I'd been interviewed and reviewed and won a few modest prizes and competitions—a Pushcart, an O. Henry
By 2001, at the age of fifty-seven, I felt I had found my level. I was a small-press writer. I was not discontent. I had a good day job, could provide for my children, had a decent place to live, decent clothes. I began to wear a hat. I was a small-press writer with a day job and a Borselino.
For a few years I had been tinkering with an idea for four novels about the ancient capital in which I lived. I had the grandiose idea of giving them a collective title, The Copenhagen Quartet. They would be independent of one another and depict the four seasons and variegated light of Copenhagen, and each would be written in a different style. A small Irish publisher learned about my project via an interview in a French magazine, and he wanted to publish all four novels. They appeared one a year between 2002 and 2005. I was still a small-press writer, but now had an oeuvre. The books were reviewed here and there internationally. A DVD documentary film was made about them, a couple of critical articles written, two of them won awards.
At the age of sixty-one, finally I felt that I had done a reasonable life's work for a small-press writer. Then I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. They couldn't find the cancer but repeated biopsies followed, and I did what I always do about everything: I wrote about it—an essay which won a National Magazine Award. That attracted an agent who decided to try to sell my Copenhagen Quartet novels on a grander scale.
Just before Christmas 2008, Nat Sobel phoned me from New York to Copenhagen and said, "Tom, I hope you're sitting down because you just got a two-book, six-figure contract from Bloomsbury." Further, my Bloomsbury editor, Anton Mueller, sent out a press release announcing Bloomsbury's intention to publish all of my books world-wide.
So just as I had reached the point of being content as a small-press writer, maybe I'm about to become a big-press writer. The advance reviews seem to be calling my first novel in the Bloomsbury quartet an undiscovered masterpiece. Of course, who knows what will happen? But one thing I learned after a lifetime of writing is that the primary reward must be in the writing itself, in the spiritual discipline of learning to allow language to illuminate the invisible life of mind and heart. You do need to get the stuff out there, but essentially, it is not about publication, money, or renown. If the primary reward for the writer is not in the writing itself, then the effort hardly seems worth the dedication of a lifetime.
Thomas E. Kennedy's more than 20 books include The Copenhagen Quartet, the first volume of which, In the Company of Angels, appears world-wide from Bloomsbury in 2010.