Publishing prolifically since his first travel book in 1988, Douglas Kennedy '76 has been praised by reviewers as an author who consistently "knows how to keep the pages turning."
Kennedy's most recent novel, "Leaving the World," which he published last December, is his 13th book: a group of novels and travel books that have been acclaimed in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.
While many assume that authorial careers begin with an English degree, Kennedy's years at Bowdoin provide an alternative example
"I was a history major," Kennedy explained. "Retrospectively, I think the history major provides much better training for a novelist. So much of what I do in my own fiction is observational, is looking at behavior. By studying human history you really see how human folly endlessly repeats itself. In my work—in whatever form it takes—I am very much grappling with what it means to be American in this way."
In fact, while at Bowdoin, Kennedy did not have a particularly formative creative literary experience.
"I actually only took one creative writing course at Bowdoin, and in it I was told my work was crap," he said. "I never got anything published in The Quill either. Really, my passion for creative writing was not public here, and I didn't really explore it."
"I was always writing, though at that time it was just focused more journalistically. I wrote for the Orient," Kennedy added. "At the time I was doing a lot of journalism and I was directing plays. At the same time, though, I always had a very private desire to write—the problem was that every time I tried to write I turned down my quill."
Upon graduating, Kennedy retuned to Europe, a place for which he'd become passionate while studying abroad during his junior year at Trinity College in Dublin. Settling in Ireland, Kennedy was eventually hired to run The Abbey Theater's second house, The Peacock. While at The Abbey Theater, however, Kennedy explained that his interest in writing was still bubbling.
While running the theater company, Kennedy described his lifestyle as a "properly bohemian existence."
"I was broke, I had no food and it was at that time that I started to write at night. I wrote a short story about an American professor at a Northeast college who had a destructive relationship with a student—this was something that was more common back then. I sent it out to a bunch of people, to small magazines, and I got one or two nice letters about it. Eventually I showed it to an Irish actor who, as it goes, showed it to a producer who wanted to meet for a cup of coffee," he said.
"I was asked to get rid of the bad language and to write it as a radio play—a screen play for the air. And so for two months I, very nervously, wrote every night from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. Smoking cigarettes heavily. Eventually, the show, called Bradshaw, got accepted when I sent it to the BBC," Kennedy added.
"At that time, I had these delusions that I was going to be a playwright," Kennedy said. After sending the show off, he had a stage play done at The Peacock which he described as an "absolute disaster."
"It got terrible reviews," he said. "There was a public shaming about the whole thing."
"But I've always been someone whose had an eye on the next thing. Who has always seen the exit door, and basically while I was writing plays I also kept thinking: 'my future is between hardcover," Kennedy added.
Thus, in 1986 while his play was struggling at The Peacock—"the play debacle," as Kennedy now calls it—he began thinking about his first novel.
"I didn't want to write the classic American novel. That book about the crazy family or the first love or the summer when everything changed. What I loved was the idea of the travel book, that you go off and have a voyage and come back and reassemble the details of the story," Kennedy said.
"With that idea, I found an agent in London and I got a publishing contract with a [well known] small publishing house. I will always remember that day—for me it was like the good lord."
Kennedy's first book, "Beyond the Pyramids," told of his travels in the Middle East, specifically Egypt's Arab society being caught between the West and Islam.
"The book was about the people I met and the adventures I had. I remember having this very joyful realization of, 'this is wonderful and I'm getting paid for it.' You know, people always say, 'Why did you want to become a novelist?' and that was such a clear moment for me that I became a novelist because I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny and I also wanted to have an interesting life," said Kennedy.
Following his success with "Beyond the Pyramids," a book which is still in print and has been published in the United States as well, Kennedy continued to write of his travels, publishing travel books in Europe and the U.K. that made it to the best seller list.
While Kennedy has always been widely acclaimed abroad, he explained that his relationship with American publishing has been more frustrating.
Kennedy said, "With my fifth book, The Big Picture, I got a huge advance from the United States—I was really the flavor of the month in American publishing, but with my sixth and seventh books, I completely changed my style so it was hard to be liked in the U.S. People asked 'What are you doing? Why are you suddenly doing something so different?' But that has always been the nature of my career."
"But it was hugely frustrating—feeling lost like that in America. But I just kept working just thinking that it was going to happen someday. It would take a while, I knew and I was told, and so I just had to be patient. You know, it's just one of the big rules about creative lives, and life itself, is that sometimes its not fair. But if other things are more favorable in your life, just keep writing," he said.
And Kennedy certainly has persevered—of his 13 books, several have lived on the best seller list both in Europe and in the United States.
Looking back at his own career, Kennedy explained that it is this perseverance and passion for writing that is more important.
"You know, I'm not convinced about there being one path. I think it's more about developing that perspective. You hear a lot about MFA programs or the like and you know, I'm not convinced that that's the way to make it in the world as a writer," he said. "What I'm convinced about is writing and having the love and the drive to keep writing every day."