Douglas Kennedy discusses life, love, the possibility of change and his novel Five Days
So let's begin with that most obvious of opening questions: How did Five Days start forming in your imagination?
I would love to report that there was that ecstatic moment of instant inspiration when the proverbial electric lightbulb was illuminated over my head and the entire novel fell into place in a matter of moments. But if there is one thing I know after writing eleven novels (besides the fact that it never gets easier), it's the fact that inspiration is such a gradual and disparately ordered business. And in the case of Five Days, an image kickstarted the imaginative process.
The image was one that I saw before boarding a transatlantic flight to London in January 2011. I was heading to the security checkpoint at Logan Airport in Boston and passed a woman standing alone by the barrier. She was in her early forties, diminutive, attractive in a reserved sort of way, the sort of austerely beautiful New England woman who, in the 1880s, would have been the subject of a John Singer Sargent portrait. But what caught my attention was the fact that her face was awash in tears. Something immensely unsettling and downright sad had just befallen her. I noticed, as she was fighting the urge to break down, that she was simultaneously twisting her wedding ring maniacally. Her inability to move just thenthe sense that her grief had rooted her to this one patch of airport linoleumgot my novelistic mind whirring. Had she just said good-bye to a husband who'd announced he was leaving her? Was she seeing off a husband whom she knew she no longer loved, and had just informed that her departure from the marriage was now imminent? Or had she just said good-bye to the man she'd fallen in love with, a man who had to return to a wife he no longer loved ( just as she was returning to a dead marriage)? Or was it something far less dramatic, less profound?
Judging by the woman's tearsand her immobilityI was pretty certain that something momentous had just transpired in her life that had clearly rattled the foundations of whatever she had constructed in terms of her own personal identity (and we all construct an identity as we move through life). And I couldn't help but wonder: what will her next move be?
The more I considered this image of the crying womantwisting her wedding ring as if it were a symbolic shacklethe more I began to think about the way we often talk ourselves into an existence that we don't want, yet endlessly rationalize why we are staying put.
Is Laura, the narrator of Five Days, grappling with a similar dilemma?
Laura is a woman who spends her days looking at other people's potential calamities. She's a technologist in the radiography department of a small coastal Maine hospital, so she is something of an expert when it comes to spotting cancers. But in her domestic life there is also an encroaching malignancy: a marriage that has flatlined (and which, she is finally beginning to admit, was never truly rooted in passionate love). Still, as with so many peopleespecially those devoted to their children (which most of us are)the limitations of her marriage have been offset by her considerable personal responsibilities and her fear of the world beyond the domestic one she has created for herself. And even if there has been considerable continental drift between herself and her husband, Dan (who has been out of work for eighteen months and is borderline depressed), she has never envisioned a life beyond the one she has made for herself, even with all its attendant flaws. And then ...
Indeed, the novel does hinge on a chance encounter that Laura has while on a weekend away at a conference in Boston.
All my novels have grappled with the way so much of life is predicated by happenstance, the random nature of things that can send the entire trajectory of our lives down a completely different path.
So, yes, Five Days is, on one level, a classic "brief encounter" story in which two people in midlife discover a connection with each other, a connection that arises not out of instant attraction but from the growing realization that they share so much. Richard may initially seem to Laura like a somewhat drab, grayish insurance man. But then she discovers someone who, like herself, loves words, seeks consolation in the world of books, and has sold himself short when it comes to the central decisions of his life. And he is also in a marriage as barren as her ownand once had a glimpse of potential personal happiness only to have sidestepped it. So, in one sense, the novel is about the nature of personal connectionand how, if it is absent from our lives, it becomes a longing that only serves to underscore all the sadness that haunts an unhappy marriage.
You sound as if you know what you're talking about!
Well, my own very long (twenty-three years) and (in the end) rather unhappy first marriage did end in 2008. But around the end of all that, I did meet someone extraordinary. Though nothing happened at the time, we kept in tangential contact. And then, over a year ago, out of the blue, she got in contact with me, saying she had never stopped thinking about me. I wrote right back, confirming I'd never stopped thinking about her. We got together shortly thereafterand were married in September 2012. So I guess you could call that wonderful denouement something outside of my own fictional universe: a proper happy ending.
Will the ending of Five Days make me cry?
My novels tend to be very emotional without being tearjerkers. I always remember reading somewhere about a note that Puccini wrote to himself while composing La Bohème (an opera that always makes me cry). In the margin of the first page of the score, he scribbled "Sentiment, not sentimentality." That has become a credo of mine: to explore the huge complexities inherent in lifeand the conflicts that always take up residence in the human heartbut to do so with an understanding that the most formidable argument all of us have in life is with ourselves. All my novels deal with what I call "the big stuff"the central concerns that we all grapple with during the course of our lives. And the very fact that Five Days is rooted in day-to-day lifeand deals with two people who consider themselves to be ordinary (and are anything but)underscores something I also feel most profoundly: there is no such thing as an ordinary person, and every life is, in its own singular way, a novel.
There is a "state of the nation" aspect to Five Days.
The vast majority of my novels all dealin one way or another with the complexities of the American psyche, our body politic, our immense strengths and contradictions. In Five Days I really wanted to also portray life as it is lived now by the struggling middle classes. Laura is the sole breadwinner in a family of four. Since her husband Dan was laid off, she has had to carry the entire family on her annual salary of $51,000. This is the great contemporary American middle-class dilemma: how so many highly trained people are struggling to simply get by while holding down very responsible jobs. And, yes, I am very interested in the cost of things, in domestic economies, in the way someone like Laura really has to consider every dollar spentand how that has an impact on her personally. As it does for so many today.
There's something very nineteenth century about this interest in family budgets and the price of living.
I have a very nineteenth-century view of the novel. I tell stories thateven when on an intimate level like Five Dayshave a big narrative sweep and that address one of the great central preoccupations of fiction: the way we live now. And, yes, having just referenced Trollope, I have been hugely influenced by the way he perceived money to be such an implicit facet of all lives, and how it dictates so much even when we try to sidestep its insidious influence. But unlike a heroine from the Trollope era, Laura is a thoroughly modern woman, one who is trying to balance a career with her role as a wife and mother. The fact is, she is immensely strong and capable yet also increasingly vulnerable to the inexorable march of time and the way her marriage has become an increasingly sad construct.
Would you say that Five Days is a novel about the possibility of change?
Self-entrapment has always been one of the key themes running through all my novels, largely because I was raised within a classic midcentury marriage where both my father and my mother felt very much shortchanged by the life they had created together. But as I have observed among my friends and acquaintances, the majority of times when someone complains about the limitations that life has placed upon them, they are not admitting a fundamental truth: they are the architects of these limitations. They are the ones who have shortchanged themselves.
But I do believe that the majority of people do travel hopefully. And even when they tell themselves that they are in a cul-de-sac from which there is little possibility of escape, there is always the desire, the hope, for some way out. The truth is (and I know this from personal experience), the desire for change and the actual ability to trigger such change are two disparate terrains. To actually leave an unhappy marriageespecially one where there are much-loved childrenis nothing less than a major free fall. But the alternative is stasis. And stasis leads to despair. And as Kierkegaard (one of the most quotable of philosophers) noted: "The sickness unto death is despair."
Is love the antidote to despair?
Love is the biggest challenge we face in life. We idealize loveand with good reason. Love is the greatest balm we have against life's vicissitudes. It's the bulwark that (we fervently hope) can protect us from that central human dilemma: the fact that we all feel so solitary, so very much alone in a pitiless universe. But love is also so bound up in self-image, in personal need, in the complex pathologies that underscore us all. And never underestimate the way we frequently project our dreams and desires onto someone else without truly seeing who or what that person is. We also have so many expectations from love, coupled with the realization that we so often talk ourselves into lives we secretly know we don't want. And this raises a fundamental question about the human condition: can we accept happiness?
Laura certainly wants happiness . . .
But she knew her marriage was wrong from the start. Not that Dan is a bad man. Just not the love of her lifeand she entered a marriage with him knowing that. Which is not an unusual scenario at all. That's another factor underpinning our struggle with love: what do we really want, and what do we think we deserve (or don't deserve)? And one of the sadder truisms about love is that, so often, people shy away from that which they think is right for them.
Though the novel contains much sadness, there is a quiet optimism underscoring it all.
Five Days is not a story with a happy ending. But it is one with a decidedly thoughtful and perhaps empowering one. It embraces the idea that changethough painful and often woundingis also crucial if we are to somehow find accommodation with ourselves and live lives that are not wildly compromised or tinged with ongoing regret. I think that disappointment and ruefulness are something that none of us can sidestep. They are essential components of the human emotional palate. To live is to feel, on a certain level, let downmost of all by yourself. But then the question must be posed: can you somehow find a way forward that gets you beyond the place in which you feel trapped? Or in which you have trapped yourself ? I think everyone has, so to speak, a weather system. And it's frequently inclement. But to leave such perpetual overcast when it's the climate you've become accustomed to ... that is a huge undertaking.