Kennedy, host of The Moth storytelling series and podcast, moves from memoir to novel with American Spirit, which centers on unemployed, recently-divorced 40-something Matthew Harris’s battle against mid-life despair.
Matthew Harris is sure having one heck of a mid-life crisis. What made you want to write about him at this age and not another?
The leap of writing about Matthew at any other age would have been immense for me. Here we have a man in his 40s who has screwed everything in his life up within a day of reading his own X-Rays and thinking he was dying. That’s in my wheelhouse as a writer, to put it mildly.
This book is funny in a natural way, dipping its feet in darkness. What would you say is the role of humor here?
For the first time in my writing, I had this rule that the humor had to be a byproduct of the story. One thing I’ve learned from my 13 years with The Moth is that the humor in all our lives really never comes from some silly wacky premise. Scratch the surface of love and death and there’s comedy.
Matthew’s best friend, Tim, begins with more success and wealth than Matthew and then sinks farther into debt and depression. What was your intent behind the development of their relationship?
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I think I’ve struggled with feeling like the world tells us we need to be jocular and gregarious to succeed. I believed that deeply and painfully for about 26 years and only later in life started to see that some of the people I know who are outgoing, gregarious, classically attractive, and had become really rich were as terrorized, haunted, and doomed as the rest of us on their bad days. I’m not outgoing. I am, for some reason, driven to get on stages and talk, and I do that, but I spend most of my time alone, in low light, reading and typing and wondering if I would be rich if I were more outgoing. Well, meet Tim, he’s gone from Wall Street to living in an RV in a national park. Quite literally Park Avenue to a park bench.
Chris, who has “Down syndrome or some mild palsy or maybe both”, works at the Developmental Training Center making the mugs Matthew sells. Did you mean to make such an insightful comment on how we treat people in light of their capitalistic contributions?
I didn’t realize I had, but what you suggest here resonates with me in a big way. Most everything I write, I have no idea why it came out of me. I’ve had a weird life so far. I’ve met a lot of famous and powerful people as a result of working in the record business for a bit, or through The Moth. I find I like the same things about those people as I’ve liked about syndromic people over the years. They say what they want, they don’t talk to someone if they don’t feel like it, they do stuff that 90% of people see as crazy—but if you have Down Syndrome and work at the work training center, you’re invisible to the world. If you have a lot of the same behaviors and $100 million, the world is begging to get your autograph.
Where did the hug/fight scene between Matthew and the community center meditation teacher come from?
The fight scene came from, I think, the fact that the stories we tell each other every day are so hilariously embroidered. If a car almost hits me in a cross walk I will yell, with conviction, at a stranger, something that sounds super tough and cool in my head. Outside of my head, in real life, it could probably be accurately transcribed as, “Hey What! Here the? Fucking.” I love the way we think we handle the world versus the way we actually handle it. If Matthew told you that story of that fight with his meditation teacher today, he’d say, “I stayed after class and just walked up to him and was like, ‘I don’t like you, I don’t like this Namaste thing you say, and I know you slept with my wife.’ and then I just kicked his ass.” But it’s so much more hilarious and humane than that in everyday life. The version of the fight in the book is the way that fight would most likely really go down in life.
Your book’s honest examination of devastation made this fun to read. Was it fun to write?
It was the hardest time I’ve had writing, but the most rewarding in the long run to see it through and finish it. It was the biggest risk I’ve taken, too—and for the years it took me to finish, I just kept telling myself that if my sister laughs, it will have been worth it. I told more than one publisher that I wasn’t interested in publishing it if we had to take out the dark stuff. That felt scary to me. But I am convinced that if you were to take out the gun, the unemployment, the bankruptcy, and the sex, you would be taking out the comedy. Writing this one was a lot like life: I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I was more than halfway done with it.