Pagan Kennedy: From 'Zine to Mainstream
Pagan Kennedy, doyenne of the alternative press and former publisher of a popular fanzine about herself, describes her new novel, The Exes, as "my Ciao Allston" -- Allston, Mass., being the part of Boston where Kennedy lived until recently, a district of cheap housing, thrift stores and rock clubs. "I knew I was moving out of that world, getting too old for it. I kind of wanted to have one last fling with it."
The Exes, out next month from S&S (Forecasts, May 4) is sure to be Kennedy's most popular work of fiction, and represents a culminating synthesis of a career that has straddled different, often incompatible, domains. "There's the nonfiction world versus the fiction world, and there's the above-ground, mainstream literary world versus the underground or 'zine world," she says. "I'm never quite comfortable in any one of those worlds. I'm always wondering where I should be." With The Exes, an elegantly structured novel about scuzzy, slacker, punk rock lives, Pagan -- née Pamela -- Kennedy may finally have managed to satisfy the demands of those different worlds in a single book.
Kennedy began her career by flirting unsuccessfully with the role of brat-pack-era hot young novelist. Starting out as an assistant to Stanley Crouch and fact-checker at the Village Voice after graduating from Wesleyan University in 1984, Kennedy signed up for Gordon Lish's celebrated fiction-writing seminar at Columbia University and found herself the famous talent-spotter's class pet. He'd tell her she was going to be famous in front of the rest of the class, and published her fiction in The Quarterly. "I'd always wanted to write about underground culture for the Voice," she observes in her 1995 memoir, 'Zine, "but as soon as fiction writing seemed like a practical alternative, I had no other ambition." Kennedy went off to Baltimore for a year in the Johns Hopkins MFA program; certain success as a precocious young novelist, and perhaps an academic career, seemed to beckon.
Graduating from Hopkins and moving to Boston in 1988, Kennedy found part-time work as a copy editor for a computer magazine, and "dutifully started a novel -- the kind of novel I thought I should write, one that had nothing to do with me at all." But the pull of an anti-careerist bohemia proved seductive. Kennedy had exhibited a flair for self-invention and tongue-in-cheek self-promotion since high school in Maryland, when a friend dubbed her "Pagan" in response to her quixotic one-girl campaign against the school principal's references to God in his speeches. Now, bored and restless in her struggle to craft the requisite style of minimalist, elegant prose she felt the literary marketplace demanded, Kennedy decided to publish a fanzine.
Back to Pagan -- later Back to Pagan's Head, and then Pagans' Head -- was a crudely produced, photocopied newsletter. It consisted of cartoons, homages to bad 1970s pop culture, excerpts from letters from roommates and boyfriends, rejection notes from editors and pissed-off reflections on the travails of a struggling young author. Initially distributed only to friends and pen pals, later given just a bit more visibility by a listing in Factsheet Five ("a Who's Who of 'zines"), Pagan's Head never had anything you could really call a circulation, but soon began to get Kennedy a lot more attention than the fiction she'd published in Quarterly and the VLS or her book reviews and articles in the Voice and the Nation. Success as a well-connected MFA graduate hadn't really panned out so far. But by 1995, the year St. Martin's published 'Zine: How I Spent Six Years of Life in the Underground and Finally...Found Myself...I Think, the annotated anthology of eight issues of Pagan's Head, Kennedy seemed to have carved out a name for herself outside of the usual channels. Much in the manner of one of those independently released, cheaply produced punk or rap albums that have recently shaken up the music industry by achieving mass success without radio play or corporate backing, Pagan Kennedy had pulled herself up from underground.
Chatting with PW in her bucolic backyard in Somerville, Mass., the relatively working-class (if rapidly gentrifying) community adjoining Cambridge, Kennedy hardly seems the manic, larger-than-life party girl one encounters in 'Zine. Sipping a glass of seltzer at a makeshift table constructed out of a "Cambridge is a Domestic-Violence Free Zone" street sign, Kennedy comes across as thoughtful, a bit shy, quick to laugh but serious. Knitting her brows as she discusses the "Bombayization of the world," the corporate takeover of America and her admiration for left-wing gadfly Michael Moore, Kennedy seems more interested in political activism than rock 'n' roll. A neighbor leans over the fence to ask if we've seen her white cat, who has an ear infection and needs her medicine; a minute later Kennedy spots the kitty and jumps up to fetch her. "It's very neighborhoody on this street," she comments; "we have potlucks together." This hardly seems Underground USA. But then, Kennedy -- a petite woman in a flowered dress -- isn't the same woman today who turned herself into a pop icon for the early 1990s.
"I get a lot of e-mail from people who still expect me to be that person. It's immediate for them because they've just read 'Zine, but it's so distant from me at this point." Recently, Kennedy has been teaching creative writing at Boston College, and working as a member of an "an alternative advertising agency" creating, most recently, a T.V. ad for a labor group attacking Nike.
Kennedy often returns in conversation to the theme of the difficulty of aging gracefully in the counterculture -- thus the subtitle to her 1997 St. Martin's book, Pagan Kennedy's Living: A Handbook for Maturing Hipsters. "I still feel like a complete freak!" she exclaims, discussing her constitutional inability to feel altogether comfortable in the mainstream. "I don't think that'll ever stop, but there's just a lot less cachet in not fitting in as you move out of your 20s."
One can't lead a literary double life without some guidance. Even as Kennedy was stapling together issues of Pagan's Head, she was sending her literary fiction to Kim Witherspoon, the only agent she's ever worked with. Kennedy met Witherspoon when they were both unknown twenty-five year olds. "She was just really energetic and swept me away." In the same week, Witherspoon sold her first fiction and nonfiction books, both published in 1994: a short story collection, Stripping, to Ira Silverberg of the now-folded U.S. Serpent's Tail/High Risk imprint, and Platforms: A Microwaved Cultural Chronicle of the 1970s, to Jim Fitzgerald at St. Martin's.
In 1995, Kennedy published both 'Zine and her first novel, Spinsters -- a later version of the book Kennedy had first started to write just after leaving Johns Hopkins, but then abandoned in frustration. The novel didn't make a major impact in the States, but one morning Kennedy was awoken at 7:00 a.m. -- much too early for anyone personally acquainted with this maturing hipster -- by an English accent on the answering machine. "I didn't even think to listen to it when I finally got up, but my boyfriend said, 'I think you won something, they mentioned $30,000 or something.'" Spinsters had been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the new -- and generously endowed -- prize for English-language fiction by women. "It just seemed to come from another planet -- I'd never heard of the prize, and thought it was a hoax at first. I was, by far, the dark horse, so I knew I wasn't going to win -- but I had a great time over there." Kennedy was impressed by the do-it-yourself initiative of Kate Mosse and the other women who established the prize: "It really inspired me. It was started the year there was an all-male Booker Prize shortlist. These women were sitting around and bitching, and then they decided to stop complaining and start their own prize. The fact is, what's driving the publishing industry is women readers and women's fiction, and they wanted to make that point."
The contrast between 'Zine and Spinsters perfectly captures the two sides of Kennedy's work. One chapter in 'Zine chronicles a cross-country road trip under the title "Two Copy Editors Tear Up America's Highways: In a Haze of Dope and Diet Coke, Pagan and Virginia Cross the Country." Driving through the South on what she ironically calls "a girls' version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Kennedy and a friend visit kitschy roadside attractions, thrift stores, and Graceland, puking on off-ramps and crashing in friends-of-friends' cheap apartments. In Spinsters, on the other hand, Kennedy describes the tentative adventures of two genteel sisters from the point of view of a virgin in her 30s who has lived with her father for her entire adult life. Setting off in a Plymouth Valiant in 1968 to visit an elderly maiden aunt in Virginia, the two very slowly begin to allow the 1960s to penetrate their sepia-tinted world. Notwithstanding the "transgressive" Serpent's Tail imprimatur, Spinsters is as elegantly and carefully written as the episode of the road trip in 'Zine is reckless, funny and messy; clearly, Kennedy was most comfortable keeping these two styles at arm's length.
In The Exes, however, Kennedy finally allows her different fictional worlds to collide. The novel -- which Kennedy says "felt really natural to me, it just came out all in a rush" -- tells the story of a garage band in Boston formed by Hank and Lilly soon after they break up a romance. Hank "wanted his music to be played only on obscure college stations by snotty deejays who had piled three thousand records in their rent-controlled apartments." But Lilly, whose musicianship is shaky but whose instinct for publicity infallible, has a more social and less insular notion of underground celebrity. She suggests that they create a band formed entirely of ex-lovers: "We'll have the gossip factor," she explains, which will make The Exes "instantly intriguing."
Structured into four chronologically overlapping sections each told from the perspective of one of the band members, the novel celebrates the giddy possibilities for self-creation that have been Kennedy's lifelong subject. Beginning at the end of a love affair, The Exes charts the emergence of a "new kind of love" the novel's characters "didn't know the name for," the infatuation the members of the band feel for one another and the musical project they've created. Kennedy is wonderfully acute and funny about the vicissitudes of talent -- Shazia, the bisexual Pakistani bassist, has the most of it and values it the least; about the way the promise of success can spoil the "kids' clubhouse" feel of the underground; and about the sublimation of sex in art (or at least in punk rock music). The Exes, whose film rights have been snapped up by Fox, is a quick and irresistible read that rivals Nick Hornby's High Fidelity for its dead-on insider's perspective on the romance of pop. "I wanted to create a guilty pleasure, one of those books you just pick up and immediately feel you know the people," Kennedy comments.
Now that she's so memorably captured the underground world she no longer really inhabits, Kennedy is ready to move on. But she's determined to hold onto the principle of communal fun that initially pulled her into the world of punk rock and 'zines. When she gives readings, she explains, "I always try to make it like a carnival: bring slides, have door prizes and trivia contests, make the audience act out scenes from my work. I want to make people feel like they're part of the show, meeting each other and having a good time." She no longer feels compelled to be the life of every party, however: "I don't really see myself as any more entertaining than anyone else there. The audience always steals the show." For this recovering self-made pop icon, there's no greater reward than just sitting back and watching someone else perform for a change.
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