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Enlightenment and the Zen of the 'Zine : Authors: A frustrated novelist issues a cry for help--in the form of an underground publication. But in a twist of fate, Pagan Kennedy's fringe work led her to her dream.

October 19, 1995|ERIK HIMMELSBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even before Pagan Kennedy set out to write what she calls "the Great American Underground Novel," she had reservations about the pretense attached to serious authordom.

"I used to be very dubious about it--morally, politically and personally," Kennedy, 32, says by phone from her Allston, Mass., home. In fact, while taking a writing workshop in New York 10 years ago, Kennedy would roll her eyes at the instructor's platitudinous discourse about the meaning of it all.

"He used to say stuff like, 'You're pulling the sword from the stone. You're writing for history, and if you can do that, you'll live forever.' I'd stand up to him as much as I could do that, 'I think that's really sick.' "

Still, after getting her graduate writing degree from Johns Hopkins in 1988, Kennedy stepped onto the treadmill, beginning the slow, tedious process of novel writing. It was ostensibly to escape the drudgery of her copy editing job, but she also figured it was what was required to attain the brass ring for unemployed writers: a steady gig in academia.

But after several attempts at completing her novel, "Spinsters"--the story of two single, middle-aged sisters who take to the road during the tumultuous summer of 1968, finally released earlier this year--Kennedy hit the proverbial brick wall. She put the blame squarely on her misguided motivations.

"I had career pressure on me. I wrote it all one way and could tell it was the wrong way," she says now. "The soul had gone out of my fiction."

In true slacker fashion, her friends encouraged her to kick out the jams and start a 'zine. After all, they reasoned, what better way to sanctify the soul of a weary writer for no pay? Although Kennedy had reservations ("I said no, no, no; I'm a serious writer"), she ultimately relented and Pagan's Head was hatched in 1988.

Inside Pagan's Head were the exploits and angst of one Pagan Kennedy--the fictionalized, exaggerated version. In eight issues over six years, a mild-mannered, struggling author reinvented herself as a self-absorbed, superstar hipstress, in the process helping Kennedy make sense of her fiction--and her life.

"I've always lived with personas that I put on and off, and I'm very aware they're personas," Kennedy explains. "So it was just business as usual in the Pagan psyche, I guess. But [Pagan's Head] was as if I was finally acknowledging how I operate."

All eight issues of Pagan's Head have been collected in a book published in September by St. Martin's, with new essays by the real Pagan preceding each issue, called " 'zine: How I Spent Six Years of My Life in the Underground and Finally . . . Found Myself . . . I Think."

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Read individually, Pagan's Head could be dismissed as an ego trip of narcissistic extremism if it weren't so damn charming and clever. Taken as a whole in " 'zine," however, Kennedy's excellent adventures contain all the elements of a compelling novel. There's an eccentric protagonist, and it's trashy, to be sure: We learn all about the make-believe Pagan's "Partridge Family" fixation; her taste in boys, friends, cars, hair styles; we go on road trips to the nation's great thrift shops.

But it also contains some painfully poignant and decidedly nonfictional moments as Kennedy chronicles her attempts at legitimate literary success and deals with the death of her father and her own health scare with an ovarian cyst (described in a comic strip called "They Wanted to Castrate Me").

"I had finally learned how to write the Great American Underground Novel--though it ended up being a 'zine instead," Kennedy writes in the book's introduction.

Kennedy downplays the entertainment value of her own life, insisting that anyone who documents himself in such excruciating detail can't help but be interesting.

"People have this endless fascination with the boring details of other people's lives," she says. "They want to know, like, how do you do the dishes or whatever." Or, as she put it so eloquently in " 'zine," "We are all endlessly unfolding fanzines."

Thanks to Pagan's Head, Kennedy became reacquainted with an element of writing of which she had lost sight--the fun part. In her maiden issue, the frustrated novelist issued a cry for help of sorts:

"I'm shallow. I don't want to write deathless prose," she wrote. "I just want to create stuff like I did when I was 8 years old--like when I tried to make a one-arm bandit out of a dog-food box or when me and my sister built shopping malls for our pet turtles."

Ultimately, though, she says many of her fiction ideas emerged from material originally published in Pagan's Head. As soon as she began the 'zine, Kennedy knew she wanted it to be published properly.

"I just felt like it was my best stuff in a lot of ways," she says. "It was stuff I was really excited about; it was stuff people really responded to."

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