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A Conversation With William Kennedy

January 20, 2002

Question: Your last novel, "The Flaming Corsage," appeared in 1996. Have you been working on "Roscoe" since then?

Answer: "Roscoe" was my main thrust after that book, and it was very hard to write. My problem was the character of Roscoe himself. It took a long time to feel comfortable with him. There are real counterparts for some people in my book: boss Patsy McCall, Mayor Alex Fitzgibbon [Elisha's son], the governor, and of course Legs Diamond, but there were none who could do what I wanted my protagonist to do. Either they weren't smart enough or couldn't see themselves or were too remote from the center of power. I needed a serious intelligence who was central to the machine from the beginning on through 1945, and it turned out I had to invent that fellow Roscoe. He'd be secretary of the party, a lawyer, a brilliant rascal with a very peculiar conscience and a romantic heart. Amoral but with soul.

Q: You were born and raised in Albany, N.Y. How did your background help you in creating the atmosphere of "Roscoe"?

A: I've been writing this book for 40 years, covering politics for daily journalism, writing essays about the people. Also I was a Depression child, grew up when the machine was forming itself. You'd think this would make it easy, but immersion like that makes you crazy, for you know there's far more than can be seen or even that one man can know. You have to keep reporting and interpreting; but how and when do you winnow it all down to a story? Answer: Do what you can with history, then let the imagination do the rest.

Q: When you wrote the first of your books with an Albany setting back in the 1960s, "The Ink Truck," did you know that you were going to go on to write a series of linked books?

A: No, I couldn't even have predicted the books would stay in Albany. But in time I loved the place and knew I didn't have to go elsewhere. This was a mother lode of material. I did have an early fascination for the way [William] Faulkner intertwined the books in his saga, and the way [J.D.] Salinger's Glass family members overlapped in his stories: So I guess there was some intuition that I might someday do something similar. But I had no plan. The books evolved one by one. And after "Ironweed" I called them a cycle.

Q: Why did you make Albany the center of your work?

A: The politics grabbed me, and in the 1960s I wanted to write a novel on the Machine and the Boss who were classically corrupt and unbeatable. But I didn't understand politics of this sort well enough, and the next 40 years were a learning experience. As to the town, it's full of history, as old as the nation and almost as varied. Writers often go off seeking the exotic to rouse their muses, and some just don't function well on home turf. But if you look at any place seriously, you can find extraordinary history waiting to be discovered. You just have to go after it vertically. Look what Sherwood Anderson did with "Winesburg, Ohio." He made a crossroads village immortal.

Q: If Roscoe Conway were alive today, would he be a successful politician?

A: He'd be successful under any circumstances, just as Bill Clinton would if he hadn't gone into politics. I'm in no way equating Roscoe with Clinton in terms of chicanery, just in their acute intelligence and aggression, qualities that lead to success. Roscoe's comprehension of human behavior, his talent for manipulating others, his gift of gab and his wit--these are characteristics of successful people. Roscoe would adapt to all things. If he lived in Hollywood, he'd be a head of studio.

Q: Is "Roscoe" the last Albany book?

A: Hardly. I've got another novel just starting to cook. And as to Albany, the material can't be exhausted. I'm chasing all sorts of unknowns, in the city and in myself, and my conclusion is that the cycle will end only when I do. What's still surviving are the visions--of real history and re-imaginable history. They coalesce after a while, and at the moment, they're both only 74 years old, and not counting.

--NICK OWCHAR

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