Interview with Randall Kenan

by Solstice MFA Intern Tiara Marchando

November 2007

  1. Initially, you wanted to be a Physics major; what inspired you to begin writing?

    I had always written. First, I wrote bad poetry and then horror stories and science fiction. My main ambition was to be a SF writer in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke and Issac Asimov. In high school, I actually wrote a couple of dreadful and highly derivative novels, now thankfully lost to the ravages of time. In college, I decided it might be wise actually to study writing for a while -- that changed everything for me.

  2. It is clear that James Baldwin has been a major influence in your life. How were you introduced to his work? And in what ways are you moved by him?

    When I was a boy, James Baldwin was without a doubt the most famous black writer in America, even moreso that Alex Haley. Haley was famous for one book (though he collaborated on The Autobiography of Malcolm X). Baldwin was an icon, and also he was openly gay.

    I studied Baldwin formally in school, and he came to Chapel Hill when I was a senior and I had a little time to talk with him in person -- I was deeply impressed by it all. But in truth, I didn't develop a truly deep appreciation for both the man and his work until I had moved to New York and embarked upon a path as a writer. Then I saw him not as an icon, but as a working writer with real world problems and concerns -- the same that I had staring at me every live-long day. I read him deeply looking for clues as to how he accomplished what he had done, which seemed more and more remarkable to me the older I got. The more I learned about him, the more special and important he became and the more I read him, the more in awe I grew of him as a prose maker and thinker and activist and human being.

  3. In an interview with Charles H. Rowell, you said that we write “about, and out of our obsessions, things that we never get over.” Do you feel then, that the writing process is synonymous with the healing process?

    Oh no. If the idea of writing as a healing medium were really true a lot of emotionally damaged writers would be better people -- and I include myself in that number. We never get over the things we never get over. We can only learn from them -- but that has next to nothing to do with writing, in the end. Writing is writing and life is life, and we shouldn't ask either to do what they aren't equipped to do.

  4. Most people write because, like you, they have a story to tell. What is your advice on coping with the fear of letting that story out?

    I don't agree that I have a story to tell. One of my favorite professors once told me a story about W.H. Auden visiting Chapel Hill back in the 1970s. A student told the great poet he wanted to be a writer; he had a story to tell. Auden replied: "If a young man approaches me and says he wants to be a writer, he has a story to tell, I say that young man won't go far. However, if a young man approaches me and says, Mr. Auden, I love language and literature and words and love to hang out with them, and hear what they have to say to me, then I say that person will have a chance at becoming a writer." I say what Auden said.

  5. You bring up many real, yet controversial issues in Walking on Water; how did you feel when the book was finally published? Do you feel that the book paved the way for your memoir/commentary, The Fire This Time?

    Actually, I wanted to keep working on Walking on Water. I would have paid good money for another six months, I told myself. But I'm thankful that my editor convinced me -- insisted -- that the process couldn't go on indefinitely, and shouldn't. That was wise and practical and right. But the actual process goes on for me. In many ways The Fire This Time was probably a continuation or an update on that process, though I didn't realize that connection until I was well into the project. And I suspect there will be more to come later, in different forms.

  6. What pushed you to begin teaching?

    It wasn't a push, it was an invitation, initially, from Sarah Lawrence College and then Columbia University. Part of me wanted to stay in publishing simply because I love the world of publishing. But teaching writing struck me as an honorable and worthwhile profession -- I was lucky enough to encounter many distinguished teachers of writing who helped me greatly -- Doris Betts, Max Steele, Daphne Athas, Louis D. Rubin, Bland Simpson, and others. I could do much, much worse by way of occupation.

  7. Pine Manor College has been ranked number one in diversity from 2004-2007 and an informal survey has thus far proven the same true of the MFA in Creative Writing Program. What are your thoughts on being a part of a program that is making such strides in academic diversity?
  8. I'm honored to be a part of Pine Manor's program and think this thrust for diversity is an important goal and on the leading edge of our brave new world. Embracing diversity is our future.

  9. What is your definition of a perfect professor? How closely do you mirror that image?

    Learned, penetrating, engaging, encouraging, demanding, even more demanding, coaxing, reassuring, honest, inspiring.
    I'm working on it. “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, /Or what’s a heaven for?” -- Robert Browning.

  10. What expectations do you have of your students?

    If they become better and deeper and wider readers, then the race will be largely won, for without that main ingredient -- to be a good reader -- no growth as a writer will happen. The next step, in learning to apply the lessons learned into your prose, must be an individual commitment that only time will tell, with practice and effort, long after the classroom has been abandoned. I can help with the first step and only encourage the second.

  11. What is your philosophy on teaching?

    To open eyes to the possibilities, and get people excited about all the worlds they can access with words. To bring correct and rigorous and kind and honest assessment of the work at hand, and to encourage the writer to make it better. The best writers I have had the joy to have worked with in the past have all had two things in common: they were exceptionally well-read, and didn’t – and haven’t – given up.

  12. Is there anything about you that you think people should know that can’t be found in a biography?

    I'm a crazy, silly, stupid, insane movie buff with a penchant for zombie movies and submarine movies.  I'm a lapsed comic book collector (if there were world enough and time…). I am a passionate, if not wildly accomplished, cook.