Interview with Phil Kenney

Interview by Norm Goldman

What purpose do you believe your novel Radiance serves and what matters to you about the story?

Recently my 88 year old neighbor, Jack, said to me after reading Radiance that he was less afraid of dying. I took this as the best affirmation of my purpose which was to touch people in a way that revealed the presence of a spiritual energy at the core of our lives. The main character, Jimmy Brennan, represents an example of awakening that is common to many people, but is forgotten or not recognized for what it is. Radiance tells many stories of human suffering while, I trust, also illuminating the presence of something glowing and joyful at the heart of all experience that so often goes unnoticed.

In other words, my greatest desire in writing this book was to encourage readers of the possibilities of going to the heart of painful experiences without the dread of being marooned there forever, which incidentally is the terror at core of all trauma.
A secondary purpose was to explore the relationship between a mother and son, and, in particular, how that impacts the development of men in our culture. What matters most? I suppose what matters most to me is that the human spirit, in the form of Jimmy Brennan, is capable of unraveling the mystifying emotional transmissions of generations and evolving into a deeper and deeper relationship with himself and with spiritual dimensions. I call that spirit the radiant source of being. It is the central premise of Radiance that we are flesh and blood, and we are the radiance that transcends the body, personality, trauma, Alzheimer’s and even death.

What served as the primary inspiration for the book?

When I turned 60 I made a list of things I thought I could not do. At the top of the list was playing the piano. I was right on that one. Second on the list was writing a novel. I hadn’t written a word for two years, or more, and I was convinced I could never write dialogue or tell a complex story. At the same time, I was trying to find my way out of a complex set of feelings resulting from losses in my own life. It seems to me one of the great benefits of art is the opportunity to deal with and transform grief. Finally, it is my strongest desire to craft a sacred psychology and help bring an end to the senseless separation of the psychological and the spiritual, which, in fact are one.

Is there much of you in Radiance?

I am on every page, Norm, but this is not an exclusively autobiographical novel. Yes, my emotional experience was a strong guide for the development of the story, but the characters in Radiance are largely composites of people I have worked with in my psychotherapy practice as well as samplings of personalities I have known over the years.

And, yes, my family shows up in various ways throughout the story. In listening to and working with people over the years I have come to know the persistent sense of not being good enough that shadows so many of us. This stain on the soul knows no gender, class or ethnic boundary in my experience. The feeling of shame that controls the psyche of so many people, is central to the psychological study at the core of Radiance. I am familiar with that brand of pain personally and from speaking with friends and patients.

Other than that, I am a child of the 50’s and 60’s and I carry with me countless figures from those times, including, along with other Baby Boomers, the imprint of the likes of Dagwood Bumstead and Perry Mason. I hope their presence in the book was amusing and enlightening for any familiar with them and their place in American culture.

Does your writing career ever conflict with your career as a psychotherapist?

Occasionally, if writing is going very well and I am streaming all sorts of material, I may find it challenging to put those thoughts down while working with patients. This is especially true when images and word combinations are coming unbidden. But I’ve been doing psychotherapy long enough that I’m well practiced at putting aside all sorts of concerns, worries and delights to focus on the patient I’m sitting with.

Believe me, that has been real tough at times, so much so that writing problems seem easy enough to keep from being intrusive. In general, I feel so fortunate that my work and writing enhance each other. My writing life and professional life feel seamless. In this regard, I’ve often said that doing psychotherapy is like reading Shakespeare and we in the field are privileged to enter the Histories, Comedies and Tragedies of those who come to us for help. Do I wish I had more time to devote to writing? Yes and no. I think my work as a psychotherapist is continuously feeding my unconscious and that will find its way into my writing practice.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books of poetry and Radiance?

The most surprising thing for me was finding a source within that was actively writing the book with me. This source woke me at 2 or 3 in the morning on countless occasions with whole sentences and paragraphs streaming through my mind. They were like dreams that could disappear in a flash if I didn’t get right up and scribble them down. I found this exhilarating and spiritually delightful.

During the day I was surprised to find that if I was quiet and patient that same source would make itself known with ideas of how to proceed with the story. In other words, I learned I could trust something that was me and not me to help carry the work along. The other thing that totally surprised me is how much can get done in short bits of time. I have my wife, Lori, to thank for that. My life is wonderfully full of family, two teenagers, a great wife, a dog a business and friends. I always told myself I didn’t have the time to write more than quick poems. Not only did I find that wasn’t true, but I discovered the urgency of writing in short blocks of time helped me to not over-think things.

How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

That is an interesting question and really the mystery of creativity is that I come from the least likely upbringing to produce an artist. My family was devoted to being as normal as possible to the point of being, sorry folks, quite boring. We never attended cultural or artistic events. My Mom read popular fiction but nothing serious. Dad was all sports. The closest we came to culture was Saturday Night at the Movies.

Moreover, part of being normal meant self-expression was frowned upon and compliance was the guiding principal. Now things did take a turn when we moved to the New York area about the time I turned 14. You couldn’t help but be influenced by New York even if the family feared and judged the creative types. I suppose all this left me with a burning desire for self-expression and a compulsive drive for meaning. Life always seemed lacking and ,worse yet, like “nothing is real.” (Thank you John Lennon.) Maybe to a fault, my writing seeks to find what is real between people and within the hearts of individuals.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

I find revisions very challenging. Something about the poet in me I guess. Writing is not a crafting for me, at least not initially. It is more of a deep experience of revelation and contact with a deep unconscious center or the big Self. Because my writing rides these strong currents of feeling in the moment, I find it hard to return and look critically at the work and alter the shape. The other most challenging thing is the editor’s red ink. Yikes! I’ll never recover from Mrs. Simmons corrections on my papers in 7th grade. Trauma at its worst.

Are the characters in Radiance based on people you know or are they purely fictional?

Both. It seems to me that characters in fiction and in life are blends, watercolors really. Psychological identities, whether on the written page or in the therapist’s office, are a mix of self and other and the real and imaginary. For me there are not purely fictional characters nor are there exact replicas of known people. Take Georgia Daisy for example. She is the quintessential Mid-Western WASP mom. You may have seen her on the Donna Reed show. I lived with her for many years. But she is nearly every woman, from that pre-femenist time, who rose from one class to another following the war. Other characters, like Frank, are collages of people in my immediate circle and archetypes of the era who were driven to succeed.

As you are a poet as well as a novelist, what do you believe makes poetry come alive in a classroom? How can teachers foster a love of poetry, rather than a fear of it, in their students?

Don’t call it poetry and play music throughout the day. In analysis we call it free association. My kids listen to hip-hop and rap and walk around the house making poetry on the move. We should listen to the rain and just play with whatever images or silly thoughts come to mind. Write poems with finger paints. Forget about doing it right. Let it rip kids, words are like dice, roll em and see how they tumble and where they land. It’s a lot like drawing. If you attempt to draw a nose or ear, chances are you’ll try you’ll draw an idea of the nose and not the real thing. If you try to draw the spaces around objects the results are different. Teachers should write their own poems and read them while they dance. My first poems were beautifully terrible. Come on, poetry is way too serious for most folks, and especially for kids. Let them write about farting and belching and see what happens.

Where can our readers find out more about you and Radiance?

They can check out my website. 

As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? 

I would have liked you to ask me about the language in Radiance. Many people have said my book is poetic and lyrical. This makes me very happy. It was my hope that the language might be heard as music and in so doing transform the suffering described in the content of the book into something more uplifted. Something like the blues. I tried to have the poetics hold the reader throughout the very difficult emotional reach of the story. Of course, most spiritual traditions refer to sound as the fundamental energy of being and existence, so language and poetry have a special relationship to the ground and vitality of our lives. It was my desire that readers of Radiance have not only a good read, but an inspiring experience of that radiance at the heart of words and being.

About the interviewer: Norm Goldman, B.A. LL.L, is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures, which he created in 2002.’ Practicing law for over 35 years enabled Norm to transfer and apply to book reviewing his many skills that he had perfected during his career in the legal profession and as a result he became a prolific free lance book reviewer & author interviewer.

Originally published at Book Pleasures.