Seasoned NYC journalist Randy Kennedy talks Texas grit, debut novel
A modern incarnation of a classic story from the Old West, “Presidio” is a gritty literary debut set in the vast and arid landscape of the 1970s Texas Panhandle. The story follows a car thief who joins his brother on a misbegotten mission, the girl they unwittingly kidnap and her desperate, volatile father unspools across miles of backroads and small-town motels until it ends inexorably in the border town of Presidio.
Troy Falconer returns home after years of solitary wandering and stealing cars to help his younger brother Harlan search for his wife, who has disappeared with what little money he had. The two make off with an unattended station wagon, accidentally abducting Martha Zacharias, a Mennonite girl sleeping concealed in the back. Though only 9 years old, Martha turns out to be a resolute, stubborn survivor with her own reasons for wanting to be on the run. Together, the unlikely companions attempt an escape into Mexico, pursued by Martha’s furious father and the unseen but ever-present specter of the law.
The tale is told partly through Troy’s road journal, a glovebox testament to his complete estrangement from American life. Shunning even personal property, he cases motels, stealing from men roughly his size and living with their possessions in order to have none of his own — disappearing into anonymity and a life of fleeting encounters with fellow thieves, down-and-outers and roadside philosophers, people looking for fast money, human connection or a home long since vanished.
Randy Kennedy was born in San Antonio and raised in Plains, Texas. After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, Kennedy worked for 25 years at the New York Times, first as a city reporter and for many years covering the art world. A collection of his city columns, “Subwayland: Adventures in the World Beneath New York,” was published in 2004. For the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine, he has written about many of the most prominent artists of the last 50 years, including John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman and Nan Goldin. Currently, Kennedy is director of special projections for the international art gallery Hauser & Wirth and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two children.
“Presidio” is available for purchase at simonandschuster.com.
Below are excerpts from an interview conducted by Simon & Schuster.
A Conversation with Randy Kennedy
Q: What was your inspiration for “Presidio”? Was the story based on real events?
Randy Kennedy: For many years, I’d had the figure of a car thief in my head as a quintessential character of the New West. In the Old West, the horse thief was the lowest, most vile criminal — if you stole someone’s horse, you stole all means of livelihood, and if you were caught you were, probably rightfully, hung. Stealing a car isn’t quite as despicable, but almost. In the part of Texas where I was raised — an isolated stretch of the southern Panhandle, a vast flatland called the Llano Estacado, or the staked plains — if you didn’t have a car, you were pretty much a noncitizen. The novel is about the isolation and harshness of that land, and its history back to the Comanche tribes and earlier. Thinking about that part of the country as among the last places where the frontier closed, the book is also about a certain suspicion of the ways in which success and happiness have been defined in America in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I’ve never known a car thief, but in Troy, my thief, I’ve dreamed of a character who has stopped wanting most of the things Americans are supposed to want. This grew out of a conviction, which began to dawn on me in my late thirties, that most of my adult life had been shaped by a world that was training me to become a more efficient consumer and a more efficient worker, in that order. I wanted a character who attempts a jailbreak from that kind of existence, however ineptly, in search of more meaning and deeper human connection. I once told my editor, Trish Todd, that this book was essentially about late capitalism and religious longing. She wisely told me that I should probably come up with a snappier synopsis.
Q: You were born, and grew up, in Texas, where “Presidio” is set. Did you travel at all while writing this novel?
Kennedy: I feel as if I’ve been doing research for this book at least since high school, in a small town in the Texas Panhandle where I was raised and where the novel is mainly set. But I began in earnest to learn more about that part of Texas and to collect details for writing about a decade ago, on trips back home to see family and on one solitary research trip that took me from Midland, Texas, on a meandering path to the border at Presidio. I stayed in motels along the way and ate in diners and talked to strangers and kept good notes. When I was a child, my family would take dayslong road trips across the West from Texas to Seattle, where my mother’s family lived. Those trips and the motels along the route still loom large in my memory and contributed to the feel of the book.
Q: This is your first novel, but you’ve had a very long career as a writer. Did you always want to write a novel? Was your writing process different from short form or nonfiction?
Kennedy: I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was about 12. One of the reasons it took so long is that for 25 years I worked as a staff writer at the New York Times, where the pace was rarely ever less than exhausting. So I really did write fiction mostly from midnight to 2 a.m. and on weekends or when I was supposed to be on deadline for a news story. But this first novel was also a long time in coming simply because it took years for me to be able to write something that made me happy, that I myself would want to read. I came across a comment once by the French writer Theophile Gautier, who said that his sentences were as agile as cats — if he threw them up in the air they always landed on their feet. My sentences, as least as far as fiction is concerned, are more like newborn puppies. I have to treat them with extreme care and it takes a while for them to learn how to walk. On a day-to-day basis, making the transition from journalism to fiction was always tough. One of my favorite short story writers, Barry Hannah, said that writing fiction is like getting into a trance, and that was exactly how it felt for me. The good trances came on haphazardly and usually late at night. Maybe that’s why so many of the encounters that Troy, my main character, experiences take place in the wee hours, when he’s alone.
Q: Troy Falconer is a car thief. In the novel, we learn about several of the cars he steals, all American made and no longer in production. Are you a car enthusiast? Did you own any of those classics?
Kennedy: A funny thing about this book is that I really don’t have any love of cars — I haven’t owned a car in almost 27 years, since I left Texas to move to New York — but I had to learn a tremendous amount about classic cars of the 1960s and 1970s to write this. Every car that Troy steals is a make no longer in production — so [it is] essentially an extinct species. And some of the specific makes meant a lot to me: the car that Bettie drives when Troy first meets her is the alpine white 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T that Barry Newman drives in the 1971 classic Vanishing Point. The black 1950 Ford Business Coupe that Troy steals outside of Kermit, Texas, is the car, for example, that Robert Frank used to drive across the country to shoot the seminal photo book “The Americans.” And the car that Troy steals only to find a trunk filled with expensive rare books was, in my mind, owned by Larry McMurtry, who was making his living at that point in the 1970s partly as a book dealer.
Q: Troy meets some interesting people along his travels. Were any of these based on encounters in your own life?
Kennedy: My aunt and uncle owned the struggling motel in the town where I was raised — Plains, Texas, population about 1,500 — and I remember vividly some of the down-and-outers, hopped-up long-haul truckers, lonely traveling salesmen and migrant workers who passed through the rooms there. The book is also very much about the world of my father, a telephone lineman who was born and raised in that part of Texas. He was never a thief, of course, and he never hung around any serious ones, but several of his friends were what you might call rounders, men who were cocky and flashy and seemed slightly dangerous to me. Bill Ray, the father of my main character, is that kind of man, but one who ends up being crushed by loss. His sons, Troy and Harlan, inherit that loss in different ways.
Q: Martha is a very strong young girl. Was she an easy character for you to write?
Kennedy: I have a daughter who is also a very strong young girl, but she was tiny when I began to write the character of Martha. I don’t know exactly where Martha came from. I grew up around Mennonites, and I’ve always wanted to write about them, but Martha ended up feeling as if she had somehow sprung fully formed from my mind. She was the easiest character to write. I always knew what she was going to say and do. She was a kind of miracle and I want to write about her again.
Q: Martha is a Mennonite. How much did you know about Mennonites before writing Presidio? Was there research you did to make her character more authentic?
Kennedy: I grew up around Mennonite farm and ranch workers who came to West Texas from the Chihuahuan desert in Mexico, where large groups of Mennonites had migrated from Canada in the early part of the twentieth century. The groups I knew were probably less conservative and isolated than the Mennonites in Mexico, but they still held themselves apart from secular society, schooling their children privately and living mostly outside of towns. I grew up a Southern Baptist and I was fascinated by this group of religious adherents who were in many ways not much different from believers I knew, yet vastly different in how their beliefs shaped their lives. Over many years as I wrote the novel, I read deeply about Mennonite life. The book that was most helpful is a marvelously well-written 1971 history of the Mennonite migration to Mexico, “They Sought a Country: Mennonite Colonization in Mexico,” by Harry Leonard Sawatzky.
Q: “Presidio” has a very cinematic feel. It’s reminiscent of “The Grifters,” “No Country for Old Men” and Hell or High Water. It was inspired in part by 1970s road movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Vanishing Point.” Who could you see cast as Troy and Harlan?
Kennedy: A tough question. If it were the early 1970s, I’d say Warren Oates as Troy and Slim Pickens as Harlan, playing serious instead of comic. Now, maybe Joaquin Phoenix as Troy and Michael Shannon as Harlan, with Chris Cooper as the older version of the father, Bill Ray. Gina Rodriguez, from “Jane the Virgin,” would make a fantastic Bettie.
Q: In one of the cars he steals, Troy finds a collection of rare books. He keeps a trilogy of Western novels. Did you read any Westerns while working on this novel? Is the Western a genre you enjoy?
Kennedy: Growing up, I read mostly science fiction and then started mainlining classic American and European literature. But I worked after school in a county library, so I was familiar with the big Western novelists, like Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Elmer Kelton (who I knew lived not far away, in San Angelo, Texas.) I remember a tall ranch hand with a waxed handlebar mustache who would come into the library every month on a furlough from whatever remote ranch he was working. He’d check out a dozen Westerns and fill a paper grocery bag with them and walk out with the bag tucked under his arm, the happiest cowboy on the planet. I wrote this novel hoping it would appeal both to the small-town Texas people I grew up with, and to readers who have never set foot in Texas, much less rural America, readers for whom this landscape will seem as strange as something out of Kafka or Borges.
Q: Larry McMurtry wrote about you, saying, “Let’s hope he keeps his novelistic cool and brings us much, much more.” We agree! What can we expect from you next?
Kennedy: I am working on another novel, this one set partly in the art world. For more than a decade I wrote about art for the New York Times, and now I work in publications for an international art gallery, so I’ve wanted for years to write about an artist and about the hazy borders between rationality and delirium in the making of art. The setting will be a mental hospital in the Sacramento Valley in California.
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