New novel depicts Panhandle and border city of Presidio

Randy Kennedy is a Texan native and has written about the art world since 2005. He joined the New York Times in 1992 and has been a metro reporter, Public Lives columnist and a writer for the New York Times Magazine. His first novel, “Presidio” was published this year.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in San Antonio, but I didn’t grow up there, I grew up in Plains, a town near Lubbock, in the book it is given the name New Cona. This town is in the panhan – dle, which is where I grew up, and it’s a town of 1,400 people near the New Mexico border.

Why did you write this book?

I have been a writer my whole life. As a journalist, I wrote for a little more than half the time about art with the New York Times. Since college, I have always wanted to write fiction, and I have written fiction for myself for many years. It took me a long time to get to a point where I was writing something that made me happy, that I thought, I would like to read. Part of that is because I worked at a pressure-packed newspaper. The other part is that it took me a long time to figure out how to do that, how to find a fictional voice that I thought felt true and authentic, I think I had always wanted to write about the place where I was from, part of that is when people say, ‘write what you know.’ It was also that when I was young, I really wanted to leave that place, I understand now that it is an unbe – lievable part of the United States and the world. There aren’t many places on the planet that is as continuously flat as the Llano Estacado. It has a lot of American history packed into it as well, some of it tragic, with the buffalo and the Comanche. Its history goes all the way to Coro – nado, and petroglyphs. As I wrote it, I thought this isn’t a boring place, it’s a place that is pretty strange, and in its own way as strange as some of the settings in European or American fiction.

What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to finish the novel?

I had been thinking about parts of it, and writing pieces that were initially short stories about two brothers, where one was a wayward car thief and those coalesced into a novel. Once I started writing the novel, it took a solid ten years. I remember because I really started in earnest knowing that it was going to be a novel when my daughter was born, and she is ten years old now.

I’m a night person, so I wrote in the middle of the night and that is because I had a job, and a kid. I am not someone who can wake up at 5 in the morning and write before I go to work. I would sit down at 11, and hoped that things would come. Some nights when it was coming, and it was rolling, and I’d hear the voices, I knew what I was going to write and then you notice it is 3 in the morning, you’d just have to quit and go to bed, because there’s no way I could function the next day if I started writing through the night. But I am still a night writer, because it is the time when I can be alone in my own head.

What genre do you consider the novel?

I would say domestic-fiction; it’s not a crime novel.

There are some cars stolen, and an accidental kidnapping, and I think I am drawn to the mentality of somebody who just decides to not abide by the law. It’s a story about one guy trying to figure out how to live a mean – ingful life, after having been a screw-up for almost his entire life.

Do you feel that parts of yourself are fragmented throughout the characters?

There are first person journal entries from Troy that he writes on motel stationeries when he is on the road, and within them he shows his lack of comfort with how the world works that I also share. The description of the town, motels, and the landscape come from a part of my memories that are very vivid of my time growing up in the panhandle.

The novel takes place in the 1970s, is that because you were growing up during that time?

The years in which this is set is when I was a little kid and when my own memories were formed, so it starts at the beginning of my own world. I also do think the early 70s, politically and culturally, not just in the U.S. but in Europe are important, because it happened after the wake of all that idealism in the late 60s, and trying to figure out where do we go from here? Some of my favorite movies were set in the early 70s. I think the early 70s are a powerful time, and it may be because of the generation that I am a part of.

So, would you say the time setting is a sense of nostalgia for you?

I don’t really like nostalgia, and I tried very hard to not have this book be nostalgic for the 70’s. But in the book, I had a character try to disappear and shed away his identity. The 70’s were probably the last time you could do that before the web, and surveillance cameras, you could completely disappear if you tried hard. I think, especially now with the way that we live, that there is a desire in most of us a desire to disappear, even for a day.

You titled the novel Presidio, why? And have you ever visited Presidio?

It wasn’t the original title, I originally wanted to title it after a George Jone’s song, ‘Mr. Fool,’ and I think of Troy as a ‘holy fool’ figure in medieval literature, the ‘holy fool’ was a guy who didn’t have any possessions, he was a seeker, but didn’t want to become a hermit. He basically was like a court jester, except somebody who was viewed with some connection with god. But that title didn’t work.

The story ends in Presidio, at the border. Presidio means a fort, and the forts in the frontier era were these places where you are in a hostile territory and you have to wall yourselves off to survive. I think Troy is that way, and he is trying to get outside those walls. I had been to Presidio a few times as a kid to go rafting in the Rio Grande. But recently, I visited Midland, Marfa, and stayed at a motel in Presidio called the Three Palms for a couple of days. So, I feel like I have a sense of Presidio, but in the book this is the Presidio of the early 1970s, and it’s not the real Presidio. It is based on some things that I saw, and the motel, but it’s more of an apocalyptic place, that’s because it had to be for the ending.

What scene was the most difficult for you to write?

There’s a scene in the middle of the book, that I consider ‘the heart.’ The main character steals a car drives into a snow storm in central New Mexico, and his car gets stuck in a ditch. He gets out of the car, and finds a truck at a rest stop, he knocks on the door and the trucker lets him in. The two have a conversation, but he can’t see him, since it is dark and the trucker is in the sleeper cab, so it’s like a confessional. It is reminiscent of Ivan Turganev’s short-story “Hamlet of the the Schigrovsky District.” I’ve always loved that story because it is about disembodied voices.

Do you plan to write a second novel?

Yeah, I am working on one now that is focused more on art. It will be set in the Sacramento Valley in the early 60’s and centers around a historical figure, an artist named Martin Ramirez, a Mexican-American, who was institutionalized for almost his entire life and he never spoke. But a doctor at the hospital realized he was an incredible artist and supplied him with paper and crayons, and he made thousands of drawings. Now, they are in collections in major museums. I am writing a book about a guy who checks himself into that hospital and meets Martin Ramirez. It is about the line between delirium and rationality in the making of art. It’s going to be funny, I hope.

I hear you will be in Marfa this week, is that true?

Yeah, I will be speaking at the Crowley Theatre on Saturday, September 15. I feel that coming back to the area is my reward for finishing the book.


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