Gutsy: Showing courage, determination and spirit—also daring, fearless, undaunted, and intrepid.
Portland author and poet Theresa Griffin Kennedy is gutsy. After my own career spanning more than four decades including television, talk radio, standup comedy, theater, and political campaign management, I’ve been called gutsy and can recognize it in others. Her fearless exploration into oft-avoided issues, her outspoken opinions that push the envelope, and her determination to continue growing as a writer makes her very gutsy.
We sat down one Sunday afternoon in downtown Portland to explore the ideas, life experiences, and views that inform her writing, just as her latest book of fiction Burnside Field Lizard and Selected Stories is hitting bookshelves. With Portland as its backdrop, the stories are a daring exploration into social status, marginalized communities, sex, sexual abuse, complex relationships—some of which seem autobiographical. We spoke about memoir as fiction, how selling blood isn’t prostitution, and the difference between pornography and sex.
The Rumpus: Is your story, “The Church Volunteer; the Man of God” a memoir disguised? Have you ever had to sell your blood for money at a blood bank?
Theresa Griffin Kennedy: Yes. I sold my blood for twelve years and have a huge scar. I did it when I was a college student trying to supplement our income, my second husband at the time was a dishwasher and a prep cook and we were raising our daughter Amelia. So I sold my plasma for twelve years and was happy to do it because you’re making extra money and you’re helping people. There is a stigma to it that is ridiculous, and some people compare it to prostitution, and there is absolutely no comparison.
Rumpus: I thought that was an interesting choice, the decision for Lilith to have sex with Darvella’s abuser Tom. What was the character motivation for such a turn of events?
Kennedy: Because women often go back to men who are like other men in their lives, responding to a persona that is aggressive and potentially abusive. Tom felt familiar to Lilith. I leave the ending without resolution because I want the reader to wonder, to give Tom more depth, instead of just being this one-dimensional bad guy. I also wanted to explore the ways lust and despair intersect, because I think they do, especially for people who are alone and getting older. The desire for sex can sometimes become a more sorrowful thing than a joyous thing.
Rumpus: Is there more to the theme of childhood molestation and sex with older men in your stories?
Kennedy: It’s part of my history. I was molested as a child, and sexually assaulted when I was thirteen, in 1979. I think it’s an important theme to write about because it’s so prevalent. With my daughter I was a Helicopter Mom. I’m proud to say she went through her whole life and was never violated in such a way. And I’m so glad because it does change you. If you’re not careful, it can even destroy you, and make you seek out men who will abuse you. I wanted to convey that.
Rumpus: Did you feel triggered at all by the recent political events including the Supreme Court hearings surrounding Brett Kavanaugh?
Kennedy: I have been so stressed out by all of this. I can’t say that I felt “triggered,” in the true sense of the word, but I just feel so discouraged. I feel like we’re going back in time and I see a correlation between Iran and the 1979 Iranian revolution and America right now. Before 1979 women could wear miniskirts and had rights and it feels like we’re heading toward this misogynistic war on women. It feels like that. I’ve been struggling with trying not to be depressed. So many horrible conservatives, and I’m sorry, they are horrible! They are saying terrible things about women. I saw on Facebook the other day some politician saying it isn’t rape unless the woman screams? My Lord! The ignorance of so many of these politicians is mind boggling. I don’t see that in the Democratic Party. I’m disappointed in the Democratic Party, but I am a Democrat and I’m voting Democrat. Since Trump has been in office it’s been one disaster after another. He’ll go down as the most corrupt president in US history.
Rumpus: The story, “Getting Fucked on the Way to Reno; 1985” reads a lot like traditional pornography. Do you read pornography? If so, what pornography informs your writing?
Kennedy: The definition of pornography is sexually explicit material designed to arouse the reader. I was not writing the story in the hopes that it would arouse the reader and I don’t read pornography. Madeline Bracken talks about how she was molested as a child and it’s a theme I go back to, but there’s more to the “Getting Fucked on the Way to Reno” story than titillation and graphic sexual content. I think I still feel angry about some of the things that happened to me. And we’re finding out, especially with the #MeToo movement, that the shame around those experiences and not talking about them is so common. But I had so much fun writing it with its campy parts. Plus, the protagonist is such a horribly fantastic character. I guess they call it “unreliable narrative voice.”
Rumpus: “The Convalescent Home in the Doug Fir Wood” seems like two schizophrenic stories, that of Daphne and that of Lilith. Is Lilith just imagined by an insane Daphne?
Kennedy: When I finished writing that story I actually wrote an additional three pages which was all dialogue between the two doctors. And basically the two doctors explain everything. I sent it to my friend JD Chandler and he said you’ve got to take that all out, because “you’re spelling it all out” and a “sophisticated reader” wants to come to their own conclusions. But I thought it felt so right to have those three pages of dialogue where the doctors are talking about Daphne and her fantasies and hallucinations. But JD was right! And so I took it out. Lilith is an alternate personality who Daphne needed to be and she’s also what Daphne did so Lilith is a part of Daphne. Daphne did break into a home; she did steal all of the possessions back.
Rumpus: Rape and voyeurism form the dramatic core of the story, “The Convalescent Home in the Doug Fir Wood.” Talk to me about how you planned it this way?
Kennedy: I thought long and hard about whether I should include the graphic rape scene. I knew if a man wrote that scene, he’d probably come under some criticism. And lately there is a push to censor writers. Censorship is a real issue. There is a great anthology of essays I read that was written in 1996, mostly by journalists. The editor predicted what is happening right now.
Rumpus: Censorship around what issues?
Kennedy: Writing about sex, about rape, everything. Whatever is not “politically correct.” Depicting women in the wrong light? But I am about total freedom when it comes to writing. I bristle at the suggestion anyone might feel I should tone down something or not write about something because it might offend someone. If an adult reader is going to be offended by my book, then they shouldn’t read it.
Rumpus: How do you avoid censorship?
Kennedy: The issues I’ve come up against mostly deal with men. I was the editor for my husband Don’s book, Behind the Badge in River City: A Portland Police Memoir. We hired a young professional editor, a really wonderful, smart kid, but he was all about censoring Don and not listening to me when I was trying to explain that memoir is not about patting yourself on the back and saying “I’m a hero.” It’s about sharing what you did that was good and bad, and how you were transformed by it. That’s the real purpose of memoir.
Rumpus: What veil of literary personae do you refuse to remove? Who are you at the source?
Kennedy: I was told by a friend of mine several years ago that my writing was too pedantic, that I should change my literary tone and voice. At the time, I was kind of hurt by it. I was still discovering who I was. I have kind of a dated vocabulary compared to other writers my age and while I’ve made an effort to tone down the pedantic nature of my voice, I have also accepted it. I was raised by a father who was born in 1920 and a mother who was born in 1935. They both grew up and experienced the Great Depression. So in the 1970s when I was growing up, I was raised by two people who had a very different vernacular than others around me.
Rumpus: So your parents influenced who you are at the core?
Kennedy: Absolutely. We grew up low-income, I was the seventh of nine children, we were Irish Catholic and living in northwest Portland in the 70s. It was tough. My father made good money as a maintenance engineer at Providence Hospital on Glisan, and yet, when you are supporting nine children and two adults, that’s eleven people in basically a four-bedroom house. There was the boys’ room, there was the girls’ room, my mother’s bedroom, and my father slept in the attic upstairs. But they were college educated. My father bought us books of poetry and he was always reading poetry and mythology. My mother read mystery novels and listened to classical music. So although we were low-income we were all exposed to a lot of the traditional cultural canon. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it wasn’t for having grown up the way I did.
Rumpus: Social distance is a concept you seem fascinated with. How does social distance work as a definer of character? Can it be bridged?
Kennedy: When I think of social distance I think of class, I think of people thinking they’re superior to others because they have more money, or the location of their home. From our bedroom window we could get the telescope and put it on the window sill and look at the mansions on the hill. I think social distance is a real issue in Portland, because of our geography. Can social distance be bridged? I think so, but only if someone has enough understanding and compassion for their fellow man to want to do that. I’ve known older people in their fifties, sixties, and seventies who don’t want to bridge the gap. They want the social distance that class provides them.
Rumpus: When did you first understand that language, words had power, and that you had that power?
Kennedy: When I was seventeen. Growing up I was super shy, really timid, an introvert. I wasn’t very verbal. It wasn’t until I turned seventeen that I decided I was going to start talking. I can remember being in my crib and listening to so much talking all the time, what with six older siblings and my parents. So I was listening to eight people jabbering and that exposed me to language really early. By the time I was seventeen I decided I wanted to impress people with my vocabulary!
Rumpus: Tell me about the network that exists for writers in the Northwest. Is this network something you are actively a part of? Is it effective for writers? Do you support each other? Or is it a competitive environment?
Kennedy: I’ve been online since 2007, which is a long time. I created a website for my writing, something not everyone did at that time. It really started out as me writing a letter to the editor. I followed my dad’s advice. He said, “Don’t limit yourself, don’t just write fiction, don’t just write memoir, write everything! Send a letter to the editor about how you feel about a topic.” But in terms of support in Portland, I’ve gotten support. I have to mention again my friend JD Chandler, and also Laura Stanfill who runs Forest Avenue Press with graphic designer Gigi Little. Laura is such a nice person. I was feeling really alone and didn’t know how to proceed. I needed to find a graphic designer for the book, and I reached out and contacted Laura asking for her help. And she did.
Rumpus: You seem surprised by that?
Kennedy: I was… because at that point I had a bit of a reputation for being too outspoken.
Rumpus: I think that’s a badge of honor myself!
Kennedy: It’s hard when you want to be honest about things. And you want to have an honest dialogue about things like sexism and racism. And you hope you don’t offend anyone but then you end up offending people no matter what.
Rumpus: But, when you can look in the mirror, you have integrity with your writing.
Kennedy: I try to write about things that matter. This whole experience with fiction has been a real surprise because previously I wrote creative nonfiction and I tend to be a cautious person. So I thought about fiction writing for about two years and the first fiction story I ever wrote was “Getting Fucked on the Way to Reno.” It was originally published in a much shorter version, in The Bicycle Review, with editor J de Salvo, who is wonderful.
Rumpus: You talked of the kindness others in the literary world have shown you. Have you mentored or paid it forward to other writers?
Kennedy: Yes. Many, many times. I’ve done full developmental edits for my friend JD Chandler, edited countless short stories, articles from people I met on the Internet. I’ve helped a lot of people, mostly women. I think it’s really important to help other writers and I’ve done that many times.
Rumpus: So when do you reach the point when you know you can’t take one more swipe at something?
Kennedy: My father would send me books on writing, and he sent me a postcard once encouraging me to write and it said “Write, write write, revise, revise, revise, revise!”
Rumpus: What’s next from the literary mind of Theresa Griffin Kennedy?
Kennedy: My next project is my debut novel called Talionic Night in Portland about a TV assignment editor who falls in love with a grade school custodian. Once again it’s an exploration of class and also the ways sexual abuse can impact people. So there are some recurring themes there. It’s very funny. I promote humor using some methods that John Kennedy Toole used when he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s scheduled to come out early 2019. It’s a short novel, about 215 pages. I’ve been working on it for almost a year and it’s almost done. So many people write about how hard writing is, how it took so long and how they agonized every day and were so miserable, but I have had nothing but a blast writing this novel. There is the humor, but also dark parts, too.
After that I have a book of short narrative memoir essays called We Learned to Live in That Castle: Stories about Being a Single Mother. My daughter and I were really isolated for a long time. Plus there are other stories about my coming of age when I was a teenager in the 1980s and having an illicit affair with a much older man.