Paleolithic Habits: Interview with Matthew Kennedy
Matthew Kennedy has written four books about film history, and he’s looking for his next idea right now. “I'd rather be in the full heat of manuscript writing,” he says. “But I'm in a fallow period. They happen.”
A resident of Oakland, Matthew has written for Turner Classic Movies and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and spoken at MOMA and UCLA Film and Television Archive. He contributes regularly to Bright Lights Film Journal online. His books include Marie Dressler: A Biography (McFarland), Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy (University of Wisconsin Press), Joan Blondell: A Life between Takes (University Press of Mississippi), and Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s(Oxford University Press). In this interview, we discussed writing about film, how writing is not sexy, and what he’s reading while he thinks about his next book idea.
Kristy Lin Billuni: You write in a very special genre. Can you tell me about some of your favorite film history writers, to introduce us to this world?
Matthew Kennedy: Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution is already ten years old, but it remains such a great idea for a book.
KLB: Wow, I love the concept! 1967’s Best Picture nominees, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Doctor Doolittle, and Bonnie and Clyde, as cultural revolution?
MK: Yes. I read it thinking, "Damn! I wish I'd written this!" Likewise Born To Be Hurt by Sam Staggs, all about the making of Imitation of Life.
KLB: I love that film. It is such an epic intersectional feminist history piece to me.
MK: Then you must read BTBH. It's like reading the biography of a film rather than a person. It's fun, dishy, and informative.
KLB: Anyone else we should check out?
MK: Mark Vieira and Emily Leider are buddies of mine, and their writing and research are impeccable.
KLB: Do you read any fiction or anything outside your genre?
MK: I just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I am dazzled by her vivid characters, controlled pacing, and ability to make so many disparate environments so alive. It's positively Dickensian. I write non-fiction, and I have nothing but awe and respect for super-skilled novelists.
KLB: I loved and hated that book. So smart! So dark! But reading something like that still gets you thinking about your work?
MK: Yes. When I'm reading something, I often think about the choices and processes of the writer.
KLB: Tell me what you’re working on now.
MK: I'm percolating an idea that really excites me, but it's too soon to talk about it. It's a new way of looking at the silent era. At least I think it's a new way of looking at the silent era.
KLB: Where do you get your ideas?
MK: I look at the approach others have taken, and it frees me to consider possibilities. Scott Eyman just published a book about the friendship between James Stewart and Henry Fonda. Okay, here's a book about movie star friendships—great. I like to consider different approaches, so I'm not limited to biographies, or retreaded history. Roadshow! required all sorts of ruminating about format, design, and scope.
KLB: And then you start with the writing, or do you begin with research?
MK: When a topic gets clearer, I rush to the library for books and articles.
KLB: I love it when research requires going to the library.
MK: Me too! Even better, the bulk of film history archives are in Los Angeles and New York, so my process involves multiple trips to those two cities, and elsewhere.
KLB: So, when do you transition from the glamour of research travel to the work of writing?
MK: Early on, I'm doing more data mining than actual writing. Eventually the balance shifts, and I'm doing more writing and editing than research.
KLB: That’s a great transition to talking about how you write. Do you ever write while you’re out and about?
MK: I carry a small note pad, and if I'm "naughty," I'll sit down in a café with a cup of coffee and something sweet, and proceed to write. This allows me to capture thoughts that might come in handy later when I'm writing an article or giving a chapter shape and substance. It's one of my Paleolithic habits.
KLB: Paleolithic because you’re not on a laptop?
MK: Yes, keyboarding can be so impersonal. I could schlep around a laptop but choose pencil and paper. I like the tactility of it, and the look of my scrawl. It reminds me these are my words.
KLB: And do you have a time of day when you like to write?
MK: I tend to write in the morning, but I don't have a set time, and frankly, it would serve me well to standardize that.
KLB: And when you write at home?
MK: I do most of my writing on my Mac in a small room in the back of our home in Oakland, where there is much light. Weather permitting, I keep the door open to our beautiful backyard. The fresh air perks me up.
KLB: What about drafts?
MK: For articles, I do maybe five drafts. For books, I lose count! Drafts are done by chapter, and between my own editing, and that of my agent and publisher, it can be an extended process.
KLB: Do you think writing is sexy?
MK: This may be heresy, but, no. Writing isn't particularly sexy for me. Maybe I'm in the wrong genre! For me, writing is one-of-a-kind mental stimulation.
KLB: Okay, but what about the naughty treats while you write in the café? Isn’t that a little bit sexy?
MK: Sure. Actually, a food metaphor might work better for me than a sex metaphor. Writing articles is like nibbling on yummy hors d'oeuvres, while writing books is like gorging on an epic and magnificent dinner, each course designed to complement the others.
KLB: Yes, sensuality! But I hear what you’re saying about it not being sexy, about it being unique as a kind of mental stimulation. In that way, it can be torturous!
MK: Right. Writing shreds my nerves. When I'm writing, I'm consumed by it. When I'm not writing, I'm anxious I'll never write again. But there's nothing quite as exciting as conjuring words and sculpting them into something real.
I want to inspire you, so I coax sexy writers like Matthew Kennedy to reveal their creative secrets and processes in writer interviews:
Buy Roadshow! and Matthew’s other books about the rich and dishy history of film.
Catch Matthew’s film reviews on Bright Lights Film Journal .
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