When Douglas Kennedy’s half-drunk father called him “a loser” he emptied his bank account and returned to Ireland where he had studied at Trinity. He’s been more or less travelling since. He explains all to Declan Burke.
The Heat of Betrayal
Hutchinson, €16.99, ebook, €10.99
DOUGLAS KENNEDY, the best-selling author of The Big Picture, The Woman in the Fifth and Five Days, has been described by The Times as ‘the absolute master of love stories with heart-stopping twists’. Which sounds terrific, even it’s not a description that Douglas recognises.
“I don’t write love stories,” says Douglas, as we sit down in the lounge of Dublin’s Brooks Hotel.
“For a long time my books were packaged with female-oriented covers, and in a way that’s a mistake because the books are a lot more complicated than that. I like the fact that I play both sides of the street. I think I’m a serious novelist but I think I’m also someone you want to read. I work very hard on the drive of the narrative, and I tell stories, but I think when you get down to it, if there’s a theme running through all of my books, it’s modern anxiety.”
That theme is particularly apparent in his latest novel, The Heat of Betrayal. Desperate to repair their fraying marriage, American couple Robin and Paul — she’s an accountant, he’s an artist — fly to Morocco for an extended holiday. Once there, however, they discover that their exotic surroundings magnify the faults in their marriage, especially when Robin learns that Paul is guilty of an exceptionally cruel deception.
“I’m a globalist, I travel all the time,” says Douglas, who has a parallel career as the author of travel books and who holds dual American and Irish passports.
“Everything interests me, but I’m particularly interested in how you take your country with you and bring your own values abroad. In the case of Paul and Robin, they’re taking their very fragile marriage into a country which is changing and shifting, a country that has an inherent mystery about it. And Paul, as we discover, has this twisted relationship with Morocco going back decades. Morocco is a wonderful place in many respects, but it’s also a country where, if you find yourself there in a fragile state, you could almost start writing your own nightmare.”
Robin’s nightmare begins when she belatedly discovers what Douglas Kennedy describes as an ‘intimate treason’. Paul, an artist, has much in common with Robin’s father, a charming but feckless man who squandered her family’s wealth.
“There’s a great line from Eliot’s The Hollow Men which is, ‘Between the motion and the act falls the shadow,’” says Douglas.
“That’s what I’m always fascinated by, the shadow. In the case of Paul, he behaves like many men who operate that way — they will agree to anything to buy themselves the time to work out how to not do that exact thing. Paul is agreeing with all of Robin’s plans, but there’s a part of him, at the very same time, that is also charting his exit strategy.”
If Paul is a wonderfully flawed creation, Robin brings her fair share of neuroses to bear on their pressurised situation.
“I think Freud was right, that we do end up marrying one of our parents,” Douglas says.
“And if there has been a flaw in the glass — and there’s always flaws in the glass, but if it’s a really big one, like a feckless father — there’s always the desire to put that right. So even though Robin is furious and hurt over Paul’s betrayal and disappearance, she also blames herself, which I thought was very important — there’s guilt operating here. That’s not just me being a Catholic boy — there’s guilt operating in all of us. Robin couldn’t save her own father from himself, but can she save Paul? This is where the book begins to pick up a very peculiar momentum — it’s a strange novel, and I say that in the good sense of strange — as Robin quietly becomes unhinged.”
What follows is a thrilling tale as Robin sets off alone in a strange land to find her husband. The opening, which moves from Casablanca to Essaouira, is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, but Douglas also had more literary inspirations to draw upon.
“There were two novels that were in my mind, or two writers I should say. The first
was Paul Bowles, with The Sheltering Sky, which is an extraordinary book. But I was also thinking about Patricia Highsmith, and Highsmith was always very interesting on Americans abroad, especially a couple in trouble, with secrets. I also had in mind [VS] Naipaul, who in one of his books talked about a certain kind of Leftist from the West, who would always turn up in centres of revolution with return air-tickets,” he laughs.
A self-styled ‘inveterate traveller’ (he has just returned from Cambodia), Douglas Kennedy makes the most of the Moroccan palette in The Heat of Betrayal, the variegated landscape leaping off the page in a series of vivid descriptions.
Despite the striking setting, however, the novel takes every opportunity to de-romanticise the exoticness, such as when Robin references the movie Casablanca as her plane is about to touch down and is then confronted with the decidedly prosaic modern city.
“What’s important to me is to always look beyond the picture postcard,” says Douglas.
“For example, when I was writing The Woman in the Fifth, I wanted to write a novel about an American in Paris, but one that went against the entire cliché of the American in Paris, with the chi-chi friends and the intellectual friends hanging out in the Café de Flore, getting involved with a femme fatale and this whole thing.
“I started walking around the grubbier parts of Paris and I found this Turkish quarter in the Ninth — Rue de Paradis, how could you not love a street called Rue de Paradis? And all my Parisian friends were asking, ‘How did you discover this part of the city?’ And I said, ‘On foot.’
“What I always say to younger writers is, the subject of your book is not in your navel, it’s out there. It’s the lives of others. Just look around you, at what’s going on.”
‘Out there’ has always been hugely important to Douglas Kennedy’s writing career, which began in 1988 when he published the travel book Beyond the Pyramids: Travels in Egypt.
“I started writing travel books here in Dublin — in fact, Beyond the Pyramids begins in my old house just off the South Circular Road, and me leaving there to travel overland to Egypt.”
That journey began a decade earlier, when he first arrived at Dublin’s Trinity College in the mid-1970s as a History major.
“Trinity was a remarkable place, and it changed me enormously,” he says. “My tutor was David Norris, and he was wonderful. By the time I left at the end of the year, I really didn’t want to leave.”
On his return to New York, however, and after graduating college, Douglas found himself virtually broke and struggling to find his way in life.
“New York is the vertical play-pen of ambition,” he says, “and it’s very much about the importance of success-success-success. I love New York, but it’s very pressured and self-important. After graduating I was working for $50 a week in a theatre off Broadway and living in the family apartment. I was coming under huge pressure from my very conservative father to do something sensible with my life. He came in with a friend one night from the office, they were both a little drunk, and my father turned to his friend and said, ‘Here’s my son, the loser.’ He actually said that.”
Douglas pauses to consider the consequences of those words.
“The next day, I emptied my bank account and flew back to Ireland.”
He hasn’t stopped travelling since.
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