Zibby speaks to author Charles Kenny about AMERICAN SYCAMORE, a gripping, profoundly moving novel about the turbulence in today's American life and the invincible power of love between a husband, a wife, and their friend, even in the face of unthinkable tragedy. Charles shares stories from growing up in a big Irish Catholic family in Boston with a father who loved to read. He also describes the profound influence of his late son on his work—and reflects on the therapeutic power of writing in processing personal tragedy and creating deeply human characters in his novel.


Zibby: Welcome Charles. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss American Sycamore.


Charles: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. And, and, and thank you for doing all of what you're doing. Zippy really it's, it's crazy that this, this massive effort that you have been able to organically create this, this unit of the Zippy verse that it's just, it's, it's a, it was really needed and you filled this need.

And I think it's great because you know, ignorance is the enemy and writing and reading helps in so many ways. So thank you for doing what you're doing. It's, it's, it's great. 

Zibby: Oh, I appreciate you saying that. And, uh, I'm so glad. So your brother, John Kenny, as you know, has been, I've been such a fan of his for a long time and I'm delighted to be publishing his next book.

So that is just so exciting. And now having read your book, I see some similarities, but. You're both so good in different ways. And I'm like, what did their mom do? Like, how did, what happened? Or their dad? Like, what happened over there? How do I do this to my kids? 

Charles: It's funny, you know, we grew up in a house with Irish Catholic household in Boston and we were very Catholic and back I was born in 1950.

And so I was in Catholic schools for from age 5 to 17, I had nearly enough therapy to get up, get over part of that, uh, not quite enough, but there were six boys in the house. And so mom was busy. She would, she was a mother who didn't have time to read, but, you know, it was a nurturing environment. And, um, Uh, it was great.

My father was a, was a reader and um, I think we got that from him. So, yeah. 

Zibby: Wow. This is nuts. Earlier I interviewed somebody who's one of 12 and today now one of six. This is great that 18 kids between the two of your families. It's amazing. It's pretty nuts. 

Charles: Well, you know, 12 wasn't uncommon in our neighborhood, in the neighborhood we lived in in Boston.

You know, everybody was cops and firemen and city workers. And I don't, I guess they didn't know how the reproductive thing worked or what, I don't know. But, you know, the she ins up the street had 13 and it was, it was not that uncommon. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Charles: That's, that's wife abuse.

Zibby: Okay, your novel, American Sycamore, can you tell readers what it's about and how you came up with the idea for this book when you decided to write the book? All of that. 

Charles: Yeah, I had written three novels years ago and they're kind of, Mystery type things and I like doing it, but it was ultimately not something I wanted to continue to do.

And I had always wanted to write a character driven novel and I didn't really think I was capable of doing that of stepping up a couple of levels to to do that. I thought that was for other people. And a lot of years went by and a lot of things happened in my life. Some of them good. Some of them bad.

And during the pandemic, I just sat down 1 evening and started writing. It's 1 of these crazy things that authors say, well, the. The, the, the story started writing itself for the characters dictated where I took it. And I think that was in part true. I wanted to write about the boomer experience or the experience of, of, of, of, of, of educated boomers who cared a lot about.

Who came of age during the civil rights demonstrations during the anti war demonstrations Who were committed to use their privilege and their education to make the country better and a lot of Tough things happen on the way and and I wanted to explore that the personal side of it for me. I I lost uh, we lost our son in 2012 he was a remarkable young man graduated from brown and and and uh, Commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps the next day, very liberal guy politically, but wanted to really believe that people who had the privilege of going to private high school, Brown university, that sort of thing should, should, should serve the country.

And so that, that was, uh, you know, you think about that every day and I wanted to deal with that. I think if you're a writer or at least a part of it, you, you as a writer, When stuff happens, really huge stuff happens in your life. Part of the way you deal with it is by writing about it. And, and, um, that's what I did.

I also created these three characters whom I really came to love and it sounds crazy, but they were pure inventions. I use some of my own experiences, prostate cancer, the loss of my son, these sorts of things as plot items. But these characters came out of who knows where, and I really grew to love them.

And so it was a very joy, it was a hard experience, but it was a very joyous experience. I really, I'm really happy I, I did it. 

Zibby: Well, the characters are incredibly real. Like, very, very real. I felt like I also came to know them, and their friendship with Rey, and all of their beliefs. I mean, you don't, you're not afraid to go there with places and things and, and, and, and, and maybe unpopular things that people are thinking or just, I, I, I found part of the narrative and, and let me just back up to say, I am so, so sorry about your son and the way that you wrote about not only losing the son in this book, but even JJ and his loss and talking to the father.

I mean, all of that was, you know, this was like a hold, hold your heart book. Do you know what I mean? Like, So poignant, so emotional, the way you wrote about it, and incredibly powerful. So I'm sorry, I'm so sorry for your loss, and anyway. 

Charles: Well, thank you, thank you for saying that, and thank you for mentioning JJ. 

JJ., there was a small event. Recently, and I did a reading and I read about JJ, you know, of all the, you know, 300 pages or 280 pages, whatever the, I, I love JJ and I love the story of JJ. And, and, and so Ray, the character who you alluded to, who's the Dean of the medical school trained as a physician in Boston, and then went off to Vietnam.

And was saw what was going on and tried to save all these children as he called them 19 year old 20 year old marines and uh, j. j Becomes in the novel an enormously important symbol of what we lost, you know We lost our soul and and and and j. j was emblematic of that as was j. j's dad So thank you so much for mentioning that it really um You I love that part of the book.

Zibby: I love that part too. Did you have someone, did you have a doctor come to you or did you just make that up? You just made it up? 

Charles: Purely, yeah, purely invention. Yeah. 

Zibby: Wow. 

Charles: Yeah. I've read a lot of Vietnam books back in the day. There was a great Michael Herr book called Dispatches, which was really a magnificent Achievement.

Then there was another book by, I think it was Philip Caputo, a rumor of war. Those were kind of, I read those books over and over again, and you really got a sense of, and of course I had friends who were in Vietnam. I was lucky enough when our entire, I remember when our entire family sat around the radio to listen to the draft numbers, and I was lucky to get a number that kept me out of Vietnam.

My mother, I remember I remember mom crying when I got the good number and those are really crazy times. And one of the things that happens in the novel, as you well know, and that I really wanted to explore was this idea that These boomers, these, these people, and particularly Rob, who's the, uh, constitutional lawyer, there's their belief in America is just profound.

And Rob is teaching this class of. new students, incoming freshmen and privileged kids who have been chosen to go to Harvard. And it's just, he's thrilled. And so he's talking about what to him, are the great kind of moments, constitutional moments in American history. And he, he talks about Brown versus the Board of Education, where the court said no separate, but equal.

He talks about the, the, the Gideon versus Wayne, Wainwright nine years later, 1963, where, where the court says, by the way, We don't care whether you have no money or not. You are entitled to a lawyer in court, and he, he just, Rob just loves that, that this guy wrote his appeal to the Supreme Court in pencil on paper provided to him in prison, and his case is hurt by the court, and so he's enormously enthusiastic, and suddenly he looks around the courtroom, and there are these students and they're saying to him, Professor, it's about 1619 now that's all ancient history. We want to talk about the reframing by the New York Times of the origin story, and Rob is just blown away by that had no sort of sense that that had become this. This thing and he he bristles and he pushes back hard. You're not going to tell Rob that the American origin story isn't about the Enlightenment and about the founders seeking freedom.

This idea that it was about slavery really so and I think a lot of aging boomers have had an enormous amount of trouble with that kind of thing and that's why you I I think you see so much sort of reflexive response to to wokeism and you know you what you're saying to this generation of people is no no no you got it wrong.

You got it wrong. You think you have a great credential from the 60s and 70s for being against the war and demonstrating in favor of civil rights, but the history has passed you by. And that's a tough thing for them to try to cope with. And I think it's a tough thing for a lot of people in of my generation to cope with because we thought we did have the credential that indicated we done the best we can as a generation to try to make America better, to try to uplift people.

And now the story is not so much that at all. 

Zibby: Well, I for one have not read this in contemporary fiction before, this reaction. To the almost entrapment of of words right there. There's the scene in the beginning where Rob is asked what he thinks about the 16, 19, right? 16, nine. 16, 19, 16, 19. Yeah. Yeah. Okay.

Sometimes I get numbers all screwed up. 16, 19. thing and he's busy and he just quickly responds and that's used against him and I don't want to give anything away towards the end where he, you know, gets his due basically, but he's just marveling at how quickly someone's reputation can be destroyed. Like 40 years of work and You know, enthusiastic people fighting for something different can just take people down as it's happening all the time and, you know, I think it's really great to point out, you know, is this fair?

Is this not fair? Let's discuss it. Let's think about it because it is what's happening. And, you know, I don't know. I think it's really important that you put it out there. 

Charles: Yeah. I really felt it was an important part of the, sort of, one of the themes that really mattered. And I, I haven't, as you say, I haven't, I've read very little about that in fiction.

Mm hmm. You know, there's obviously tons of nonfiction, but, you know, fiction gives you an opportunity to explore that stuff in a, in a, in a much more nuanced way, I think, and in a more interesting way. And it becomes much more personal when you, when you introduce to readers, these characters about whom you.

Hope they come to care and in some cases come to love. And, and I really liked exploring that. And, and, and I liked the recognition by these older white males. I think, is that the term we're using now? The older white males, I've heard about them, uh, by them, you get the Harvard president sitting there and.

They're saying, you know, the kids, you know, these kids are great, you know, they got a lot of this stuff. Right. They'll figure it out. So, yeah.

Zibby: Well, also the generosity that comes towards the end. And I, you know, I won't discuss the details, but that was a really interesting way to handle that. And very, yeah, just the generosity of that was, was notable, and also speaks volumes.

I'm being so cryptic because I don't want to give a lot of this stuff away, but you could have taken that in a whole different direction. And that was a really interesting way. 

Charles: Yeah, well, I'm so glad you mentioned that because originally I did take it in a whole different direction as I was revising it. I realized that it was very ungenerous and that Rob is now in a position where he's exonerated for lack of a better term.

And it's not who he is to be ungenerous, and I felt I owed it to him. This is how crazy I am that I, that I know him and think about him, uh, a fictional character, but I really felt I owed it to him to do what is really in his character and in his nature. And it's funny. I, I. I got a call from one of my closest friends.

I gave him one of the first copies of the book. He called me. He was furious, absolutely furious. You could have gotten those girls from the Crimson. This is a Porcellian club guy. Okay. This tells you it, right? So he was head of hasty pudding, actually president of hasty pudding. And he said, you better, you should have gotten those girls from the crimson.

And he, you, you let them off the hook. And I, I said, well, that's, that's Rob's nature. So, yeah. 

Zibby: Wow. And Ray also in fighting for the, and the whole, with the medical field and what he is willing to do there. I mean, there's a virtuousness to all of the characters in a way, right? Wanting to do good, despite everything.

When. It's it's brave. There's it's a brave bravery to it. 

Charles: Yeah, thank you. I think they are brave characters and I, I love them for that. I love what Ray does when he says look when we actually Ray. Ray's point of view is based somewhat on a friend of mine who ran a health system out in Seattle, a guy named Gary Kaplan, a physician, a wonderful guy.

And his bedrock belief was, when we make any kind of mistake here, and we make mistakes, it's called Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle. When we make mistakes, we have an absolute obligation to announce that to the world, and to educate other healthcare provider organizations on how to fix it. And so Ray is a believer in that notion.

And I think, I think that belief is, is, has spread. And I think more and more organizations do believe that. But I, I needed a plot element for Ray's kind of untamed rage that, that he, he went to Vietnam as a kind of incredibly together person. And. He leaves Vietnam with this rage that can't be extinguished and it's shown in all kinds of ways his own kind of reckless behaviors and his, his inability to, to calm himself without, without help.

And. One of the things I, I liked about, I'm sorry, that's a terrible thing for an author to say. One of the things I like about my book is. 

Zibby: No, it's fine. It's fine. I love it. 

Charles: So it's how they, how the three of them take care of one another. 

Zibby: I was going to say that next, was the, the friendship and the support and this unique bond that they all have.

So I'll say it if you don't want to say it. 

Charles: Yeah, no, no. Thank you for saying it. I love the image of the three of them, Rob and his wife, Julia and Ray, sitting in the In those Adirondack chairs in the in the garden, and it's kind of where everything happens and so much of so much of the support and love that they have for each other, because it's a love story.

Really? Ultimately, it's really to me. It's a love story among these three people, married couple and their friend, and they sustain one another. 

Zibby: And I think one of the most powerful moment. Images is when Rob and Julia have just lost their son and Ray knows and he knows right away that he is the one who is going to have to hold them up and he is there and they are crying in his arms and he, I mean, it was just breathtaking.

Charles: Thank you. Yeah, I love Ray for that. And, and that was in Ray's nature and he's a seer in a way he, he knows what's happening. He knows where things are going and he, he knows exactly how to take care of his friends. 

Zibby: Did you, did you have a friend? How did you get, get through that loss in your life? Did you and your wife have a friend like that?

Charles: Yes. Yes. Several friends like that who. You know, they, you're drowning, you're in the ocean and you're drowning and they reach out and they, they rescued and, um, you know, the love story extends in our line to the, to the very, very close friends who were there for us and, you know, in the worst times and yeah, it's, it's, it's a, um, they help you.

Survive literally, I think survive is is the right word and and and in surviving you find a purpose and our purpose became keeping our son's memory alive at the school the boy school. He went to outside of Boston and that's a really big part of our lives now and will be forever So yeah, these friends, you know, there's friendship.

There's close friendship and then there's the deep love You Of people who people you're attached to heart to heart and, um, we're very fortunate to have you with us. 

Zibby: Tell me more about your son. 

Charles: Charlie was happy, I would say, every day of his life, except the day he did not make the varsity hockey team at Belmont Hill School as a sophomore.

He cried, came home and cried, but other than that day, he was happy, positive, optimistic, smart, incredibly engaged with his friends when he made the school varsity hockey team the following year. That was the happiest day of his life. I would say he wanted to make people happy. He wanted to include people, and he did that.

And, you know, these private schools, sometimes they're. Not always as welcoming as they could be, and he made sure that everybody was welcome, and it really mattered to him greatly to embrace and include everyone, and he loved his sister and protected his sister. He loved his mom, like, they had the greatest relationship and he was a really good human being and he wanted to, he wanted to do really important things and he got exactly what he wanted as his military occupational specialty ground intelligence, which enabled him to be a infantry officer. To lead an infantry platoon, or to lead a ground intel platoon, or to lead a scout sniper platoon. So he's very accomplished in the Marine Corps. He's trained for several years, and he was ready to deploy to Afghanistan with his team. And he came back east to visit his girlfriend and her family in Bethesda, Maryland.

She was a year. She was a year behind him at Brown, and he loved her and her family, and they're great people, part of those, one of those friends who's helped us, and he was going to come home to us that day. For a couple of nights and before he shipped out, his base was in 29 Palms, California, so he was going to leave us go to 29 palms and then ship out.

And, you know, as you can imagine, as a Marine Corps officer, 25 years old, he was in the best physical condition you could imagine, but thing called myocarditis struck his heart and he passed away. And, you know, it was shocking beyond shocking. And, um, 

Zibby: I'm so sorry. 

Charles: He's a great man. He was great. He made the world a better place 

Zibby: for sure.

Thank you for telling me about him. 

Charles: Yeah. 

Zibby: It sounds amazing. I 

Charles: love it. You know, it's very funny. I'm really glad you asked me because 90 percent of people, when they found out, because when people say to me, do you have children? I say, yes, of course, uh, we have a daughter who's 33 and we have a son who passed away when he was 25.

And that usually shuts down the conversation because understandably people feel very awkward at that moment, but I'm not going to not mention my son, you know, and very rarely do I get the follow up question, which is tell me about your son, but it's my favorite question. And, um, he was a riot. He was funny as hell and you know, his love for his mother and his sister and for me and his friends.

Yeah, he was He was captain of the lacrosse team at Brown. No one had more fun playing lacrosse. So, yeah, he was great. He was amazing. How old are your kids? 

Zibby: I have twins who are about to be 17, boy and a girl. 

And my son also plays hockey. 

Charles: No kidding. 

Zibby: He's a goalie.

Charles: He's a goalie. 

Zibby: Yeah.

Charles: You poor thing, Zibby. 

Zibby: And 

Charles: I spent thousands of hours in rinks from the time our son was six to the time he was graduated from high school. And the goalie's parents were always the ones way down the end nervous as could be. Oh, you poor thing. But it's, it's, isn't it the most fun you can have going to these places?

I love it. 

Zibby: Yeah, I, I, I mean, I wouldn't mind like an outdoor warm sport, but yes, um, and then I have a nine and 10 year old as well, but, uh. 

Charles: That's so great. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Charles: So great. So how did he become a goalie? 

Zibby: I think he just like, was really tired. He kept like laying down on the ice and then he realized if he's in the net, he wouldn't have to move.

Not even kidding.

Charles: I don't believe it. 

Zibby: No, it's true. Oh my gosh. Charles, I could talk to you all day. Your book was so good. And yeah, it was, I really hope people read it and read it slowly and take it all in because there's a lot in here. And yeah, and most of all, there's a lot of love. So. 

Charles: Thanks to the, I, I so appreciate you doing this with me.

I really appreciate what you've said about my novel. And I just want to say again, I'm so grateful as are many others about what you are doing in creating this remarkable organization or series of organizations. And, uh, you know, kudos to you. It's, it's, it's hugely important in our society. So keep going.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you. 

Charles: Thanks. Take care. 


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