William Kennedy said he "finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul" in his beloved hometown, Albany, N.Y. For nearly half a century, this Pulitzer Prize-winning author has woven this city’s colorful and raucous past into a tapestry of novels that refute common misconceptions of Albany as provincial and drab.
An Irish-American novelist, screenwriter and journalist, Kennedy rose from literary obscurity to national renown following the publication of his 1983 masterpiece "Ironweed," which won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel’s success breathed new life into his earlier fiction works. "The Ink Truck" (1969), "Legs" (1975) and "Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game" (1978) were reissues and became best sellers.
The artistic achievement of "Ironweed" also earned Kennedy a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Even Hollywood took notice. Francis Ford Coppola enlisted him to co-write the screenplay for "The Cotton Club," a 1984 box-office hit starring Richard Gere and Gregory Hines; and in 1987 Kennedy wrote the screenplay for a film version of "Ironweed," starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep.
"The selection of William Kennedy continues the Helmerich tradition of recognizing the most significant and original writers of our time," said local author William Bernhardt, chairman of the Distinguished Author Award Selection Committee. "Like last year’s Helmerich laureate William Manchester, Kennedy has mastered both worlds – that of fiction and nonfiction – and has succeeded in making his subjects, however dark or forbidding, come alive on the printed page."
Kennedy grew up in North Albany, a predominately Irish-Catholic neighborhood, often call the North End of Limerick. He began his writing career in the 1950s and ‘60s working as a journalist for such papers as Albany’s Times-Union, the Miami Herald and Puerto Rico’s San Juan Star. In the ‘70s, he quit journalism altogether to concentrate on his true love, creative writing. Kennedy said that journalism is a "great training ground" and that "no bail bondsman, no lawyer, no politician, no bartender, no actor can enter the variety of worlds that a journalist can," but he emphasized that writing novels is what he’s supposed to do in this world.
In 1984 Kennedy said that between the publications of his first three novels, he and his family "lived on credit and promises to pay. It was a good life, and we had a lot of fun. But we never had an extra nickel." Then, when "Ironweed" was rejected by 13 publishers – including Viking, it eventual publisher – Kennedy’s future seemed even bleaker, until his friend and mentor, Saul Bellow, who won the 1989 Distinguished Author Award, admonished Viking for not publishing it and even prophesied the novel’s commercial and literary success.
Other novels by Kennedy are "Quinn’s Book" (1988), "Very Old Bones" (1992) and "The Flaming Corsage" (1996). His nonfiction works include "O Albany! An Urban Tapestry" (1983) and "Riding the Yellow Trolley Car" (1994). Kennedy collaborated with his son, Brendan Kennedy, on two children’s books, "Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine" (1986) and Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose" (1994).
Kennedy is the founder and director of the Writers Institute at Albany, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.