Skip to main content

John Kenney: An Interview With the Author of the Debut Novel TRUTH IN ADVERTISING

I love interviewing debut authors on my blog. This interview is with author John Kenney, a writer well known for contributing to The New Yorker. This is the story of how he got published and how he found his literary agent. John Kenney has worked as a copywriter in New York City for seventeen years. He has also been a contributor to The New Yorker magazine since 1999. Some of his work appears in a collection of the New Yorker’s humor writing, Disquiet Please! He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His debut novel, TRUTH IN ADVERTISING (S&S, Jan. 2013) was called an "outstanding debut" by Kirkus in a starred review, while Booklist said of it, "It's a masterful blend of wit and seriousness, stunning in its honesty," in another starred review.

I love interviewing debut authors on my blog. This interview is with author John Kenney, a writer well known for contributing to The New Yorker. This is the story of how he got published and how he found his literary agent.

John Kenney has worked as a copywriter in New York City for seventeen years. He has also been a contributor to The New Yorker magazine since 1999. Some of his work appears in a collection of the New Yorker’s humor writing, Disquiet Please! He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His debut novel, TRUTH IN ADVERTISING (S&S, Jan. 2013) was called an "outstanding debut" by Kirkus in a starred review, while Booklist said of it, "It's a masterful blend of wit and seriousness, stunning in its honesty," in another starred review.

(How long should you wait before following up with an agent?)

Image placeholder title
Image placeholder title

What is the book’s genre/category?

Literary fiction.

Please describe what the story/book is about.

An advertising copywriter who’s closing in on his 40th birthday confronts the sham of his life, the family he’s estranged from, and the dying father who abandoned them all. Also there are funny parts.

Where do you write from?

I live in Brooklyn, NY, (though I want to make clear that I do not have a beard, make my own artisinal jams, or wear one of those annoying little pork-pie hats). I write from a coffee shop in SoHo as well as in the main reading room of the New York Public Library. Also, on occasion, I ride a subway line end to end and write, particularly the A train out to Far Rockaway.

Briefly, what led up to this book?

I was writing TV commercials and print ads at an ad agency. But I’d also been contributing humor pieces to the New Yorker and the New York Times and The Los Angeles Times for many years. I’d quit my job and moved to France in ’04 to write my first novel, which was never published. I went back to advertising to make money but continued writing. I reread the first novel, took a very small part of it, and began what became Truth In Advertising.

What was the time frame for writing this book?

I started in the spring of ’09 and had a solid draft 18 months later. I was laid off from my job in April of ’09, near the depth of the financial crisis. There were no jobs in advertising, freelance or full time. I had a three-month-old daughter, my wife wasn’t working, and the lovely people at my former agency canceled my health insurance. What better time to attempt a novel?

How did you find your agent?

My agent is David Kuhn of Kuhn Projects. I found him through a recommendation from my editor at the New Yorker.

(Learn how to find a literary agent.)

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

First, the entire thing was a surprise to me. It’s a miracle anyone buys your book. The chances are so slim and the competition so stiff. The numbers are just crazy. I read that something like 200,000 books comes out a year. And yet how many do editors say no to? Probably ten times that. I got very, very lucky to find a home at Simon & Schuster/Touchstone. My editor is Sally Kim. I can’t say enough about her, about how much she helped me, helped shape the book. She’s an old-school editor, a Max Perkins. She’s this ferocious supporter of her writer’s, believes deeply in them and their books. During the editing process I spent hours on the phone, long emails, talking through something. Mind you, she has 15, 20 other books going on at the same time. But never once did I feel rushed. She knew the book intimately. Her imprint is all over it.

Second, I was surprised they agreed to buy me a helicopter.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

To quote Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid, “prayer.” Honestly, I don’t really have a clue. I worked hard and got lucky. I think there’s certainly a measure of luck to this. But you have to put in the work. There are so many talented, passionate people out there and they all seem to be writing a novel. So persistence is really key. How badly do you want it? What are you willing to do? I sent pieces to the New Yorker for ten years before they accepted one.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

Take my time. I rush too much. It makes for sloppy drafts. I read once that Don Delillo will use a new sheet of paper for each new paragraph. He said that it helps him see just that paragraph. He’ll sit with it all day if he has to. But then, that’s why he’s Don Delillo.

Something about you people would be surprised to know?

Maybe the fact that there is no language that I don’t speak fluently. Which is a lie. I have no idea what might surprise someone who doesn’t know me.

(How successful should a blog be before agents/editors will take notice?)

Favorite movie?

12 Angry Men.

Website(s)?

http://pages.simonandschuster.com/truthinadvertising

http://www.byjohnkenney.com/JohnKenney.html

What’s next?

The next book. But probably lunch first.

Image placeholder title


Join the Writer's Digest VIP Program today!

You'll get a subscription to the magazine, a
subscription to WritersMarket.com, discounts
on almost everything you buy, a download,
and much more great stuff.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Image placeholder title

Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

Kerri Maniscalco: On Big Reveals in Fantasy Fiction

Kerri Maniscalco: On Big Reveals in Fantasy Fiction

New York Times bestselling author Kerri Maniscalco discusses the satisfaction in finishing a series with her new fantasy novel, Kingdom of the Feared.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: A New Podcast Episode, Novel Conference Registration, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce a new podcast episode about literary agents, Novel Conference registration reminder, and more!

5 Tips on How To Write Fast—And Well!

5 Tips on How To Write Fast—And Well!

Who says your first drafts can’t be completed manuscripts? Author Kate Hewitt lays out 5 tips on how to write fast and well.

Shelley Burr: On Writing About Rage in Crime Fiction

Shelley Burr: On Writing About Rage in Crime Fiction

Author Shelley Burr discusses the less altruistic side of amateur sleuths in her debut crime novel, WAKE.

Sew vs. So vs. Sow (Grammar Rules)

Sew vs. So vs. Sow (Grammar Rules)

Let's look at the differences between sew, so, and sow with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Using Beats To Improve Dialogue and Action in Scenes

Using Beats To Improve Dialogue and Action in Scenes

For many writers, dialogue is one of the most difficult things to get right. Here, author and educator Audrey Wick shares how to use beats to improve dialogue and action in scenes.

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: On Introducing Russian History to Fantasy Readers

Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: On Introducing Russian History to Fantasy Readers

Author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore discusses the changes her manuscript underwent throughout the writing process of her debut historical fantasy novel, The Witch and the Tsar.

Freelance Food Writing: How to Break Into the Industry

Freelance Food Writing: How to Break Into the Industry

Food writer Deanna Martinez-Bey shares her advice on breaking into the freelance food-writing industry, including finding your niche, pitching ideas, and more.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Red Line Moment

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Red Line Moment

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have somebody cross your character's red line.