Arkana Editors visited with playwright Janet Kenney. Her creative nonfiction work, “What Else but Grace,” is featured in Arkana’s 11th Issue.
Arkana: “What Else But Grace” is part of a longer project. Can you give us an overview of the book-length work?
Janet Kenney: Around 1980, we saw signs of illness. Six long years later, we had a diagnosis: lupus. I did not take it well. The story is about all the wild and many catastrophes I’ve endured, and the many tree roots I tripped over as I made bumbling attempts to grow up, earn some grace and live a good life anyway. It’s told in a series of chapters and updates; in updates, I share some of the issues and events that occurred while I was writing the book. The updates, I hope, will help readers understand a little about what chronic feels like. And I cannot tell my story without including my little white fluffy mutt, Grace.
Ark: “What Else But Grace” recalls a situation you experienced over thirty years ago, yet feels timely and fresh in the essay. What inspired you to return to this event and tell this story today?
JK: I have Irish blood, both sides, all the way back; I’m a natural-born storyteller. I know a good story when I live one.
Ark: The style in which you write takes the reader all across New York, causing a bit of the traveling fatigue and confusion that your main character relays as limbs become heavy and tired. Was this intentional, this shared burden of movement?
JK: What a powerful question. It was my intention to make the feelings from inside a body with such illness clear, nearly tangible, to the reader.
There’s a continuity between the morning and afternoon sensations—the gown, the tiara, the dull ache, the children’s shouts and then, later, we’re still in the details: the woman’s red cheeks, the sneakers, the policeman’s eyes. I’m trying to help folks stay connected even though they might want to back away.
Ark: How does your background in theatre influence your writing?
JK: Dialogue is action, we say in playwriting. There’s a lot of dialogue in the piece—more than might be expected for a memoir. I think the way people speak reveals their outer and inner lives, their true charm, or their ill-will, and that delights me. We also say that character is everything. My dad, my doctor, and my dog are major characters in the book. Theater teaches you how to entertain an audience. Laughter leaves you open to the next moment. In theater, you cultivate timing, authenticity, and vulnerability. Anything can happen. Live. I hope the book is live – always capable of surprising you.
Ark: In addition to your work with Arkana, are there any other publications or projects you are excited about?
JK: During the height of the pandemic, I had a quiet life that gave me time to write a new full-length play, Cape Haven. (Even with all that time, I’m just recently feeling it’s finished!) It’s set in the family house on Cape Cod over an August weekend in 2019, six years after the Boston Marathon bombing. Lou lost part of her leg in the bombing and she and each of her family members all face more unbearable loss. I think it’s one of the things that binds humans to each other—surviving loss.
Ark: We wish you well with your new play and look forward to seeing “What Else but Grace” in a book-length work in print in the future! Thank you for sharing with us!
Read “What Else but Grace” here!
Janet Kenney is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced from Boston to Alaska. She spent the pandemic year writing her new full-length play, Cape Haven. She has a Masters in Playwriting/English from Boston University and a BA in Theater Arts from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. She teaches ESOL for fun.