GUY RAZ, HOST:
Over the past four decades, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy has put Albany, New York, on the literary map. His novels, including "Ironweed," "Roscoe" and "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," used Albany's history and people as a backdrop. So where else to talk with Kennedy about his new novel? Tom Vitale went to Albany.
TOM VITALE, BYLINE: William Kennedy owns a piece of Albany's history.
WILLIAM KENNEDY: Dana, where are those photos, Diamond photos?
VITALE: He lives in the 1857 two-and-a-half-story brick townhouse on Dove Street where the gangster and bootlegger Jack "Legs" Diamond was shot to death in 1931.
KENNEDY: Anyway, this is where they came in. The bed was this way. And he was - his head was at the head of the bed. And they stood on either side of the bed, and one of them shot three bullets into his head, and the other one missed three times.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VITALE: Now, the room is Kennedy's office, with a writing desk just a few feet from the murder scene, a scene Kennedy recreated in his 1975 novel, "Legs."
KENNEDY: Mrs. Laura Wood is the landlady at 67 Dove, said she heard two men climbed the carpeted stairs, passed the potted fern and entered the front room where the noted guest who had originally rented the room as Mr. Kelly was sleeping. She heard the shots, three into Jack's head, three into the wall, and then heard one man say, let's make sure. I've been waiting a long time for this. And a second man said, ah, Hal, that's enough for him.
VITALE: The first half of William Kennedy's new novel is not set in Albany. It's set in Cuba, a place that Kennedy says captured his imagination when he was writing "Legs" 40 years ago.
KENNEDY: Cuba was a player in Prohibition; that was where the rum came from. When this country went dry in 1919, in the end of 1919, a whole gang of our population drifted into Havana to find work, bartenders from my town, Albany.
VITALE: The new novel, "Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes," follows an Albany journalist, Quinn, as he covers the Cuban Revolution in Havana in 1957.
KENNEDY: Mr. Quinn, said Fidel standing up and confirming that he was 6-feet-3, 3 inches closer to the moon than Quinn, they tell me you interrupted your honeymoon to come here. There was that noted beard, black as the forest night and an amiable smile. He wore fatigues and a cap he kept on throughout the interview. They are right, said Quinn, but my pilgrimage here is part of the honeymoon. Without coming to talk to you about revolution, I wouldn't be married.
VITALE: The second half of the story jumps to Albany in 1968, as Quinn reports on race riots and the civil rights movement. These were conflicts that Kennedy himself lived through and wrote about as a newspaperman.
KENNEDY: It certainly was an imaginative transformation for so many people in this country when Fidel actually carried through the revolution and overthrew the dictator. That was a stunning achievement. And in the same sense that the triumph of Martin Luther King and CORE and SNCC, and in Albany it was the Brothers, and it was a neighborhood group movement, and I was covering all this, and it was a very dynamic thing.
VITALE: In 1963, the Albany Times Union assigned Kennedy to write a series of articles on the history of the city's neighborhoods.
KENNEDY: And I spent four months researching the series and interviewing everybody I could find over the age of 90 and checking every neighborhood and understanding the dynamics of all the way the city grew and was created and how important it was.
VITALE: William Kennedy's experience as a reporter in the 1950s and '60s has provided the historical backdrop for all of his fiction, what he calls the background music for his characters. His most famous book, "Ironweed," finds the hobo Francis Phelan returning to Albany and the family he abandoned during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
KENNEDY: Riding up the winding road of St. Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.
VITALE: "Ironweed" won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1984. Three years later, Kennedy wrote the screenplay for the movie starring Jack Nicholson.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IRONWEED")
JACK NICHOLSON: (as Francis Phelan) I knew that guy Grogan when I was a kid. He used to own all the electricity in this town.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) He ain't got much of it now.
NICHOLSON: (as Francis Phelan) Don't bet on it. Them kind of guys never give up on a good thing.
VITALE: Despite his focus on deadbeats, gangsters and corrupt politicians, William Kennedy got the key to the city four years ago from Mayor Gerald Jennings.
MAYOR GERALD JENNINGS: He's immortalized Albany in great literature, the same way James Joyce did this - immortalized Dublin, you know, and Saul Bellow immortalized Chicago.
VITALE: William Kennedy is 83 years old now. He has three children and seven grandchildren. He divides his time with his wife, Dana, between the Dove Street townhouse and a converted farmhouse 16 miles east of the city. He says he's not going anywhere.
KENNEDY: There's a richness of Albany that I couldn't possibly exhaust. I wouldn't want to live anyplace else. It's - this is my town.
VITALE: William Kennedy says everything he's ever written of value is in some way about Albany. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale.