Truth in Advertising: Brooklyn Heights writer’s view

John Kenney. Photo by Rick Knief

Earlier this month we featured Brooklyn writer John Kenney whose debut novel “Truth in Advertising” explores the life of a modern day advertising professional. Kenney, who has worked in the field for nearly two decades, draws upon his own experience and reveals a contemporary advertising world that is, for the most part,  far removed from the drama and sex portrayed in Mad Men. Through his fictional character Finbar Dolan, Kenney offers a candid and humorous vision of what it truly means to be an advertising professional, delving not only into Dolan’s professional life, but also the inevitable complications of romance and family relationships.

In anticipation of the book launch and Kenney’s Jan. 23 appearance at Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn Eagle checked in with the author, who tells us how he wound up in Brooklyn Heights.

After working in advertising for nearly two decades, what finally prompted you to write a novel set in this environment?

Mostly lack of imagination.  I didn’t set out to write a book about advertising.  I set out to write about a guy who was lost.  I set it in an ad agency because I can’t speak with any intelligence to life in a law firm or DA’s office or Wall Street.  And while there’s plenty in the book about life in an agency, I think the book centers more on the main character and his family.  The title has more to do with the main character, who lies to himself, than it does about the business.


Though you’ve spent your career as a copywriter, writing a full-length book must have been a big departure from the writing you’re used to. Was it more challenging or liberating to embark on this project?

Both.  Plus terrifying.  There’s no safety net in novel writing.  Writing ads, you show them to a creative director or to a client.  You can blame them if they kill it, if it doesn’t work.  You’re all alone with a novel.  There are no excuses, no brief, no client input.  That said, it’s also incredibly freeing.  You can say whatever you like.


Can you give us some examples of how copywriting has changed through the years?  For example, have there been changes in the kinds of humor and irony used, or use of buzz words that have changed because of internet and texting?

I don’t pay much attention to it anymore.  But I do think, in general, the writing is weaker.  It’s rare to see long copy ads, where once it was the norm.  Most of the writers I came up with went to college and got degrees in English or art history or journalism.  They took great care with their writing.  Now, the trend is that young writers go to advertising schools.  They learn to write ad copy, as opposed to learn to write.  I’m not sure that’s a good thing.


Brooklyn has such a vibrant literary scene. When you decided to write ‘Truth in Advertising,’ were you at all inspired by the community of writers living in close proximity?

Martin Amis, Paul Auster, and Lena Dunham all came to my house and before I started writing we had a group hug.  Alas, that’s a lie.  Though it is nice to live not far from where Walt Whitman strolled.


When did you move to Brooklyn and in which neighborhood are you living?

I moved to Brooklyn in 1998.  I was living on the Upper West Side, in an apartment I couldn’t really afford.  I came over to visit a friend one afternoon in Brooklyn Heights.  I’d never been to Brooklyn.  I found an apartment a few months later and have lived in the neighborhood ever since.  My wife and I have two children and the apartment is getting noticeably smaller.  Last spring we drove to the suburbs of New Jersey and Westchester.  All lovely.  But we came screaming back to Brooklyn each time.  We love it.


Kenney has worked as a copywriter in New York City for nearly two decades and has written for The New Yorker since 1999. “Truth in Advertising,” already receiving widespread praise, goes on sale today, Jan. 22.

Kenney will appear at Greenlight Bookstore tomorrow, Jan.23, in conversation with Brooklyn author Jami Attenberg.  The event will begin at 7:30pm. Greenlight is located at 686 Fulton Street in Fort Greene.


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