From a fortune cookie to a Pulitzer: the story behind William Kennedy’s Ironweed

Ironweed’s hero navigates the Great Depression in a drunken haze, but his journey is lit by glowing writing about love, friendship and redemption

When the Paris Review interviewed William Kennedy in July 1984, he had just installed a new swimming pool outside his house. Six months earlier, he’d opened a fortune cookie that said he was going to have a lucky week. He’d assumed it was because “I was getting reviewed in about five different major places” – but that wasn’t the half of it. A man (called, pleasingly, Dr Hope) called Kennedy and told him he’d won a MacArthur Fellowship – then $264,000 (these days it is a hefty $625,000). That same year, Kennedy would win the Pulitzer prize for Ironweed, sold the film rights (as well as truck-loads of copies) and received almost universally glowing reviews around the world.

Things were suddenly going well for Kennedy, but ...