Hal Powers (H. Highwater Powers) is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey Co-author Shares His Thoughts on Writing

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting. Here is list of all living authors and links to to past interviews:

Robert Blucher, Ben BochnerJames FinleyJeff Forester, Lynn Jeffress, Neil LidstromJane SatherCharles Varani, Meredith Wadley, Lidia Yukman, and Ken Zimmerman.

Hal Powers’s interview is the eighth I’ve published. In each case, I gave the interviewee wide latitude as far as what questions he/she answered and in what format. Hal made use of this latitude and chose to focus on the two questions he found the most important and relevant.

powersWhat is your life like now? Are you still writing? 

At age 71, I sometimes think of myself as a spin-off of the real-life character Chuck Kinder, a writer and poster child for any combination of three serious creative disorders affecting wordsmiths: writer’s block, procrastination, and hypergraphia, the midnight disease. Kinder (1972-73), like Ken Kesey (1959), was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and the role model for one of his student’s novels, Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys rightfully wears the loose sleeveless mantle of Kinder, who in real time spent nearly 20 years producing an unwieldy novel of over 3,000 pages which, under the thumb of an editor, became a reasonable 358 leafs entitled The Honeymooners in 2001, an admitted romans à clef based on his friendship with fellow Stegner Fellow, Raymond Carver.

After the Kesey experiment, I began teaching Conversational English in Japan, retiring in 2008. In contrast to the inordinate amount of money I earned, my teaching load and responsibilities were ridiculously light. It was then, in my self-imposed monastic lifestyle, that I began to seriously focus on reading all the great and lesser works that I had under deadlines often skimmed in college, and it was in my Nagoya apartment that I discovered and recognized my writing voice referred to in quantum detail – some believe tediously and inaccurately – in Caverns and Voices, a submission to our group’s later intention of following up the Kesey project with a book illuminating our experience.

And then I wrote.

I began work on a collection of inter-connecting short stories – pieces that might be able to stand alone while also supporting a novel-length format – The High Rock Stories, featuring an aging dilettante who in his sixties, with a worn-out Remington typewriter, returns to his crumbling mill town with dreams of solving an age-old mystery while recording for posterity some of the stories he learned from and about its townspeople before he took to the road right out of high school in 1961 in search of Kerouac-ian adventures. One would have similar difficulty locating the restless line between Chuck Kinder’s confessed roman à clef and my approach to story writing since we both admittedly draw more heavily from actual experiences rather than pure imagination – if there really is such a thing – during the creative process. All of which flies in the face of a Kesey dictum: Don’t write about what you know.

In exile as an ex-pat, I decided that either Kesey had been misunderstood or we had been misled by him. I chose the latter. I believe the deeper we scratch our psychic wounds, the closer we can get to understanding what it truly means to be human. Profound rich truths, like one’s writing voice, spurt crimson upon blank pages from ruptured arteries, not from leaking the tired, grey-tinged blood from surface-level veins. His advice was probably a calculated, preemptive action designed to prevent us from setting our experimental novel on a college campus with a stock of frat-brothers-sorority-sisters, hot co-eds and self-indulgent professors that could have echoed of the page the Animal House story filmed in Eugene environs and on the UO campus just some twelve years earlier.

Don’t write about what you know. If that’s good advice, then how do you square the great successes of Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion with his admitted experiences as a guinea pig for psychedelics at Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital, his stint working at the state veteran’s hospital, and from living in Eugene, the hub of so many logging communities rimming Eugene and brimming with logging lore? As all great writers, Kesey fundamentally wrote about what he knew first hand; in the case of Caverns, our great mentor simply thought it best to have his hands firmly on the steering wheel of his busload of neophytes.

CavernsNovelLike Grady Tripp, AKA Chuck Kinder, I have suffered wounds many times by killer questions fired unexpectedly at me about my writing. They zing and whiz, come at the most absurd moments, like the sniper’s bullet that killed Lew Ayers in All Quiet On The Western Front as he reached his hand out of the muck and mire of the trenches toward the beauty of a butterfly. I, too, wear the mantle of a writer, am certified by an MFA in fiction, credited as a co-author of Caverns, have won a couple of minor awards in fiction and journalism, have mentored and taught novices in composition and story, and I talk-the-talk fairly well, which means my cloak is emblazoned with a powerful electro-magnetic target that sucks every errant missile my way, whether by foe or friend: Yer a writer? Whaddaya write? How’s that novel of yers going? When ya gonna finish? And the most recent and troublesome questions by Theodore Carter in this blog:

What is your life now? Are you still writing?” 

There’s only one acceptable definition for the word writer: A writer is one who writes, a definition which is not predicated upon either one’s degree of public success stemming from one’s list of publications. In its most simplistic form, it means for me to be actively engaged in the process of putting words on a page. It means to be active in some phase of a creative process dealing with words – and the key word here is active – whether it be reading, note-taking, brainstorming, contemplating or typing, any activity that leads the creator or audience to an image whose essences is based on word play. It means for me to be actively engaged in story-telling – whether fiction or not – poetry, song lyrics, letters, informative or entertaining essays or memorials or tributes, journaling, or just plain jazzing around, all forms of the written word specific and personal to my oeuvre as a writer.

What is your life like now? Are you still writing, asks Mr. Carter. I occasionally write poems as I have over the years whenever I fell in love or had my heart broken or found myself beaming an illegal smile. For the last two years I have been working with my brother, a talented guitarist and singer in Syracuse, New York who finds a way to musically adapt and express my words as we work together to create a collection of songs for a CD.

As old school as it sounds, I write letters. Long-paged true epistles from the heart and head. Whether or not it’s a missive to a Miss concerning the ambitions and complications of love, or a forwarding of a flaming kite to traffic court appealing a parking ticket, I labor mightily at achieving accuracy, clarity, creativity in text and tone. I may not always win my pleadings to love or law, but I am usually pleased, sometimes even amused at my dedication to, and honor of, the printed word.

I have to my credit a handful of essays written in the last few years that attest to my dogged pursuit of trying to make sense out of the art of writing, my life, the passing-over of loved ones, and almost daily I scratch on sticky notes, napkins, yellow pads, and grocery receipts written fragments both brilliant and mundane and eventually get them transcribed into my treasured cyber notebook which takes up where my shelf of spiral bound paper equivalents left off quite a few years ago.

My electronic journal houses my Fictionary, a compilation of departments dedicated to language, dialogue, descriptive terms, contractions-expletives-interjections and samples of technique and dialogue, anything that may support my writing projects. The bulk of my journal, however, comprises my two prospective novels with the working titles: Revenge, which grew out of my collection of shorter pieces, The High Rock Stories, and overshadows them in terms of length and its state of incompleteness, and Silvia Steel, the Silver Angel: the almost true story of a near-life event, a semi-historical story about barnstorming after WWI. Like Chuck Kinder and his novel, The Honeymooners, these two works of mine have absorbed most of my creative energy for years. Almost daily I rob and steal from other writers, film, drama, conversations, personal observations, any medium of written or spoken word, and, notes in hand and inspired, I feed the essence of those purloined fragments, with my own personalized twists, into ever-expanding character profiles and plotting. My two protagonists in Revenge, Bobby Draygo and Will Hardesty, therefore, are now as real and alive to me as family, as are Silvia Steel and The Boy who believes in her.

This is where Charlie Rose, Bill Moyer, or those less luminous ask: But is that writing…real writing? Yes, I answer, under the definition at the beginning of this conversation, it’s writing. Writing, as the gurus like to say, is a process, and the snail-paced work I have been doing for years is the heart of my particular process. I am actively putting words on the page and am constantly creating and living with my stories. That’s writing in its simplest form. What I am not doing at this point in my life is sharing or publishing my work because, for now, the pace and load of work itself seems sufficient.

Kesey once told us cavers to not disparage the blue hair ladies of the local writers circle because writers, all writers, face a most difficult challenge, and they and our present luminaries need our empathy and support, the sub-text of which is that public success is not the truest measure of a writer. Writers not blessed with abundant talent, or the pluck and luck, or the will for whatever reason, that leads to publication often face and overcome much more formidable obstacles than the more gifted and renowned.

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Truman Capote and The Potato Book

or 

In Cold Potato Leek Soup

While weeding through my mother-in-law’s extensive collection of cookbooks, I came across The Potato Book, published in 1973 with a foreword by Truman Capote.

photoCapote’s famous name conjures up a lot of images and associations for me, none of which have anything to do with potatoes.

I flipped through the book which, aside from an extensive collection of potato recipes, includes black and white illustrations from twenty three different artists. Capote, in his short foreword, proclaims a fondness for baked potatoes topped with sour cream and caviar and paired with vodka.

My central question (why did Truman Capote write a foreword for a potato cookbook?) remained unanswered.

I tracked down the book’s author, Myrna Davis, former head of the Art Director’s Club who relayed the following story:

The Potato Book was created for the benefit of The Hampton Day School, an alternative school (pre-K through 12) situated on a former potato farm in Bridgehampton in 1966. I came up with the concept for the book, gathered recipes and edited them, and invited artist friends to contribute drawings for the book. Truman Capote was a friend and neighbor of one of the school’s founders and a supporter of it, and graciously agreed to do an introduction. Paul (the artist Paul Davis and Myrna’s husband) designed the cover and formatted the pages, and another parent and I pasted it up on boards. The first edition was printed locally, the costs for which were repaid out of the first proceeds.photo-1

After seeing it, Narcisse Chamberlain, an editor from William Morrow & Co. asked to publish it in hardcover (as did a very young Peter Workman). It afterward went into four foreign editions–Italian, Dutch, German and Japanese (translated by the filmmaker Itami Juzo)–and then an English language paperback, remaining in print until 1980.

In a way, The Potato Book became a self-publishing success story years before such success stories came into vogue. Is it too much to say that the Potato Book helped pave the way for the self-published Fifty Shades of Grey? A logical connection, right?

According to Myrna Davis, an e-book version of The Potato Book is in the works.

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Interview with DC Street Artist Kelly Towles

Kelly Towles’s work is all over Washignton, DC. Recently, he completed a massive mural near Nationals Park. Below, he answers questions about that piece and his other work.

When and why did you first start putting up work around DC?

I started doing graffiti back in the 90’s because I was a pretty pissed off kid. It was a good release and outlet for me. I was never great at letters, so I focused on characters and it stuck.

Where are the best places to see your work out in the wild?

Right now “Scout” at 12th and W NW is a good one, plus a lot more scattered throughout the city.

scout

“Scout” on the corner of 12th and W St., NW.  (Photo: Kelly Towles)

What was The Art Yards project and what was your role in getting it off the ground? Where did the money come from?

The Art Yards project was an effort put together by myself and Forest City (a real estate Management Company). I curated the large murals on the building as well as collaborated on one with Jasper Wong. Then, after we completed our mural, DabsMyla came in to create their stellar bat. Forest City was amazing enough to provide access to the building and fund the murals.

Yards mural

Kelly Towles and Jasper Wong mural. (Photo: Kelly Towles)

DabsMyla Bat

DabsMyla Bat at The Art Yards (Photo: DabsMyla)

You’ve put up massive outdoor murals, had your work on a beer label, and done work for DC restaurants and businesses. Are there certain jobs, or pieces, that were particularly helpful in nurturing your career?

I feel that the newest project I work on is always my next task. It’s an ongoing cycle of learning and creating.

What’s up with the boxing gloves and the masks?

So, here is the kinda art statement thing. The boxing gloves are like an internal conflict thing and the mask…we all have something to hide.

What are you working on next?

I have a solo show coming in mid March that I am working really hard on.

What’s your favorite piece of public art in DC?

I have to say I love the DabsMyla piece. It is pretty epic and the size is huge. Largest piece of street art in DC.

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Never-Before-Seen 1990 Ken Kesey Interview

Recently, I received an email from Dr. Timothy M. Tays, a psychologist, author (Wannabe Distance God: The Thirst, Angst, and Passion of Running in the Chase Pack), and former freelance journalist. In 1990, with the hopes of selling a story to the local paper, Dr. Tays called Ken Kesey to ask about Caverns.

The local paper didn’t want the interview and it appears here for the first time.

CavernsNovelINTERVIEW WITH KEN KESEY (1990)

Ken Kesey: I don’t know what that buzz is on our line. It must be the FBI still after me.

Timothy M. Tays: Albuquerque is a long call to you. Tell me, what was the most enjoyable aspect of writing Caverns as a group novel?

Kesey: The energy with thirteen students who were all mature and capable. It was exciting. We would go to class and someone would strike a chord. Like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson all getting together.

TT: What was the least enjoyable?

Kesey: Overcoming the fear the University had of a different way of teaching. They are entrenched. They didn’t know what would come from this fried old hippy. They didn’t know if it would be a success.

TT: Is it?

Kesey: Yes. It’s a thriller. In the time we had we couldn’t have gotten together and written The Brothers Karamazov.

TT: Is there any particular reason you chose the Mormons as the fundamentalist bad guys in Caverns?

Kesey: Large, powerful religions based on race are the villains. This is set in the early 1930′s, when Mormons were like that. Jimmy Swaggart is like this today.

TT: You’ve been quoted, in essence, as saying to critics that you’ve produced two successful novels already. What more do you have to prove? Do you feel that interviewers are too invasive?

Kesey: No, not really. I deal with everyone in the terms of themselves. I talk to the person, not just a reporter. We are all writers after all.

TT: Do you have plans to write another novel solo?

Kesey: I have four coming out this year alone. You know what they say, “The dog has to keep going against the bear just to keep reminding itself that it’s a dog.” The bear is like writing a new novel. I have Caverns out. A Further Inquiry will be out in October. Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear is a children’s book out soon. Also one called Shoola and the Sea Lion. None are as big as Sometimes a Great Notion though. But I’m working on a big novel now. It’s already over three hundred pages. It’s called Sailor Song, and is a conventional novel that I keep attaching electrodes to each side of to try to raise up, but so far nothing.

TT: Does your new novel, A Further Inquiry, have anything to do with The Merry Pranksters’ old bus named Further that’s sitting out rusting in one of your fields?

Kesey: Yes. We resurrected the old bus to promote A Further Inquiry. We drove it right into the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas like Frankenstein. Twenty thousand people were there.

TT: Do you still keep in touch with The Grateful Dead?

Kesey: They’re over here right now.

TT: Is Jerry Garcia there too?

Kesey: Yes.

TT: You wrote a first novel called The Zoo which was never published. Why not?

Kesey: I also wrote a novel called End of Autumn, but after writing them I realized I could do better so I never tried to publish them. The Zoo is in the Stanford library now as my thesis.

TT: What’s your opinion on America’s so-called “War on Drugs”?

Kesey: They would be legalized if people used equanimity. Anti-drug fanatics and cops are the criminals—it’s like McCarthyism. They need someone to dislike to distract the public from the really important problems. No one has the right to tell me what I can do inside my own head. That’s what this country is all about—freedom. There is a war on free thinking. Like the flag issue and the Mapplethorpe thing. Grass is no problem. Cocaine is controlled by bad people is the problem there. But do they ask me to help?

TT: Do they?

Kesey: No. They only want simplistic answers and sound bites.

TT: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we conclude this interview?

Kesey: Yeah. The next decade we’ll see a swing of values from the youth towards the environmental problems. They rolled and meditated, used crystals and bought BMW’s, only to discover it’s not as fun as doing what is right. Right for the environment. What’s important is the air, land, and water.

TT: I wish you luck on your forthcoming books. I’ll let you get back to your company.

Kesey: All weekend it’s going to be nothing but The Dead and Deadheads. What a long strange trip it still is!

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Ben Bochner is O.U. Levon: The Caverns Co-Author Fell from Grace and Became Ken Kesey’s “Rogue Reader”

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting and provide links to the other interviews.

Ben Bochner’s interview is the seventh I’ve published, and it’s the longest.  When contacting each living co-author, I supplied a list of simple questions, a form all previous respondents used, more or less. However, I also told each that deviations from the script were welcome.

Ben Bochner today. Photo by Lindsay Haisley.

Ben Bochner today. Photo by Lindsay Haisley.

Bochner responded to my initial emails with some off-the-record background about his story, how he unwittingly infuriated Ken Kesey, a man whom he admired and had wanted so badly to please.  As evidence, he pointed me to a Paris Review interview published in 1995 where Kesey delivers one of his most famous quotes, one that would be repeated frequently in articles about Kesey for years to come: “The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery.”

The lead in to this quote is a story about Bochner: “When I was working on Caverns, I found out that one of the problems was that students kept looking for the answers to symbolic riddles and believed that modern fiction is supposed to supply you with the answer.” Later in the interview, he says of Bochner, “…the class was just ready to string him up. What are you gonna do to him? someone asked. I said, We’re not gonna do anything. We’re not gonna talk about it. We won’t speak of it. We will not ever speak again of this to him at all.”

Later, Bochner learned he’d become a frequent anecdote in subsequent Kesey interviews and campus lectures which always ended with Kesey quoting the climatic lines from the Paris Review interview:

“It’s the job of the writer in America to say, Fuck you, God, fuck you and the Old Testament that you rode in on, fuck you. The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful. Anytime anybody comes to you and says, “Write my advertisement, be my ad manager,” tell him, “Fuck you.” The job is always to be exposing God as the crook, as the sleaze ball.”

Years later, Kesey’s biographer would ask Bochner, “How does it feel to be infamous?”

Bochner didn’t feel his story fit with my prefabricated questions and asked that we begin a conversation over email.

Below is an amalgamation of approximately 35 emails I exchanged with Bochner.  It’s the first time he’s detailed his account of how he became Ken Kesey’s “Rogue Reader.”

What were your thoughts upon seeing Kesey that first day of class and hearing his idea about cooperatively writing a book in one academic year?

I do believe the first thing that impressed me about Kesey was how pink he was. The guy who came barreling in was a big Nordic bear, sweating and red-faced, giving off a pleasant odor of fresh straw. He poured himself a glass of water, lapped it up – like a bear! – and launched into his idea for writing a group novel.

I was surprised by the gentleness of his voice. It was smaller than what I’d expected out of a man of that size, softer than I’d been led to expect from his heroic portrayal in the media. It was intimate and had just a hint of a country accent to it. That fresh straw, again.

If I remember correctly, he started the whole thing by performing a magic trick, to illustrate his belief that magic is the basis of all art. I was thrilled beyond my wildest imagination because all I’d known at that point was that he was teaching a novel writing class. Now it turned out I was going to actually write a novel with one of the greatest novelists of all time! It was like finding out I was going to write a symphony with Beethoven.

Do remember the magic trick he performed?  

You know, I was thinking about that, and it doesn’t quite come clear. I’m pretty sure he made a coin disappear. I saw him do a couple of magic tricks over the years, and I guess they’ve blended together. Others in the class may remember better than I do. I guess it really doesn’t matter. A good storyteller forces you to suspend your sense of disbelief, right? I think that’s what he was getting at. Kesey hated boring, navel-gazing, overly psychological storytelling. He wanted writers to be magicians who dazzled him, not intellectuals shrinking everything into dust.

 

Bochner around the time he worked on Caverns. Photo by Ramona McCoy.

Bochner around the time he worked on Caverns. Photo by Ramona McCoy.

Was Kesey able to keep that magic alive as the class got underway and you all began to write?Ironically enough, in light of the fact that I ended up so “off the bus,” I felt there was an undertow of passivity in the class as a whole. This is actually quite a complex dynamic, since each person had their own background and their own context for seeing things. As far as I was concerned, I’d been a believer ever since reading Cuckoo’s Nest in high school. But I remember being surprised at a sort of bureaucratic mindset among the students, an over-concern with grades and how the class would affect their work in other classes and their chances at a future job.

But, like I say, we all had our own prisms. In my case, I had dropped my other classes and was concentrating on the novel writing class. For the others, Kesey’s was just one class on a full slate. In any case, there was a spectrum of engagement. Some people seemed quite skeptical of the counter-culture icon. It was the 80’s. Reagan was president. Nancy Reagan was telling people to just say no. But Kesey is a charismatic character and a genuinely big-hearted guy. He eventually won everybody over. Kesey was also a natural-born politico, and he consciously courted potential adversaries.

I read one time where Arthur Miller, the playwright, said charisma isn’t the ability to make people like you, it’s the ability to make people want you to like them. Kesey had this in spades. Kesey was the most Tom Sawyer-like person I ever met and most people who came in contact with him were only too happy to help him paint his fence.

I do think people held back a little. It wasn’t their ass on the line if the group novel failed. But it was so fun, just showing up at his house twice a week, perusing the buffet that Faye put out, drinking wine, and listening to Kesey’s tales of psychedelic and literary celebrity. How could one not be seduced by the glamour of it all?

Did you get the sense that Kesey’s ass was on the line? Did he/you have an audience watching before you even started?

Not really. I personally didn’t think he was in that much of a slump. As I said, he seemed in the pink to me. Still in his prime. I mean, Demon Box wasn’t Cuckoo’s Nest, but not much is.

It was only later, as I heard scuttlebutt, that I got the feeling he might have needed a boost. He kind of said as much right from the beginning, when the character he brought into the novel was a magician who’d lost his mojo. I had a feeling I was in for an interesting ride when his magician character, my reality-creating murderer, and Neil Lidstrom’s Doctor of Anthropology got rolled into our lead character, Dr. Charles Oswald Loach.

Loach’s entire journey into the cave is a redemption story. So, even though there was no overt discussion about Kesey’s ass being on the line, looking back it’s pretty clear. We also learned at some point that Kesey owed Viking a book (since he’d stopped writing Sailor Song). It had been a while since he’d had a big book, and 10 years since “Cuckoo’s Nest” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I do believe Kesey’s team at Sterling Lord Literistic wanted something to keep him in the public eye, though for the details of that you’d probably have to talk to David Stanford (Kesey’s editor at Viking). Amongst the rumors we heard was that Viking was adamant that Caverns was not to be that book. But there was a sense that Kesey needed something to jump-start him. He was still reeling from the loss of his son, Jed, a star wrestler at the University of Oregon, whose bus had gone off an icy road in the Cascade mountains. He told us many times that the grief of losing his son had almost killed him.

CavernsNovelWhen you got deep into the project, did you feel it would work? What was your outlook and what was the outlook like for the group?

There were three distinct phases in the writing of the book. The research, the first attempts at writing, and the final stage where we wrote each chapter together.

During the first attempts, it was hard to picture everything coming together. We had lots of great bull sessions in which people talked about the things that most interested them, things they’d like to write about. We all seemed to have a little piece of the zeitgeist that fascinated us, and they intersected in things like the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, the power of myth, the breakdown of traditional religions, the rise in the occult and a concept Kesey called The American Terror, a kind of black hole in the American Dream where we’d buried our guilt about what we did to the Indians, African-Americans, Hawaii, Guatemala, Vietnam and…you get the idea. This hole became our Secret Cave of American Ancients, and, for a while, all we knew about our novel was our characters were going to go down into it. Just figuring out this much took us a few months. Then, our individual attempts at writing the early chapters proved to be slow and disjointed as we each wrote in our own style.

But then, the idea of each person merely outlining a chapter, then all of us sitting around a table together, fleshing out the outline, and reading fresh pages into a tape recorder, seemed to work. We’d come out of these sessions with only a rough draft, but the act of being in the room together and writing for a pre-determined amount of time (about an hour) seemed to cut through a lot of the problems that we’d had. No longer could each of us procrastinate and pontificate and weave our little stylistic curlicues. We were responsible for moving the action from point A to point B and we’d have to do it front of each other immediately after writing.

This pressure seemed to bring out the best in us. We all knew how to play to the room. What we started to get were not deep Tolstoyan meditations on the human condition, but sitcom blocking and cartoon dialogue. All of a sudden, the most important skill you could have was to make people laugh. We were forced to actually entertain each other, and this really helped the story snap into shape. When you’re sitting alone in a room, getting a sentence jiggered just right seems important. When you’re telling a story to a group of people, nobody gives a shit how your sentences are jiggered. This approach may have doomed us to sitcom writing, but at least the thing was moving. There was always time to go back and fix things later. It was great, because writing became fun again.

Unfortunately, we discovered this method very late. Once we hit upon this way of working, a lot of chapters got written very quickly. Still, we were up against a deadline – the public reading we’d scheduled at Gerlinger Hall, on the U of O. We didn’t get to the final chapter until a few days before the reading, and it was very slap-dash and unsatisfying. But, all we needed was a placeholder. We figured we’d work it more after the reading.

It’s long been my feeling that we actually did come up with a great way of working together and that, if we did it again, we could come up with a very good book. Unfortunately, Caverns was our first attempt, and we didn’t know each other well enough to really hit on all cylinders. People seem to assume that because Caverns isn’t a very good book, the concept of group-writing doesn’t work. If Caverns had taken place in private and we’d had the sense (and the leisure) to rip it up, throw it away, chalk it up to experience, and start over, I think we could have produced something special. Of course there was no time for that. The class ended just as we figured out how to write together. Caverns ended up being a blueprint for a great book rather than being a great book itself.

How did the deadline of the public reading and the hype around it affect the ending of the book?

Sometime in the spring, we got word from Viking that the book was going to be published. We had not finished it, but apparently whatever needs to happen with the marketing gods in NY had happened, and they had given the green light to Kesey’s latest project. Then reporters started showing up from Rolling Stone, from Us Magazine, from national TV shows. It really sunk in that this thing was gonna happen. And Kesey was masterful at donning his top hat and putting on a show. He always had good one-liners ready for the reporters; nice, mystical, aw-shucks koans delivered in that soft Oregon accent that hinted he knew something about America that nobody else did.

What’s that old cliché? Nothing focuses a person’s mind like the prospect of hanging? That would overstate the level of my focus, but I did feel personal responsibility for getting the end of the book right. I had been given the job of writing the outline for the last chapter, and I spent a lot of time ruminating about what was going to happen to our characters trapped in the bowels of the cave.

The way I saw it, Loach had a lot to answer for. Although we had treated him as a lovable con man throughout the book, the fact was, he was still a con man and had organized this trek down into the cave for purposes of his own glory. He knew the “ancient” cave paintings were fake (his brother had painted them). Surely the amateurish nature of the hieroglyphics Dogeye had slapped on the walls would reveal Loach and his theories of an ancient American civilization to be a fraud. Now the group was stuck in that cave and it looked like they were all going to die. For what? For a con man’s vanity? It seemed to me that the only way to redeem Loach was for him to repent, to see the error of his ways, to take responsibility for the lies that had led to the groups’ immanent death.

And so I wrote a soliloquy for Loach in which he was his own most perfervid prosecutor. He hauled himself into the docket of his own mind, there in the darkness of the cave, delineating the details of every crime he charged himself with. One after the other, his deeds flashed before him in the dark – the lying, the self-promotion, the avarice, the betrayal – as well as the effect of his actions upon the people who had believed in him. It was a thorough horse-whipping Loach delivered upon his own being and a kind of introspective writing that had heretofore been nowhere in our farcical romp.

And then, after I’d spilled Loach’s confession all over the page and he was ready to meet his maker, then…

What?

For the life of me, I could not see what happened to our characters stuck in this tomb-like cave. I racked my brain looking for a way out. Did someone discover a crack that led to a shaft of light? Too corny. Did someone come down and rescue them? Did one of our quirky characters reveal a previously undisclosed expertise in spelunking rescue? Did they all just die? No scenario I tried seemed to work. Everything seemed forced and trite and contrived. I knew that every satisfying book I’d ever read had an ending that was both totally unexpected and, in retrospect, totally inevitable. There had to be a solution to this puzzle. But I could not figure out what it was.

And so, after many restless days and nights, I brought my outline for the last chapter of the book to the second-to-last class before the reading.

And it didn’t have an ending.

I arrived at class feeling like I’d failed. Whatever the answer to the puzzle was going to be, it was going to have to be discovered by the group as a whole, because I had struck out. I was disappointed in myself, feeling I’d let down both Kesey and the group, but maybe the answer was in the group mind itself. Maybe that was the key to ending the book. It couldn’t come from one person pacing up and down in the isolation of his own darkened room. Maybe we were meant to discover our ending together, in the act of writing. Maybe the meaning of our group novel could only be found in the act of group writing itself.

So, I did my thing. I laid out what I had. Nobody seemed overly concerned that there was no climactic ending. We simply divvied up the outline, assigned ourselves chunks of plot to flesh out and got to work. Kesey took the end part.

We wrote for our usual period of about an hour, then read our parts into the tape recorder. When we got to the end, all eyes were on Kesey. Instead of some great piece of writing that made the story fall into place like tumblers in a lock, all he wrote was, all of a sudden, the top of the cave crumbled away, and there was Dogeye, lowering a rope to get everybody out.

This was an ending so lame, so amateurish, that I’d discarded it from the very beginning of my rumination. I was flabbergasted, gob-smacked, amazed, disappointed. When people questioned the unsatisfactory nature of this non-ending, Kesey brushed it aside, quoting Joseph Campbell saying that the meaning is always in the journey, never in the destination. Yeah…but…God can’t just….pull the top off the cave…and let everybody out! That’s cheating! That’s like how a fifth-grader would end a story! Houdini can’t announce he’s gonna escape from a trunk at the bottom of the ocean and then just emerge from a trunk onstage and say “it’s the journey not the destination!” Nobody’s gonna buy that!

“Hush,” said Kesey. “We’ll fix it next class.”

Well, OK, you’re the famous writer, I said to myself. I was actually relieved. The burden of ending the book was no longer on my shoulders. Kesey said we’d fix it in the next class, we’d fix it in the next class.

The next class came, and I was eager to get to work. I was ready for Mighty Kesey to step to the plate and hit the ball out of the park. I couldn’t wait to see how he, and we as a group, would pull it off.

But instead of getting to work on the writing, Kesey prowled around like a nervous animal. He obviously had been working on something and it was weighing heavily on his mind. As we settled into our chairs, Kesey began to launch into the most inspired pep talk I’d ever heard. I mean, in movies, in books, from my old high school coaches, I’d never heard anything as inspired and impassioned and just plain right-on as this. It thrilled me to the marrow of my bones. It was the Fuck You to God speech that he was later to immortalize in the Paris Review interview. He had clearly given it a lot of thought. Maybe even stayed up all night, composing this battle cry for his troops. He started out by saying writing is a noble calling, even if you’re only writing menus, and it beats flipping burgers at McDonald’s! His face turned red, his arms flailed, and he said, “I want you guys to be the winners! That’s what Cowley taught me and McMurtry and Bob Stone at Stanford: Somebody’s gonna create the culture for the next 50 years and I want it to be you! Don’t just dream about it, don’t stick a manuscript in a drawer and say, Well, I gave it a try, maybe someday I’ll give it another go. Do it! Grab the brass ring!” Then he said we were all good writers, better than him, even, and because of that, some day God was gonna appear to us in all his Godly glory. He said stuff about how His nipples were gonna be like shiny red raspberries, and how he was gonna have a long beard and robes and all that, how he was gonna look just like Charlton Heston and he was gonna command us to write advertisements for him. Don’t do it! Kesey said. Don’t ever kiss any ass, no matter how big and white and smooth it is! Then he talked about Nelson Algren, how Algren had said the job of the writer is to pull the judge down into the dock, to make the high and mighty feel what it’s like to be down low. And then, he raised one big pink ham of a hand, stuck out his middle finger and said, When there’s injustice in the world, you gotta say, Fuck you, God! Fuck you and the Old Testament you rode in on! That’s the job of the writer in America!

(Kesey’s refers to this speech in his Paris Review interview, though Kesey’s reporting of the timing and purpose of the speech varies from what Bochner tells us here. Kesey says he gave the speech in order to protect the “Rogue Reader” after the public event.)

I was dazzled. One of the mottos of our ex-carny Dr. Loach was, “You Pays Your Money, You Takes Your Chances.” Well, I was ready to take my chances on Ken Kesey. Whatever he was selling, I was buying. He had me, hook, line and sinker. That speech seemed to sum up everything I’d ever learned from every writer I’d ever devoured, from Vonnegut to Tolstoy to William Burroughs. I don’t know what other people were thinking, but I was ready to go out on the field and hit somebody.

After he finished the speech, there was little time to do any actual writing. Besides, the speech had been so big, so emphatic, so over-the-top, that re-arranging words on pieces of paper hardly seemed like the appropriate action. Certainly there must be a hill to take! A beach to storm! An enemy to attack! But…no. Kesey the Elder had spent the night peering into the akashic records, plucked out the teaching he wanted to impart to his students, to all humanity! That was that. We went over the chapter. We pushed words around. Kesey wrote a Sometimes A Great Notion-like epilogue to end the book and tie the loose threads together.

But that lame non-ending was still there, throbbing like a hemorrhoid at the base of my brain.

I couldn’t believe it.

Class ended, people drifted away, and that was it. The next time we’d see each other would be at the reading.

When you say “Kesey was masterful at putting on his top hat and putting on a show,” you mean that both literally and figuratively, right? What happened the night of the reading? What was the scene like and how did it go down?

Ken Kesey was essentially a ringmaster. Writing books was just one of his feats of derring-do. Now, for your entertainment, ladies and gentlemen, watch The Great Writer pen the greatest novel of his generation! Now watch as he puts his head in the mouth of a Man-Eating Lion! Ken Kesey could have been an Olympic gold medal wrestler or president of the United States.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if one day he’d announced he was going to be shot out of a cannon. In a sense, he was shot out of a cannon, if you think about his adventures with LSD. In another age, Kesey might have claimed to have found golden tablets shown to him by The Angel Moroni and started a new religion. But he would have had a sense of humor about it.

The reading was fun. It had that Kesey sense of showmanship. We all dressed up in 30′s attire, lined up across the front of the room, getting up one-by-one to read a chunk of the chapter we’d been responsible for. The manuscript was in a wooden box on a table next to the podium. Kesey was resplendent in top hat and tails. I don’t know what kind of 30′s character I thought I was portraying, but I wore a frilly tuxedo shirt I’d found at The Goodwill, a tuxedo jacket with a red rose in the lapel and faded black jeans, ripped at the knee. These were also the days when I had a Jew-fro and a shaggy goatee. I guess I looked like a rogue.

Anyway, the event started to seem more like a high school play than a literary reading. We were up there in front of our friends and family. That was the big deal, not the book we’d written. After the initial charm of our costumes wore off, there was nothing for the audience to focus on except the story. And, to put it bluntly, the story wasn’t that good. The characters were whacky, the dialogue was old-timey, the young writers were fresh-faced and winning, but nothing really connected. There was a certain passion missing and in its’ stead was a kind of smirk. Maybe what was on display was the impossibility of writing a group novel. No one seemed that invested. Obviously, this book was full of good ideas and interesting concepts and the best intentions, but it dragged.

When I got up to read the last chapter, I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But my mind was still burning with the coals of Kesey’s sermon. When I got to the podium, instead of reaching into the wooden box to take out the chapter we’d written in class, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the pages I’d written. I just couldn’t see myself obediently mouthing words I knew were lame. Let me at least give it a shot in my own words and see if maybe something jelled. I thought I was doing what Kesey wanted me to do.

Kesey has referred to what I wrote as “tying the story up in a Buddhistic bag.” Not true. There were a couple of lines from the Diamond Sutra, but that was just the amateur Orientalist Dr. Loach condemning himself with quotes from The Buddha. The con man also pulled some Nietzsche quotes out of his ass to punish himself with. Like I said, it was a self-laceration – and as far as what it was tied up in, it was much more of a biblical bag than Buddhist. Vanity of vanities, that kind of thing.

But, whatever. I’m not claiming that what I wrote was a great piece of literature, but it did raise the ante. The way Loach reproached himself in that soliloquy was a sudden, unexpected turn, and it raised the tension in the story. It was probably ridiculously out of place in our light-hearted romp. But all of a sudden, no one was getting a trophy for just being awesome. The spirit of Yahweh had entered Gerlinger Hall and he was not forgiving anybody for their sins. Dr. Charles Oswald Loach had just tried himself, found himself guilty, and condemned himself to hell.

After I finished reading, the room was quiet. I dropped the pages I’d pulled from my pocket into the manuscript box and went back to my seat trying to get an inkling of what the others thought of my piece. No one would look at me. Kesey got up and read the soaring epilogue he’d written. The audience clapped and cheered and it was over. Gerlinger Hall dissolved into a whirl of happy after-theater chatter, laughing, back-slapping, hugs and congratulations. I kept looking around for some form of affirmation that I’d done okay. No one would speak to me, except for Hal “Highwater” Powers, who came up and said, “Where did that come from? That was great!” He’d missed the last class and had no idea what was going on. I still have a soft spot for Hal to this day, because on that night, when I was to learn what it is to be despised, he was kind to me.

So, you read something no one had ever seen? Was this meant as an act of defiance? Was it perceived that way?

I was a naive kid. I believed in the book. I believed in Kesey. I believed it mattered that we were about to publish a book that wasn’t good. I made a mistake. It was a dumb kid mistake. I thought I was being the hero Kesey wanted me to be.

As far as I was concerned, reading my own piece wasn’t an act of defiance. It was an act of faith. I should have confided in Kesey beforehand that I was worried about the lack of an ending. I could have told him what I was going to do. But, for some reason, I couldn’t approach him. I was scared of what he might say. In the moment, when I reached into my pocket and read my own words instead of Kesey’s, it was as if I was Billy Bibbit, screwing up the courage to be the person McMurphy wanted him to be.

Yes, I’d broken the rule about not working on the book alone. But, I told myself a Ken Kesey book is not about following rules. It is about telling the truth.

And that’s what I thought I was doing. It was stupid. It was arrogant. It was wrong. But that’s what I thought I was doing.

I thought that Kesey and the others, even if they didn’t like what I’d written, would at least understand the spirit I’d written it in.

That was the stupidest thing of all. Of course it was perceived as an act of defiance. Any time you’ve got a Jesus figure, you’re gonna develop a Judas. That’s simply the molecule that forms in the presence of certain archetypes, sure as oxygen atoms are gonna find hydrogen atoms to bond with to make water.

Years later, there’s general agreement that the book is a failure. It kind of makes me laugh to read how blithely my fellow authors now dismiss Caverns as a bad book, as if they knew all along, and were just along for the ride.

Because, at the time, we were in a Kesey-enforced bubble of positivity. The book was gonna be a best-seller! It was gonna be made into a movie! Why, it might even win another Oscar! With Kesey, you were always either on the bus or off the bus. And there was no surer way to find yourself off the bus than to raise doubts about whether the book was good or not. Ironically, I was always one of the biggest supporters of the book. I was a believer. So no one was more surprised than I was when all of a sudden I found myself sucked into the vortex of Kesey’s shadow.

How did being “off the bus” manifest itself? What happened after the reading?

I’m a performer (a singer/songwriter) so I’m well acquainted with the euphoria that comes after a theatrical performance. Whether the show is good or bad, you just feel alive and full of energy.

The night after the Caverns reading was no exception. But it didn’t take long for me to realize the machinery of my universe was out of whack. Though friends in the audience slapped me on the back with approving words and smiles, none of my co-writers would look at me (except for Hal). Everybody was gathering at Kesey’s house on 15th street for the cast party. I figured I’d go. I didn’t feel bad about what I had done. I had my own euphoria going about having been brave enough to follow my literary instincts. Somebody had to speak up! Maybe we could discuss the whole thing and come up with a better ending.

Kesey’s parties were like something out of Gatsby. He had an instinct for it. Whether on the farm in Pleasant Hill, or in town, Kesey’s parties were the place to be. When my girlfriend, Marianne, and I arrived at the party, the house was lit up in the June night, the front door was flung open and people were milling all around, drinking and laughing. We made our way through the crowd and went inside. Kesey was holding court at the kitchen table still wearing his ringmaster’s attire, collar pulled open, a drink in his hand and a big, sweaty smile on his face. Proud papa bear with his cubs, in that beautiful warm kitchen light.

I wanted to join them, but they were in full tilt mode, so I just hung around the periphery browsing the buffet table. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I moseyed into the scene in the kitchen and finally took my chance. “So? What did you think of my piece?” I said.

The laughter stopped. “No,” Kesey said. “Un-uh. The guy fucks up the whole reading, and now he wants to talk about it? No. We’re not gonna talk about it. We’re never gonna talk about it.”

After this, it’s all so much like a movie, there’s no use even writing it down. People snickered, they laughed, they looked away, I tried to make a joke, I turned to run, stumbled into the French onion dip, spilled it all over myself and limped out of the room. I wandered around the party for a while still not comprehending the exile I’d entered. Finally, Marianne came up to me with a concerned look on her face. “We’ve gotta get out of here,” she said. “These people hate you.”

So, blah, blah, blah, she took me home, I kept wanting to talk, she kept hushing me. It’s all turned into one of those Southern Gothic movies in my mind, with Orson Wells playing Big Daddy Kesey and I’m Tony Franciosa, the wastrel son begging for his father’s approval. For me, it was Shakespearian, Greek, Gothic, Epic, whatever word you want to choose. Tragic. I loved the guy, wanted to please him, and now I was just a non-person. Nothing. Off the bus.

Part of me was amazed that I could have pissed him off that much. It was just a couple of paragraphs, after all. Five minutes at the end of a performance. It wasn’t as if I’d stolen the galleys and slipped a different ending into the printed manuscript. The book was still gonna be whatever he and the group wanted it to be. I clung to the idea that Kesey would ultimately understand my motivations, mete out some suitable punishment, and find a way to integrate me back into the group. One thing I knew about him was that he was a kind man, and that his impulse towards generosity of spirit usually won out.

But any inkling that this thing was going to blow over disappeared three days later, when I showed up at Kesey’s house for the next class. Kesey wasn’t there. Instead, he left a Whiteboard propped up in the middle of the room with a message scrawled on it that said The Rogue Reader had pissed him off so deeply he had to go off into the woods and be alone for a few days.

That’s when I knew this thing wasn’t going to go away. Now it had a name.

After this, did you ever talk to Kesey again? The other students? How did you get through the rest of the academic year and the book launch and appearances?

Yes, I saw Kesey quite frequently. And I saw the other students throughout the rest of that summer as we did final edits on the galleys. I was marginalized. No one ever said anything, but I think it was one of those situations where everybody expects the schmuck to eventually get the message and stop showing up. But, I wasn’t about to stop showing up. I felt I was as connected to the book as anyone else.

About a year later, the book was published. It was fun. There was a review in the New York Times Book Review. There was probably more attention paid to where Kesey was at as a cultural figure, than there was to the merits of the book. I think most of the literati thought of Caverns as another one of Kesey’s merry pranks.

I raised my daughter in Eugene, so I was part of that community, and I’d see Kesey from time to time. I always showed up for his events. He’d tell me he’d heard me on the radio. I longed to heal the rift between us, but you know, there’s that guy thing that makes it hard to talk about anything. I wrote him a letter apologizing, trying to explain my motives for what I did. I never heard back. In the end, I thought we had both just let it go.

It wasn’t until he died in November of 2001 that I found out it wasn’t that simple.

After Kesey’s funeral, I heard that Kesey’s official biographer, Robert Faggen, was looking for me. He wanted to meet The Rogue Reader.

So we met. Faggen had been the interviewer for Kesey’s Paris Review interview. I had never heard of The Paris Review, but Faggen informed me that a Paris Review interview is a big deal. It’s where the pantheon of great writers publish their definitive interviews, the ones in which their legacies are established. Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller, Gertrude Stein, Flannery O’Connor, they’re all in there. Kesey had wrapped up his interview with the story of one of his students from Caverns, who’d been a disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and had tried to sneak Buddhist dogma into the book. Kesey and the class had punished the writer by sending him into exile. Then he proceeded to use the story as a cautionary tale about what a writer should not be.

Then he finished off the interview with a version of the speech he’d given the class before the reading, the one that had inspired me to re-write the ending. It was epic stuff. It had been epic stuff when it inspired a class of young writers in 1988. It was epic stuff to finish off a Paris Review interview with in 1995.

And it was epic stuff to leave as a permanent legacy:

“The writer’s job is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and white and appealing. The writer’s job is to say fuck you to God.”

I have no beef with Kesey’s message. I have no beef with Kesey as a mythologizer. Kesey was a myth-maker. That’s what he did, he was great at it and his greatest achievement was his own myth. But I was no shill. What I did, I did out of conviction. I was not writing some guru’s advertising for him.

The idea that I was a Rajneeshee secret agent was so bizarre I had to laugh. It was like being accused of being a member of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I pictured myself talking into my shoe, getting orders from Mr. Big at KAOS headquarters: “Must…Insert…Sutra…Into…Book…”

Kesey claimed in the interview that he gave the fuck-you-to-God speech after the reading in Gerlinger Hall, as a lesson for his young writers. He said the class had wanted to string me up – and that the speech was Kesey’s way of making peace.

Well, there’s myth.

And then there’s bullshit.

It fit his story to make himself the peace-maker, and, after all, I was just an unknown kid. Who was gonna know that Kesey never actually made peace at all? That the naïve young college student was simply left to twist in the wind of the “literary Coventry” the class had exiled him to?

For an All-American literary hero like Kesey to leave a legacy of saying fuck you to God was big stuff. You don’t go on Charlie Rose and discuss the issues of the day with that kind of banter. Kesey was consciously choosing to go out as a revolutionary. That lifted middle finger at the end of the Paris Review interview was the cherry on top of the Kesey Myth.

So what if a few facts had to be twisted around to make the story play? That’s how magic works, you divert the audience’s attention, a little sleight-of-hand here, a little razzle-dazzle there, next thing you know you’re pulling a quarter out of some rube’s ear.

Faggen said Kesey had adapted the story of the Rogue Reader as a permanent feature of the lectures he was giving at college campuses around the country. He asked me, How does it feel to be infamous?

It feels all right, actually. I know the truth. I don’t mind being the rube in Kesey’s magic act. Kesey saw a way to turn real life into a parable. And guess what? The Rogue Reader is a pretty good parable.

But not as good as mine. Mine’s called The Boy Who Said Fuck You to God.

And mine’s true.

Why are you telling this story? Why not tell me to go to hell? How do you expect the rest of O.U. Levon will respond once this is posted?

As far as why I told you my story, because you asked. I originally wrote up my experience to explain the Rogue Reading to Faggen. Because he asked. As I told you right from the beginning, I will never participate in a Kesey hit piece. But I think an honest portrait of him could be quite interesting. I truly did love the guy, but he could be a bully sometimes. Once, he told me he thought the solution to the problems in the Middle East was to put LSD in the water supply.

He also said the most true thing I’ve ever heard anybody say about the state of the world. He said we’re all volunteers. Meaning, we can just get up and walk out of the nut house any time we want to.

Why didn’t I tell you to go to hell? I don’t know. You sounded sincere. You were interested. So I thought I’d share a story I thought was truly interesting.

And how do I expect the rest of O.U. Levon to react to my interview?

I expect them to think I’m a pain in the ass for not going along with their code of silence, for not just taking my punishment and shutting up. I doubt whether they’ve given me much of a thought over the last 25 years. To them, I’m sure, my story is just an unpleasant eddy in an otherwise groovy trip down memory lane. And I think they’d prefer to stick to Kesey’s decree not to talk about it. Ever.

Actually, there’s one other way the rest of O.U. Levon might react.

My story may open a floodgate of other stories that don’t necessarily burnish the Kesey Myth.

That would make me sad.

Even I prefer to remember the Nordic god who smelled of fresh straw.

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Neil Lidstrom is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey Co-author Recalls Their Year Writing Together

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.

Neil Lidstrom’s interview is the sixth I’ve published. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting and provide links to the other interviews.

Lidstrom novel

What is your life like now? Are you still writing?

My life is at some kind of peak. My wife, Joan, is in nursing school, so she’s wrapped up in that and always has amazing new stories. We live with my two-year old grandson, Gabriel, who is a wonderboy and a joy to behold. And the nice thing about grandparenting is that his mother, Sierra, is always there for the cleanup and tantrums and serious impulse-control work. All four of us moved to Portland a couple of years ago, bought a house, and settled in. It’s been a good midlife adventure. I’m a tech writer, working very comfortably from home, for decent, regular pay.

Writing? Hey, I write like mad, hours a day, thousands and thousands of words. My medium is the business email. It doesn’t have to rhyme or make sense. It’s the perfect vessel for my soul-utterances.

I’ve never been able to get any fiction published, other than what I uploaded myself to Amazon, and I’ve never been able to get anybody to read that, but hey, wait a minute, maybe this will help: Bells, Beads, Chants, Chalk – 99 cents! I won’t say this book is the best value you’ll ever see for 99 cents, because who knows what other unbelievable bargains you’ve kicked out of the grass in the past. But you’ve probably wasted 99 cents on worse things. Almost certainly. Give it a shot!

What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?

Collaborative writing is how I went on to spend my working life. Tech writing is all about hashing things out down to the comma in emails and meetings. There’s often a tiny amount of personal investment, so it can hurt a bit to see your comma removed, but the pain is pretty limited. Just in case you’re the type who throws away your user guides with the shrink-wrap still on, I’ll let you know that the resulting product can be a bit dry.

Now here’s the thing about the class: I missed a big part of it. I showed up every day, wrote my little bit, read it out, and then listened to everybody else’s little bit. By that point, things being what they were, I was somewhat lit with beer, wine, and whatever pot was circling the table, and I had 80 miles to drive. What can I say? I liked having dinner at home and I loved those drives. Two or three hours has always been my limit for large groups of people anyway. So I think I was generally the first to leave, and what I missed was the revision process. I have no insight into that and don’t know how it worked.

In the class writing sessions, I really tried to write stuff that would grab everybody and haul them my way. I did care about the book. Especially at the start of the class, I remember thinking constantly about the characters and certain scenes. I wanted the characters to be the people I thought they were, doing the things I wanted them to do. In other words, I never managed to subsume my ego in the larger project. But the tone of the book changed with every writer, and that disoriented me. By the end of the class I was pretty disengaged, and just enjoying the class and the wacky personalities. A book needs a tone or style, and to me it seems like that’s the first thing you have to establish. But in the Caverns project, there was no tone. I think that’s the key flaw in the collaborative writing scheme.

My opinion only, but none of us individually wrote very well in class. Kesey didn’t write anything great in those 15-minute sessions. And then I had the sense that all our individual contributions were ironed away. What I took away from the class is that collaboration isn’t the way to create lively, engaging writing.

Neil Lidstrom with his wife Joan, step-daughter Sierra, and grandson Gabriel.

Neil Lidstrom with his wife Joan, step-daughter Sierra, and grandson Gabriel.

What did you learn from writing Caverns?

I learned about the challenges of working on an intellectual project in a group. I don’t think my writing got any better that year. I don’t remember writing anything of my own during that time. But I think I learned a lot about working in a group – how to ignore bad ideas politely, endure frustration, and enjoy the company of geniuses, wildfolk, and ambitious young artists.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

Kesey remained a mysterious figure to me. He was one of these magnetic-personality-type guys you hear about. If he walked into a room where 30 people were carrying on separate conversations, the conversations might not stop, but everybody would be looking at Kesey and listening for whatever he had to say. I guess lots of teachers can do that in the classroom, but Kesey couldn’t clear his throat without people thinking deeply about what he might have meant.

One interesting thing about Kesey is that I never saw him shut anybody down over anything. I remember an illustrative scene at his house once: there were frequently strange people around, and this particular guy I saw this once and never again – a basic crazy longhair, possibly with twigs in his beard. Anyway, he worked Kesey hard for about 20 minutes, trying to wheedle startup cash for a scheme in which black bears would be poached in Canada, and their gall bladders sold on the Chinese quack medicine market. Kesey just kept giggling and listening, then finally got up and drifted off. I don’t think Ken ever said a word to the guy, but he also let him talk all he wanted. Maybe Ken was auditioning him for a short story.

Kesey could also put people into awkward positions. Once he loaded all 12 of us into a closed delivery van and took us for a drive. In the novel, the characters take a long road trip in a bus with sealed-shut windows. Anyway, we took in the experience, discussed our sensations, debated the effect all this darkness and lurching should have on the plot. Nobody threw up. Then we all stumbled back into the light and found ourselves in the parking lot of a strip club, which caused some members of the group serious political distress. But it was either go in and drink beer or sit out in the cold.

Ken did not always come off as a literary genius. Once he told us about a short story he’d written but not published: a middle-aged man shows up at a fraternity after his son, who was a member, has died working on a construction project over the summer. The son has been killed in a dynamite blast. The father brings out a photo album to show the fraternity brothers baby pictures, school pictures, and then athletic photos of his son, who was a champion javelin thrower. The last picture in the album is a dismembered arm, all that remained after the blast. Kesey said, “That’s when the brothers realize that his arm was the only thing that meant anything to them. All they’d known about him was his javelin throwing”. There was a long silence, and then somebody said, ‘The father has a photo of his son’s blown off arm in the album?’ It was uncomfortable to listen to, because the story sounded so awkward and bizarre, and also seemed pretty clearly to address his own son’s death. Of course, any story can sound goofy when you summarize it. I’d like to read that story.

In every conversation I had with Ken, he would bring someone else in. If you asked him a question, he would put it to a larger group. It seemed like all conversations turned into group conversations.

Kesey took us on trips the way your parents took you on trips. It was really great. We all piled into his brother’s RV and headed over the mountains to explore Skeleton Cave. We had ice cream at the SnoCap drive-in in Sisters, Oregon. We got down in the cave and we all turned out our lights. Another time we went over to the coast and had a party at his house in Yachats. I was pretty drunk and missed whole swaths of this one, but I do remember oysters cooking in the fireplace, opening one after another in the heat.

He was kind of a crackpot. He had some really funny ideas, and he knew and acknowledged that they were funny. He told us once that if you believe in a spiritual world, you can’t stop at a dignified theology. You have to let in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, too. If you believe, you have to believe in everything. I often had trouble following Ken’s reasoning, but he was a mesmerizing man.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

Ken said once that Caverns was as good as plenty of books that get published (he may have compared it favorably to a Jacqueline Susan novel). I’ve never read a Jacqueline Susan novel, and I never actually read all the way to the end of Caverns, so I can’t say. Caverns is pink slime – it’s shaped like a book and has pages and words, but you wouldn’t want to read it. Maybe he was convinced it was better than that, but he had a lot invested in it.

Why do you think Kesey decided to teach the class?

I don’t really know myself why Kesey decided to teach the class. I think he said that he wanted to recreate the kind of writing community he found at Stanford early in his career, but I can’t imagine it took him more than a class or two to figure out that he didn’t have a Robert Stone or Larry McMurtry in Eugene. Another difference is that Kesey and that amazing group at Stanford weren’t goofing around with a collaborative project. They were each writing their own great first novels. I think Ken was mainly interested in the experiment of group writing. And he wasn’t just a guy who dreamed up cockamamie schemes. He followed through on them. He kept at it for a year, continually tinkering with the process and the different personalities in the group, popping another new zig or zag on us nearly every week. He was an impractical project kind of guy. He enjoyed dreaming up hare-brained schemes for groups of people. He opened his house to us and gave us the majority of his time and attention for a year. We were all up for it. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

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Jane Sather is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey Co-author Recalls Their Year Writing Together and Watching An American Icon Ride a Schwinn

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

Ken Kesey and his wife Faye in their Caverns shirts (Photo courtesy of Jane Sather).

Ken Kesey and his wife Faye in their Caverns shirts (Photo courtesy of Jane Sather).

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.

Jane Sather’s interview is the fifth I’ve published. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting and provide links to the other interviews.

What is your life like now? Are you still writing?

I live in a small town in the Sierra foothills of Northern California, and I’m a full time writer/mom. Recent publication: a poem in the anthology Aspects of Robinson: Homage to Weldon Kees, edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Howell. I also write one bad novel a year during NaNoWriMo and occasional short stories for the amusement of my writing group.

 What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?

It’s amazing that we managed to pull it off. There were so many characters, each needing to be written consistently by all of us, in every chapter. It could have been an awful clash of personalities and writing styles, even as we tried to write in the same “O.U. Levon” voice. It worked because Kesey was a natural teacher, and we respected him.

He encouraged us to do research: on the 1930’s, Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, and cave paintings. Sometimes he’d pull a book from the shelf in his living room and say to one of us, “Read this.” There were also field trips–we drove together for hours, went down in a cave, hiked up Mt. Pisgah–which helped us write about the characters on their journey.

Ken Kesey, his brother Chuck (left) and Ken Zimmerman (Right)(Photo courtesy of Jane Sather).

Ken Kesey, his brother Chuck (left) and Ken Zimmerman (Right) (Photo Courtesy of Jane Sather).

What did you learn from writing Caverns?

1. Make an outline! We always knew where we were in the story, even if we didn’t know quite how it would end.

2. It’s better to write the best book you can than to write like [insert name of bestselling author].

 

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

I always rode my Schwinn cruiser to class, and one day when I arrived early, he asked if he could take it for a ride. He pedaled back and forth in front of the house, smiling blissfully, until it was time for class to start. That was Kesey.

Jane Sather atop Mt. Pisgah.

Jane Sather atop Mt. Pisgah.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

It was a good experience, but not a great work of literature. I haven’t read it in years.

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Charles Varani is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey’s Co-author Talks about Their Year Writing Together and How Kesey Yearned for the Technology We Have Today

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.

Charle’s Varani’s interview is the fourth I’ve published. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting and provide links to the other interviews.

CavernsNovelWhat is your life like now? Are you still writing? 

As I have for over twenty years, I teach Literature and Composition at Western Oregon University. I am currently working on a novel, Hidden Rivers, about the unseen currents that move within us and occasionally spring to the surface. For several years, ongoing neurological problems prevented me from writing at all. Prior to that, I wrote short stories, poems and two unpublished novels. Not insignificantly, over the years I’ve practiced the martial art of aikido. In aikido, words are not necessary and feedback is immediate.

 

What did Kesey have in mind when he proposed the class?

Kesey’s idea for our class novel predated the technology that existed! His idea was to have us all working on interlinked IBM computers so we could all see the same story and make our drafts and edits in collaboration with each other. But that technology wouldn’t exist, in a practical way, for another decade. Written today, Caverns would be a different book, like a collaboration on Wikipedia. I can’t imagine what that story would be like, but I’m glad for the class we had.

What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?

Work can be fun when you are surrounded by the right people. The process itself consisted of talking out our ideas, doing background research on the 1930’s, experimenting with how to compose it, before he gave us the newsroom format of composition at the beginning of the second term. Then came the hard work of revising it to its conclusion. At the beginning, we thought Kesey had a plan in mind for the story. We soon found out that we were making it up as we went, starting with characters and their needs, then defining the setting — a period of time before any of us were born — and going on from there.

What did you learn from writing Caverns?  

Generally, that writing is a noble endeavor that links writers with readers, as well as with the generations of writers who have preceded them. That it is as hard to write a bad book as it is a good one. Early on in writing Caverns Kesey said, “check your ego at the door.” By that I think he meant that when you lose yourself in the writing and tap into that source of all creativity, you will find your characters and their story, and that is your goal as a writer, not lecturing readers about your pet cause.

Specifically, how challenging it is to get that many people moving in the same direction! It took a person with Kesey’s engaging presence, his determination, and his understanding of people to pull off Caverns. I learned about the importance of anchoring your reader in the story so they know where they are and what is going on. I also learned that each novel presents unique challenges and that discovering the solutions is part of what is accomplished in the writing. Writing Caverns taught me how to write Caverns and, to the extent that I contributed, Caverns wrote me, by showing me my own processes.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

Kesey’s generosity toward us. He shared with us his knowledge about writing, introduced us to writers, opened his house to us and fed us for a year. He took us on field trips to do research. He had a dynamic spirit and a mind that was always working. To be around that spirit was contagious. It created a real community. He taught us about the importance of having a writing community, and that without a community we can find ourselves isolated and adrift.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

I love it. It exists for me on two levels, as our finished written tale, and as the story of how it came to be!

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Kenneth Zimmerman is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey’s Co-author Recalls Their Year Writing Together

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

IMG_0141

A Polaroid outtake of Kesey and the Caverns crew during a Rolling Stone photo shoot (Courtesy of Kenneth Zimmerman).

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.Kenneth Zimmerman’s interview is the third I’ve published.  The first was Jeff ForesterJames Finley was the second. I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting.

While formatting this interview, I have been listening to Zimmerman’s band Cross Current. You may want to consider listening while you read, because reading about Ken Kesey while listening to a song about Woodie Guthrie has to do something good for your soul.

Zimmerman also sent me the photo of the Caverns authors that appears with this interview. The picture is a Polaroid taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker during a shoot for Rolling Stone. The Rolling Stone story, along with the chosen photo from that shoot, can be found here.

What is your life like now? Are you still writing? 

I’m an English instructor at Lane Community College in Eugene. I’m still writing — poetry, songs, and fiction– though not professionally. I’m working slowly on a novel about white water kayaking, and I’m performing original folk songs in local venues as part of the duo Cross Current.

What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?

It was truly a lovely chaos. Kesey played the role of bandleader, team coach, and occasionally the little engine that could, pulling us up over the steep hills whenever we got stuck. The class was a full school year long, and each of the three terms was quite different. The Fall term was spent mostly figuring out characters, general plot direction, and a process for working together. Winter term was an amazing outpouring of prose, the first draft of the book was largely written in those three months. The Spring term was mostly an end-to-end re-writing of the novel, smoothing, connecting, and polishing the story. We gave a public reading from the finished book at the end of the school year, and sent it off to Kesey’s agent.

The writing process that finally worked for us was pretty intense. After a lot of flailing and false starts during the Fall term, Kesey came up with a plan. One person would be responsible for plotting out the next chapter of the book in detail, dividing it into 13 chunks of action. Things like “Dr. Jo wakes up, looks out the window, and wonders why she’s on this journey.” or “Loach and his brother talk about the past while painting the windows of the vehicle black.” During a class session, we’d write the descriptions of each “beat of action” on a separate piece of paper, throw them in a hat, and pass the hat around the class. Each of us would draw our assignment for the day, and then, in the next 45 minutes, we’d all write out our section. Right then. In front of everyone. Then we’d read aloud to the class what we had just written, recording the chapter we’d created onto cassette tape. Kesey participated fully in this, and it was amazing to hear the spontaneous prose he would write during those sessions. A friend of Kesey (Barbara Platz) would transcribe the voice recording, and the student responsible for that chapter would have the job of revising the rough draft, smoothing and connecting the 13 pieces into a whole. Once we adopted this process, the main body of the book was written quickly.

Kesey moved to Eugene, into a house he owned near the U of O campus, for the entire year. Our classes were held in the house, and with amazing generosity Kesey opened the house up to us, so that we could come and go as we wanted. He seemed to want us to feel as much like family as students. During the revising process, Kesey spent almost every day in front of his big IBM computer, and all of us students came and went, cramming together into the little computer nook, reading aloud and discussing edits.

Kesey also hosted a number of parties at the house, and it was great as a graduate student to get to meet and hob-nob with some of his high-powered friends. I remember meeting Robert Stone, Barry Lopez, and others, and particularly a wonderful, long evening with Tim Leary and Kesey.

Steven Gibson (left) and Kenneth Zimmerman (right) performing as Cross Current.

Steven Gibson (left) and Kenneth Zimmerman (right) performing as Cross Current.

What did you learn from writing Caverns? 

It’s hard to say specifically what I learned. Possibly almost everything I know about fiction came from that class. That writing novels is damn hard. That the author always has to sacrifice his or her own desires for the sake of the story. That the best characters will surprise you, taking on a life you didn’t plan for them. That collaborative writing may not be the best way to really achieve a great story, but it can be a lot of fun and a great way to learn. Kesey also taught us that fiction writing is really a bag of tricks, and he shared some of them with us, for example, his method of passing point of view from one character to another in mid-story.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

His generosity. His humor. His intelligence and especially his insight into people. His goofy coin tricks. That high pitched laugh. His thick, beefy hands. A constant sense of delight and amusement twinkling in his eye. His love of children. His love of words. His love of life.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

I don’t think Caverns is a great novel, by any stretch. But a friend recently read it and told me he thought it was fun and readable. That pretty well sums it up. It’s probably the most unified and readable large group novel ever written. The purpose of the class, of course, was never to write a great book. It was meant to be a learning experience, and that it was.

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James Finley is O.U. Levon: Ken Kesey’s Co-author Recalls Their Year Writing Together

During the academic year of 1987-1988, Ken Kesey taught a graduate-level creative writing class of thirteen students at the University of Oregon. He charged the group with producing a full-length novel in one school year, which they did, publishing Caverns under the name O.U. Levon (Novel University of Oregon backwards) in 1990.

It is my intent to interview each living author about the project and what they learned from Kesey.

James Finley’s interview is the second I’ve published.  The first was Jeff Forester’s.  I outline the project in more detail in my initial posting.

James Finley today.

James Finley today.

What is your life like now? Are you still writing? 

I am a college professor now and have been for about 22 years. I teach a variety of literature and composition courses at Clark College in Vancouver, WA. After my years at the University of Oregon (I graduated in ’88), I focused intensely on fiction writing for several years, wrote one novel (unpublished), started several others, and published a few short stories and poems in small literary magazines. Gradually, fiction writing gave way to nonfiction writing, where I’ve had the most success in publishing—articles, essays, and reviews. Lately, I have begun writing fiction again, but I am a slow worker and find myself turning to nonfiction for quicker results, publishing-wise (in both the Web and in print). I am currently deeply interested in Pacific Northwest history, and my fiction and nonfiction work has been focused on it.

What do you remember most about the process of writing a book with thirteen other people?

When I think back to Kesey’s class, what immediately comes to mind are all the wonderful moments sitting around Kesey’s table with my classmates in his house at 15th and Hilyard, writing our book together, reading aloud our weekly contributions to each other, laughing, eating, drinking, and smoking (yes). It was the transparency of the class—exposing the nuts and bolts of the writing process—and doing it all collaboratively. That was an absolute joy.

What did you learn from writing Caverns?  

I learned more things than I ever could put down here. But if I had to bring it down to a few things they would be:

A. The importance of a strong work ethic. Kesey showed us that we need not be precious when we write. Sometimes it’s okay to just write crap. The important thing was to produce—get the writing done. We wrote together around the table in 45 minute sessions under a stopwatch. There was no room for dilly-dallying or purple prose. If it was crap, so be it: that was something we could deal with later. But we produced a chapter a week that way, and at the end of nine months we had a complete novel.

B. The importance of having a community of trusted writers/readers/mentors around you. Kesey was big on busting the myth of the artiste suffering alone in his attic study. He saw writing as a public thing and the craft of writing as an art that could be taught. In this way he was like a master artisan—the maestro in a workshop (I always think of the old European trade guilds). We were his apprentices learning the trade. There was his mentorship and guidance, but also the camaraderie of classmates, the energy of “give-and-take” as we worked out problems, and the sharing of tricks of the trade. And it was wonderful that Kesey would sit down and write alongside us.

C. The importance of play, experimentation, and research in the process. Kesey disliked the notion of “write what you know.” He felt that it encouraged student writers to write a lot of self-absorbed drivel. He said instead, “write what you don’t know,” meaning go out and find out about the world beyond your sphere and write about it. In some ways he was being a smart aleck, but I get his point. We should stretch ourselves and discover that world beyond the college campus, or our family, or our neighborhood. One of the stipulations he established for our novel was that it would be set in a time—1934—before any of us was born (including him)—and that we would set our characters out upon an important quest. To that end he filled his house with reference books about the 1930’s and with texts of all kinds dealing with the world of our novel—that is, the world of carnies, magicians, charlatans, and pseudo-scientists. We were encouraged to explore these books and immerse ourselves in the details of the world we were working with. It was incredibly challenging at times, but quite liberating and, dare I say, fun.

D. The importance of revision. I thought I understood what revision was before Kesey’s class. Boy, was I off. Jeff Forester wrote an article in the Whole Earth Catalog just after the class ended called “Rubbing the Stone Smooth.” That was the phrase Kesey used in describing the revision process. It was amazing to sit at Kesey’s side and watch him cut, trim, tighten, cast, recast, and hone. It brought home the idea that the most important writing is done in revision. Every sentence, every word, was examined and re-examined to see how it could be made stronger.

How do you feel about the book as a finished product?

Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the book. I read it once or twice after it was published and found it clumsy and, at times, inane. Mostly just daft, and not really in a good way. But don’t get me wrong—the finished product was never, for me at least, what the project was about. The project was about learning the craft of novel writing. The 1001 teachable moments that came in producing that book far outweigh for me the notion that the book is mediocre. With our collaboration, Kesey wasn’t showing us a method of producing great fiction necessarily, he was using collaboration to show us all he knew about the process of novel writing. Sure, I wish Caverns had been a best-seller and a critical success, but I’m not surprised nor disappointed that it wasn’t.

What stands out in your memories of Ken Kesey?

Again, where to begin? I’ll just say this: Kesey was the most generous teacher I’ve ever had. He opened his house to us; he met with us for an entire school year when his residency was only for the first term; he connected us to other writers and artists, to editors and publishers, even to his family and friends (including all of the available Merry Pranksters); he truly became a friend and mentor. Now, of course, being the successful novelist and local celebrity that he was, he could afford to be different, to be experimental, and to open up his life to us. Not everyone can do what he did—and I’m certain that his class was not something even he could have repeated year in and year out. But I’ll always be grateful for how he brought us into his world and introduced us to the writing life.

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