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University of Oregon (I graduated in ’88), I focused intensely on fiction writing for several years, wrote one novel (unpublished), started several others, and published a few short stories and poems in small literary magazines.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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