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.
INTERVIEW 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?
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!