Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Kenneth Weene

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TFTDDI_165x250A New Englander by upbringing and inclination, Kenneth Weene is a teacher, psychologist and pastoral counselor by education. His short sties and poetry have appeared in numerous publications including Sol, Spirits, Palo Verde Pages, Vox Poetica, Clutching at Straws, The Word Place, Legendary, Sex and Murder Magazine, The New Flesh Magazine, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Daily Flashes of Erotica Quarterly, Bewildering Stories, A Word With You Press, Mirror Dance, The Aurorean, Stymie, and Empirical. His novels, Widow’s Walk and Memoirs From the Asylum, and Tales From the Dew Drop Inne, are published by All Things That Matter Press.

Ken met me at The Slaughterhouse were we talked about character and guilt.

Tell us about Tales From The Dew Drop Inne.

Set in a small bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tales From the Dew Drop Inne tells the collective bittersweet stories of the people who make this neighbourhood pub their home – people who have not fallen off the social ladder but who are hanging on desperately at the bottom. These are people who struggle, love, suffer, and most assuredly care; and we cannot help but care about them. Tales From the Dew Drop Inne is a paean to the millions of such bars around the world and to the people who gather in them.

Does Albuquerque represent a psychological location in terms of the dissolution of character in your book?

I chose Albuquerque because it is a relatively unknown small but typical American city. While it did facilitate the use of a Native American character and the introduction of Mexican dancing in the square, it really could have been any similar place. When I first selected Albuquerque, I was thinking that I had been there twice but really didn’t know the place so I could be less concerned with specifics and more sensitive to the universals. It did strike me as a great place to be passing through and decide to stop for a time, which is very much what many of the characters are doing. They are hunkering down for a spell rather than becoming integral within the community.

Do you think the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity?

Not sure what this question means. However, I will take a stab.

Alcoholics are often emotionally intense and dramatic; just go to an A.A. meeting and listen to the stories. Ephraim and Cal are perhaps quieter, but they, too, are intense. If you want to see the depth of their emotional connection, read Picnic.

However, as is often the case, the nastier characters bring more drive to situations, for they are looking to get something out of it – if only a sense of control. Cody is a great example of that, the way he gets everyone to hold what is to pass for a Thanksgiving meal. Hunter, too, is looking to get something, promotion in the business.

When writing about alcoholics, however, one must always remember that no matter how grandiose the plans or excited the people, the situation will seldom resolve with real satisfaction. Perhaps the best example of that is the chapter titled Prank.

Who are your literary influences?

From my youth, unquestionably Steinbeck and Conrad. Steinbeck for the social sensitivity he brought to literature and Conrad both for his use of language and for his sensitivity to the heart of man. Later I added Vonnegut because of his wry view of the world and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who so valued the simplicity of life. Among today’s authors I have to add two books that have greatly stirred me. Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

However, when I sit down to write, I read only non-fiction until the project is completed. I don’t want the voices of the books I’m reading to creep into my efforts. Right now I am editing The Stylite and reading books on the boarding schools to which American Indian children were sent by the government as part of the systematic “re-education” of a people. That is the subject of my next book.

To what extent do you think education is merely political and cultural indoctrination?

Life is political and cultural indoctrination. Every experience changes us. In Tales From the Dew Drop Inne there is a chapter Promises in which the narrator tells a bit of his childhood. Clearly his father intended to indoctrinate him; that the lesson learned was something very different than a parent might have wished doesn’t make it less of an attempt to indoctrinate. Even if we limit education to specific skills, such as reading and writing, isn’t that making a choice about what the child should value – written words over acts – and by the fact that he is learning English not Chinese don’t we again make a political decision?

I have no problem with education being indoctrination. I do have a problem with who selects what is to be learned and how – in other words into what world view the child should be indoctrinated. While I would have all of us believe in logic, science (and the scientific method), artistic liberty and appreciation, and a number of other things, there are those who would prefer faith and accepted dogma as the basic educational goals. I may value individual productivity in one form or another, but you may want group projects to be the norm. My teacher sends the child home with her assignment to write an essay; yours sends a group to the next room to create and perform a play.

Yet another consideration: Personally, in high school I was in a boarding school very much like the traditional English “public” schools. I thought it in many ways an excellent education, especially when it came to values. However, I would not make that same selection for my grandchild; he’s far too much of an individualist. There does have to be a match between the child and the system if indoctrination is to end well.

In Lord Jim Conrad depicts a protagonist riddled with guilt over what he sees as a moment of cowardice and spending the rest of his life trying to make up for it. Do you think heroism is a flawed idea?

In my mind there are two kinds of heroes:

Conrad depicts the hero who is dealing with what we shrinks now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having not been able to deal with the horror of a situation and feeling great guilt about it, the person suffers from a repetition compulsion – Yes, Freud rears his bearded head. The patient keeps reliving and reliving, but the hero tries to re-litigate the events, through his own efforts to make the next time’s outcome different. It is Conrad’s greatness that he is able to make this a universal PTSD, something easier to do because he was dealing with the horror of the Belgian Congo, which was gnawing at the collective consciences of the world at the time. He raises his tale above the personal experience of Jim and makes it one for us all; it becomes real within each of us. That is an hallmark of great writing: the story becomes part of the reader’s consciousness.

The second kind of hero is the accidental. Situations can make cowards and heroes of us all. Even among the least likely, there can be heroes of this type. While some such situational heroes win accolades, medals, and fame, most of the time the stories go unnoticed. However, that does not make them unworthy of sharing. In Tales From the Dew Drop Inne there are two chapters that celebrate the unlikely but still somehow lovable hero. Three Santas and especially Blood Money offer us unlikely but at some level real heroism. What has to be remembered is that heroism isn’t just giving up one’s life and safety but giving up something that is personally important. In Blood Money the people decide to give their blood for free rather than accepting the money they could get. For you or me a few dollars may seem very
little, but to these characters, holding on to the bottom of the ladder with all their might, this is a great sacrifice.

In merging genres when you write do you think that a hybrid sometimes speaks to a readership that is not being reached by mainstream genre fiction?

Widow's Walk by Kenneth WeeneI usually worry more about writing what I want to create rather than genre assignment. While Widow’s Walk was pretty much a straight literary novel, Memoirs From the Asylum seemed to work best as a strange amalgam of first person memoir (although fictional) and third person narrative fiction. In its strange way, that mix carries the sense of the asylum forward better than a coherent format might. Now in Tales From the Dew Drop Inne I go with interconnected stories, which do work together to create a whole. While I am certainly not the inventor of this hybrid, I do think I carry it out quite well.

Memoirs From the Asylum by Kenneth WeeneThe format of Tales was definitely chosen with a particular type of reader in mind. Many people have no patience for reading an entire novel; they prefer magazine articles and short stories. Since most of the chapters in Tales can be read as stand-alones, I hope some of those quickie readers will be engaged. To be honest, I can see hundreds of copies of this book in loos, happily waiting for harried readers taking their moments of relief.

Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?

If we do not find ways to protect ourselves from the emotions of our characters and the often-desperate outcomes of our tales, how could we write them? We would end up curled into foetal balls on our analysts’ couches bemoaning what we are doing to people whom we have loved enough to create and whose every tear and cringe we have recorded.

There lies a difference between writer and reader that is often crucial: the reader has no such ice, indeed must not have. They want to believe and feel with the characters. In the end, it is the tears and smiles that the story has created in the reader that is the measure of its success. The reader must be cajoled into giving up that block of ice, which we are all capable of holding deep within. We call that process of letting the ice melt away “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

When a reviewer or any reader tells me how they feel for me having gone through this or that story, which “obviously” was part of my life, I know that I’ve melted their ice-cube and replaced it with my burning match. That makes me feel good, successful. Of course, I can’t hold on to that feeling too long; it might cause my blood to warm.

If you were to give advice to yourself as a younger man what would you say?

Go forward based not on the expectations of the world outside but building on the passions from within.

I had always wanted to write, but I allowed the advice of parents and teachers to convince me that a “profession” would be safer. Now I know that there are so many books I will never get to write, so many stories I will not get to tell, so many songs I will not get to sing. Oh, I enjoyed being a shrink, and I think I helped a lot of people. But the words that went unwritten – what a waste.

What is your personal goal when you write? What, for Ken Weene, defines good writing?

I want the voices in each book to be true: true to the character, consistent in tone and cadence throughout, and most importantly true to the reader – which means that the emotions and visualizations aroused in the reader are consistent with the story as it unfolds.

In the end, I am very much a poet. I love the language of the book, whichever book I am writing. It delights me when people tell me that they want to read my stuff out loud, that they want to hear it. One night at my writing group, people were urging me to do an audio of one of my stories, which I did. As the discussion went on, somebody said they thought my books would make good movies.

“Even better,” somebody else added, “they would make wonderful audio books. It isn’t the pictures Ken paints that blow me away as much as the sound of his writing.”

If I weren’t such a cold-hearted bastard, I might have wept.

If you want to listen to that audio,

Thank you Ken for an insightful and great interview.

Visit Ken’s website
Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter
Pick up a copy of Tales From The Dew Drop Inne at Amazon US and UK. Watch the Tales… trailer here.
Other works by Ken Weene:
Memoirs From The Asylum (5/1/10) at Amazon US and UK
Widow’s Walk (8/15/09) at Amazon US and UK

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