Today we're talking with Michael Kasenow, author of View From the Edge
FQ: The delightfully sarcastic wit of Joshua Feenics’ character had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. He seems so ‘normal’; yet you begin the story with him coming out of a psychotic break. Why?
The story had to begin in the darkest hour, because it ends filled with light. Like Lazarus, he is rising from the dead (but very slowly). Joshua seems so normal, because all of us seem normal with a mask that we wear to hide our fears, failures and depressions. We play different roles for different people as Mariam tried to explain in regard to her meditation. Often, when we go to work, we just turn the mask on and complete our tasks so that our world functions with limited chaos. How many of us have bad relationships or trouble with our children, too many bills to pay, childhood anxieties that we keep hidden—or just plain old self-esteem issues? Joshua is as normal as anyone, but in the story he has gained a secret, through his psychotic problems; he now understands the absurdity of routine and he is probing the future to find a purpose that has meaning. His son keeps him grounded and going into the right direction, even if he feels lost in the present. His wit, sarcasm, and sense of humor, are defenses that he uses against the absurd. One of my favorite lines, "When you wake up in the morning—duck." Pretty much explains how his history has shaped his vision.
FQ: Throughout your book there are scenes devoted to (useless) faculty meetings; typically with the nuance that non-attendance is not an option. One meeting, in particular, has to do with the complex decision of whether to use natural or artificial chalk in the classrooms. As a writer, how liberating is it to be able to write about the banal inconsequentialities and colossal waste of time devoted to useless meetings and what would be one of your most memorable (and useless) meetings you had to attend?
Oh very liberating. Some readers have seen the waste in those meetings as being 'spot-on'. Something that many professionals have to go through to keep their score card up to par. Most of us, who have limited time on our hands, would like to use that time to develop something that works. The "Team Work" meeting that Joshua had to attend, was one that I had to live through—for about 8 hours! I don't believe it was called "Team Work", but it certainly replayed the same message, or tried to. Redundancy after redundancy led by somebody I wouldn't have a cup of coffee with. Unfortunately, when I was a young professor, I had to attend 3 or 4 of those meetings (I too had a score card). I, like many in the corporate world, had/have to live through the "colossal waste of time" as justly call it. What is really neat, as a writer, is when someone reads the book and then talks about the absurdity of those meetings as something they too have had to suffer through. They just smile and shake their heads as if to say, 'been there, done that.'
FQ: What is your litmus test in giving just enough for the sake of humor; versus too much and the humor is lost?
I don't know what the litmus test is. I do feel that the understatement is a much better way of getting a point across when using prose. Somerset Maugham once said that there 'are 3 secrets to writing a good novel, unfortunately, no one knows what they are.' I suppose it depends on the issue. Sexism in this novel is obvious, but that needs to be treated with more respect because it's a serious issue. Sarcasm works, but the scenes must be handled by the writer with care. Too much, and the writer might come across as a bigot of sorts. This happened with the poet Vachel Lindsay, who over-stated the plight of the African-American in some of his poems, and he came across as a racist. If the issue is sensitive, then it must be handled with sensitivity. If the issue is absurd, then the writer can plow through it. I have a friend who reads most of my work, and she tells me when too much is too much—and I am a good listener. I am also one of my best-worst critics. I am constantly examining my work so that it's not misunderstood to the point where the humor is lost. I want the reader to laugh when they should and cry when they should—just like I do when reading a good book.
FQ: I picked up quite a few subtleties of an affinity for philosophy in this story (i.e., ‘…How little time we have and how much we waste. Mortality is never recognized in the healthy mirror. Every breath is a miracle and the last one is priceless…’). Do you have a favorite (or favorites) in the philosophical realm that has inspired you to write with such strength and conviction?
Albert Camus and the existentialists have influenced my thinking. Although Camus didn't think of himself as an existentialist. He was more than that, as great writers and thinkers are. However, there are some great books out there written by authors who are considered to be writers, not philosophers, but their great stories do make one think. The poet Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is a great novel, as well as many stories written by Joyce Carol Oats. Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby also give us philosophical insights about materialism, and the price to achieve dreams. The story should always come first in any novel. Few like to be preached to. So I write in regard to the story. I don't want to be cast into any genre. If the story is good and can keep someone's attention, then it's worth a try. But there's no harm in providing a philosophical framework, so long as it doesn't garble up the story. In this novel, some agree with Joshua, some do not, but they do think about what he does, and that's part of the entertaining—the thinking part. The right and wrong moral choices, well, that's for the reader to decide. I was recently asked if I plan the thinking part in any of my writing, and I do not. The characters develop and as they develop, their philosophies come forward, grow as they grow. That's the fun part of writing, learning about the characters that you create, and of course, learning about oneself. Socrates is another philosopher that has helped to shape my life. Henry David Thoreau is another...he was well ahead of his time...still is in many corners of the world. Dorothy Parker, the critic and poet makes me smile as much as think when I read her comments. Mae West, the actress, she was another thinker decades beyond her time. She drove the censors nuts and certainly made them, and her audience, think.
FQ: Hadrian University’s staff is a Heinz 57 Pound Puppy mixture of personalities. Aside from Joshua Feenics, who would be your 'runner up' for Best Supporting Character in View from the Edge and why?
Holly Hayes. I could easily write a novel about her and her exploits. And may very well do so. She too is lost and looking for purpose. But she is extremely independent and doesn't want to follow the easy path that so many are influenced to follow. Yes, she thinks about marriage and having children, but she also enjoys her travels and her little adventures. Like Joshua, she gets sucked into conformity, but she is smart enough to break free and follow her own vision...whatever that may be. She understands when she's being used and doesn't want to be any man's trophy. That's easy to admire, as well as her free thinking, and traveling to dangerous places. It is easy to understand why her and Joshua are attracted to each other. They have many of the same doubts and convictions. They know what is absurd, and are learning what is important, and they are trying to figure out their places in a world in which they feel they do not belong—and don't want to belong to. I suppose that's what attracts us to the Cool Hand Lukes, and Randal Murphys (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest), and Jack Burdens (All The King's Men). These are unpredictable characters doing what many of us would never do. They live in lives outside of our comfort zones. Holly Hayes is such a woman.
FQ: You have a great resume in terms of ‘keeping it real.’ You’ve been a waiter, cab driver, bartender, janitor and the list goes on. If you had to name one, which profession do you draw your fondest memories from and why?
Probably working as a bartender, because you really get to see all sides of the world. The seamy and the good; the hard worker; the drunk, and many, many more. It's not a very healthy profession, but smoke and booze do go together. Bars are places where people go to belong, to feel part of something. Before prohibition occurred in the 1920s, bars were more or less every working man's living room—or extension of a home. It's easy to understand the great loneliness that afflicts the modern human when working behind the bar. You're a pseudo-friend to many, and sometimes the only friend they have. Certainly bartenders are therapists to many. You hear a lot and see a lot in regard to how people react to each other, their lives, their families, their problems. Being that I'm a good listener, it's easy to file away the many personalities that I have come across in the bar. It was a growing experience, and a learning experience. I grew up behind the bar.
FQ: Hadrian University sounds fairly modern-day with references to student texting, cell phones, the internet and the like. Do you think there will be a time in generations to come where the phrase: “…that book was such a page turner…” will be replaced with:”...Dude! That story blew up my Kindle…”? How important is it for you to have the feel and weight of a real book in your hands?
I suppose I'm old-fashion in many ways. I like a hard copy in my hand, and if it's a great book I keep it on my shelf. But I'm no fool, if the reader wants a pdf file, then the reader can have it. I just prefer paper and something I can mark in.
FQ: View from the Edge is a fantastic read! It was a one day, page-turning, can’t put it down for a second experience for me and a pleasure to tell you so. Any sneak preview of what’s next?
You are very kind. It is great when a writer connects with a reader; that's why we write. Others have said something like, "I didn't want this book to end." And another related to Joshua and compared her life to his. We're all just trying to stay alive, but sometimes it gets to be complicated. The neat thing was watching Joshua climb out of the hole that he dug for himself. We are all given choices, and that's all, we control very little, when Joshua understood that, his life was resurrected into a better beginning.
I do have a ghost story coming out in January (I hope). And since you've asked, here's the tease that will be in the back of the book:
"Jonathan MacAlister has arrived in New Brunswick after the tragic deaths of his wife and two sons. He recovers in an old Victorian haunted by the 19th-Century spirit of Mary McLaughlin, the angelic ghost who has waited for her lover to return from a lost voyage. The beautiful serial killer, Tara Walsh, has escaped from an insane asylum and is killing sexual deviants in the maritime province using medieval devices and biblical justice. The thriller unravels to discover what all three have in common and why they are destined to meet in a confrontation from which legends are made."