Monday, March 9, 2015

Kenneth Butler Author Interview

Sissy St. Hilaire wakes up in Vermont to learn that her millionaire husband, George, is in a coma after a car accident. George recovers, but he is not the same – he is kinder, smarter, and stunningly serene. George has always been an atheist, a heel, and fervently materialistic; now he is ecstatically spiritual, ignoring money and his business concerns. When George announces he is abandoning his company and family to become a Catholic priest, Sissy insists that he commit himself for observation. At the mental hospital, Sissy, a serial adulteress, meets young Father O’Toole, a man with a crisis of faith and a roving eye. Sissy realizes she is attracted to O’Toole, who promises to try and help her with her husband’s situation.

 1. Where were you when the idea for this book came to you?

When I returned to the Catholic Church at the age of 39, after years of a pretty profligate existence in L.A. and elsewhere, my friends and family thought I had lost my mind. If I'd been in the Bible Belt, they would have shouted, "Hallelujah, Thank Ya, Jesus!" -- but in button-down, non-church-going New Hampshire, the consensus was I had obviously gone insane. It took months, then a year of Mass attendance and my actual, official RC confirmation, before they accepted that this was not a passing phase -- or one of my occasional bouts of mania.
  2. What makes your book unique?

It's a satire, not much popular in these United States. I love all good writing, in any style or sensibility, but I have a real enthusiasm for 20th Century satirists -- Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess, Peter DeVries, Terry Southern, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas McGuane -- these are guys I really cherish. Writer Rick Carey, who's written some wonderful non-fiction books, turned my goofy story into something finer. He was one of a group of really fine writers -- Katherine Towler, Robert Begiebing, Merle Drown, were the others -- who essentially edited the manuscript. But Rick -- the only non-novelist in the group -- seemed to fully get what I was trying to do. Tamara Trudeau, my editor at TouchPoint Press, was also immensely helpful.
  3. Who is your primary audience?

Beats me. Kurt Vonnegut said every writer writes primarily for one person -- now, I don't necessarily think that's true, but I do believe he's onto something -- we're all writing for one individual, or a small group of individuals from whom we're trying to garner approval, admiration, affection. (Well, most of us, I mean -- I can't imagine Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn doing that.) I like it when people say my book is thought-provoking, but I get a bigger kick when they say they laughed out loud when reading it. I guess I'm more sidewalk clown than pulpit-preacher. I dedicated the book to my mother, Helena, because she got me loving books, music and movies before I even left our apartment to go to Kindergarten.
    4. Why did you choose this particular setting to tell your story?

Vermont is the most atheistic and least church-going state in the Union. That won the day, hands down. It had to be set there. As I became more familiar with the real-life settings of the book, opportunities presented themselves, like "Champ," the Loch Ness-type monster allegedly lurking in Lake Champlain.
    5. What draws you to this genre?

I'm not sure it is a genre -- a comic, satirical novel dealing with religion, materialism and corporate greed, with plenty of food porn and mild, good-humored erotica? Barnes and Noble may one day have a shelf for that. I think it also deals with alcoholism, infidelity, existential panic, and the irritation that can come daily from child-rearing in a pretty unblinking way.
    6. What kind of research did you have to do?

I spent time at the Weston Priory in Vermont amongst the monks, although I was pretty familiar with the monastic life from two extended stays at the monastery in Taze, France. I wanted to see the Catholic Archdiocese in Burlington -- I had seen the impressive brick structure in a photo -- but had no idea it was right on the immediate shores of Lake Champlain! The instant I saw it, the whole monster-rising-from-the-deep scene suggested itself. The rest was all location details -- Newport, Vermont, and Lake Memphremagog, where the climax takes place. A lovely woman named Nancy Cook, who I have never met, lives there, and was a huge help with details via e-mail. A Plymouth State University professor, and dear friend, Dr. Lew Overaker, was also a huge and constant source of support when no one, logically, should have cared about this unwritten book.

     7. What challenged or surprised you about writing this story?

My answer would be disingenuous if I said, "Good people, even clerics, can and do behave badly," because I dealt with that idea in my writing long before this book, but it still holds true. Here in the West, we like guys in white hats and guys in black hats, unlike say, the grey-area characters in Eastern culture. When an Oskar Schindler comes along -- a man who genuinely likes and parties with Nazis, then risks his own life to save Jews -- we're mystified. I worked briefly, and insignificantly, in the film industry in Hollywood, and was struck by how amazed, and perhaps delighted, film folks were when notorious shit-heels, like actor Klaus Kinski or producer David Merrick, would actually do something nice or decent. They'd talk about it for weeks. I guess I'm intrigued by a dichotomy most prefer to dismiss.

     8. What did you enjoy most about writing this story?

The lofty and the low. It was gratifying to try and put some of the beautiful theological theories of Thomas Merton, who I consider basically a saint, into a piece of light entertainment. Maybe get somebody somewhere to consider that achieving the highest level of material acquisition isn't really much of an accomplishment in the big picture. And I always get a kick out of writing about food and sex, probably because I like reading that stuff, not to mention actually indulging -- Norman Mailer and Ian Fleming are two favorite masters in that area.
      9. Which character was the easiest to create and why?

This was an eye-opener. I assumed, stupidly, that I would use the 38-year-old priest, Father O'Toole -- a man having a crisis of faith and a self-destructive eye for female beauty -- as my mouthpiece (I was 50 when I started writing the book). As the chapters started collecting, I realized with shock one late night that I had more in common with Sissy, the 40-year-old, jaded, hard-drinking adulteress. She was actually saying what I felt. I'm divorced, and never had any children, but I've spent fifteen years teaching teenagers. Some readers  have been critical of me for making Sissy so mean and dismissive of her own kids. My defense was that that was how I treat my students on bad days in class, but surely being a teacher and a father are two very different things, thankfully. I've had at least a few mothers tell me on the sly that they thought Sissy's ghastly maternal behavior rang very true for them. Never fathers. The majority of American men don't read novels. I had a Headmaster at one private school I taught at for years near Boston actually say to me proudly, "I don't read fiction." He also failed to understand the basic, simple essentials of absurdist drama, completely confused by the Existentialists, who he had clearly never read. He was the Headmaster of a college prep school! Now, what are we supposed you do with that kind of ignorance?
     10. Which character would you most like to meet and why?

George, because men and women like him hardly ever exist. He undergoes an instant metamorphosis: from a shitty piece of work to a man too good for this world. I knew before I even started writing the book that George would have to die at the end. His kind is, of course, transcendental, even with God looking over us. I think I'm probably now that saddest of Christians -- a lethargic Deist. My Catholicism almost exists as an adjunct to my spirituality. I believe God made us and loves us, but perhaps He or She (the Almighty certainly has no gender -- what a disagreeable idea!) cut us loose some time ago; perhaps we're one of God's experiments that haven't worked out too well. I absolutely don't believe that God decides that a Nazi war criminal will die in comfort in South America at 90, while a 5-year-old girl in Wisconsin dies slowly over two days, having fallen down a well. No theology can explain or justify that horrific mystery. I pray, but I pray to connect with my faith. I do not necessarily assume that God is listening, and I have no complaints there. I'm guessing He's busier with more important matters. A priest once said to me, after too many drinks: "We created religion; God didn't."

      11. Did you ever consider having the story told by another character?

My first two novels (at press time, still unpublished), were written in the first person -- I did this, I saw that -- very easy for me, and very self-absorbed, which suited me, natch. I decided with Holy Fool, which began and ended as my SNHU Master's thesis, that I was damned well going to write at least once in the third person. Novelist Katherine Towler was my first mentor in the MFA program, and she said, not unkindly, but right off the bat, "You keep switching perspectives! Don't you get how this is supposed to work?" Here I was, the big shot in his own head with three stage plays produced and two screenplays optioned, and two novels written, like I thought I was Proust, and I realized I didn't know shit about a basic principle like sustained perspective. Katie was very patient with me, probably out of pity. She's a marvelous writer. And a nice person. Hi, Katie!

       12. Why did you start writing novels?

I arrived in L.A. straight from Emerson at 22, with a Story Editor job for Roger Corman at New World Pictures. I got that gig because the great writer Arthur Weingarten happened to be the father of Tara Weingarten, a girlfriend I cherished in Boston, and Arthur had a good deal of influence. I was intellectually up for the job, but emotional immaturity and a hell-rake determination to luxuriate in the Hollywood Scene, Circa Early '80's undid all, which served me right. Tara's been a big success as a writer, and Arthur just returned to California after living in England for decades. Arthur kindly put me up in London in 1996, when I couldn't even see straight (drugs, booze)t. When the screenplays went nowhere, I returned to New Hampshire and wrote three produced plays, two of which I'm immensely proud -- and they went nowhere, too. No O'Neill Festival, no productions in major cities, no grants. I worked my ass off for five years attempting to get those plays produced outside of New England -- no dice. So I turned, in solitude (like May Sarton) to writing novels. I actually signed for the first, A Pound of Flesh, with an NYC agent, who sent it to these august houses like Little, Brown, St Mark's, Penguin, Knopf -- I said, "Are you nuts? This is a dopey trade paperback, at best!" And sure as shit, they all wrote back, "We think this a fine book, blah blah blah, but we can't quite figure how to market a novel predicated on Rasputin's dismembered penis." Lovely letters. I still have them. My next was The Ghosts of Swallowtail, about a haunted girls' prep school, based on my seven years teaching at the very-much haunted Woodward School for Girls in Quincy, Massachusetts. For that one I signed with an L.A. agent, who is now in jail (so I guess the less said, the better). I wrote Holy Fool for my SNHU Master's thesis, and TouchPoint Press was nice enough to buy and publish it. I would write for the theatre again or move back to L.A. in a heartbeat, if there were a truly good reason. But my joke is I'm moving back to poetry -- the form I started writing in as a teenager. Actually, why call it a joke?
       13. What do you want your audience to come away with after reading your book?
Maybe an appetite for good food, a desire to make love, and as playwright Arthur Miller put it, to perhaps question the integrity and value of a national philosophy that espouses that one can "…Touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last." There has to be more to our brief time with each other than that.

Kenneth's book is listed on Amazon's website under "Holy Fool Kenneth Butler";

You can find Kenneth at:

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