What is your book about?
Set in a psychiatric hospital Memoirs From the Asylum is about the fears that keep us locked-up and locked-in and the courage that sets us free. It is about the choices that every person must make to assert personal freedom.
What inspired you to write this particular story?
When I was a young adult, which is many years ago, my cousin, who had also been my best friend when we were growing up, committed suicide. For years I had intended to write a book about the meaning of his suicide.
Who is your most unusual/most likeable character?
Marilyn is a catatonic schizophrenic; that is a very rare diagnosis in these days of psychotropic medications. She neither speaks nor acts; instead she projects an hallucinatory world into the crack in the wall opposite her bed. In that world events unfold which may or may not be her memories, but they are certainly bizarre and powerful.
Here is the reader’s introduction to Marilyn’s world:
“Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.” The voice
echoing down the yellow-green corridors sounds like bagpipes.
Yes, that was it, bagpipes. Marilyn remembers the pipers marching
around the little square of her hometown – or was it really hers?
She had been surprised by their kilts. Weren’t kilts supposed to be
red? The pipers wore a tartan of multiple grays. Her father held her hand,
and her mother held her brother’s. It had been a wonderful holiday.
Her little brother jumped up and down with excitement. “Look at
their knives,” he shouted, pointing simultaneously to the dirks tucked at
their waists and the ones tucked into their right leggings. “I’ll bet they
could slit your throat with one swipe.” He had been so excited, running
in circles and pointing in every direction.
“I’d run away,” she responded. It had been a simple declaration of
safety. Marilyn was the quiet child; her brother provided enough uproar
for them both. “I’d run away and hide.” The thought of hiding had
The crack in the plaster opposite her bed opens up. She doesn’t want
it to. She never does. It is the doorway into the place of memories of the
future and forgets of the past. It is hers and hers alone. It is her torment
and her pain; it is her pleasure and her safety.
How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?
It depends on the book. With Memoirs From the Asylum I had written two thirds of it and then had written the ending, but there was something missing: How to connect the two. I needed a denouement. It was only when I was told a strange but true story about an elephant going berserk that I saw that inflection point for the book. What would happen, I asked myself, if a group of the hospital’s patients were in the audience when such an event took place? It makes a wonderful chapter and a great denouement.
What is your goal for the book, ie: what do you want people to take with them after they finish reading the story?
As an undergraduate I was greatly influenced by Erich Fromm and by existentialism. Memoirs From the Asylum is about the choices we humans make. Are we going to accept the challenges and seek life and self or are we going to pursue the falsehood of security and ultimately the death of surrendering the self? I am sure from the way I phrase the question that you can figure out the choice I want to inspire in the reader. And phrased this way, I am sure most people would choose the challenges. However, in their lives many people many people don’t see the dark choices they are actually making. I hope that Memoirs will get readers to think about who they want to be.
Do you think writing this book changed your life? How so?
Memoirs From the Asylum was my second published novel. Since then I have received a contract on a third, and a fourth is out there looking for a home. There is a fifth underway and a non-fiction book that needs to be rewritten before publication. (Also, there was an anthology of my work that came out years earlier.) So when Memoirs went to the publisher, I didn’t expect it to actually change me. But it has! I have become much more authentic and caring in my dealings with the world. Why? Because for so many years I was prohibited by family pressures from talking about my cousin’s suicide. “It was an accident,” was the official position. After all those years I can now mourn properly.
How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
That depends on the book in question. I try to bring a certain amount of myself to the page, but only when it will enrich. My first novel, Widow’s Walk is only tangentially self-referential. When people ask which character is most like me, I steer them to a minor one, Jem, a black woman from the South who has come to Boston and works as a home health aide. However, the religious issues in that novel are very much from my struggles to decide what I believe.
In the next novel that will be coming out, Tales From the Dew Drop Inne: Because there’s one in every town, it is my struggle with family and the sense of their dishonesty and preconditions that underlies the book; but there is almost nothing concretely autobiographical.
As for Memoirs From the Asylum, I think that I have been very self-revealing and open, but my life story is distributed among the various characters and none of them is really about my life.
What are you working on right now?
My newest novel is about a man at the end of his life and looking back. It is told at four levels. First there is the man, his wife, their daughter, the man’s affair, the wife’s affair, the daughter’s love life. Next there are the chickens that the wife kept. Third there is the town, a small New England town very much out of my life experience. The fourth level is a work of fiction that the man has written years earlier; it is a science fiction involving extraterrestrials.
I hope that’s enough to wet your appetite.
Are you writing to reach a particular kind of reader?
Absolutely. I write what I consider to be literary fiction. I want readers who love language not just plot. Here is an example from Memoirs From the Asylum.
Exactly three hundred forty-seven paces – that is all the distance in
the world. I’ve walked it many times. Most of us asylum dwellers have.
On any decent day, drivers following old Route 38 can see us standing
around the gate, leaning on the fancy brickwork that creates an
imaginary fence – a fence that scares those drivers into sanity and
reassures us that we don’t have to be sane. Madness has its rewards, and
they go far beyond the proverbial three hots and a cot.
My paces are two feet nine inches long. That’s the same as thirty-three
inches. Three hundred forty-seven paces means eleven thousand four
hundred fifty-one inches, or nine hundred fifty-four and one quarter feet,
or three hundred eighteen and one twelfth yards, or three hundred and
forty-seven paces. It isn’t a long way — not like the distance to Tipperary,
which is a nowhere town in Ireland, or the distance an ECT treatment has
to travel to find the crazy thoughts it’s meant to extinguish. It’s just far
enough so that parents wanting to instill fear in helpless children and
husbands wanting to instill fear in even more helpless wives can drive by
that gate and point to the looming red-brick monsters waiting behind it,
to the mismatched humanity gathered around it, and warn of impending
doom if behavior doesn’t improve, if obsequiousness isn’t sufficient.
What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?
Marketing is a lot of work. Much as I like doing interviews and signings, being on radio programs and blogs, I really want to spend my time writing. And the editing process is a drag. I don’t mean the first edit, but the three and four times through. By the time I’ve checked the galleys for that final time, I am wishing I’d never written the book. Of course then it comes out, somebody reads it, writes a good review, and I’m an ecstatic author once again.
What writers influenced you the most?
Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Kafka, and Pirandello are probably the ones who have most influenced me as a writer. I also want to give a shout-out to Paul Harding, who has only recently come on the scene but who writes brilliantly.
What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you’d written yourself?
I have to name two: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Harding’s Tinkers.
Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received and what was it? What advice you would give to an aspiring author?
When I thought about writing – that was at the end of my long career as a psychologist, I wasn’t really sure it would be comfortable for me. As much as I had always wanted to write, I wasn’t sure of my talent or my ability to actually put together a body of work that would have value.
My wife made it quite simple: “What do you have to lose? Write and do it because you want to. Nothing else matters.”
She was absolutely right. It is the advice I would say to anyone who wants to write. “What do you have to lose? Write and do it because you want to. Nothing else matters.”
Where can people learn more about your books?
My website is http://www.authorkenweene.com They can also check out the reviews on sites like Amazon. Most importantly, however, they should read the books and experience for themselves.