Ken Kesey assembled his Merry Pranksters and other kindred spirits for one more, and final, prank—a semi-regular book series that contained pieces of his unfinished novel about his beloved grandmother, and contributions from a who’s who of the counterculture. Benito Vila gathered the 7 issues of the series—published over 20 years time—read them, then contacted Ed McClanahan, who edited the last volume, published after Kesey died in 2001, and Jeff Forrester, who was one of Kesey’s writing students. What ensued was a cosmic conversation worthy of Kesey’s ghost.
Prologue: Caution– Weird Read
After trading emails over a couple weeks in January, I call Zane Kesey to talk to him about his father, Ken, and about his own experience growing up Kesey. Zane picks up, I remind him why I’m calling, and I hear, “Yeah, I’ll do an interview with you, but not today.” I get ready to ask when would be good to call again when he says, “And I don’t know when will be good. You’ll have to keep calling. And be ready; one day will be the right one.”
Ah, the perfect Prankster commitment coming from a master of Prankster life. After all, this is Zane Kesey––the same Zane Kesey who in 1990 made off with the second Further, the sort-of-like-the-original-bus Ken Kesey was mischievously driving from Oregon to Washington, D.C. to present to the Smithsonian as being the original. Not having any of it, the younger Kesey instead drove the “new” bus home in the middle of a California night, out-pranking his dad by leaving a crime-scene-like chalked outline of the bus in its place, along with the words “Nothing Lasts”––artfully declaring Further was never meant to live in a museum.
Our brief conversation that day turned towards what Zane sells on his “official Ken Kesey site”––blotter acid art, Prankster-and-Further-themed DVDs, magnets, pins, posters, T-shirts, and his dad’s books––including Spit In The Ocean, an obscure 1974-to-1981 book series. Zane described Ken conceiving Spit––or SITO as it also became known––as having seven issues with each issue having its own theme and its own editor. When it became clear our talk was coming to a close, I ordered the six Spit issues Zane had on hand and went to Amazon to order Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Kesey. I had no idea what I was in for.
Spitologue: Kesey’s Game
Spit 7 arrived first, so I went at it, finding All About Kesey contains remembrances of Kesey by friends, neighbors and collaborators, including a who’s who of counterculture miscreants. In the collection are pieces by Hunter S. Thompson, Paul Krassner, George Walker, Rosalie Sorrels, Chloe Scott, Sterling Lord, Gus Van Sant and Kesey himself. Edited by novelist and long-time Kesey confederate Ed McClanahan, the book chronicles the development of the Spit series and then jumps into the spontaneous genius that attracted so many to Kesey and his way of doing things.
That way consistently expresses itself in a poke-fun humor that leads Kesey to steal into an apartment shared by Stewart Brand and Paul Krassner to cut-out-and-redraw the eyes in a Richard Nixon poster so that Nixon might more easily follow people around the room (Kesey left their Geronimo poster untouched). Kesey’s playful jester-jock-farmer-storyteller persona comes through in letters to friends and in his own accounts of the situations he found himself in. Spit 7 presents the next Kesey generation wondering aloud, “Who will teach us to hypnotize the chickens?” and Wavy Gravy cautioning everyone to, “Never trust a Prankster, even under ground.” The book closes with a set of Brother Kesey’s Words to the Wise, including “Fame is a wart”; “When you don’t know where you’re going, you have to stick together just in case someone gets there”, and, ultimately, “Nothing Lasts.”
It turns out the Spit series was first conceived by Kesey as a way to serialize an unpublished novel recounting the adventures or “prayers” of one Grandma Whittier. Who Grandma Whittier is remains obscure and open to interpretation––“She symbolizes a lot of things,” Kesey compatriot George Walker said last week, “but she’s mostly Ken’s Grandma Smith, who he was close to”. Kesey created six installments of the novel, each one closing out each of the first six editions of Spit before Grandma Smith passed on in the early 1980s.
In Spit 1, Kesey uses an Old English style to describe the structure of the series: “My game? each issue around gats a new wylde dealer and a new wylde dealer’s choice. And I, being first merrie, as I sayd, and, merrie, being first to chose, do chose to deal this opening hand about the common table, Age.” True to his word, in each of those first six editions, Kesey curates a discussion around a single topic, with his selected editors, writers and illustrators giving voice to––in Spit 1 through Spit 6––the aches of aging; the challenges of change; the search for higher intelligence; the insights of creative women; a mid-70s trip to the Pyramids and the life of Neal Cassady.
Nowhere, in any of the books, does Kesey describe the unruly literary card game he’s playing. Spit in the Ocean itself is a variety of poker, one in which each player is dealt four cards facedown and is left to combine those with a card dealt face-up––that faced card, and all others of the same rank, are then considered wild cards––leaving the player free to give those cards any conceivable value. The game is known to spark crazed emotions: in the film A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s after winning a hand of Spit in the Ocean that a drunken Stanley (Brando) gets up enraged, tosses a radio playing a tedious waltz through a window and then beats the perplexed Stella (Vivien Leigh)––all that soon leading to his standing in the street pleading “Stella!” at the top of his lungs.
Wild Card: Calling Ed McClanahan
After reading the first four Spit books, I still had no idea what the Grandma Whittier novel was all about––the namesake heroine was on the run with a little boy named Toby, and Otis, a bloated and bruised drunk dressed in a sailor suit. To get insight on Kesey’s game and to find out who exactly Grandma Whittier might be, I called Ed McClanahan. His friendship with Kesey goes back to the early 1960s, the two first connecting in a bar in Eugene, Oregon and again later through Stanford University’s creative writing program.
By 1963, both were part of a pre-Prankster Palo Alto Perry Lane circle that McClanahan describes in Spit 7 as “just what I was looking for: a bad crowd to fall in with”––a “lunatic fringe” that included Roy Sebern, Vic Lowell, Gene Farmer, Robert Hunter, Jane Burton and Neal Cassady. Tagged “Captain Kentucky”, McClanahan later went on to teach creative writing, pen award-winning pieces for Playboy and Rolling Stone and create a series of memoirs and novels that have earned him a place in the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame [Editor: along with three other Kesey compatriots: Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman and Hunter S. Thompson.]
Ken’s favorite call when he was dealer was deuces, jokers and one-eyed Jacks wild. That’s what? Eight wild cards in the hand? In one round? That’s totally ridiculous.
McClanahan has a website with no contact information, but my reaching out to Gurney Norman, George Walker and Lexington’s Black Swan Books led to his greeting me like an old friend.
[Calling at the appointed time. The phone rings]
Ed McClanahan: Hi, Benito!
PKM: Ed, how are you?
Ed McClanahan: I’m doing all right. How are you?
PKM: I’m glad we’re talking! I’ve come across Spit in the Ocean and I’m trying to understand the whole context of what Ken was doing. What led Ken to conceive of Spit in the Ocean?
Ed McClanahan: It’s my recollection that we were sitting around my kitchen table in Palo Alto. Ken was talking about doing a magazine and he was saying, “There’s going to be a wild card editor for each one.” I happened to remember he was fond of that goofy poker game called Spit in the Ocean and I said, “You should call it Spit in the Ocean,” and he did! [Laughs.]
PKM: What are the rules to Spit in the Ocean as you understand them?
Ed McClanahan: It’s a draw of poker: the dealer starts dealing one card to each player until each one gets a total of five. At some point, as he’s dealing, somebody says, “spit,” and the next card the dealer’s about to put down gets turned up instead––he turns it over instead of dealing it. Say it’s a seven of clubs: then all the sevens are wildcards in that hand. You just draw poker from then on but it’s kind of a crazy game.
PKM: How did Ken come up with a seven-book series based on that?
Ed McClanahan: I’m not 100% sure, but Ken determined right away he was going to write this novel this way. It was going to be called Seven Prayers for Grandma Whittier. He had it in mind that there would be seven issues of this magazine: each one would have a Grandma Whittier “prayer” in it and each one would be edited by a different someone else. He would do the first one. There was a film called Wild in the Streets at the time about the youth taking over America––the youth changing the voting age and getting everyone stoned on acid––it was a crazy movie but it was really popular. Ken had it in mind to call that first issue “Old In The Streets” and the notion being that old people ought to take over.
PKM: Have you read that first book recently?
Ed McClanahan: “Old In The Streets”? Oh, yes. I read them all.
PKM: Its stories talk about aging in a way few books do. Wendell Berry has one in there about Old Jack, a man living in a boarding house, a rooming house; Paul Krassner has one about a granny who gives blowjobs.
Ed McClanahan: “Gum Job”! That’s a good one. And Old Jack is from Wendell’s “The Memories of Old Jack”. I forgot that that was in there.
PKM: Nella Novak has an older woman’s lament that opens the book: “Remember Me”. And Ken Babbs has one about an old guy who shows his pecker to two young girls and somehow gets away with it. It’s a mixed-up tale but it’s an interesting story.
Ed McClanahan: Yes, I do remember that one; that was startling. [Laughs] You’ve inspired me to take another look at that issue. I hadn’t thought of it in years; I have them all sitting right here in front of me.
PKM: Did Ken ever use a motif of a game to tell a story? Or use a game to create a framework for a story?
Ed McClanahan: [Pause] Now that you mention it; I never thought about this as having any connection, but when the Pranksters were living up in La Honda, they had a spinner––they would all gather around and spin this spinner. Whoever it pointed to, that person, he or she, determined what they were going to do next. That person was in charge in other words. Every once in a while, they would haul this board out with a device on it and you were obliged to perform if it landed on you in some sense or another. I can’t recall the exact circumstances of how that game went. I remember one night, someone––I think it was Neal––started a rap and wouldn’t stop. Finally a couple of guys went and picked him up and carried him out. He was still talking when they carried him out the door. [Chuckles] Silly, that was. That was a game of sorts, so I suppose that counts.
PKM: Spit in the Ocean is an obscure poker game. What do think attracted Ken to the game?
Ed McClanahan: The whole evolution of wild cards. Let me explain it this way, Ken’s favorite call when he was dealer was deuces, jokers and one-eyed Jacks wild. That’s what? Eight wild cards in the hand? In one round? That’s totally ridiculous.
PKM: How do the Grandma Whittier stories work into the Spit game?
Ed McClanahan: The whole notion was built on this serialized novel. The novel wasn’t very good to tell you the honest truth. It just didn’t go as a novel. Ken got bored with it for one thing and said as much, and finally just didn’t want to do it anymore. It only went to Spit #6 and stayed there for about 20 years and then Ken died.
PKM: I haven’t peeked at the back of Spit 6 yet. Let me look.
Ed McClanahan: What does it say?
PKM: To be concluded in the next issue.
Ed McClanahan: That’s interesting. That’s a fallacy, too. I have––or I had––somewhere, a letter from Ken saying, that the novel had been “spit-less.” [Chuckles] He had just dried up on the novel.
PKM: What do you think he’s trying to tell us in the Grandma Whittier tale?
Ed McClanahan: To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what he was trying to say because I could never read it all. It felt to me always like it was forced. I can’t explain it any better than that. If I’d looked at it more, I’m sure I’d find things I could maybe point in one direction. I didn’t feel like it was ever moving; I think Ken may have felt the same thing. In the end, it was hard for him to do because he wasn’t enjoying it. A lot of that had to do with his grandmother. She was living when he started out writing it. Over the years––those six issues cover about 10 years or something like that––she got older and older and then she died. He was real close to that grandmother. It was about her, and her death took a lot of the fun out it for him, I think. It had been a personal pleasure; then it became a labor.
PKM: Ken once wrote that Cuckoo’s Nest teaches itself––that it’s a simple Christ allegory, taking place in a nut house. I’m reading Grandma Whittier as if she is someone––someone beyond his grandmother––as if she’s an embodiment of something that’s distinctly faded away in America. Did you ever talk to Ken about anything like that?
Ed McClanahan: I can’t really say anything about it that all because I never really read that much of it. She’s in a home when it starts out, isn’t she? Wasn’t there a news story awhile back about two old duffers escaping a nursing home and going on a spree somewhere?
PKM: I don’t know that one.
Ed McClanahan: Kesey might have been ahead of his time on that.
PKM: How did you first meet Ken?
Ed McClanahan: The first time I met him, he had already published Cuckoo’s Nest and had started on Sometimes a Great Notion. Ken had been at Stanford, living on Perry Lane. I was teaching at Oregon State College in Corvallis. Ken happened to come back to Eugene––this was the fall of ‘62––to work in the logging industry and do some research for Sometimes a Great Notion.
I was yearning to go back to Stanford, which I had flunked out of four years earlier. I tried to be a graduate student there and I lasted two academic quarters. [Laughs] I came back to Kentucky, got an M.A. and then got a teaching gig at Oregon State. Anyhow, I had started writing again and was working on my application for a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford when I got a letter from a friend who was there on a Stegner Fellowship––Jamey Hall––he told me, “You must meet Kesey.” I submitted my manuscripts for the fellowship and I thought, “Okay, I’ve done that. Now I can take the weekend and go down to Eugene to see if I can find him,” and I did.
I can’t remember how I got his phone number but we arranged to meet. We had a connection neither of us knew about. It turned out that Cuckoo’s Nest, which I hadn’t even seen yet at that point, was dedicated to a friend of mine from my semesters at Stanford four years earlier: Vic Lovell [the Cuckoo’s Nest dedication reads: To Vic Lovell––who told me dragons did not exist, then led me to their lairs.]
PKM: That’s cool.
Ed McClanahan: A friend came with me and we met Ken at a bar in downtown Springfield [across the Willamette River from Eugene]. Ken’s father’s creamery was right in that neighborhood. We went and toured the creamery with him; it was a hot, moist place because they steam the liquid out of the equipment all the time. He’s showing us around, and back in one corner there’s a little pile of straw. Ken lifted it up a little flick of it and underneath were these little mushrooms––psychedelic mushrooms.
PKM: You ate them?
Ed McClanahan: No. [Laughs] But somebody eventually did. I hadn’t done any of that yet. My experience with that came a little later, but Ken was up to no good already. The first time I ever tripped was after I went back to Stanford in ’62. There was a big Thanksgiving dinner at Kesey’s house on Perry Lane. There must have been 20 people there. Everybody was tanking up in every way possible. The afternoon passed and as we got to the early evening, Kesey took me into the bathroom and handed me a little pill and said, “Here, take this. We are going to the movies.” We went to see West Side Story of all things. That was three hours of just absolute mayhem––guns; loud noise; bright, vivid, bloody colors. It’s just a terrible experience until it was over. When it was over, I don’t think I ever felt better in my life. [Laughs] It was worth every minute of it.
PKM: [Laughs] So, Ken drops the Spit series in ’81 and then he dies in 2001. What prompted you to want to finish the series?
Ed McClanahan: I was out there when he died, and at the funeral a few people started talking about that somebody should revive Spit In The Ocean for a seventh issue, because Ken had promised seven issues and people had paid for the seven. There were subscribers for the full series and, by the way, we filled those subscriptions. We had a list, a rudimentary list of who had paid for subscriptions, and every one of them that we could find we sent a copy of Spit 7 to.
I had always wanted to edit one of the issues. Ken and I had talked about it once at some length while I was teaching up in Montana for a couple of years in the ’70s. We talked about the possibility of doing one from up there, but my job didn’t last and Ken didn’t revive his interest in it, so we didn’t ever do it.
When we started talking about Spit 7, I was totally computer illiterate; I didn’t know anything about computers. All I knew was I would have to somehow master skills that I didn’t have a clue about. A friend named Pat Mackey was out there [in Oregon]; Pat’s a computer genius and a smart guy. Pat’s wife happened to be away for that summer; he was there in his house by himself and he invited me to stay with him; he told me, “I’ll show you how to do all this shit”. [Laughs] That’s what I did. I took a little iMac––the one shaped like a lozenge––I put it in the back of the car, drove out to Oregon, set it up and started putting the whole proposition together. It took a while but we got it done.
PKM: It’s a very touching book. It gives Kesey new dimension, as a dad and as a community-member.
Ed McClanahan: I’ve always been pleased with my metaphor for that book. I saw a portrait of George Washington made out of postage stamps, stamps with George Washington’s face on them. Together they reproduced the exact profile that was on stamp––in postage stamps. That’s like what we were doing, metaphorically. It was a process of making a big picture of Ken out of a bunch of little pictures.
There was Ken’s corpse; there he lay. I said, “Wait a minute, I have a silver dollar in my pocket.” I took it out and put it in the pocket of Kesey’s vest. I always liked that moment.
PKM: You concluded it with Robert Hunter’s “Lament for Kesey”. That ends with: “Some folk come to stir it up and when it’s stirred they split––simple as that.”
Ed McClanahan: I felt like that was a good place for that. There’s one more thing in the book though. There’s a little quote from Ken in his handwriting right at the end, on the very last page.
PKM: Yes, there is. That quote says, “I thought of everything, know what I mean?”
Ed McClanahan: [Laughs] Yes, that’s it. I always liked the fact that that turned up there, that we put that there. We even designed the back cover of the book to look like the end of something. I don’t know if you even noticed, but that’s Ken’s coffin on the bus in the photograph on the back of the book.
PKM: Oh, I hadn’t seen that as being his coffin.
Ed McClanahan: One thing about that picture: just before it was taken, Ken Babbs came galumphing along in his Li’l Abner way and said, “Have they nailed him in yet?” He lifted up the lid and sure enough, they hadn’t. There was Ken’s corpse; there he lay. I said, “Wait a minute, I have a silver dollar in my pocket.” I took it out and put it in the pocket of Kesey’s vest. I always liked that moment.
PKM: In Spit 3, Babbs and Saul-Paul Sirag have a piece on Houdini reaching out via a typewriter on what would have been Houdini’s 100th birthday, the idea being that he had escaped death, that he could still communicate. If Houdini can reach out, by now Ken’s found a way to put that dollar to use.
Ed McClanahan: [Laughs] Yes. Ken was a semi-gifted magician. He could do a lot of stuff with his hands. You probably don’t know this but in high school, he performed as a magician––actually on stage a couple of times, locally, in amateur shows. He often had little magician tricks on his person, and he liked working with silver dollars.
PKM: What are your thoughts on the phrase “Nothing Lasts”?
Ed McClanahan: It’s funny that that particular thing comes up just now because I’m about to publish a book––one of my own––it has some stuff about Ken in it, by the way. The title is Not Even Immortality Lasts Forever. It’s not a title that drips lightly off the tongue, I realize, so I’ve been trying to think of things to say that support it. One of them is that it echoes the old Prankster motto, “Nothing Lasts”, which has always been a favorite of mine. On the one hand, it’s utterly without hope, and on the other hand, it’s absolutely hopeful. It just tickles me somehow. [Laughs]
PKM: It’s more interesting than “everything changes” or “get-over-it-all-is- transforming”. I find relief in it. Listen, Ed, I really appreciate you making time for me.
Ed McClanahan: You’re welcome. I love talking about Ken and I enjoyed the experience of editing Spit 7. From my perspective, it was an artistic experience because it was like I was orchestrating stuff. There’s a rhythm that you want to get the pieces into. I keep trying to tell everybody, “Don’t read Spit 7 higgledy-piggledy––start at the beginning and read it all the way through, but nobody ever does that. With almost any book, if it’s not a novel, people pick it up and say, “Well, I can start here if I want to.” You can do that with Spit 7 but you’ll miss part of the point.
The old Prankster motto, “Nothing Lasts”, which has always been a favorite of mine. On the one hand, it’s utterly without hope, and on the other hand, it’s absolutely hopeful. It just tickles me somehow.
PKM: There’s a musical aspect to all the Spit books. They’re each like an album. Some songs are stronger than others, but they’re all part of “a thing”; they all relate as an idea.
Ed McClanahan: Yes. Yes. There’s a theme to each one––a thread that holds it all together. You just keep it in mind then you can do what you want.
PKM: Right. It gives the reader permission to wander off but you’re always going to wander back to the theme.
Ed McClanahan: Exactly. Yes. I don’t think there’s anything in Spit 7 that doesn’t relate pretty much directly back to Ken. That’s true for all the other books, too; they always come back to the theme.
PKM: It’s Kesey working his magic, making you focus on something so he can surprise you somewhere else.
Ed McClanahan: [Laughs] That’s right.
Novel-logue: The Unseen Writer
Another call to McClanahan in search of the picture of Kesey’s coffin led me on a whole other adventure; in the end, that picture eluded me even after I enlisted the help of Kesey’s Perry Lane comrade and long-time lawyer Jim Wolpman. Shrug. Meanwhile, I researched how Kesey wrote, coming across Mountain Girl describing her first trip to La Honda––her arriving with Cassady pre-dawn to find Kesey in his writing shed dealing with sections of prose cuttings that some mice had gotten into. I also found a remembrance of Kesey as a teacher at the University of Oregon by one of his graduate students, Jeff Forester. That one-year Kesey class produced the 1989 novel Caverns, attributed to O. U. Levon, a somewhat backwards spelling of “University of Oregon novel”. Forester, now a writer and environmentalist living in Minnesota, developed the character of the novel’s wacky priest. He also took notes on what his teacher was doing:
PKM: What was your experience of Ken Kesey in bringing together Caverns?
Jeff Forester: Kesey was extremely generous. He taught the class at his house in Eugene. He owned a rental property a few blocks from campus that he and Faye would usually rent out. That year, he and Faye moved off the farm and into town. He left a key on the front porch and said, “When you’ve got time to work, come in.” I would get off work at 2 in the morning––I worked in a restaurant––and I would be all wired, so I would go in and I get a couple hours in. I’d usually work from 2 to like 4 or 5 and then go home, sleep for a while, and teach my afternoon classes––it was grad school––most of my classes were late afternoon or early evening, and then I’d go work at the restaurant again.
PKM: Was Ken up at 2 in the morning when you came to work?
Jeff Forester: Sometimes. Usually. What would happen is this: I would come in and sit down, and he would get up and come downstairs. He would sit behind me while I worked and read what I was doing, and say things like, “Okay, remember that name from three days ago, or that image from three pages back, you can pick that up here.” And things like, “What key is this chapter in? What are the images? How do the images relate? Is this dialogue exposition or is it character development?” He would give these prompts, whispering in my ear while I was working. I learned more about writing there than every other class I ever took combined.
PKM: Did Ken incorporate games into his teaching, or into the writing of Caverns?
Jeff Forester: How do you mean games?
PKM: Spit In The Ocean is a poker game, that’s all about the wild cards. And Ken was known to put scraps of paper with words together, like he was playing with a puzzle.
Jeff Forester: That cut and paste method was something that William Burroughs had been doing. Ken picked it up from him––literally taking the pages of a story and just cutting them up and rearranging them in an interesting way to get that stream of consciousness thing happening. He talked about that technique. [Pause] No, we didn’t play games really, but the writing of Caverns was an elaborate parlor game in and of itself.
PKM: How so?
Jeff Forester: Ken asked us at the beginning, “Can you tell me the difference between genre fiction, or pulp fiction, and literature? What makes one chunk of white paper with black marks on it a novel, and what makes the other one a pulp fiction thing?” He pointed out that in pulp fiction you lay out your plot from beginning to end and you design the characters to fit into the plot. In the novel, you start with a character that wants something––a he, she or an it with a need––and then you put obstacles in their way as they try to satisfy their need. He felt that to the extent that they’re willing to go to fulfill that need––the creativity they show in getting around, over, under those obstacles––that that defines the character and that’s the plot, that the plot arises out of the needs of the character, not out of the mind of the writer. When a writer starts a novel using this technique, they don’t know how it’s going to end any more than the reader does when they start the book.
He would give these prompts, whispering in my ear while I was working. I learned more about writing there than every other class I ever took combined.
PKM: That’s hard for one writer to pull off. How did Ken get 13 writers do it?
Jeff Forester: That’s the parlor game. Ken led us to each create a character that had a need. When we started out, we all struggled with our characters and we didn’t make very good progress. Then Ken changed it up: he had us come in with chapter ideas and talk through them with 13 beats of action, like, wake up is number one; make breakfast is number two; get to work is number three; call somebody on the phone, number four––that kind of thing. Then we would write numbers 1 through 13 on pieces of paper, put them in a hat, and pass the hat around. If you got number two, let’s say, well, then you would start where you thought waking up left off and write getting to the office, up to making the phone call. You were responsible for that part. We would call “go”, and we would write for 45 minutes to an hour. After that we would read what we had written to each other and into a tape deck. The tapes were transcribed, giving the person who had originated the chapter their raw material to edit. We would come in and align the language of the chapter with the language of the class; we would work on getting the tone right. It worked really great. That’s how we wrote the book.
PKM: That’s not easy. That’s quite a trick. Do you know anything about Kesey being into magic?
Jeff Forester: He was really into magic. At the first class, we all walked in and Ken was making quarters appear and disappear; he was doing these really wonderful sleight of hand tricks. Throughout the whole year we had this sort of Ouija board that he had made. We tried using that. There’s a lot of magic in Caverns. You never know if magic is hucksterism or real––he was really into it.
PKM: What else do you remember about first meeting Ken?
Jeff Forester: In that very first class he said, “It’s better to be rich than famous. Because if you’re rich and you want to be famous, you can buy that, but if you’re famous, you’re not necessarily rich––just ask Allen Ginsberg.” He talked about how we put writers on these pedestals––we make them famous––and it makes it almost impossible for them to write because you can always see the man or woman behind the curtain. Their personality, their reputation, their fame is what gets seen on the page. He thought this is what happened to Norman Mailer, and what happened to Faulkner, what happened to Hemingway––that America just chews up their writers when they become famous. He saw that as a problem.
Ken cautioned us against letting the reader see the writer. When we were writing he would say, “You have your voice but if you let the reader see the strings, if you let the reader see the person behind the screen, that’s a problem. It pulls them out of the fiction.” Think about it: when you get into a really good book, it keeps you up at night. Right? It grabs your brain and you’re in it––the characters are so compelling, you forget you’re reading. Then, the voice of the author appears and you’re like, “Oh, there’s an author here” and you drop out of the novel.
PKM: What did Ken tell you about Spit?
Jeff Forester: Just that it had happened. I worked on the farm for a while and there were all these Spit In The Ocean books out there, in boxes in the barn, basically in the old chicken coop. I got a full set of them from him. All I know is he loved his Grandma Whittier and it was his homage to her. I think he spent a lot of time with her as a little kid and she really emphasized “story” with him, telling stories, reciting rhymes and teaching songs. She was the one who taught him the Cuckoo’s Nest rhyme.
It’s easy to see that Ken took a break from the novel as a form after Notion and experimented with other things. I think Spit came out of that, especially out of his Hoo-Has: after Woodstock, the bus just sat on the farm––that was the last time the bus was used was to go to Woodstock. But people were still coming around. After a while, Ken began to plan these Hoo-Ha things where he would invite different writers, musicians, artists, and all kinds of people out to the farm––it would be a public event–– they would do big posters, have readings, have discussions on all sorts of topics and do all sorts of crazy things.
In that very first class he said, “It’s better to be rich than famous. Because if you’re rich and you want to be famous, you can buy that, but if you’re famous, you’re not necessarily rich––just ask Allen Ginsberg.”
While doing Spit, Ken was living a pretty good life––his kids were at school and the farm was a working farm––and he was the farmer. He had Faye and he had a lot of friends. He was still writing along at times but mostly he was having a nice time––novels are a lot of work. When his kids got to be college age and left the farm, he went back into the novel with the Alaska book [Sailor Song]. Then Jed was killed.
PKM: How did that change him?
Jeff Forester: It totally took the wind out of his sails. I think things were real quiet on the farm for a while. I don’t know this for sure, but I think Ken’s motivation for teaching our class was to give back and connect. He had had some great teachers and wanted to pass that along, because that’s very much the kind of guy that he was. Part of the impact of the class on him was that he finished the Alaska book; he wrote the Shoola book [The Sea Lion] and Little Tricker The Squirrel; and he did that book with Babbs [Last Go Round]. He had four or five books came out right after our class. I think it jump-started him a little bit.
PKM: Having read all the Grandma Whittier books, does she represent something to you?
Jeff Forester: Kesey had a belief in the whole synchronicity idea––he tended to think there were no such things as accidents. I remember getting that feeling from reading Grandma Whittier––that everything in the story happens for a reason. I was surprised when he told me the series was about his grandmother; they were dark.
PKM: They really are.
Jeff Forester: What are you thinking about Grandma Whittier, who is she?
PKM: To me, she represents a long-gone, more gracious, much steadier America. Her childhood is filled with family who fought in the Civil War, who went west. She’s from the last generation to go without electricity and she grew up when the only book people had on hand was the Bible. Her adventure is somewhat biblical, too; it’s full of super-holy sinners and really oddball saints. It plays out over an Easter weekend. [Pause] To answer your question, I don’t know who Grandma Whittier is yet. I still have two more installments to read, and I want to talk to George again about her and about the Cassady book. He’s been working on a new set of his own Cassady pieces and on a new bus, one that he’s dubbed “Farther”.
To be continued, maybe…
Ed McClanahan: http://www.edmcclanahan.com/
Zane Kesey’s site: http://www.key-z.com/