Psychedelic Wanderings: Interview with Kevin K. Casey

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in May 2015 by The Mimeograph.

Kevin K. Casey works as a freelance writer and editor. He has published a series of children’s books on theFourPeaceFrontCov martial arts and a series on multicultural topics. His short fiction has appeared in Amarillo Bay. Four-Peace (Lamar University Press, 2015) is his first novel. Kevin has recently been featured in the New Writer Spotlight series of Small Press News.

The Mimeograph: Versions of your bio state that you’ve worked as a marketing writer. Is that your main line of business?

Kevin K. Casey: Sometimes. Or rather it’s most of the time when I’m working as more of a writer than editor. And when I work as an editor, then I might cross into any area, from technical to financial to marketing.

The Mimeograph: Did you always intend to become a writer?

Kevin K. Casey: I’m not sure anymore. I think I started out with a notion that I wanted to be a writer because I had some mistaken idea about what a writer did for a living, but when I got out of college I discovered that the only companies hiring writers wanted technical manual writers or advertising writers and such. Nobody was paying for poets and novelists, and I didn’t have any training or interest in real journalism. So what else was there to do? I mean, most people that study lit either teach or do something unrelated to what they studied in school. I didn’t want to teach, but I wanted to make use my studies so I transformed from a term paper writer to a technical writer. After a few years of tech writing, I got some opportunities in marketing. For a lot of years I complained about my line of work, maybe because I thought that was fashionable, but the truth is that I like what I do, and I’m lucky.

The Mimeograph: You’ve published nonfiction and short fiction, but Four-Peace is your first novel, correct?

Kevin K. Casey: Yes, it’s my first novel. I wanted to write one for a long time, but . . . well, you know, life and stuff got in the way.

The Mimeograph: You started professional writing in the mid-1990s, and twenty years later you wrote a novel. Did the desire to write one develop along the way?

Kevin K. Casey: I always thought I wanted to be a novelist. I mean, I thought I wanted to be a literary fiction writer, but the problem was that I didn’t have any stories to tell, or rather I didn’t have any stories I needed to tell. Sadly, it was all superficial posturing. I liked the idea of being a writer, but I put very little effort into improving the craft of fiction writing. Instead I picked up a lot of the stereotypical bad habits of writers—when in fact none of the actual fiction writers I knew and admired lived in such a deplorable way. After I shed most of those bad habits and became content with my day job, then the desire to tell a particular story came about. And then after another couple of years, I had a big manuscript. That’s more or less how that, the novel, happened.

The Mimeograph: The cover states that the novel is based on Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. What can you tell us about that influence?

Kevin K. Casey: I’ve always loved that poem. I encountered it way, way back in the last century in an undergraduate college class, and immediately I could relate to the speaker. Everyone can, probably, and that’s why it was so popular back in its day and for a long time after. I don’t know if many people read it today, but they should. I’ve never read anything else that so vividly illustrates the human condition and our doubts and fears about mortality. And it’s stuck with me all these years. With some things—songs, movies, other poems—I really like them for a time, but then the feeling of “that’s the greatest ever” wears off, and then it’s just something I like. But with the Rubaiyat I seem to continue liking it, maybe even more so. I guess everyone can relate to the speaker in the poem, and I kind of feel like he’s me when I read it. When I was that young brash undergraduate, I was the speaker when he’s being most belligerent or irreverent. These days I guess I’m more like the speaker in the latter parts of the poem that have more of a feeling of acceptance.

The Mimeograph: And so you decided to base your novel on the poem?

Kevin K. Casey: Well, yeah, kind of. I always thought it would be cool to have a modern day version of the Rubaiyat. After all, FitzGerald’s version came 800 or so years after Omar Khayyam’s original work. And as a lot of scholars have noted, FitzGerald took so many liberties with the original that it ought to be called more of a version or adaptation than a translation. He’d translate the same quatrain in multiple ways and include all versions and do stuff like that. But I like to think he was more interested in bringing the flavor of the original to his 19th century audience than rendering an exact and dry translation. For a long time, I thought it would be great to somehow bring the poem into the modern day. Turns out I don’t have the talent of FitzGerald, so rather than try to adapt his work I just juxtaposed his quatrains with my prose.

The Mimeograph: The novel has been described as a Texas novel, but the cover states that the story is set in California. Do you consider it to be a Texas novel?

Kevin K. Casey: Oh absolutely. First, it’s by a Texan author, and despite living much of my life outside Texas there’s just some things that stick with us natives of the Lone Star State. So there’s that. And then there’s the story itself. The protagonist is Texan, a sort of estranged self-exiled Texan but a Texan nonetheless. And while the present or real-time setting of the novel takes place in California, everything going on in the main character’s head is in Texas. So there’s always that comparison of Texas and California going on. So, yeah, it’s most definitely a Texas novel. That may have helped some in Lamar University Press’s decision to publish it.

The Mimeograph: Will the release of the novel affect what you call your day job?

Kevin K. Casey: No, not in the least. Those worlds are completely separate.

The Mimeograph: Are you currently working on another creative project, or do you have one planned in the near future?

Kevin K. Casey: No to both questions. I’ll almost surely write fiction in some form again, but right now I just don’t have the urge. There’s a lot that goes into the production of a novel that I didn’t know about when I started. The writing part was familiar, and that was also the most fun or rewarding part. I’d go to sleep at night thinking about the characters and wake the next morning still thinking about them. As soon as I could catch a break from my day job, I’d be back at the novel again. But it was the part that came after completing a first draft that I didn’t know about. First you have to find someone—better if you can get more than one person—to read the draft. Then you have to be ready to receive feedback you might not like. And you might have to make changes to the draft, even to the structure of the story. Even after all that, all you have is a manuscript. So you have to find someone to publish it, and that process can be disheartening. Some of the writers I know personally and admire have told me that they have been turned down before, but that doesn’t make it feel any better when you receive feedback from a prospective publisher that says something like “it just doesn’t meet our needs at this time.” But fortunately these days with the rise of indie publishing and self-publishing a writer has a lot more options for getting work into print. In the end, I was very, very lucky to get accepted by a small university press that puts out some of the finest books around. I try not to think of the company of writers I’m in with Lamar University Press. There are poet laureates and accomplished novelists. Thinking that my book is right alongside theirs is intimidating, overwhelming.

The Mimeograph: You mentioned self-publishing. Did you consider self-publishing your novel?

Kevin K. Casey: No, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do so if ever again I write another novel. As I said, I got very, very lucky with Lamar University Press. But as for self-publishing, it’s my opinion that it still carries a stigma that is no longer applicable in today’s digital age. These days, if writers know how to typeset a book and submit it to a service like Lightning Source and do a few other things, they can have a book that will look every bit as good as any from an established press. And if they don’t know how to typeset, they can pay to have that done. Of course, printing is only one small part of publishing a book. Maybe the hardest part is distribution and promotion. But with online retailers, particularly Amazon, that really levels the field. I see a lot of similarities between indie publishing and what is going on with the music industry. We’ve all heard of musical artists who got discovered after posting a YouTube video of their work. As for writers, it’s possible be your own publisher. Of course, that requires a tremendous amount of work, especially the promotion part. I don’t currently have the guts or the material to try something like that, but I applaud anyone who has that kind of courage and drive. Oh, and that’s to say nothing of e-books. E-books have really changed things, maybe even as much as the advent of mp3s changed the way music is distributed and shared.

The Mimeograph: So you view self-publishing as a viable fall-back for new writers who have difficulty finding publishers?

Kevin K. Casey: Well, yes, but I wouldn’t want to say it like that. Saying it that way makes it sound like self-publishing is inferior, and it’s not. I’d rather say that all writers have the choice to self-publish, and there are both drawbacks and rewards that come with that choice.

The Mimeograph: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

kevinkcaseyKevin K. Casey: If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I ought not give advice. But to answer the question, there are some things. First, there are the things that all aspiring writers have heard until they’re sick: read, read, read, and write, write, write. Also, it helps tremendously to have a network of fellow writers that can give feedback. Some people do this by taking creative writing courses or even enrolling in an MFA program. In my experience, a person doesn’t have to go to those lengths, but they are certainly helpful if one has the opportunity. There are plenty of ways to hook up with fellow writers for free, especially online. Probably the best way to ensure there will be writers available to offer feedback on a manuscript is to give before receiving. In other words, volunteer to read some other folks’ stuff and offer feedback before asking them to read your stuff. As for advice on writing, I guess if I could go back in time and give myself some advice I’d say concentrate more on what constitutes a good story or good story telling rather than getting so wrapped up in gimmicky manipulation of words. If I’d have spent more time thinking about stories and less time trying to dazzle the world with gimmicks in syntax and other devices, maybe I’d have more to show for it. Once a writer has a story that he or she can care about, then that’s the first step in developing a story that can interest others. Once the story is the focus, then the way to tell it will develop over time. Anyone can play around with words in a clever way, but if that’s all you do then you end up with a whole lot of nothing.


A Cautionary Tale of Vulnerability and Resilience: Jan Seale’s Parkinson Poems

Editor’s note: The following review originally appeared in The Mimeograph.

By guest contributor Carol Coffee Reposa

In The Parkinson Poems (Lamar University Press, 2014), 2012 Texas Poet Laureate Jan Seale explores the workings of an illness that continues to defy full understanding or cure. Like a jeweler putting a large and freakish diamond under the glass, she examines Parkinson’s both in its entirety and facet by menacing facet—its etiology, onset, symptoms, progression, treatment, and outcome—as the disease inexorably invades the life of her husband Carl.

seale parkinsonNo marker for the malady escapes Seale’s notice. Whether it’s the “mask-like expression,” a tendency to see faces in everything, night sweats, obsession, deterioration of speech, or difficulty in walking, all and each come into sharp focus under the lens of her scrutiny. In “The Guest,” for example, she ironically personifies the disorder as an uninvited and churlish visitor, a neurological Grendel who systematically dismantles the days and nights of his reluctant hosts, leaving them in grim anticipation of his next foray—minus any help from Beowulf. The intruder “dropped silverware, knocked over glasses,/ spilt food, complained of dull knives, . . . / Gradually he began running the show.” Other poems like “Prey and Predator” confront the disease head-on. Here Seale charts mercilessly the process by which Parkinson’s transforms previously innocuous objects like café tables, pews, and rugs into “venomous tile floors, . . . man-eating sidewalks, spidery chairs.”

Although the illness catapults Seale into the unexpected and exhausting role of care-giver, she deftly balances humor and pathos, never allowing self-pity to cloud her vision. She finds nobility in canes, props which help her “Parkie” spouse morph into Paul Bunyan, Tenzing Norgay, or even Moses. Pills are “the first-aid candy” that “convinces your feet to walk/ and your mouth to talk.” In the epistolary “Dear Dr. Parkinson,” the speaker even thanks the discoverer of the ailment for becoming its eponym, although she wryly qualifies her gratitude: “We never know, do we, what will make us famous?/ . . . I’m guessing that you would rather have/ lent your name to a star, a flower/ or a bird.” Seale occasionally permits herself an understated evocation of happier times past, as in the poignant “Evenings,” recalling when “a kiss wasn’t postlude but prelude.” Even here, though, humor bubbles to the surface as the weary couple try “to get the less charming/ Parkinson kid to quit wiggling, gnawing at us, / the only bedtime story we want being rest.”

If the 33 poems in this collection documented nothing more than one man’s encounter with one disease, they would stand. Seale moves far beyond the reach of individual experience, however. Through epigraphs, abundant detail, and numinous visuals, she ties present to past, the particular to the general, expanding her survey toward the universal and unending. To reinforce this perspective, she marshals an array of rhetorical strategies ranging from energetic free verse to haiku, apostrophe to narrative, and the lyrical “I” to the more detached third-person. Seale often pairs form and content ironically to jaw-dropping effect. “The Dys-es Are Dissing the Parkie,” which lists the numerous physical malfunctions accompanying the disorder, is written entirely in tight rhymed couplets:

Dysphonia makes it hard to speak;
Dysphagia makes it hard to eat.

Dyskinesia jerks one to and fro
Where one does not wish to go . . . .

If only one could diss the dys-es,
There’d be a chance to know what bliss is.

This offbeat combination of almost-epic catalogue and almost-but-not-quite heroic verse generates a gritty humor that recurs throughout the text and leavens an experience potentially devastating for reader and writer alike.

The Parkinson Poems is rightfully dedicated to Carl, but the book ultimately sweeps everyone into its arc. In 77 pages, Jan Seale unfolds a cautionary tale of vulnerability and resilience, appraising unflinchingly the ravages of the disease while urging her readers to glory in the serendipities that float through their fragile lives. As the epigraph she draws from Menander reminds us, “No man alive can say, This shall not happen to me.”