Interview with Michael Kasenow
Infinity Publishing (2012)
Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (1/13)
Article first published as Interview with Michael Kasenow, Author of ‘View From the Edge’ on Blogcritics.
In the eighth grade, Michael Kasenow would hide from friends in the middle school library to read poetry. He says of this time, “By reading poetry one learns how to read, write and dream.” He dropped out of college at age nineteen to escape a world of drugs and the downward spiral of his friends’ lives. He traveled across America, from Michigan to Texas to New Mexico doing odd jobs—cab driver, bartender, lumberman, janitor, butcher, and rancher. Interested in science, he earned a B.S. in Geology from Eastern Michigan University in 1986, followed by an M.S. and Ph.D. from Western Michigan University. He has taught geology and hydrogeology at EMU since 1989. He is the author of fourteen environmental science books published internationally by Water Resources Publications as well as the critically acclaimed historical novel “The Last Paradise,” a book of award winning poetry, “Six Feet Down,” and his newest book, a thriller, “View from the Edge,” an Indie Reader Discovery Award Winner. Kasenow lives in a Michigan harbor town, enjoying blueberries and the west waves of Lake Michigan.
Tyler: Welcome back, Michael. You were our guest back in 2009 when your novel “The Last Paradise” came out. Your new book “View from the Edge” seems like quite a departure from the first novel. To begin, will you tell us a little about your main character Joshua Feenics and what leads to the psychotic breakdown he’s recovering from when the novel opens?
Michael: For me as a writer it’s the story that’s important; not the genre. I don’t want to be classified in any genre. If the story is good for me, it most likely will be good for the reader—and I’ll write it. For this story, Joshua is at a point in his life where his brutal past is conflicting with his haunting present. It is somewhat easy for the human mind to bury what we do not want to see or remember. That’s how we go on with our lives. Some can handle it; some can’t. The stress in Joshua’s present is digging up the past; he is confronted with both and he must deal with both; come to terms with a life he has tried to forget or ignore by keeping himself busy with his work—mundane as it may be. Psychotic breakdowns are like volcanoes. They simmer and smolder and rumble with flashes that come and go, but once the eruption begins, chaos is in control. It can lead to a new beginning, a re-birth, a new vision of what is important, or the human soul can sink deeper into self-destruction, buried beneath social norms, and never climb out of the pit. The story begins with Joshua attempting to climb from the pit of self-destruction, but it is a slow climb, a painful resurrection—as most passages are.
Tyler: Would you briefly tell us what some of the issues in Joshua’s life are that have caused his psychotic breakdown?
Michael: Joshua was brutally abused by his father as a child, and ignored by his mother. For years he buried these abuses deep in his mind, which is easy to do when you’re chasing success and staying busy. He couldn’t read or write too well as a young man, which is understandable given his childhood, so it took him longer to gain his success and overcome low self-esteem—years really. His marriage was another toxic development in his life that weighed heavily on him and raised the dead, abusive ghosts from his inner mind. All of these mental poisons came to an abrupt eruption-like breakdown when he discovered that his alcoholic wife was cheating, and had been for some time.
Tyler: What about a character undergoing a psychotic breakdown interests you as a writer?
Michael: How it occurs, what caused the problem, how much the character could take and hold before it had to be released. And then how the character copes with the experience; how the character adjusts to the social norms; how he fits in—if he fits in. Any kind of breakdown changes a life; one can be dead on the inside and not know it, going through life habitually, or one can be born again by casting away the secret ugliness buried deep. I imagine that many born again Christians feel like Joshua. He’s not a born again Christian, but he certainly is resurrected from the dead.
Tyler: You often write with a philosophical slant, and it’s true about this novel as well. Who are your favorite thinkers?
Michael: Albert Camus and the existentialists have influenced my thinking. However, Camus didn’t think of himself as an existentialist. He was more than that, as great writers and thinkers are. But there are some great books out there written by authors who are considered to be writers, not philosophers, yet their stories do make one think. The poet Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” is a great novel with a philosophical bent, as well as many stories written by Joyce Carol Oates. “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis, is another novel that makes the reader think, and of course Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Many great novels offer philosophical insights about materialism, and the price to achieve dreams. There’s no harm in providing a philosophical framework, so long as it doesn’t garble up the story. 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 who has helped to shape my life. Henry David Thoreau is another...Dorothy Parker, the critic and poet makes me smile as much as think when I read her comments.
Tyler: Joshua is a department head. Can you tell us a little about his educational background, what he teaches, and his relationships with his students, whom I understand are involved in a cult when the novel opens?
Michael: Joshua is a survivor of a brutal childhood who has become successful in spite of the odds. Students consider him to be both a leader and a mentor. Some are caught up in a cult, but that’s only one of many problems he must cut through. He runs a department where there is sexism and racism and ambitious colleagues who cause more problems than they’re worth. He’s at the administrative level where he is responsible to make sure the ship sails smoothly, even though it’s taking on water.
Tyler: What about Joshua’s relationship with his wife? Did he know she was having an affair before his breakdown?
Michael: His wife’s relationship is the trigger that begins Joshua’s breakdown. The last straw so to speak, the final betrayal—his father, mother and wife—these are all toxic personalities in his life, violent and harsh relationships—selfish. Instead of being nurturing, as we would like a father, mother and wife to be, they are parasitical to Joshua, destructive. When he learns about his wife’s affair, he falls apart.
Tyler: Michael, with all the issues in Joshua’s life, what is keeping him going on with life at this point?
Michael: His young son keeps him grounded. He wants his son to grow without the pain he has had to experience throughout his life. He does what he can to protect his son with a good father’s nurturing. His son is the jewel that he lives for; the legacy of his future that he hopes to achieve.
Tyler: And on top of everything, someone is out to kill Joshua. Does he know why or suspect who it is?
Michael: Actually, both Joshua and the reader do not learn about the plot to kill Joshua until the second half of the story, which accelerates the “page turner” as some critics have called it.
Tyler: Part of what haunts Joshua is the abuse he experienced in his childhood, and I understand, Michael, that those aspects of the novel were influenced by your personal experiences. A lot of people write memoirs about their abusive childhoods. Why did you decide instead to focus on it in a novel?
Michael: The writer is not boxed in when using the novel as a vehicle, well, at least I’m not. There’s freedom in fiction, you can say more, add characters, take the reader to new places. Memoirs are a bit overdone in my opinion. No one’s had a perfect life. I don’t want to exploit psychotic pain, I want to learn from it; grow from it. The novel, to me, is the most challenging literary art form. I enjoy the challenge.
Tyler: Overall, what would you say made you decide to tell this story?
Michael: It’s a good story, and that’s all important to me. I came from such an existence, I work in the university setting, so it’s a story I know all too well. But it’s the story that matters, always the story. If it’s not interesting, why write it?
Tyler: How do you think “View from the Edge” stands out from other thrillers?
Michael: It’s more literary, more personal. If you live and work in the 21st Century, you’re going to relate to the characters, the stress, someplace, somewhere, your story might appear. It’s not just a cops ‘n’ robbers type of thriller. It’s not an easy escape, it’s a journey.
Tyler: What responses have you received from readers so far?
Michael: Very nice and very positive reviews. I’ve been touched by the response. Some have said they didn’t want the book to end. One reviewer called it a masterpiece. A few have said they couldn’t put it down and “devoured” the book in twenty-four hours. Many have called it a “page turner.” I’m not sure why it’s classified as a thriller. It does have suspense, but any good novel contains conflicts. There are plenty in ‘View From The Edge.” But it’s about surviving.
Tyler: I’m sure lots of readers choose to read the book because it’s a thriller, but have they said they can relate to the characters? Do you feel you’re getting the response you want to receive?
Michael: Yes, some readers have compared Joshua’s life to their own, which in today’s crazy world is understandable. I thought that would happen; most of us have walked on sharp stones in the directions we take. Some stones are sharper than others, and hurt more. It’s written in present time and in a professional setting, so I think most people can relate to the people whom Joshua has to deal with.
Tyler: Michael, would you share with us any plans for future books? Do you plan to write more thrillers or historical fiction or poetry, or maybe a little of all?
Michael: Again, the story is what’s important to me. I have another historical novel growing in my head; we’ll see where it leads. I’ve a ghost story coming out in late January or early February; it’s a little different than most ghost stories, a thriller yes, but an intelligent ghost story. Below is the tease that’s on 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.
I’m putting together another collection of poetry and that should be ready by year’s end.
Tyler: Thank you again for the opportunity to interview you today, Michael. Before we go, will you let us know about your website and what additional information we can find there about “View from the Edge”?
Michael: My website is www.michaelkasenow.com. You can learn what some critics have said about my work—they’ve been kind.