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 19 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 14 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.
Welcome, Michael. Your new book View from the Edge seems like quite a departure from the first novel The Last Paradise. 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?
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.
Would you briefly tell us what some of the issues in Joshua’s life are that have caused his psychotic breakdown?
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.
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.
You often write with a philosophical slant, and it’s true about this novel as well. Who are your favorite thinkers?
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.