By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When did you see that beginning?
By the middle ’60s, a lot of people were hanging out, especially when Kesey moved to La Honda and he had a scene out there that attracted a lot of people who drifted in and out, and Kesey was a guy who never really turned anybody away, so there were sort of more hangers on, and fewer of the old gang.
As a writer, Kesey wasn’t that prolific as people expected after his first burst; instead he developed his own persona and his own thing. Was this a general trend among the people that surrounded you at that time? Did Kesey have regrets about that?
He never expressed any regrets. That wasn’t what he was like. He was a pusher of the envelope. He wanted to somehow change the world, and he wanted to do it himself. In some ways he tried to inhabit his own books, he tried to be his own books, he tried to be McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest. It was as if he somehow felt that if he pushed the right button he could effect great change in the world. I never really believed that. I was not a cultural revolutionary in that sense. I never believed that the larger world was going to be anything but what it is. I also think Ken resisted the writing life. I said somewhere that most writers that aren’t Hemingway spend more time staying awake in quiet rooms than they do shooting lions, and I think the loneliness got to him as it gets to a lot of people. You spend a lot of time getting into intense emotional states by yourself, and I think that’s why many writers tend to substance-abuse. They tend to drink; they tend to get stoned. It’s a way of ending a day. And I think this solitary thing was really not for him. He was an athlete. He really wanted everything fast and furious.
Unlike Kesey, you were relatively prolific. Did you see how he was dealing with his career and take that as a corrective? Or were you looking at someone like Kerouac?
I never thought much of Kerouac’s work. Actually Kerouac, when I knew him, was a very difficult character and not a very pleasant character either, because he was gone into booze and gone into this right-wing bullshit. The last time I saw him, or close to the last time, was at a party in New York after Cassady had driven the bus cross-country. And Kerouac was very jealous of Cassady’s attachment to this new generation, who he referred to as “surfers.” He was a very sentimental guy and a very sensitive guy, and that sentimentality turned into bitterness. You know he got thrown off the [William F.] Buckley show for anti-Semitic remarks. He wasn’t a very easy person to get on with. And he didn’t like people who were much younger than he was.
But did you look at such examples and say, This isnotthe way to go, or I’m going to go this other way? Or is it just your personality that you could deal better with the lonely rooms?
I had trouble with lonely rooms, but I never wanted to do anything else really. Every once in a while I would do some journalism, and that would keep me going. But I had trouble with the solitude. Everybody does who is subject to their own moods; it’s hard to fight your way out of them. You’ve got to exercise, you’ve got to keep yourself in shape. All of this is difficult when you don’t have colleagues and contacts, but this is what I wanted to do, so I did it. Every time I think of a novel it seems so hard, I can’t imagine starting again. But I kept at it. I think I would have produced more if I wasn’t as lazy and perfectionistic. It’s a bad combination.
As for Kesey, he had published two books by the time I got to know him. As a writer, I didn’t put myself in the same league. I was an unpublished writer. I had the beginnings of a novel that I was carrying around. It never occurred to me I would compete with him. He seemed able to do it all. He had so much energy. It certainly never occurred to me that he was going to stop writing.
The main events ofPrime Greentake place in California. There’s talk of Los Angeles as a location and San Francisco as a location, but do you have a concept of California as integral to the ’60s?
Oh, absolutely, because that was the first time I saw California, and Northern California in 1962 was a great paradise. Where Silicon Valley is now was all orchards and grazing Herefords, and there were all these bungalows. Graduate students lived in a little rural lane that is now cul de sac million-dollar houses. So it was inexpensive, it was sweet, and if you came from New York everybody seemed really easygoing. Life was easy and San Francisco was this little jewel of a city. It was very, very pleasant.