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roy kesey

Weekly Wrap: Our Ancestry

by Susan Henderson on October 26, 2007

Before you read my blog today, please go visit Tommy Kane. It’s okay. I always go to his site before I come here, so you can, too.

Did you like it? My favorite thing about my friends is when they don’t filter themselves. I like to see the Id, the stream of consciousness. I like to see my friends in the buff, so to speak.

Um. I was going to do a wrap on ancestry today. I was going to tell a story of when I was in fifth grade and our class was assigned a unit on the family tree. The teacher suggested we talk to an older member of the family to find out our history, so I called one of my grandmothers and asked the first question: “What are your parents’ names?” She got strange and angry and told me never to ask her such a thing again. I must never speak of family trees or ask about any family or history. Nothing. Apparently, you can saw the branches off the tree and never tell anyone why you did it.

I was going to give a warning about bringing Norwegian flatbread to school on international night because your classmates will have a very poor opinion of Norwegians, and of you; and the kid who brings the tacos is the hero.

I was going to agree with the majority of you who commented this week about how a few generations in America is all it takes to lose an immigrant’s cultural traditions. There is nothing about the music, recipes, costumes or ways of celebrating holidays that seems to connect to my Welsh and Norwegian ancestors. And if there is a commonality between the ranchers, teachers, presidents, murderers, geniuses and Dairy Queen employees in my family tree, I can’t guess what it is. Really, except for the trend of liking our meat as hard and black as a hockey puck and the need for extraordinary amounts of space, there’s not a lot to tie the family members to the past.

But I just wasn’t able to think of anything to write about these things. My head’s too full of book edits and looming deadlines. And I needed to see my friend who was in town from China. So, last night, I took a stack of work with me on the train, went to my friend’s reading, and didn’t make it home until after 3 in the morning. And today, instead of talking about ancestry, I’m doing a photo essay (using Kimberly Wetherell‘s cell phone photos) on where I went and the strange things that happened there.

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My favorite readings, hands-down, are at Amanda Stern‘s Happy Ending Reading Series. Here’s Amanda on the left, Martha-the-freelance-editor on the right, and the one Kimberly calls Young Severus Snape in back.

/litparkamandasternhappyending1.jpg bench press

The series is great because Amanda is a natural born comic and because the Happy Ending Lounge is red (which is really important), and because she brings in great writers and indie musicians to open and close the reading. But what this series is best known for is requiring its readers to take a risk – something they’ve never done before in public.

For example… Benjamin Percy had never bench pressed Amanda Stern before. Not in public, anyway.

And then it was my friend, Roy Kesey’s turn to read. Kesey (whom I always call Kesey, never ever Roy) and I have been editing each other’s work for years. It’s the hugest thrill for me to finally see his books in print. (And they are wonderful!)

Roy Kesey. Maybe you’re thinking: The guy whose short story was chosen by Stephen King for inclusion in this year’s Best American Short Stories. The guy who writes that funny McSweeney’s column. The guy who speaks all of those languages. The guy who should quit smoking already before it kills him.

So Kesey goes up to the microphone, reads a very funny (yet creepy) story. And then he calls my name and asks if I’ll come up to assist him with his public risk.

That’s me on the left, and Kesey, down on the ground lifting up one of his pants legs. At this point I have no idea what he has planned and am just enjoying the view.

Then he asks me to get a stool and kind of kneel beside it, and when he sticks his bare leg (with black socks – just like my Dad!) on the stool, I see he’s applied waxing strips.

And I actually get to wax his legs while he’s singing. Whenever he gets to certain parts of the song, he holds the microphone to his leg, and I rip. (I saved these hairy little strips, by the way. I’ve always been such a pack rat.)

I’ve known Kesey a long time, and this is actually not an expression I’ve seen on his face before.

Around midnight, a few of us went out for Vietnamese food, some of which looked like boiled fetuses, so I stuck to the green stuff. All night, Amanda had been carrying around a little Halloween basket – she brought it to the restaurant, too – and that’s where we found the box of waxing strips with Kesey’s instructions written on it (I like: 2 strips per thing). The Halloween basket, by the way, was a trick because every time I reached in, hoping for a Butterfinger, I got Raisinettes. I felt like Charlie Brown.

Look! His leg is mutilated, but we’re still friends!

We ended the night with talk of Gordon Lish and nipple rings and someone’s theory that – if all of us at the restaurant right then were on the show, Survivor, Kesey and I would be the final runners up, but then Kesey would win. Personally, I think laziness, bossiness, and severe crankiness when hungry might get me kicked off a little sooner, but let them think otherwise.

I jumped in a cab at the end of the night and opened the book Kesey gave me to read his inscription. I also noticed he put my name in the acknowledgments section. Sweet.

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Thank you to everyone who answered the Question of the Week, and to The Very Hot Jews, who played Top 5 with us. Special thanks to everyone who linked to LitPark: Storytellers Unplugged, Robin Grantham’s Curious Distractions, Buzz Networker, and The Very Hot Jews. I appreciate those links!

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Weekly Wrap: My Space, Your Space

by Susan Henderson on September 8, 2006

Okay, let’s get right to it: I love Joey Porter. Steelers: 1 and 0.

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Isn’t the whole Kesey family wonderful? They’ve been very good to our family and we still owe them a favor for letting us crash at their place in Beijing for 2 weeks.

(Kesey, Green-Hand, Bach-Boy, me)

Let me just plug his book one more time: NOTHING IN THE WORLD. It’s an eight-dollar paperback, so it costs less than, say, a chocolate éclair binge. But with Kesey’s book, you’ll feel more satisfied in the morning.

*

I want to thank all of you who have been reading and responding to my blog. If you’ve wanted to post a comment but felt too shy, just give it a try. I like to know who’s here, and I’ll always respond.

It was great to hear about where you write and how loud or quiet you like your space. Remember Greg talking about all the posters near his computer?

(Greg’s space)

I have so much admiration and curiosity about you organized-types with your color-coded notebooks. Wouldn’t life be nice if I were like that, too? Alas, I am not an organized soul.

What does my space look like?

My “office” is at one end of the kitchen. I face a window that looks out to the one and only thing I am anal about ”“ my wisteria tunnel. Two years ago, I found a ratty piece wisteria with rusted metal grown into the bark. I decided to mess with it.

I trim or tuck a branch until it grows in the shape I want. All day, birds and squirrels sit on it, and ants chew at the new leaves.

(wisteria tunnel but it’s too late in the season for any flowers)

But back to my “office.”

My space is disastrous, including the floor around it. As I write, I ball up pieces of paper and drop them on the floor. If I’m on a real writing binge, I’ll be ankle-deep in papers. The desk is littered with small torn off pieces of notebook paper, receipts and envelopes ”“ each with 3 or 4 very important words on them.

What else is on my desk? Let me dig around and see: Sunglasses, bright pink felt-tip pens, a post card from Pasha, another from my friend Stephanie (an oceanographer and physicist ”“ we’ve been friends since first grade), a cell phone no one has the number to, two cups of cold coffee, a Glade plug-in that’s not plugged in, and a packet from the Board of Elections (because I’m the Democratic Chairperson for the Primary in my district next Tuesday).

(don’t forget, all my American friends who are not felons–Tuesday = Primary)

(Regular readers know I fired someone’s ass from my team last year. As Chairperson, you can do that. And you should when the people there to help voters shout out racial and homophobic slurs like they’ve got Tourette’s.)

Oh, right, back to my “office.”

I sit here at my desk a lot but I don’t get much done because I’m very distractible. I like to poke around on the internet and read my mail and download music. I’m playing music right now, but we’ll talk about music on another day. That’s a promise.

I work in spurts. I start an interview, I start a book review, I have an idea for a new story, I have a finished story to hand Brad Listi but no photos to go with it, I have a list of photos I want to take. All of these things are written on the various torn pieces of paper, and sometimes the papers disappear under my computer.

I get most of my ideas in the car, and I often write while I drive ”“ again, on whatever slip of paper I can find, and I use the steering wheel so the pen won’t rip the paper. It’s funny, later, when you look at the words and half-sentences you’re willing to crash the car in order to capture: tattooed artificial leg. she should only shoplift beauty products. eats frozen guacamole with her hair barrette. what shampoo does Neil Gaiman use ”“ should ask him.

(Neil Gaiman–thanks for the photo, Robin)

Here’s what I like about reading your answers: I can picture you all a little more clearly. And when I read your stories and books, I’ll see something of the writer behind the scenes: Greg under the concert posters, Lance in his lair with Reese’s peanut butter cups, Frank typing away until some Balkan history comes along and distracts him, Aurelio in the guest house during the morning shift, Norman with a clipboard and a pencil, Stephanie taking a break with a good book, Joe trying to write anywhere at all ”“ and fast ”“ because someone’s on her way and knows how to get his attention, Robin surrounded by a hundred guitars, Gail in a quiet room with a giant dog, Maria at MacDowell and missing her heated floors and cherry blossom pink walls, Terry noticing absolutely everything around him that others might overlook, Patry filled with music and ideas, Peter surrounded by English gardens, and Noria in a room of oversaturated colors and Barnum’s odd ones.

For those of you who like to picture where people are when they’re not with you ”“ every Friday night, the Hendersons are at Chinese school. Some nights I do hall duty and tell kids, “Boo yow pow” if they’re running. (Not much I can do about all those kids skating on their heelies. I don’t know enough Chinese to say, “Knock it off.”)

Please tune in tomorrow for the debut of Frank Daniels’ Lit Riot. I invited Frank to stop by once a month because his bold, unfiltered style gives me goosebumps. Saturday, he promises to deliver a blistering diatribe about the publishing industry. What do I say about that? Bless him.

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Roy Kesey

by Susan Henderson on September 6, 2006

A 5-year-old discusses the importance of her father’s book.

Very briefly, before I get to today’s interview, I want to tell you that I have a photo essay up at Brad Listi’s TheNervousBreakdown.com. It’s about my greyhound, Steve, and some other things. Okay, on to today’s show.

Chloe is five and she is one of my favorite people on the planet. She lives in China with her little brother, Thomas, her beautiful diplomat mother, and her father, Roy Kesey, author of NOTHING IN THE WORLD – one of those rare books that both Mr. Henderson and I loved.

Chloe knows a lot about the world already: that HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON is the best book ever, that lemon meringue pie is better than carrots, that you should be nice to rabbits, that little brothers are fun for playing Memory and not for putting together puzzles, that DORA THE EXPLORER and ELASTIGIRL rule, and that if you spend the day dancing like Twyla Tharp, you can say that day was well-spent.

But what does she know of her father’s newly published book?

Today, Chloe is going to talk about this very important book, and other things she finds equally important.

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INTERVIEW WITH CHLOE, take 1, Dad as interviewer:

1. What do I do all day?

You look at people. You write some books. You do exercise like the ones Thomas does, the push-ups. You take pictures of orange flowers sometimes.

2. Do you like my office?

A little bit.

3. How could it be better?

With a lamp. A blue lamp, with green.

4. What’s that picture you’re drawing?

There’s flowers and the sun and a tree and a house. And some grass. It doesn’t have any more stuff. In the house, Tom is playing, and I’m drawing, and Mommy is playing with me and Tom, and you’re working on the computer. Then we’ll have lunch. Chicken, rice, soup, papa a la huancaína and gingerbread boys.

5. And what’s this other picture?

It’s of all the colors. Actually, it isn’t anything. I was thinking it was just a page with all the colors. I did the green at the end because I don’t really like green so I wanted it at the end. The best colors are pink and black. I choose them every day. This part here looks like a stick.

6. Of all the trips we’ve taken so far, which one was your favorite?

Hawaii. I liked the trees and the sharks.

7. Um. The sharks?

Yes. Actually, I didn’t really see it but Crazy Dave saw it, and that made me run away, and that was fun. I still wasn’t scared, though. I ran because it was in the water and I didn’t want it to eat me, but really there wasn’t one.

[Interviewer’s Note: Crazy Dave is Chloe’s uncle, David Clark, who will be hearing some rather sharp words from me about all of this shark business, believe you me.]

8. Do you like my book?

It’s great.

9. Have you read it?

No.

 

10. What do you think it’s about?

Pears? I can’t think of anything else.

11. Do you like the cover?

Yes. I like fruit.

12. Do you think writing books is easy or hard?

It’s hard but fun.

13. If you wrote a book, what would it be about?

Maybe about Dora and sea-horses and turtles. Dora would ask the map for some help. I would read it to my brother.

[I wonder, does Chloe know I met Dora in real life?]

14. What would be on the cover?

Blue flowers and the sun. (Holds up Buzz Lightyear action figure.) Look, Buzz is doing yoga. Little baby yoga.

15. What’s baby yoga?

(Pulls her shirt up over her head.) Look, I’m not here anymore.

16. Honey, are you bored?

You can’t ask me because I’m not here.

17. Want some tomatoes?

No.

18. Some onions?

Daddy!

19. Some ice cream?

Yes! But after lunch, right?

20. Exactly.

INTERVIEW WITH CHLOE, take 2, Mom via stuffed animal (cheetah) as interviewer:

1. What do you want to be when you grow up?

A mermaid or a princess. Actually I already have the new pearls of a princess, so . . . But I’m actually going to be a mermaid.

2. What does Daddy do all day?

He reads books. He has a lot of them. He works and works and works on the computer for the university.

3. Do you like Daddy’s book?

Yes.

4. What is it about?

I don’t know.

5. If you write a book, what will it be about?

Lots of things. But actually I don’t like to read. I like movies. I want to be like Jimmy Jet the TV Set.

6. The boy whose head turns into a television because he watches it too much?

Yes.

7. Chloe, that poem is about how it’s bad to watch too much television.

I know.

8. Oh.

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Question of the Week: Your Space.

by Susan Henderson on September 4, 2006

Where do you create your art, write your stories, compose your music? Describe that space to me and how you inhabit it.

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On Wednesday, Roy Kesey will tackle this question with the help of his five-year-old daughter, who will also share some opinions about her father’s newly-published novella.

What is a novella, you ask?

Officially, a novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel, and yet perfectly complete. The best novellas are not remembered for their quirky length but for the power of the characters and the journey they take. Think Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, Ernest Hemingway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, Nathaniel West’s THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, Chinua Achebe’s THINGS FALL APART. And now add Roy Kesey’s NOTHING IN THE WORLD to this list.

George Saunders says this about Roy Kesey’s novella:

“A beautiful, powerful book: mythic, vivid, heart-rending. Kesey reminds us anew of how much power there is in an open heart and the simple declarative sentence. He also reminds us that war is a viral madness, infecting everyone it touches.”

NOTHING IN THE WORLD is the story of Josko, a Croatian teenager, called to war against the Serbians. Josko is hardly concerned about the issues that have led to this war. He notices a vague bitterness his parents and others in his village feel toward the Serbians, but Josko is more concerned with girls, comics and spearfishing.

When he puts on his uniform, he finds himself in a disorganized battle – and unclear of his mission or even who is the enemy – he fights out of an instinct to survive. The next moment, he is declared a hero, and soon after that, he is the only surviving member of his army, wandering the country with shrapnel in his head.

In this novella, there is a thin line between hero, survivalist, escapee, villain and madman. As Josko tries to find home, it is clear that the devastation from the war is shared by both sides. One destroyed village, with its grieving and angry villagers, is just like another ”“ and only the accents and uniforms give away which side is which.

Oddly enough, NOTHING IN THE WORLD is also a story of the enduring spirit of mankind – how very difficult it is to extinguish all hope or love, and how something as simple as an over-ripe pear, an open view to the stars, or the memory of someone you love can mean a great deal more than the wreck around you.

NOTHING IN THE WORLD is a small and brilliant little book. You can read it in one day but it won’t leave you in a hurry.

Thanks for stopping by and see you Wednesday!

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