By Meaghan Menzel
Roy Kesey, Class of 1991, is “our very first Sophie Kerr Rose O’Neill Literary House Writer-in-Residence,” said Professor of English and Department Chair Dr. Kathryn Moncrief.
According to Director of the Literary House and Associate Professor of English Dr. Jehanne Dubrow, the residency is made possible by the English Department’s Sophie Kerr Committee and the Literary House. “Established in 2015, the fellowship is offered every three years and brings an accomplished writer to campus for a one semester residency. During his time on campus, the visiting author teaches a special topics course in creative writing, works one on one with students, and delivers both a reading and craft talk.”
Kesey is the author of works such as “Any Deadly Thing,” “Pacazo,” and “Nothing in the World.” According to the WC website, “He has won two Pushcart Prize Special Mentions, the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, and a 2010 prose fellowship from the NEA.” He currently teaches a course in Creative Non/Fiction here at WC, and this semester he gave a reading Oct. 13 and a Craft Talk Nov. 9 both at the Literary House.
For this event, Kesey read from his new, unpublished collection that is still in the works. He explained the origins of his collection, starting with his grandmother who he lived with for four months while teaching at a community college in 1994.
“The thing that I liked best about her was her really vicious sense of humor. I mean, she had a really great sense of sort of human folly and was kind of mean about it in great ways,” Kesey said. “One of the ways she was mean and great about it was she first showed me a clipping from the local newspaper… and the sheriff’s logs were magnificent. The records of the crimes that occurred in Lake County up in northern California… would be bizarre, and I love them for a lot of reasons… mainly I just love weird things, but also because I really distrust all other kinds of news.”
Kesey believes that if the news “sounds like it would fit in a Michael Bay film… [and] fits neatly into our image of ourselves… as a means of distinguishing ourselves from everyone else,” then we should distrust it, but “when the news is surreal and impossible sounding… [and] doesn’t fit anybody’s agenda,” then “there’s no way that that’s not true.”
According to Kesey, Lake County’s newspaper had a sheriff’s log with “a great sense of humor” and “not great grammar.” It “was just recording the calls that came into the dispatcher, and they were magnificent and strange and very sad… [but] by themselves they’re just these magnificent gems of surreality.” One example included “A woman who called in to report that her friend stepped on something and now her foot hurts.”
What Kesey has done is taken these exact reports—“I didn’t change any of the wording,” he said— and used them as titles of stories he has written about them, changing only the dates and times to “make it fit better into the shape of a book.”
“I think all fiction is building mythologies and hopefully useful mythologies, hopefully more inclusive mythologies, [and] hopefully mythologies that will help make people’s lives better in some way,” he said.
The Craft Talk:
According to Dr. Dubrow, a craft talks “allows our guest to address the craft, that is the processes or the techniques that may go into a piece of creative writing. Roy’s talk is titled ‘Using Dreams in Narrative’ and focuses on the ideas of incorporating one’s dreams into literary fiction.”
Kesey believes dreams no longer work in contemporary fiction because contemporary readers no longer believe the same things past readers have believed about dreams. During the talk, he gave four examples as to how dreams fail in literature: When they “are meant to feel like real dreams… but they actually don’t; they’re too coherent or they’re too pointed,” when “they attempt to advance the plot… or perhaps they just try to move the story along,” when they are “meant to give information about the characters’ past events and thus current personality,” and, when they are “meant to introduce important symbols.”
He then presented a list of seven ways to use dreams successfully in contemporary fiction: “Dreams as a way to dodge censorship or to subvert a political body,” stories that “begin with a single dream-like element… [and] impose the strictest discipline and logic from thereon out,” stories that “use the nature and the feel of dreams to construct a metaphysical conceived or philosophical conundrum,” “dreams that feel like dreams that are used only to establish a tone or diction or grammar for the story,” “dreams… where one or more of the neurological functions of dreams forms part of the architecture, the infrastructure of the story,” “dreams that don’t feel like dreams that do something dreams don’t actually do,” and finally, stories that have “the dream be… understood as dream and interrogated as such within the text preferably in a way that indicts the reader as regards his or her dismal of dreams in fiction.”
“I was extremely tempted to say one thing and one thing only and that was “Don’t… Don’t put your dreams in your fiction…” and then I would drop the mic and walk out,” Kesey said. Fortunately he didn’t do this for a couple of reasons, but perhaps the main reason being “if all I said was ‘Don’t do it,’ most of you would… still go on putting dreams in your fiction.”