Most of my books are shortish around 60 to 70 thousand words. But last year, after I discovered that three of them are one continuous story, I collected them – Midheaven, The Very Least, and The Answer to Everything — into an ebook I call Hickey and McGee. And now I am revising, for maybe the final time, a single story of around 170 thousand words.
Here’s one reason this new one, For America, is so long:
My career as a novelist began with Midheaven, considered “literary” and honored as a runner up for the PEN Ernest Hemingway Award. As the earnings didn’t match the honors, friends suggested I try a mystery. I did so and won the St. Martins Private Eye Writers best first novel competition, which led to a ten book mystery series.
Recently I discovered a statement by Fredrick Buechner concerning his favorite novel and mine, Dostoyevski’s The Brother’s Karamazov. Mr. Buechner suggests the story’s magic may have arrived because Dostoyevsky left room to include whatever came up.
Early in my writing life, I learned, in school and in the mystery community, an attitude here expressed by Flannery O’Connor: “If the writer’s attention is on producing a work of art, he is going to take great pains to control every excess, everything that does not contribute to the work’s central meaning and design.”
As a follower of and advocate for that attitude, I found Buechner’s implied suggestion, that we might consider leaving room for excess, both problematic and immensely refreshing.
Since I am keenly aware of the wastelands to which leaving room for excess can lead, I imagined inviting Mr. Buechner and Ms. O’Connor to discuss the issue:
Buechner presents O’Connor with his assessment of The Brothers Karamazov. She points out that what applied to Dostoyevski doesn’t necessarily apply to us all. He replies (as he expressed in an article), “Still, writers ought to exercise their freedom from restraint to the outermost limits of their gifts and skills.”
And while she considers his amendment, I humbly suggest that a crucial part of our task as artists is to recognize our limits and apply them.
To my profound relief, both masterful writers nod in agreement.
Returning to For America after years of writing stories that taught me to recognize my abilities and limits, I have granted myself more liberty than ever before, which is one reason the novel requires all its 170,000 words.
Also, it’s a big story.
Set in the aftermath of WW II, For America dramatically explores the failure of traditional beliefs and political systems and the rise and fall of counter cultures. Poetry, folk music, hippie communes, Jesus freaks, the Manson family, the People’s Temple, and New Age cults all find their place in the story.
Otis, the narrator, born the day the atom bomb destroys Hiroshima, becomes a star pitcher. But wicked conflicts visit in the person of Cynthia, mother of Casey, Otis’s best friend and catcher. Paranoid yet possibly prophetic, Cynthia believes that the adopted son of her powerful sister, will use his prodigious scientific mind and occult knowledge to abet the downfall of western civilization.
From there, the story requires lots of pages to show how Cynthia’s outrageous vision and wild dedication shapes the lives of the principal characters for decades and perhaps alters the fate of the world.
Some of Ken’s favorites are early mornings, the desert in spring, kind and honest people, baseball and other sports played by those who don’t take themselves too seriously, most kids, and films he and his Zoe can enjoy together.
He reads classic novels, philosophy, theology, and all sorts of mysteries. On his blog, he offers some hard truths and encouragement about living as a writer.
He has long been the author of novels, stories, articles, poems, and essays. Lots of honors have come his way, including a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; Poets, Essayists and Novelist’s Ernest Hemingway Award; Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel and Shamus Best Novel; and several San Diego and Los Angeles Book Awards.
Though he advocates beer in a video, he actually prefers Scotch.