A Professor and his Muse

Joe writing
Professor Joseph Kenyon, clearly during Community College of Philadelphia’s winter break

I’ve known and admired Joseph Kenyon as my colleague at Community College of Philadelphia, and I’m proud to have an opportunity to let readers know about this debut novel, All the Living and the Dead.

The novel centers on a students in a secret society in the “German Romantic mode”.   The members are Romantics with a capital R, believing in pure, artistic genius and the power of inspiration.   They’re young and passionate; some of them are wildly talented, and some are still finding their way.   Gaston, Lyle and Autumn are all at the start of their careers.   Then there’s professor and composer Quinn Gravesend, who believes that he lost his youth and passion long ago   Do we reach a point where vitality gives way to weariness?

These artists are all searching for something elusive and half-mythic:  inspiration.   Where do we find it?   How does it change us?   Do we need to cross lines, break taboos, redefine terms, and essentially be reborn?

I had the chance to ask Joe Kenyon some questions recently by email.   Below find his responses.

All the Living and the Dead has an academic setting.   As a long-time teacher, what interested you about this setting, and in particular the interaction between faculty and students?  

I’m a long-time teacher now, but when I first started thinking about this novel, I was a rookie, an adjunct teaching part-time in several community colleges in the Pittsburgh area. I was quickly fascinated by the way the young women interacted with male faculty members who were in their 40s and 50s.

Of course, there were teachers who used their powers in ways that they shouldn’t have, but I was more interested in the teachers who drew the line. And all the time I was learning as a teacher how to deal with the various feminine – and masculine – wiles, I was thinking as a writer “What if it didn’t work? What if the female student found a chink in the teacher’s armor?

Did you begin writing with some knowledge of music and the process of composition?  

Kenyon Novel
This novel’s about music and time, and so is the cover. 

Musically, I was your typical 70s kid who loved classic rock, but when I was seventeen, an older fellow on my softball team turned me on to Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition (conducted by Philly’s Eugene Ormandy). I had heard Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s version, but the original just blew me away. That began my love of classical music. Still, I was nothing more than a fan. I had (and have!) less than average musical talent.

So, I fell back on the writer’s two best friends: Research and Imagination. I talked to a lot of musicians who wrote their own stuff. I talked with music professors who wrote classical pieces. Then I just did what I always do – method writing. I became Quinn and Gaston and Lyle and played their parts like an actor would.

I have to admit that while a lot of people seemed to be impressed with my knowledge of musical composition, I played a bit of a magician’s game there. If you really read those sections closely, you’ll notice that I actually said very little about the composition of music. Other than songs that I know (such as “Epona” or “Hallelujah”) the descriptions quickly move out of the realm of music and into sensory perception – a discussion of the emotion surrounding the music or the reaction of the audience. One-on-one with Autumn, Quinn references some compositional techniques (“…try the arpeggio”), but like with anything we write, only a pinch is needed to season the entire scene.

In my own testimonial, I wrote that All the Living and the Dead is a quest narrative.   I know that you have an on-going interest in mythology.   Did you have any myths or archetypal stories in mind as you wrote this novel?  

Having been steeped in mythology for a lot of my life, it’s never far from my mind. I was once asked why I didn’t write fantasy and my response is that I’ve always been interested in how myth reveals itself in everyday life, at the intersection of Broad and Market rather than at the intersection of the forest and the mist.

Before I began writing All The Living And The Dead, back when it was just an interesting idea, I was reading a lot of works about myth and psychology (Jung and Downing, mainly), and—bang!—suddenly I realized that the feminine archetypes they were discussing were dancing in front of me in the classroom: The Daughter looking for a lost father-figure, the Free Spirit who is unrestrained by traditional boundaries, the Maiden (or girl next door) who is sweet and wholesome, the Nurturer who only wanted to help, and of course the Seductress.

Originally, Autumn was drawn as a quiet, mystical young woman who enticed Quinn, but that was all wrong. It took several drafts before the Autumn you see in the book emerged.

As for the quest narrative, I felt greatly complimented that you saw the book in those terms. When I read your comment, I mulled it over, and came to the idea that every plot is a quest narrative to some degree. The quest may be emotional, psychological, artistic, or self-serving, but characters have to want something bad enough to go and get it, even if “going and getting it” involves only a trip inside themselves.

You’ve published both fiction and poetry.   Is the process of writing different for these different forms?   Do they influence each other?   

They are very different. I write poetry when I can’t think of any other medium in which to

joe poetry
Joe Kenyon’s website contains links to some of his published

describe what I’m seeing and feeling. A poet once told me that any poem that doesn’t have to be written shouldn’t be written. Poetry, for me, has its roots in the emotional spectrum. However, my fiction is planted in the curious or intellectual side of my brain. My stories start with an idea or a character that intrigues me enough to want to explore it further. I want to know the story behind that idea or character. Then, I’m off.

The influence of poetry on my fiction is palpable. I wrote fiction for about a decade before I

joe's fiction
There are a few stories on the website as well.

started writing poetry, and while I published a few stories, I would say my writing wasn’t very good. Since I started writing poetry, I’ve become much more conscious of word choice, much more economical in my descriptions. Poetry continues to inform my fiction.

However, the current only flows one way, I’m afraid. I’ve tried to write some “story” poems, but they ended up as flash fiction pieces. I really can’t think of any way my fiction informs my poetry.

What is a question you wish someone would ask you about this book?    

Readers are very curious about the relationship between Autumn and Quinn, and a few have asked about Lyle. But no one asks about Gaston. So, I guess the question I would like someone to ask is: “Where does Gaston fit in? He’s an insider but seems like an outsider.”

Gaston is easy to overlook because he seems to be so far above everyone else.  He has a special affinity for Lyle, and he lives with Autumn, but you really get a sense that it doesn’t matter whom he’s with or where he lives – Gaston resides inside himself and in his music.

And yet, there is a boyish innocence to him. He is this man-child, superior to even Quinn in some ways, but that’s what makes Gaston needy. The scariest thing about being at the top of the heap is that there is no one above you, no one who’s been where you are and can offer some perspective. That’s the entire mission behind Mensa – to give geniuses a sense that they aren’t alone.

It’s easy to look at Gaston and say “genius” and let that explain his aloneness, but his scenes with Quinn belie the simplicity of that idea. He takes off his sunglasses for only one person – Quinn. He recognizes Quinn’s distraction as “working,” and his question sets off the only discussion Gaston has in the entire book where you get the sense he is talking to an equal. Most revealing of all is when he holds out his guitar for Quinn to autograph. Imagine that from Gaston’s perspective. Finally, he gets to be a fan. He looks up and there is someone above him. For Gaston, that has to be such a significant moment.

Finally, he is the one character in the book based on someone I used to know, a guitarist I went to school with who could play almost anything on the guitar. Gaston is far more advanced in his genius then the model, but still, the base of Gaston Gunn lives in this fellow, an hommage to someone I admired in my youth.

What’s next for you?  

I have drafted another novel, which begins in World War 2 Italy, about an eccentric painter and a maimed girl and the parallel lives they live. It’s been laid in the cellar to age a bit before I bring it out and see if it’s really ready to drink. In the meantime, I’m taking the summer to reacquaint myself with my Muse, who has been on a rather long holiday while I’ve been involved in the publishing process and finishing the semester. Wherever she leads me – and she’s given me a few hints – that’s where I’m going to go.

For more information about Joseph Kenyon, check out his website at http://www.josephkenyonlit.com/

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