Ken Kesey's novels included
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion
and Sailor Song. He also wrote many short stories, magazine
articles and editorial pieces. His life experiences helped to serve as a
link between the Beat Generation and the growth of the hippie movement.
A graduate of the University of Oregon, Kesey moved to the Bay Area in
the late '50s, and later took part in a unique series of drug experiments
sponsored by the United States government. From these antiseptic experiences,
Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters initiated the Acid Tests,
complete with LSD, swirling colors, free-form performance art and music from
bands like the Grateful Dead. In his last years, Kesey continued the trip
with the release of archival footage from his groundbreaking adventures.
Ken Kesey passed away Saturday, November 10, 2001 at the age of 66. He will
be fondly remembered and sorely missed.
Digital Interviews: How did you develop an interest in writing?
Ken Kesey: I used to do magic shows. I really loved doing small tricks up on stage, in high school doing big tricks, and finally, my brother and I traveling around the state doing different kinds of shows. When I went to college, I continued to delve into performance art. I was writing the stuff that I was doing, and finally, I was just writing. Since then, Iíve come out of it. Iím getting back to doing as well as writing.
DI: Tell us about Perry Lane, where you lived while attending Stanford graduate school.
KK: It was the beginning of a complete, different movement for me. It changed my writing enormously. Up until then, I had been involved in writing what would be thought of as a conventional book. Being out on Perry Lane, trying all these various drugs, being with people that were, almost all of them, grad students, with the exception of a lot of teenagers who were around. Finally, I was using magic in my work.
DI: Were you familiar with the beat poets at that time?
KK: Before I ever left the University of Oregon, I had this record of [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, [Kenneth] Rexroth and [Allen] Ginsberg reading beat poetry. We used to play it out of our loudspeaker system over at the Beta house. Lots of people were into it. It was so new that it was really involved. All of the class, even the people that were down on it, were listening to it and had a lot to say about it. I can remember driving down to North Beach with my folks and seeing Bob Kaufman out there on the street. I didnít know he was Bob Kaufman at the time. He had little pieces of Band-Aid tape all over his face, about two inches wide, and little smaller ones like two inches long -- and all of them made into crosses. He came up to the cars, and he was babbling poetry into these cars. He came up to the car I was riding in, and my folks, and started jabbering this stuff into the car. I knew that this was exceptional use of the human voice and the human mind.
DI: How did you get involved in the drug-testing experiments at Stanford?
KK: One of our neighbors at Perry Lane, Vic Lovell, asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, ďSure.Ē I went in every Tuesday. I think I got paid twenty dollars a day. They ran me through all of the known drugs at that time -- eight or ten. I knew that some of them were going to be bad. Iíd been told that. Man, you donít want to give anybody a bad drug, no matter how much you want to know about it. If youíre interested in it, take it yourself. But to give somebody a bad drug, itís a real mistake. When I could feel that it was going that direction, I would gag myself, and get out of me as much as I could.
DI: But LSD didnít affect you badly?
KK: No. In fact, I never really had a bad trip until way after that. Nobody had a bad trip until way after that. It was just experimentation. You were trying to find out who was doing what, and what it was like. I was reading stuff from everybody who had written about it, about LSD and psilocybin -- and mescaline and peyote, which are two different drugs. Mescaline is the synthesized version, and peyote has a lot of other ingredients in it. It makes you sick, but being sick is important to it. Also, you donít get near as high. You can eat a lot of peyote and not get near as high as you can on one capsule of mescaline.
DI: How were you able to get the LSD from the experimental setting to your friends and associates outside the hospital?
KK: I was connected to the VA hospital. Vic Lovell was working over there as a student of some kind, and when the drug experiment started, they set up a version of the VA hospital in Palo Alto. I went over and applied for a job, and a week or so later had a job. They put me on the same ward with the doctor thatíd given me those early pills. He was not doing his experimentation anymore; he had quickly learned that this could be a real problem for the American government. One night, I came back in with my keys and went into his room, into his desk, and took out a lot of stuff. That was the source of most of our -- all of our drugs -- for a long time.
DI: Thatís a nice desk. [laughs]
KK: Yeah, it was. I went right down to it, and there was this stuff all labeled. I already knew a bunch of it. I could see he wasnít using it, and it was going to waste, getting old in there. So I liberated it. [laughs]
DI: It must have been nice to give it the new setting.
KK: The first time you take any of those drugs, especially if youíve never been drunk even, you donít think of it as ďtaking a drug.Ē You think, ďThis is an experiment thatís going on with the United States government.Ē We didnít know about the CIA and the FBIís connection with it until years later. Ginsberg always claimed so, but we didnít know it until it had been closed up for 30 years. We were experimenting with it in a controlled system. It was only after weíd done it a while in the hospital -- all the people that I knew had gone in there and been part of these experiments -- it was important for us to take them outside, where you had more to react to.
DI: What was the layout of the hospital setting? Was there any experimentation with visuals or sound?
KK: No, this was a ward. All the other people in it were nuts. I went out and looked through the window, a little, tiny window, and the door there with a heavy, heavy screen between two panes of glass. There was no way to break out. You could barely see out through it. Iíd look out there and see these people moving around, and I could understand them a whole lot better than I could understand the doctors and the nurses, or the interns -- and they knew this. They would come in and look at me in there, and Iíd look at them through this little window. It was a regular ward, and there were about a hundred people on the ward.
DI: Would it be fair to say that this was all contributing to One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest?
KK: Very much. When I went to work there, I started writing on it immediately.
DI: Thereís a societal confrontation going on within the book's hospital.
KK: Right. There was that theme, naturally, but it went deeper than that. It was about people dealing with the forces that I had just thought were sort of fictional. When you run into these forces and these entities -- real things that influence you -- pretty soon you have to give them due. You have to go ahead and figure out which of these are good entities and which are bad entities. For a long time, I didnít run into any bad entities.
The bad entities were, sort of, good, not too strong forces, influenced by people who had problems, and they eventually loaded those drugs with problems. Nobody I ever knew had a bad trip until we moved back up here after Stanford. I was living over here by the river, and we gave
a bunch of people some MP14. One girl began to have a bad time, and it was just contagious; the more we were around her, the more we were dealing with her, the more we were having her bad time. I think thatís what happened to a lot of people that were pretty sound. You can get through about anything if youíre sound, but if youíre really trying to empathize and deal with somebody whoís gone crazy on a drug, pretty soon you go crazy on the drug.
DI: In addition to the hospital society of Cuckooís Nest, you reveal some
piercing messages regarding the society of the Oregon town
in Sometimes a Great Notion.
KK: Oh, very much, and much more so than I realized at the time. Iíve gone back and
re-read parts of Great Notion. A lot of it came from the fact that I was staying up 20 or
30 hours at a run. Iíd write a piece, and I could see that, ďIf I change this back here,
itíll change this up there.Ē I began to do this scissor technique, having things happen to me
in the present and things happen to me in the past or the future, and have them all there at
the same time. When I finished it, I knew that I was finished with that form, but I went on to
work on this same form in other ways. Iíve written a lot since then, but Iíve known when I
started out on it, it was not going to be as good as Great Notion. There are times when
you are able to do stuff that is just right for your years and your experience, and
Iíve always known that that was the best I was going to be at writing.
DI: Tell us about the Acid Tests.
KK: It was a continuation of the same experiments that the doctors had started a long
time ago. We were carrying them out, leaving the surroundings open to see what would happen. I
remember this girl named Bubbles that we got to know. Sheíd take a lot of acid. We were in
Palo Alto, the Palo Alto Acid Test, and she got out in the middle of the dance floor and
discovered her shadow on the floor there. She began to dance to her shadow. This big,
really good-looking black guy, also really high, got over on the drums, and he began to
react to her reactions to the shadow. It went on for 30 or 40 minutes, and it was just
exceptional. Everybody was standing there watching her reacting to the shadow, having good
feelings about the shadow and bad feelings, and him reflecting this in his drumming, and the
Dead and everybody else just stood around and watched this one thing happen. And it was
DI: Youíre thinking, ďThe doctors at the clinic would never understand this.Ē [laughs]
KK: There were times when I would run into the doctors again and talk to them about this,
and they said, ďNo, no, thatís why we got out of it.Ē They realized that this was about a
consciousness that they were not able to dig into and still be doctors.
DI: How did you meet Neal Cassady?
KK: I remember really clearly when he drove into the yard. We were over there in Perry
Lane, and he came into that yard and he was out of that car. It was a Jeep, and he was out of
that Jeep, and in and out, and taking the wheels off before I could get there, just talking like
mad, and explaining what was going on, and explaining who he was. And I knew that he had been
around and been coming by, and when we met there, he was already out taking the tires off to
fix the brakes, because there were no brakes, and he had to fix these brakes. And he was
wanting to know if I could go and get him some stuff. [laughs] Right away he was in charge. In all of
our bus trips, he was in charge of driving the bus. Where the bus went, and what we did on the
way there, was another personís job, but he rode along and he never really tried to take it to
a place that he had to go. He was with us and he was the best driver in the world.
DI: Even as a leader he was still following?
KK: Yeah, he was a driver. The driver doesnít usually know for sure where heís going.
When you get to a crucial part in your drive, itís sometimes a whole lot better to have
somebody else tell you, ďTurn here,Ē than it is to go ahead and try to look at the map and
DI: After the bus trips and the Acid Tests, you moved back to Oregon.
KK: When we came to Oregon, everybody that I knew who was really in on what was
happening came with us. This was a place to go and lay back a while, and then take it easy
and reflect on what weíd been doing, and continue. We were working as hard as we could with
film and tape. We were trying to get the Prankster film out, but more than that, we were still
involved in filming and taping what was going on -- and have never stopped.
DI: How did your view of LSD and the related culture differ from Timothy Learyís view?
KK: I could see that the doctors in the profession would end up with this drug, and all
these drugs, and keep it involved in their perspective fields. I didnít really feel like that
was just. I didnít feel like it was just for the drug, and I didnít feel like it was just for
the people. As time went by, Leary and [Richard] Alpert and all those people at Millbrook have
come around to the same thinking. This is too new to hold it to a small group of people,
because that small group of people can bend it and turn it to their advantage, even if theyíre
not trying to. We started getting these drugs from other places than that doctorís office.
People started manufacturing them, and we were out trying these new chemicals, trying them in
the streets and at concerts and in our work. We found that it increased our spiritual awareness,
and it definitely increased our awareness of nature. Iíve never felt bad about either
the drugs that I got out of the doctorís desk or that stuff that we began to order, because
most of the stuff we ordered for a long time was from Sandoz. We didnít run into any homemade
drugs for a long time. You know, you can trust Sandoz to give you the best. Theyíre not going
to turn out some kind of rinky-dink, half-acid and half-something-else. Because you get down
into dealing with LSD, which is just a pinprick in size, just the tiniest size of stuff, you
realize that any deviation from that at all could really affect how youíre dealing with
yourself and how youíre dealing with the experience.
DI: In the Ď70s and Ď80s, you wrote several short pieces about the
deaths of John Lennon, Neal Cassady and your son Jed.
KK: It was what was happening.
And thereís drugs involved in all of that, but the drugs arenít the foremost thing
thatís happening. Itís things that are going on between us as people, and the drugs are influencing it, but theyíre not producing it like
they were when we were first into it.
DI: Is it difficult to write about those things? Is that a release for you?
KK: I donít ever think of it like that.
DI: Itís not a release?
KK: Nor is it really difficult. When you come
across something that really affects you, and you sit down and write about it, it comes
out because youíve already gone through the agony. It comes out almost effortlessly. I think a
lot of writers find this to be true. A lot of writers write about death, the death of somebody
whoís close to them -- trying to work their way through it in their mind, and at the same time
trying to change your mind about it. If anything, my mind is changed a good deal more since
those things than it changed before those things. Oh, itís easy to slip off into a natural sort
of way of thinking, ďOkay, that meant a lot, but weíre finished with that.Ē I donít think that
Iím finished with any of this stuff. Weíre still working at it as hard as we can. Bringing out
the films from 1964 is in terms of the present, even more than it is in terms of the past. Weíre
looking at something as we see it from the present. I did try to do it when we finished
with a lot of the shooting, but it was just too hard. Also, I didnít really know enough about
what was going on to really legitimately get out there and try to explain it as though, ďThis
is the end of it.Ē I can give examples of it, but to explain it, Iím not sure that Iím ready
to do that even yet.
DI: In the Ď90s you wrote The Further Inquiry. Was that the start of the process
KK: Well, yeah. It was a hope to come up with a script that we could film down at the
house, because a lot of people were still into that period of time. I knew that the people who
were dead would have to have other things represent them. We were going to film it, and I
didnít think of it as a book for quite a while. The film didnít happen, and so the book stands
on its own. Iíve got six or eight pieces that are still important to what Iím doing. I want to
finish those as best as possible, if I can just pry a little place open in what Iím doing now.
Itís tricky to do, because what youíre doing becomes who you are, and Iím a little tired of
being who I am. [laughs]
DI: You also published Sailor Song. Everyone said, ďThatís the long awaited third
novel.Ē Was it?
KK: No. I never have put it in the category of Cuckooís Nest and Great Notion. Yeah, I know better.
DI: Then you wrote Last Go Round with Ken Babbs. Tell us a little about that book.
KK: Itís about a rodeo that happens in Pendleton, Oregon, every September. Itís just
removed from everything -- thereís no other town close -- and this rodeoís been going on since
1911. I wrote a thing about the first rodeo, from the point of view of one of the guys who
was the third runner-up of the three rodeo clowns, rodeo riders. His nameís Spain and heís
from the South. The two older guys are a black guy named George Fletcher and an Indian named
Jackson Sundown. The three of them were tied at the end of the three-day rodeo, and they have
a very famous last go-round. And the horse that won is in the Pendleton Museum there, mounted.
I donít mean heís got somebody on him; I mean heís dead and stuffed with stuff. [laughs] When
you go back there, Pendleton is still appreciative of that scene. Itís remarkable to go back
there. Itís almost the same. The photographs are better than they were back then, but these are
still tribes of Indians coming in to dance, and cowboys coming in from everywhere to ride. That
book got written because Iíd written a screenplay, and people wanted to change the screenplay
too much. I went ahead and worked it into a book, and Babbs wrote some scenes. We worked
really hard on it together. Itís the best of my kind of work from a fictional point of view.
Itís meant to be fictional, because I add people to it and I add scenes that can only be
fiction. I make a point of that as Iím going through.
DI: Youíve recently gotten a new bus back out on the road. Where is the original bus now?
KK: The first bus is down in a swamp near our place. I always forget that when I talk
about ďthe bus.Ē Itís like the Intrepid; that was a British man-of-war, and it was a World War
I vessel, and then it was a World War II aircraft carrier. But itís the same name, and people
think of it as the same spaceship, even though it changes places and gets fixed up. Whole new
spaceships come into being, and theyíre all the Intrepid. This is the way I think of the bus --
itís unique, itís by itself, no matter how you construct it.
DI: Your latest project is releasing the first tapes of the original bus trip.
KK: Weíve done the first episode, and that gets us to New Orleans. Weíre just about finished
with episode two, the journey from New Orleans north to Manhattan. Episode three will be at
Millbrook to meet Leary and Dick Alpert, and the whole scene there.
DI: You have a very unique ďhonor systemĒ for your purchasers. They tell you what they
want, you send it out, and then they pay you.
KK: Well, that was the way it used to be when we were kids. We would get a catalog from
Montgomery Ward, and weíd go through it and order stuff. They would send us the stuff, and then
we would send them the payment. You didnít send it beforehand; you waited a number of weeks
until you got it, and when you got it, if you didnít like it, you sent it back. Almost all the
stuff everybody kept. It was a marvelous system in which the weight of the proof was on the
seller instead of on the buyer.
DI: Your packages are very handmade. You could easily have a company shoot these things out,
but youíre doing everything -- from the labeling of the tapes to the painting of the boxes.
KK: We get letters from people -- just marvelous letters -- wanting to order, and
theyíre so excited about the fact that weíve finally got some of this stuff done. Then, once it
goes out there, we get tremendous letters back from them, having seen it, and theyíre
sending us the money right away, and thatís a whole lot more important than money. The
connection between us and those people is really remarkable and wonderful.
DI: At the time you were filming, you didnít have the technology to put everything together?
KK: There definitely was a mechanical thing. That helps a lot -- knowing that mechanical
business. We tried a lot and werenít successful at it. It just was too hard. Now weíve got it
down to video. Weíre able to capture the visuals and the sound, and adjust the soundís length,
so itíll put the words in the mouth of the person thatís speaking them. Thatís a remarkable
thing for us. Working with tapes and film, you play a tape and film and try to catch it.
Pretty soon the words are off a bunch. Then you have to go back and re-adjust that tape, and
then the words are off a bunch again. Weíve done a lot of stuff without the sound and lips
working together, and itís been effective for little pieces. But for a large piece, the more
stuff that we can have coming out of the mouth of the person, itís just so much better.
You know, weíre coming near the end of our run. Maybe five, ten, 15 years is all weíve got
left, and weíve got so much to do. So much stuff to go back through and make available.
DI: How much raw material do you have?
KK: Walls and walls of material. We filmed or taped everything. Most of it will never
make it to an audience. To go through
all of it and lip-synch it -- we donít do that well until 1990, when weíre working with TV.
Which is fine, because the stuff that weíre doing, itís better on TV than it is on the big
screen. Itís more personal, and the people who see it donít see it as a movie. It works a
whole lot better this way. So, we can turn out an hour, hour and a half tape regularly now and,
hopefully, have ourselves a rendezvous with it as weíre checking out.
DI: Will we see future novels?
KK: Iíve got one book that was at Viking. It should have been published two years ago,
but my editor got fired, so that book is down at the house. I withdrew it. Iíve got another
long novel completed -- I havenít gone back through it and reworked it. Then weíve got a bunch
of other stuff that Iíve written and needs to come out, because if it doesnít come out,
somebody will go back through and put it all out in a bowl, and I just want to put out little
pieces of it in the bowl. [Ernest] Hemingwayís last book, The Garden of Eden -- itís an
embarrassment. Hemingway wrote it in 1939. It was about men and women, and theyíre beginning
to show cross-dressing. The woman is wearing pants and shorter hair, and the man is running
around in his bathing suit and longer hair. Thatís interesting in 1939, but now itís something
that would embarrass the hell out of Hemingway. I think it does, all the time. His spirit
keeps saying, ďNo, no, donít publish that! I havenít fixed it. Iíve not gone through it.Ē I
think a lot of the work ahead of me is going through and seeing what works and what doesnít.
Iím not interested in just turning everything over to somebody. Itís like saying,
ďHereís a cake,Ē and just shove over all this flour and sugar and stuff. Itís not a cake.
Itís not a cake until itís been baked and ready to serve.
DI: Who are some of your favorite authors, past or present?
KK: Well, thereís [William] Burroughs, [Jack] Kerouac, [John] Steinbeck, Hemingway --
but, by far, itís [William] Faulkner. Faulkner includes everything Iíve ever done, him being
about as wiped out as I have been when Iíve written some stuff. You can go back to any piece
of Faulkner and open it up and begin to read it, and it works. You donít know where it comes
about in his scheme of things; youíll see one story done by him at one time, and then the
same story done by him at another time, where he is looking from a different point of view,
getting a different look at stuff. This is my favorite writer, by far.
DI: What advice would you give to a young author?
KK: Advice to a young author nowadays -- itíd be hard to make. I really donít know what
I would tell them, because I think the whole publishing world is in a real state of flux. It
wonít be long before youíll buy your book off the Internet. Youíll go through and read
something by somebody and youíll say, ďThatís good. Send me that.Ē Theyíll print it out to
you. Itíll save us from having to ship all these big boxes of pulp back and forth. Itís one of
the things that Iím, kind of, hanging back on. Itíd be really easy to put a thing on that
computer that would sell a book, and youíd be able to download the book in a night. Youíd come
in, and there would be a big pile of paper. It makes more sense. The whole notion of publishing
houses and publishing companies, itís an insult in a way. All writers have felt this. Iíve
always been really happy with Viking, but Iím not part of the world that they want to publish.
DI: Youíve always been good at creating your own unique place in the world, though.
KK: Well, thatís important. And itís hard to convince people that it is important. But,
boy, itís as important a thing as you can get now. People are sending pieces of novels.
I think they ought to be read by somebody who
can read them and say, ďHey, hereís something really good.Ē My editor, this was kind of
where he was working, and heís a real, real good editor. Heís willing to devote as much
time and effort as you can possibly expect from a person. He was Burroughs editor, and he does
the Ann Charters Kerouac books. Heís done important books, and heís continuing to try to do
important books, but there was something about him and Viking, who sold off to Penguin, who
sold off to Putnam. Itís happening that way -- these big houses are getting bigger by buying
more houses, but pretty soon theyíre going to find theyíve got more houses than theyíve got
readers. When somebody comes up with a really good book, you can put it up on the computer and
sell it that way, and I think itíll be healthy for the writing system.