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Thursday, 3 January 2013
Author interview no.507 with writer Ken La Salle (revisited)
Back in October 2012, I interviewed author Ken La Salle for my WordPress blog. I hope you enjoy it...
Welcome to the five hundred and seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Ken La Salle. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ken. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Ken: My name is Ken La Salle. I’m an author and playwright out of Southern California. I come from Santa Ana, which is a very blue-collar town, nothing like the way Orange County is portrayed on TV. I grew up in a single-parent home. My mother was a union member. I mention this because I have found that so much of this has become a huge part of my writing.
The first time I had an inkling that I might be interested in being a writer, I was young and foolish. A very good writer at my high school, Roy Johnson, was showing a story he wrote and I bragged, “I can do better than that.” I’m still working on living up to that boast.
Morgen: “I can do better” has spurred many a writer. My first piece (a poem) was pulled to pieces by my writing tutor (who I’m still good friends with) and it made me more determined. :) You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Ken: Non-fiction writing came to me very much by accident. I have always, okay almost always, written fiction or plays but there are some things that just require writing. My philosophical memoir, Climbing Maya, for instance began when I decided to find the answer to the question: “What is success?”
It actually came down to something like the flip of a coin. I was out of work and felt I should try and make some money by writing something I considered marketable, a zombie horror novel. At the same time, though, I felt this incredible pull to learn about and talk about success. My wife, Vicky, did me an incredible favour by suggesting I write what I wanted to write and I wanted to write about success.
Morgen: Every author should be able to write what they want to write. I do. :) What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Ken: My non-fiction titles to date have included my first memoir about depression and attempted suicide, called A Grand Canyon, and my philosophical memoir about success, Climbing Maya.
Of course, I’ve also self-published quite a bit of my fiction and am hoping that more of it becomes available through more traditional routes.
I do write under the pseudonym of Ken La Salle. I’ve been playing around with various forms of it over the years, so you may see the name Kenneth La Salle out there, too. But everyone seems to agree that Ken La Salle has stuck.
Morgen: The thing about names is that it takes a lot of work to be known by one name so it’s best to stick to one (or a variation of it). You’re self-published, what lead to you going your own way?
Ken: In the case of A Grand Canyon, it was almost by accident. A friend was starting her own ebook business and needed content. I was in the process of getting remarried and wanted to purge all the bad vibes from my previous marriage in the way I knew best: through a book. When my friend’s ebook business went under, I took it on myself to publish it digitally. After that, I decided to take the plunge with my fiction. I mean, after all, why not share the work I’ve enjoyed so much?
Morgen: Absolutely, and writing is so therapeutic. Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ken: I have a number of novels and works of short fiction available digitally in all ebook formats. Climbing Maya (published May 1st) is available in both ebook format and in paperback. While I read almost everything digitally – news, blogs, magazines, etc. – I still like to read books on paper.
Morgen: Most people do, myself included (although my new iPad is a novelty and I love that it displays both pages). I’d say only a handful of people I’ve interviewed say they prefer eBooks over paper completely. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Ken: In the case of Climbing Maya, we kept my original title and I was happy about that because I couldn’t bear to think what else anyone would call it. When we developed the cover, I worked with this great artist at Solstice named Kelly. We didn’t quite get the cover in our first few passes. I said I wanted a stylized mountain but couldn’t give her any good examples. Finally, I said, “I want a mountain from the video of A-Ha’s Take On Me, although I know there’s no mountain in the video.” Kelly watched the video and turned the band name A-Ha into a kind of “Ah ha!” moment with her next pass at the cover and it was perfect. I don’t know how we got there but I’m so glad we did; I think it evokes so much.
Morgen: What a challenge. :) What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ken: I just finished what could easily be the most important book of my life. I’ve been working on it for the better part of two decades. It’s a book on ethics and, though I am hesitant to say too much, I will tell you that it has the potential to change the way we consider ethics.
I am always looking down the road and thinking about what’s coming up next. For me, that’s a huge part of the process. Next on my plate, I’m going to write another novel. Then, I plan to write a book about my father’s memorial service. I’ve finally reached enough distance to see the story through the memories and I’m going to call it “The Day We Said Goodbye.”
Morgen: That’s really sad… poignant is perhaps a better word. I lost my father the same week as 9/11 so our family had mixed feelings at the time, grateful that we could say “goodbye” where so many people hadn’t been able to. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Ken: I do write every day – and I never thought I’d be the kind of writer to do so. I started as the kind of young writer who talked more about writing than actually doing it. Then, as I grew older and realized I was running out of time, I devoted more and more time and forced more and more discipline. Now, I’ve finally reached that point in my life where I work on my career 8-10 hours each day and love it. I’m either writing, editing, submitting, promoting, or planning what’s next.
Part of the benefit of all that discipline, and just plain being lucky enough to be in this place in my life, is that I haven’t experienced writer’s block in many years. That said, I have suffered some major burnouts from working too much. Last July, I had to stop all work for a month, which taught me a lot about the necessity for downtime.
Morgen: Not having time does make us focus. I always try to squeeze so much in my days and sometimes feel guilty if I have a snooze but if I feel tired, I clearly need it. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ken: I do a lot of my writing in my head, long before anything goes down. I let the story “brew” (as I like to call it) until I think it is complete and I’m ready to go. As a result, my first pass tends to be about 90% there. Then, I go back a few times to bring it the rest of the way. I’ve known writers who write before letting their idea “brew” and it seems like a waste to me.
Morgen: I guess different methods work for different people. Do you have to do much research?
Ken: Having just finished my book on ethics, I can tell you that there’s no avoiding it sometimes. I spent 6-8 months writing the book and years on the research alone!
Occasionally, I’ll write a play that will require no research at all – not even a Google search. Those are always a ton of fun.
Morgen: It’s certainly simpler to write what you know but if there’s a risk that someone will pick you up on something (and there will always people willing to do so) then facts do need checking, and I just love having so much information to hand. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ken: I’m sure that’s the case. There are some things of mine – early work – that are just too flat out awful to share. But digital distribution and self-publishing has helped me get out some of my favorite work that didn’t quite catch on, so I’m thankful for that.
Morgen: Me too (and it’s easy then to plan more). Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Ken: I dream of being commissioned! No, I’m still at that point where I must submit, submit, submit. And I do it like nobody’s business. After you’d been working for a while, you develop your own systems. (I suppose it must be like this for everyone.) Now, I send out easily a hundred submissions for books and plays and the like every month.
Morgen: Wow. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Ken: Many submissions mean many rejections. Most of the time, you actually just never hear anything back, garden-variety apathy. That is most of my universe right there. Then, there are the “You suck” crowd. There’s never a shortage of those people. The most insidious group of rejections are the “We loved your work but…” rejections. They are ruthless at making you feel like you should change, like you’re almost good enough but not quite. I see these far too often.
How do I deal with them? I don’t feel as though I have any choice. I’m 46 years old, far too old to work in construction or find anything else I might be good at. I’m committed… so I have to be committed… or I’ll be committed… Sure, when I was younger those rejections hurt far more than they do now. You just have to accept it.
Morgen: It’s a shame when 46 is too old to do something (I’ve just turned 45), but that’s the joy of being a writer; anyone can do it. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Ken: Yes, Climbing Maya is represented by Jeanie Pantelakis at Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency. She has been absolutely vital and I’ll tell you why. Her belief in Climbing Maya came at a time when I’d just about given up. She was so enthusiastic; it was like switching on a light in a room that had long gone dark.
Morgen: An author should never give up. If you have the passion you just have to keep going. You have an agent, how much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ken: This writing business is changing so rapidly and so often it’s hard to keep up on all the new ways to market your work and yourself. I have my blogs that I regularly update and my website, also regularly updated, and I’m always trying to network, network, network.
Seeing myself as a ‘brand,’ though, has been difficult because I’m not easy to peg. I write comedies, books on philosophy, novels, inspirational essays. My brand, I’m learning, isn’t what I create so much as how. I am my brand, and that’s been a tough thing to wrap my head around.
Morgen: You are, and that’s what I keep thinking. This blog is a ripple in a very big pond and it’s known only by my name, which I must admit I did on purpose. My determination hopefully reflects that (pardon the pun). What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Ken: I love where my life as a writer is taking me. I make people laugh. I make people think. I inspire them. I am so fortunate and I can’t imagine how wonderful it will be once I actually make some money at it as well. I guess that would make the list as my least favourite thing: Not making money at it just yet. Oh, I’ve brought it a bit of coin but it’s far from paying the bills. It always seems just over the horizon. Let’s hope I get there soon!
You know what has most surprised me? When I started out, I was surrounded by talented writers who I admired. I mean, these people could just blow you away. Me? Not so much. And yet, somehow, against all rhyme and reason, I am still working after so many others I knew gave up.
Morgen: They do say that a successful writer is one who didn’t give up and it is just a case of finding the right thing for the right person (or vice versa). I’m still working on the money-making too (I don’t charge for this blog and haven’t got my novels out yet, although two are imminent). :) What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ken: My standard advice is “Don’t do it.” I always think people would be better off as accountants or something else boring like that. The problem, of course, is that we have very little choice in the matter. If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to be a writer. With that in mind, I say: Accept what you are and who you are. Don’t fight it. This life is hard enough with enough people ready to knock you down so don’t do it to yourself. This is who you are. If you’re very lucky, you may make a little money at it. Work hard. Work hard. Work hard. And don’t give up.
Morgen: Absolutely. Everyone should do something we love, and one thing I’ve found is who much writers love being writers, regardless of how tortuous the process is. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Ken: I’ve never been very interested in folks from different eras, certainly not too distant in the past. I would certainly invite my wife, Vicky. She’s my best friend and I love experiencing things with her. Then, I’d invite Robert Pirsig and Joseph Campbell, both of whom I admire greatly. I’d order a mountain of take-out Chinese, just because I love some good take-out Chinese, and get ready for some long discussions.
Morgen: Can I bags a place at the table, I love Chinese. :) Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Ken: Be Here Now.
Morgen: A great title for an album. You mentioned earlier that you write fiction, do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Ken: I’ve written several novels, some I’m trying to sell and others I’ve published online. How can I name a favourite? The weird thing, and this surely must apply to other writers as well, is that my favourite book is always the next one, the one I’m working on. For instance, my next novel is going to revolve around the life of a young painter and focus on the broken lives around him. He is saved, in the end, by all of these broken people. So many of us find ourselves damaged or broken in our lives that I am attracted by the universality of it. I’m looking forward to reading the story as I create it.
But just to keep things interesting, and maybe help sales a bit, let me turn you on to my Rynia series of fantasy novels. Those are my only fantasy novels to date and, therefore, would be my favorites in that genre. When I wrote them, I had a prequel series and a sequel series figured out but life and lack of sales had other plans. One of the main characters in the Rynia series is an earth giant named Ostrander and I always pictured him portrayed not by an actor but by the magicians at the Jim Henson Company.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. A lot of novelists I’ve asked that question to have said their latest project so I’m not surprised. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ken: I used to take an idea and run with it. I wouldn’t plot anything out. The joy of writing, at a certain time in my life, was about discovery. Now, however, I like to plot things loosely in my head to the point where I know what happens. Then, the discovery comes in as I write it and learn how it happened. I never plot too much, though, I like to let the book be the book.
Morgen: It’s my favourite aspect of writing; the not knowing exactly what’s going to come out. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Ken: I usually start with a structure of some kind. If I have a specific character in mind, I’ll plug him / her into the structure. Then, I’ll begin cycling through possibilities in my head for who else belongs.
As a playwright, one tool I have utilized in the past is to give characters the voices of famous actors. A character in my play “Broken People”, named The Sad Man, was written for the voice of Peter O’Toole. In another play “Lost and Found”, Martin was written for the voice of Anthony Hopkins. I do this because each has a specific speech pattern and it’s easy to fit words into the patterns. The Sad Man’s lines, for instance, came across almost poetically, just as Peter O’Toole’s voice would sound if he read them. The words are still mine but this brings another dimension to my ear.
I think the thing that makes characters most believable is an understanding of their humanity. I think that’s a key trait in a skilled writer, a connection with the humanity in your characters.
Morgen: What a good idea, writing for specific voices. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Ken: I sometimes think that I’m one of the few people who enjoys third-person omniscient. Ah, old school! Now, of course, that’s out of style and I’ve had to adapt. So, I’ve been toying around with things. I have been enjoying writing books in third person but focusing on just one character, to create a sense of mystery.
Morgen: Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Ken: I’m also a playwright with over 20 full-length plays. I can whip out a play in a week so it’s one of the most enjoyable things I do. I just sit down and hammer out a few thousand jokes and giggle as I type. (I mostly write comedies.)
The nice thing about writing plays is that it keeps me connected to my theatre roots. It allows me to play with actors and other theatre professionals, whereas writing books is so often such a solitary endeavour.
Morgen: I love that you said, “giggle as I type” because it’s so important to enjoy it. I’m frequently commenting, clapping etc. My dog is quite used to my eccentricities. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Ken: When I’m not writing, I sleep… oh wait. I don’t sleep that much, either. Seriously, though, I’m an avid cyclist. Getting out on the road, though, just lets me plot out my next story or work the bugs out of whatever I’m presently writing. I play World of Warcraft (not nearly enough) and I’ve found that helps turn my brain off quite well. Sometimes, it’s nice to just shut down for a while.
Morgen: It’s important to do something different, although WoW is bound to help with characters etc., even subconsciously. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Ken: As crazy as this might sound: Google! Google! Google! Is there nothing Google cannot bring to a writer who is stuck? I just don’t think so!
Morgen: I think you’re right. Google and Wikipedia are my top two. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ken: Oh, yes. You can find me on several blogs:
For thoughts on life and other issues of the day: http://twolivesonepath.blogspot.com.
On writing and being a writer: http://kenlasalle.blogspot.com.
And for insights on pursuing your dreams, check out my monthly blog at http://www.recoveringself.com/category/ken-la-salle.
You can find me on Twitter at @KenLaSalle.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ken: I don’t see things getting any easier, that’s for sure. I wish I had some pithy advice but I’m scrambling like everyone else.
Morgen: :) Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Ken: Glad you asked! www.kenlasalle.com! There’s also a trailer for Climbing Maya on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_QlRLNSRgA.
Morgen: A book trailer is on my list of things to do. :) Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Ken: I’ve recently reached a point in my career where I could sit down and ask myself, “What do I do that other writers can’t provide in the same way?” “What do I bring to the table?” This only happened recently because, until then, I didn’t really know. I spent much of my life simply trying to find my way. I wrote on what I would call “feel.” If I felt like doing something, I would do it. And I think that’s often the only way you figure yourself out in something like this.
There are those writers who, say, only write mystery or excel at romance but I never understood that. Sometimes, I felt compelled to write poetry. Other times, I would need to make a political statement. I was never quite sure of who I was or how I was supposed to present myself to the world. It took many years before I could just allow myself to do what I wanted to do. I had to teach myself to let me be me.
This is how I went from being an actor to a playwright, how I went from writing fantasy to writing memoirs: Brutal self-discovery.
Now that I’m at the point where I can understand what my strengths are, it doesn’t seem so unusual to shift from writing a comedy for the stage to writing a book on ethics. I’ve learned that it’s not my topic that makes me unique but my voice. I should probably note at this point that this same discovery has yet to be made by the many agencies and publishers out there. I hear a lot of “You can’t do that” from a lot of different people.
But being an artist is about knowing what kind of artist you are. It’s about knowing that artist who lives inside of you well enough so that the two of you can work together as one. That may be why I use a pseudonym, to help concretize that in my mind. I doubt any artist just finds himself in the position of being an artist; it’s something you grow into. I have been fortunate to find myself here and recognize my own face.
Morgen: I agree. Writers are their (our) voices. Thank you, Ken.
I then invited Ken to include a synopsis of his latest book…
What is success? What do we strive for and why? What is it we chase after, day after day, and inevitably judge the value of our lives against? Do the old answers of career and money really hold up?
Faced with unemployment, the impending death of one friend, and self-destruction of another, Ken La Salle begins his search for the meaning of success. It's a search that explores why we crave success that in the face of inevitable death could be nothing more than Maya, the illusion of life referenced in eastern myth. Through research, analysis, and epiphanies from some very unlikely sources, he helps us push through all of our preconceived notions to a concept so few really understand.
Those going through layoffs, career changes, lifestyle adjustments such as having children, health crisis, coming back from serving overseas, and persons forced into early retirement will relate to this memoir.
This is a book that will be shared, given, and pondered for lifetimes and beyond. Yes, it is all true. This is his story.
Novelist and Playwright, Ken La Salle grew up in Santa Ana, California and has remained in the surrounding area his entire life. He was raised with strong, blue collar roots, which have given him a progressive and environmentalist view. As a result, you'll find many of his stories touching those areas both geographically and philosophically. His plays have been seen in theaters across the country and you can find a growing number of books available online. Find out more about Ken on his website at www.kenlasalle.com.
Update January 2013: It’s amazing to see how much half a year makes. When we first conducted this interview, there was no way to see the big developments that were just around the corner.
First, I released my first audiobook! The Worth of Dreams The Value of Dreamers is available on iTunes, through Audible (http://www.amazon.com/The-
Worth-Dreams-Value-Dreamers/ dp/B009WSLYQ0) and on many other audiobook sites around the web. Self-produced and read by the author (me), it is a collection of my first year of articles from Recovering The Self (http://www.recoveringself. com), along with some bonus material just for the audiobook.
Next, I was fortunate to sign with the Corvisiero Literary Agency in 2012 (http://www.corvisieroagency.
com/Ken_La_Salle.php). I know how much many writers hope to find representation, and along with my relationship with Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency, I consider myself very fortunate to have two terrific agents on my side.
Finally, as 2012 came to a close, I made the decision to host my own podcast. So Dream Something, is a bi-monthly interview show in which I speak to people from all walks of life and with all types of dreams about how their dreams fulfill them and enrich their lives, even when things don’t go exactly as planned. You can find So Dream Something on my website at http://www.kenlasalle.com/so-
dream-something and coming soon to many places on the Internet.
The adventure continues and I’m looking forward to better things in 2013!
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