Q and A with the Goners author, Kenyon Gagne
Author Kenyon Gagne took a moment to sit down and answer a few of the most common questions he receives about his work on his first novel, The Goners.
➢ WHO are YOU? Who, who, who, who? We really want to know. (That was for all the fans of The Who, like this author)
I am Kenyon Gagne. I am 48 now; I started this project when I was 45. I live in Simpsonville, South Carolina, with my wife and two daughters. I am a meat cutter at Whole Foods in Greenville and I have worked in the grocery industry for thirty years. This is my first novel.
➢ When did you begin writing?
Gosh, when I was very young, I don’t know, maybe 5th grade or so? I remember writing a lot of time machine short stories. Into my twenties, there were a lot of poems and other short stories. That’s where I poured all of my teenage angst. I had a lot. Then I met my future wife, and I kind of put writing on the back-burner. For, like, twenty years.
➢ What are some of your favorite novels as a reader?
I love the great Russian novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, like War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. They were the first ones I read that really put you inside the protagonists’ heads. It was cool to know that some rich Russian Prince at a fancy ball in 1805 could be thinking the same thoughts as me. I think, or I HOPE I learned from these guys how interesting the little subtleties of a story can be, at least if they’re presented well. I love a lot of the early science fiction stuff too, like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, those kind of action/adventure works. When I was a young teenager, I devoured every Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that was in print. You know, the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars and Pellucidar. I love that real pulpy, science fiction action. If I got anything from these, it was timing and drama, and hopefully how to make the hair stand up on the back of a reader’s neck! As far as modern stuff, I love Harry Potter and I think they are some of the most important books ever written—they did more for young adult literacy than ANY books, EVER! I also really really loved The Hunger Games Trilogy. I think Katniss Everdeen is so real, and I think she reacts to her horrible circumstances the way that the real female heroes in my life would. That series taught me just how much a reader can be made to care for a character, and I definitely wanted to emulate that.
➢ What was your inspiration for the Goners content?
We are going to post a long piece on this on the website, but essentially the idea started in the years following the Challenger explosion, the space shuttle that exploded in 1986 with a whole crew and a teacher from near my hometown on board. Before that incident, I remember, as a young teenager, thinking that there was no doubt in my mind that later in my life I would get the chance to go to space. All civilians would. It would be routine to go into space or go into orbit or to the moon because space technology seemed to be advancing that fast. That just seemed like a no-brainer. I remember in the years AFTER the Challenger explosion, the pace slowing to a crawl, understandably, because these are human lives we are talking about. NASA didn’t want to patch things up and send other astronauts up in something they weren’t sure was safe. That was the very first seed of the idea.
Then, in the early 1990’s, the high school in my hometown of Goffstown, New Hampshire (I had already moved down to Greenville with my family), experienced what was called a suicide cluster over the course of about a year and a half. Five or six students at Goffstown High committed suicide and I remember contemplating that in the light of the Challenger explosion and thinking that, on the one hand, we value human life so much and, on the other hand, there are people just throwing their lives away. I remember putting those two ideas together and having discussions at work with Armand Crain, a wizened old redneck meat-cutter, along the lines of “what if there was a government program where people who were suicidal could give their lives up doing something productive?”
➢ What works inspired the style of the Goners novel?
Hmm. Well, the first thing that comes to mind, strangely enough, is A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, which is my favorite piece of writing in the English language. I just think it’s the most beautifully written thing. He turns a lot of great phrases in that book, but at the same time the tone is light. It doesn’t come across as pretentious or academic. It’s playful but beautiful. I have an audio recording of that book by John Gielgud that I listen to probably twenty times every holiday season. He reads it so well and it’s written so well that it’s almost like music. I try to combine that sensibility of trying to make the writing flow and make it beautiful while also giving it a modern feel, of not taking itself too seriously. I’ll try to throw in some deliberate clunkiness. Also, I do like to write descriptively and I like to go in depth into certain things I think are important, the mental state of the characters and whatnot. I am not somebody who likes to write sparsely. I like to use adjectives and adverbs.
➢ Do you believe that a government program such as the Meaningful Conclusion program could ever truly exist?
Well, three years ago I would have said probably not. Now, I don’t know. The things that we as a society are able to turn our backs on now are just unbelievable. You want to say “no, the value placed on human life in a modern first world country is just too great to allow it”, but on the other hand REAL kids are getting gunned down in freaking schools all the time now and half of the country is completely unmoved. So I can certainly see those same people not giving a crap when older kids or adults are volunteering to die in the name of progress. I think it’s a close call. I HOPE not. But I do think that it makes a book more engaging, the more believable and possible the story seems.
➢ Where did you get the idea for each of the main characters, Prudence, Kaywin, and Dubin?
So, Dublin is an exaggeration of a young me, a caricature of a young me. I was not as smart as Dublin was [laughs]. Kaywin is an idealization of my current state. He is a middle-age man, who had been a good husband and a good father. I say he is an idealization of me, not because I am not a good husband or good father, but because in his earlier years, Kaywin probably made better use of his talents and was a military man and a professional electrician after that and probably did better for himself in that respect. As a father of two girls, I wrote Prudence as a worst-case scenario of what could happen to a young woman. I did not have a direct inspiration for Prudence other than just being a worst- nightmare scenario of what could have happened to one of my daughters if she had been brought into the world in a horrible household. She was also conceived as having the direct opposite childhood as Dublin, both horrible, but I wanted, not pit them against each other, but to mesh them together to explore their own problems, in the light of each other’s.
➢ Kaywin’s introduction is interspersed with a good bit of humor. Why did you take this approach with him?
Well, I think misery and laughter coexist all the time. All the time. It’s how people cope. When I read a book or watch a movie where the characters are miserable, and nobody ever breaks the tension with a little joke, it just doesn’t ring true, and it doesn’t hit me as powerfully as it should. I cried at the end of Titanic, but I cry much harder at the end of Nacho Libre. Don’t get me wrong–I definitely cried at the end of Titanic. But you know, I’ve never watched it a second time, whereas I’ve watched Nacho Libre like fifty times. I think in a tragic story, laughter straight up equals hope. It’s a sign that the characters haven’t given up. In the case of Kaywin, the humor is coming from me, the narrator, so even though he apparently has given up, I, the storyteller, have not, so the reader should gather from the tone that something is going to happen to this poor man to improve his prospects. Hopefully, they will gather too that the book is going to be entertaining, and not, like, a one-note sob story. I wanted the whole book to be a little bit different. I wanted that quirky element. The kind of style I was going for is easier to spot or name in some movies, like Nacho Libre, or Wes Anderson movies come to mind, like Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, where the quirkiness and the silliness set up the more dramatic emotional moments and, to me, make the heavier moments that much more powerful.
➢ What was your favorite scene in the novel and why?
Let’s see. I don’t know if I want to put a spoiler out there…
➢ Could you say something more cryptic?
Yes. Alright, it’s easily my favorite scene and one of the reasons I just had to have a soundtrack attached to the book. I visualized the story as a movie and couldn’t imagine this scene without the song coming in at that moment. It’s where after months and months of their best efforts, it looks like their mission is doomed and there comes a moment, a very sudden moment, where they realize they do have the information they need to proceed and the mission is back on. And it’s on like Donkey Kong.
➢ You’re not telling us what song?
Um, no. No.
➢ What was the most difficult part of the novel to write?
Overall, throughout the novel, I would say the science. It was actually the hardest. It was really important to me to make every aspect of this book as real as possible and I didn’t want to do a sloppy job on the science. So, when it came time to describe a moon base, I had to figure out where to put it, where there’s frozen water on the Moon, where they’re going to get the most solar energy from collectors. When they are on their way to the moon, I had to really research where the gravitational pull of the Earth would lose effect and where the Moon’s pull would start and what period of time they would be totally weightless, things like that. I would say the story itself came very naturally. The science was the hardest part.
The characters, the plot structure, the dialogue all felt very natural. Doesn’t mean it’s good. If someone things it’s crap, then maybe I’m a natural at writing crap!
➢ Where did the idea for the playlist originate and what purpose does it serve in this work?
I wanted to write the book very visually and part of the creative process as I was developing the ideas for the book and the structure of the book was to imagine the story a lot and to think about it a lot as I was driving to work, cleaning out the cutting room at night, hosing down the machinery. By visualizing it in my mind, the whole story had a movie-like quality. In some of my favorite movies, again referring back to Wes Anderson, the music has a big impact on the feeling of a lot of scenes. So, the idea for the soundtrack sprang from listening to certain songs I really loved and thinking about my book at the same time and thinking, “Boy, if this was a movie, and this song came in right here, wouldn’t that be awesome?!” Eventually there were too many songs that were perfect for too many scenes for me to not construct a soundtrack around it. Especially the song “Question” by the Moody Blues. From start to finish it sums up the entire feel of the book. It has the fast, adventurous parts and it’s got the really strong, emotional middle part. It was hard to not try to connect my book to the feel of that song.
➢ Do you really believe that each of the main characters are done with their lives?
Again, I don’t want to issue a spoiler. I think if there ever was a program like this and if there ever was a perfect candidate for it, Kaywin would be that guy. He’s somebody who has lost everybody he loved and has tried to get over it and has not been able to and he has wonderful tools and skills to offer the world. But the other two main characters are really too young, each of them having just turned 16 at the beginning of the novel. They are too young to be done with their lives and too young to really make that decision for themselves, but that is part of the horror of the program. We’ll find out if they are done or not.
➢ Have you ever experienced the emotional challenges your characters are facing in this work?
Yes, Dublin to a degree. Yes, as a young man, I faced some of his challenges, but I got over them naturally on my own. As I express in chapter two of the novel, there is a big difference between having problems when you are sixteen and you think you are the only one who has those problems and you are alone in the world with those problems and getting into your twenties and realizing that there are ways to move on from your issues and get over them. There are possibilities you didn’t know existed when you were sixteen. Kaywin’s issues are something I hope I never experience. His state is what I imagine is the state I would be in if my wife and daughters were ripped away from me suddenly like that.
➢ It could be said that you handle this heavy topic in a lighthearted manner at times. What would be your response to that suggestion?
I do worry sometimes that people will take offense that I treat the subject with humor and my gut reaction to that is that I didn’t spend three years of my life writing a 558 page novel to make a joke of something. I know people who have been deeply affected by suicide and I also know that humor is vitally important to dealing with our problems in our everyday lives. Our heaviest problems we cope with using humor. It is, in fact, one of the things that makes life precious, the humor and the good times we bring to it. It’s not just a biological function.
➢ What would you say to someone who is struggling in the ways your protagonists are struggling throughout this work?
What would I say to them? I would say to definitely reach out for help to your loved ones, your friends, your family. Talk to them for real, completely openly, don’t downplay your problems to them or downplay how much you are hurting or how desperate you are. This might make for uncomfortable conversation, but if they love you they would much much rather have this awkward conversation with you than lose you forever, maybe without even knowing why. If you don’t have the support you need there, definitely reach out to other resources. There are some links on my website. I would say to imagine the years and years of happiness you could have if your major problems were gone. Then I would say to start taking steps today, even if they are little ones, to make those problems go away. I would say, when applicable, to look inside yourself to make sure that you are doing everything within your own power to fix the problems that are within your control and to be aware that you do have more power over yourself than some people realize. I know that’s not the case for everybody. I would say that life is too precious and every one of us is too precious to throw it away. I could go on and on. I want people to live and be happy. I think everyone is amazing, and deserves to be happy. Yes, YOU.