My novel What’s Left began percolating as I considered the dimensions of the hippie movement and realized it had never really died but continued disguised in many streams of action. Yes, I’d published my Hippie Trails series but so much still felt unfinished.
And, as a consequence of Cassia in the new novel, I went back and transformed the others into Freakin’ Free Spirits.
Looking at the world today, what pressing issues do you consider unfinished?
My subways novel started out to be my big hippie tome, building on a metaphor of hitchhiking, which was ubiquitous for us, but the extended concept ultimately got to be too unwieldy for one book. The supportive details were stripped away for what’s become Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, leaving the metropolis altogether.
Spurred on by Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America” with a dash of William Burroughs, the initial drafts played surrealistically in a tension between the wide-open roads of the countryside and the underground realms of the biggest cities.
Then, four or five years after taking up the project, I was pawing through a used books bin in the desert of Washington state and came across a 1915 engineering volume, “Building Subways in New York,” which included “Elevated Railway Steelworks.” I still have it. How on earth had it ever landed out there amid the sagebrush?
I had already lived in Upstate New York four hours from Manhattan, and nearly all of my friends, housemates, and lovers were from The City. That was followed by my residency in a yoga ashram two hours away in the Poconos, so yes, I had learned to ride the trains. (Nowadays, it’s mostly Boston’s a little over an hour south of me.)
The original “Subway Hitchhikers” had a structure that ran like trains passing in opposite directions, which readers could find confusing rather than energizing. It also had a lacy air that reminded me of Robert Rauschenberg’s pop art “combines.” Gone, too, in the revisions is the protagonist’s hippie handle, substituting a more conventional nickname that better links this story to the others.
In the revised version, Subway Visions, there’s more focus on characters, plus new sections on Kenzie’s encounters of Tibetan Buddhism in a tenement near Greenwich Village as well as a graffiti artist known as T-Rex.
What’s evolved has a much straighter narrative and more arresting development, now linked to Kenzie’s ongoing life in the hills to the north. And elements of fantasy and heightened playfulness now augment the earlier surrealism.
I suspect I still have some classic coin tokens in my possession, somewhere.
There was no Nita for me during college or immediately after. Had she existed, my route would have been much less conflicted. Somehow, though, I managed to figure out enough on my own, often through seemingly chance introductions, to survive in an alien milieu.
After college I landed in a place where I knew nobody except a few people from my previous summer as a newspaper copy desk intern. I was a Midwesterner trying to comprehend the East Coast, a hippie working in a low-paid newsroom. Single and lonely.
The locale I create in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks is situated vaguely somewhere north of New York City. It could be in the Berkshires of Massachusetts or in southern Vermont or places like Oneonta or Cortland, New York, perhaps even Utica.
I paint it as smaller than Binghamton, the strange place where I was living and working. The Tri-Cities, as it was referred to locally, was flailing to recover from collapsing industry, especially its shoe-manufacturing ruins, as well as a deteriorating but expensive housing supply. The new state university attracted socially awkward straight-A geeks and nerds. My first year I resided in a neighborhood that was Italian by day and Black, as in ghetto, by night. And then there was the summer and autumn on the farm we shared up in the hills. My work schedule was crazy like Kenzie’s, except for the three-day weekend once a month, which I really wish had been in place – I took that from a newspaper where I worked a dozen years later.
Strangely, I also soon came to love the region. There’s something distinctive about Upstate New York, with its hills and forests and lakes, and almost all of my friends were from The City, meaning the Big Apple aka Gotham. Few of them confined their definition to Manhattan, I should note. Through them I got to know Brooklyn, the Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, and northern suburbs as much as the sliver between the Hudson and East rivers.
I initially addressed this fertile period in my life as two parallel novels – one where the hippie boy largely fails to connect with free love; the other, X rated, where his fantasies come to fruition. Either way, the plots arrived at the same finale. Later, in light of Cassia’s perspectives in What’s Left as well as a few of the early reviews, I returned to these two versions and blended them into a much more cohesive, and I hope more engaging tale, “Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.” Well, that is one of the advantages of ebook editions – you can always update them.
There’s still so much that baffles me about the time and place. How one housemate would come home with a different lover each night, all of them gorgeous to my famished gaze. What was his trick, other than that twinkle in his eye?
In the revised rendering, Kenzie encounters a sequence of hippie chicks, goddesses, lovers, each of them leading him to fresh understandings. Still, I’m left wondering how each of these interludes would sound from the woman’s point of view. I suspect Kenzie wouldn’t fare so well.
Also, for me, it was yoga rather than Buddhism as a new spiritual practice, but that’s told in Yoga Bootcamp.
More lingering are the questions of what’s happened to so many I’ve met in the broader Bohemian spectrum. I can’t even remember many of their names, but I have learned that some went on to become OBGYN physicians, United Way executives, federal attorneys, United Nations officials, photocopier technicians. Hardly what you’d expect of hippies, right?
Well, I’ve tried to record and reflect on what happened, seen mostly on the run. Can you experience something – live it – and still step back enough to record it? In my novels, that’s what the photographer tries to do, similar in its own way to my own struggle. And now you can see how much that role’s changed, too, in the shift from film and darkrooms to the digital ease of today.
While still living in the Midwest, I came under the sway of the margins of the literary world more than the more influential institutions and best-selling or most critically acclaimed voices at its core.
In high school, I came across the weekly Village Voice tabloid amid the out-of-town newspapers at Willkie’s downtown and devoured its tales of sides of Manhattan (and the world) the established dailies ignored, mostly of a progressive slant. By college, it was augmented by New York Magazine, which originated under Clay Felkner as the Sunday supplement to the now defunct Herald Tribune; glossy Esquire, with its New Journalism stars; and Evergreen, alive with muckraking politics.
Concurrently, my advanced writing class my sophomore year opened my eyes to the importance of small literary reviews, some with institutional support and others fully independent, most of them published quarterly. Some were student run, others had professional staff; more likely they were a labor of love in the wee hours. Many of them were mimeographed and stapled, before photocopying took over. Now they’re mostly online.
I was already putting out a sporadic mimeo broadside, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, on my commuter college campus, which also had a fine student-run review of its own, Nexus (35 cents!).
My next campus didn’t have such an active literary scene, especially of an experimental sort. As a student majoring in poly sci rather than English, though, I was able to sample some influential courses. Film history, for one, and Russian novels in translation in the Russian department, for another, and finally a current American novels class that examined Ishmael Reed, Tom Wolfe, Robert Coover, Thomas Pyncheon, and Ken Kesey. I was also reading a lot of Vonnegut and Hesse. On my return as a research associate in the mid-’70s, I became involved in a lively off-campus poetry circle led by Richard Pflum, Roger Pfingston, and David Wade, along with their annual Stoney Lonesome. The novelists I most often cite as influences were all active in this period.
My favorite literary periodicals were the Paris Review and Kayak, as well as the book publishers New Directions and Black Sparrow.
And then I got serious about poetry and submitting promiscuously. In all, I’ve had more than a thousand works accepted for publication by editors around the globe. Each acceptance encouraged more work in a particular direction, and sometimes comments on rejections (quite rare, I must say – most are mere forms) provided valuable advice. Some of the correspondence got quite lively. And yes, 20 rejections per submission was par for the course, as I’d been advised in that advanced writing class.
Trying to get a chapbook published, however, was more difficult. My biggest near-miss was with Copper Canyon in Washington state.
These days I can see my blogging as continuing in the small-press arena, especially at my Thistle Finch site, which is offering free PDF editions of my poetry.
Remember, feedback is always welcome for a writer, unless it’s purely caustic. Publishing in a void is the bigger struggle. I’d say the small-press scene is ultimately more personal. One reader can make all the difference.
By the end of ’68, the counterculture phenomenon was metastasizing from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and nearby Berkeley into pockets across most of the country and even Europe. As August of ’69 proved, it was sufficiently established in the East to draw together the unanticipated throng at Woodstock.
Much of the transplanted activity existed at the fringes of college campuses, as I experienced in Bloomington, Indiana, and later Binghamton, New York. For me, growing up in Ohio, I would have rather attended hip, beat Antioch in Yellow Springs, but the finances were way out of our consideration. So a state school was my destination, and at the time, Indiana as an out-of-state student was nearly as reasonable as in-state for me in Ohio. And a bit later, to my surprise, how yesterday Antioch began to appear once I was near the East Coast.
The searing experiences shape what I describe in Daffodil Uprising and then Pit-a-Pat High Jinks. And as I continue to repeat, hippies came in all varieties – and still do. There was no standard-issue, card-carrying member, but each was one to some degree or another. Nobody completely fit the hippie image.
As someone who became addicted at the onset of adolescence to classical, opera, and folk music, I was already passionate about an alternative to commercial entertainment, which was what rock at the time really was. I was one who lamented deeply when Bob Dylan went electric. Sold out, so it seemed. I had the long hair and blue jeans and bell bottoms. I was against the war, tried a few hallucinations, loved sex when I could get it, which wasn’t often.
And then I encountered yoga, which led me to give up meat, alcohol and drugs, and sex for the life I detail in Yoga Bootcamp – and yet, curiously, this was when I felt the most hippie in all of my awareness.
The vibe lives on. Here are some hot spots in the American heartland:
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
Yellow Springs, Ohio
(Disclaimer: I’m relying largely on Thrillist and have been to slightly fewer than half of these.)
Looking across the country, we’d add Athens. Georgia; Austin, Texas; Berkeley, natch; Port Townsend, Washington; Cambridge and Northampton, Massachusetts; and Burlington, up in Vermont. Again, half of these are by reputation, not direct experience.
What other towns should be noted, anywhere in the world?
Let me express my own everlasting gratitude for Glenn Thompson and his eye for talent, in my case after my letter to the editor and then his offer of an internship, later followed by a full summer. In a seemingly casual interview, he urged me to keep a personal journal, which I actually have. And then came the job offer. Without him (and so many others), my life would have taken a different direction. Gee, indirectly he even led to my first lover. (Look for Mitch in Daffodil Uprising, who’d been a copy boy I met thanks to Glenn’s support. Mitch was the catalyst to the crucial introduction. That dimension, in itself, could be a novel.)
Glenn was the editor-in-chief of the morning newspaper in Dayton, Ohio, and in his own way, a visionary. Behind the scenes, he even brought together the first university I attended, Wright State. And also, through him, I became a professional journalist, even while still in college. Another long story.
And he asked questions no one had prodded me with before. How would I change the world? What issues could I raise and address? At first, I was speechless. We were so green, and within a year, everything would look different. The biggest item on the agenda was the Establishment, not even its war in ‘Nam. Civil rights issues were a distant second.
The next summer I was a hundred miles up the road from Woodstock, working for a publisher who totally ignored me and editors who kept their heads down. But a new direction was taking shape for me.
Alas, as I’m also seeing, mine are steps youth today cannot follow. The pathways simply no longer exist, to the larger society’s impoverishment.
As I describe in my novel Hometown News, American journalism has long been based on a precarious business model. News itself is a byproduct of trying to attract customers for advertisers, and many publishers considered news gathering mostly as a costly nuisance. Successful newspapers were defined mostly by their obscene profits, and the pay levels for reporters and editors were often at the bottom of pay scales for professionals. As a priest reminded me before my first marriage, we might as well have been bound by vows of poverty. Oh, yes, and some of the highest quality papers – the kind I aspired to – were fighting for their very survival. We can now add to the toll of the role of the Internet.
So it’s all in flux now.
Still, newspapers show up in the majority of my novels, though in Nearly Canaan the field turned from journalism into non-profit organizations where the long, odd hours, public service, and stress nevertheless remained.
As I look back on my own years of being on the management track in a shrinking business, I see how I started out a hot-shot who thought the New York Herald Tribune in its last years was the best newspaper ever – led by an editor who later admitted in a letter to me he seemed to have become a specialist in trying to recover dying papers. Even then, I would have loved to have worked for him.
Despite my own honors, I had some crucial near misses. For one, I wound up in the final 24 for a dozen summer internships at the Washington Post but failed to make the final cut. The next summer, the Wall Street Journal was laying off staff rather than hiring, so their interest evaporated. Ten years later, something similar happened with timing for a high-level spot at the Detroit Free Press. And so my career veered away from the big cities where I had dreamed of living and from the big time, maybe for the best for me personally and ultimately professionally.
Somehow, this also has me thinking back to the lost hippie wannabes at the corner of Third and Main in Dayton during the summer of ’68. Theirs was a story I had hoped to write, but I couldn’t ask the right questions, I was too green myself. But, more honestly, maybe I just wasn’t cold-hearted enough to cut through to the real hurt and relate it without concern for the consequences.
I wish there were a better label than “hippie” to apply to the counterculture explosion that swept the world in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Contrary to popular assumptions, there was no standard-issue hippie, male or female. Not everyone did pot or ventured into acid and beyond, nor did everyone participate in a protest march or have long hair or have sex every night or at least on the weekend. We all came in various degrees of separation from general society yet, somehow, we also recognized a kinship with each other.
“Are you sure you were a hippie,” my wife sometimes asks. So what if I didn’t like rock? Many of my friends had been at Woodstock just down the highway from the milieu I describe in Pit-a-Pat High Jinks. No, we didn’t recite a credo, you dig what I mean?
The only other flash in history I can see similar to this was the mid-1600s in England, with its World Turned Upside Down before the restoration of the monarchy – stresses that would fester until the American Revolution a century later. What we shared was a vision of a more just, equal, and caring society. We didn’t have standard-issue, card-carrying members. Alas, we didn’t have elders or cohesive discipline, either. And the breakdown that followed can’t be blamed entirely on a youth movement crossing over into the dreaded age 30. (Oh, how I’d love to be back there, if only I wouldn’t have to figure out how to survive in the current economy.)
Tom Wolfe, author of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” pointedly asked why there wasn’t the big hippie novel, overlooking a few notable entries like Gurney Norman’s “Divine Right’s Trip.” The problem, as I see it, is that the scope of the events was too big and too fuzzy to be encapsulated in a single volume. You had the activist side, from civil rights and draft resistance to pacifism, feminism, and the environment, for starters. Add to that sexual revolution. And then drug use, abuse, and visions, as well as new spiritual teachings and practices. All before we even get to the music and its scene. How could you possibly wrap all of that, plus more, into a single volume?
Believe me, I’ve tried with my own Daffodil Uprising and its companion “Pit-a-Pat High Jinks.” Hate to admit there’s so much more that could be added to the, uh, pot. Make that “pan.”
By the way, I think there are worthy nominations in each of the subcategories I’ve just mentioned. I’d love to hear more.
Frankly, I think we, as a nation, have been in a state of denial about the era, with its tension between the war in ‘Nam and the Establishment supporting it, on one side, and the opposition on multiple grounds, on the other. Those rifts in the soul of the nation have never been adequately examined and addressed from either side, much less healed. We could start with the MIA-POW myth, for one, or the ways we might have failed to answer our kids’ questions about pot use, for another. They are definitely exploding in our face now.
Meanwhile, Cassia, in What’s Left, has come along to try to make her own way out of the debris.
And so I humbly or brashly offer my own novels for discussion.
Writing has been a means for me to investigate the question, “Who am I,” and of recollecting fragments, especially those that might eventually coalesce into a larger perspective. Unlike many adults, I have few vivid childhood memories, but what I am piecing together is often troubling. I grew up in Ohio in a mainstream Protestant tradition, became an Eagle scout, loved chemistry, hiked and camped, that sort of thing. I can blame becoming a hippie on my first lover, and thank her, too, for pointing my life in an unanticipated direction even after she flew ever so far away.
In the years since, I’ve followed a zigzag journey that’s been rich in many ways excepting money. Let’s just say it’s been off-beat.
Now retired from a career in daily newspaper journalism, I’ve married for the second time, live in a historic mill town in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, and am an active Quaker. It’s a full plate. What I didn’t expect was how much of my own “contemporary” fiction is now history – so much has changed so quickly in my own lifetime.
It’s hardly the end of the story, though. Not if we can help it.
In my novel What’s Left, a seminal figure in her father’s past is Mitch, who introduced him to her aunt Nita as well as Nita’s roommate Diz and then, let’s just say hippie highs.
It’s possible Nita and Cassia’s father never would have met on such a large campus without having manic Mitch in the story. It would be a tighter plot, but how much vibrancy would we lose? I’ve seen him pretty much as a catalyst, modeled loosely on a real-life figure from my past.
Well, he’s more of a key actor in in Daffodil Uprising, where Nita’s also important.
Just how do friendships begin? Not all of them originate through introductions by mutual acquaintances. Sometimes you just bump into someone and sense a connection.
Was there an accidental way you met someone you now consider a great friend?