The Deep End interview…with Kenneth W. Cain

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Mar 31, 2017   Blog   0 Comment
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Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

Kenneth W. Cain: Born a stone’s throw from the St. Louis border, I grew up a Cardinals fan living in the suburbs of Chicago. If you know anything about that heated baseball rivalry, you’d know I wasn’t the most popular kid. Although I was shy, I never had a problem stating what I liked, which only added to my troubles. The end to each school day was met with four bullies chasing me from the bus stop to my home. Sometimes, they caught me and beat the living crap out of me. Other days, I made it home safe and sound.
And so it went for way too long. Until one day, when I arrived home safely only to find the door locked. My mom told me she wouldn’t open the door until I faced each of those kids and stood up for myself. So, I learned to fight early on, and I think those tough experiences are what I draw from quite a bit in my fiction. I also use many elements from that area: the sewer drains, the storms, some of the people including my bullies.
High school was a whole different monster. We’d moved to the suburbs of Philadelphia. I’d grown up expecting the older kids to bully me, but that never happened in Pennsylvania. I mostly kept to myself. I had a few friends—a couple I’ve even kept in touch with over the years. It was around then I started working the graveyard shift for Pepperidge Farms over the summers. I spent a lot of time on-call, so I had a lot of free time to watch reruns of all those great shows like The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond and all. That’s when I first discovered Edgar Allan Poe in my parent’s Reader’s Digest collection. And, later, Stephen King’s It, which was my introduction to his work.
I used to spend hours in the basement of this used bookstore, reading short story collections and looking for that next book. That bookstore was like a second home to me, and I read a lot back then, which didn’t do much to help pay for college as I’d intended. I kept going to that store after every semester of college to trade in my schoolbooks for horror. It was a sad day when that store went under.
All of those days and nights, I spent a lot of time in my head. I’ve always had a pretty good imagination, so I think that’s where many of my stories got their roots. Though actually writing a story never crossed my mind until college, when I started taking creative writing and literary appreciation classes. Those were formative years, and occasionally I still find story notes I left for myself back then.

Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

KWC: My high school girlfriend’s parents sat me down and asked what I planned to do with my life. Back then all I wanted to be was an artist. I’d taken private art lessons for years, and it was a passion at the time. My art from those days was dark, though, and not always appreciated. When I told them my plans, they just laughed. So, thinking I’d made a mistake, I decided to go to college for math.
I’d done well on my SATs for math, and I tested high going in. They signed me up for all these special math classes, but none of it appealed to me. I spent a lot of time soul-searching after that first semester, trying to discover myself. I tried many different majors (sociology, psychology, English, history, and others) before eventually landing back on art.
Getting back into art renewed my life, though I continued to pursue writing in the background. I think I even had a few poems accepted to a publication the college put together, though I have no proof of that.
I spent most of my life after school working 60-80 hours a week in graphic design, trying to make my way and support my family. Unfortunately, reading and writing fell mostly to the wayside during those twenty or so years. I’m typically a slow reader, and with so little time, it took me even longer to make it through a book.

Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights? 

KWC: For me, I felt terrified. I was so afraid of making a mistake. You see, when I got back into writing, I had little idea of what I should or should not do. All I did know was that I loved to write. Even then I had this idea that reading and writing would get me through some hard times. I think that’s why I rediscovered that passion. It came out of a need to escape real-life issues. I was working more than ever then, and playing in an adult league wooden bat baseball league too. So I rarely saw my family, and although I loved baseball, I eventually sacrificed that for work. And then work for my family.
I’m not sure the motivation came until later, when I first felt the criticism that comes with writing. Reviews used to make me very nervous. I watched for them like a hawk, not looking to respond but seeking acceptance. It was actually a Facebook post by Mort Castle a few years back that finally put me at ease, something like “Awards, reviews, and accolades are all nice, but remember that you’re doing what you love. And that’s most important.”
Whatever the actual words were, it opened my eyes. I’ve been more at ease with my writing ever since. I think that’s when I started focusing on writing that better story. My goals have changed, too, with my focus being on writing better fiction. I spent a lot of time rewriting work back then, trying to figure out my weaknesses, and working to fix them. My wife, Heather, was most helpful, showing patience and reading everything with an extremely critical eye.
Eventually I came out on the other side more confident in my skills. But even now, my primary goal is to keep on learning, to keep evolving as a writer. Having refocused my objectives like that has paid off, too.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family? 

KWC: Most of my friends and family have always been supportive of my writing. Not all, though, and to a degree, the story “The Benefit of Being Weighty” is reflective of that. But overall the support has been good. Whenever I’ve felt like giving up, they’ve been there to pick up the pieces and push me onward. Especially Heather, as her and the kids have sacrificed the most to allow me to pursue writing as a career. After all, it isn’t always the best paying gig. That alone inspires me to work harder, to really push myself. Often, Heather tells me I’m too hard on myself, but I feel like I need to be, as there’s a lot at stake, and I’ve gotten a very late start.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

KWC: Many people are going to say Stephen King, and I’m not much different. But early on it was Poe. Well, I’d heard Baba Yaga as a child, and that sparked my love for dark fiction. But Poe kept me going back for more. I tore through his work back in high school, and sought other authors because of my love for his writing. So, maybe that’s where the passion really began.
As to who inspires me now, that’s every author. I don’t read a book these days because of who an author is or whether they are male or female. I’m not saying I read blind, because when I choose a book, I see the author’s name. But I don’t choose a book for any reason other than finding something interesting about it, though I do make an effort to read diversely. A lot of times it comes from word of mouth, but in today’s age of social media, it’s quite easy to ask for a list of what people are reading to get some good ideas.
I look at every book as a teaching moment. Good or bad, there’s something for me to learn from a book. Those lessons are what make me a better writer. That said I’m quite fond of Joe’s Hill’s work, especially his short work. I like Ken Liu’s and Damien Angelica Walter’s short work, too. Hill’s “Pop Art” and Liu’s “Paper Menagerie” are stories that inspire me the most, as I’ve always wanted to write a story as perfect as either of those examples.

Joe: Instead of just focussing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

KWC: I’m most proud of this novelette I’ve been shopping around, A Season in Hell. It’s more of a literary piece with a dark edge, detailing the struggles of a female minor league baseball player through a teammate’s eyes, and how her predicament affects his life. I put a lot of myself into that story, bits and pieces of my experiences playing baseball. Also, I think it shows my feelings about some of these dilemmas on a more personal level, as I’ve always told my daughter she can be anything she wants to be. I believe that, too, very much.

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

KWC: With all these chronic illnesses I’m plagued with, I never really shoot for a target number of words for each day. For me, it goes more in waves. When I’m up, I write like the devil. I might get 10 or more stories done in a week during those periods. I’ve nearly written entire novels during those stretches. I edit mostly during the low tides, as it allows my critical eye to take its time. I don’t pressure myself with daily goals. My focus is to get done what I can, with as much detail as I can. But all writers face deadlines, so I try to stay ahead of mine by focusing on the task rather than the date.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

KWC: My belief is, and I’ve written about this in Writer’s on Writing 4, we authors should be creating more diverse characters. By that, I mean our characters should be both male and female, represent the LBGT community, and of all colours, sizes, ethnicities, etc. The problem with that is we are often raised with generalizations. For instance, much of what we see on TV or in the movies portrays women as being weak. And sure, there are women who are like that but not each and every one of them. So, if all the female characters in a book are shown as being weak, then that writer needs to work harder because that isn’t an accurate representation of our real world. That said, there will be those who jump on every example that isn’t strong, and that’s wrong, too. Writers need to spend more time trying to create a realistic world with all sorts of people, with all different levels of confidence and strength among other traits. So, perhaps the most difficult struggle with writing is doing that with some sense of accuracy. It’s quite hard to write what you might not know, so you need to put in the extra work in those cases.

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

KWC: I’m a bit manic with words these days. No idea why, but they’re pretty much scrolling through my thoughts at all hours. I’ve written entire short stories in my head like that, before I ever sit down at the computer or take notes. Actually, one of the short stories I’m editing now was written one night while I slept (if that’s what you can call it). However, I do enjoy spending time with my family, swimming in the pool or playing games, occasionally watching movies. I didn’t get to have those days with my father when I was young because he was often away on business trips for long stretches, so it’s always been one of my most important goals. Also, I have reef tanks I tend to quite a bit. There’s nothing more relaxing than observing a reef tank.

Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?

KWC: My research for characters typically comes of keeping a watchful eye. For instance, a story I wrote for Fresh Cut Tales called “Split Ends” arose out of spotting a mother violently brushing her daughter’s hair at a pool (at least that was how it looked to me). A lot of my stories come of those sorts of observations. When I do need to research a fact, such as I have for my western stories, the Internet often proves satisfactory enough. But I have sought the advice of lawyers and a judge once, trying to make sure I was getting my facts straight. Those queries aren’t usually with friends, though my stable of knowledgeable people has grown much since those stories. So it’s hard to answer that just yet. I suppose I’ll find out next time I need some fact checking done.

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author? 

KWC: I’ve always been awful at putting myself out there. I mean, ask my wife and she might disagree, as I can be quite the social butterfly (her words). That might come from her belief I can talk about most anything, which has sometimes been more of a curse than a gift. What I’m referring to, though, is live readings or talking myself up on podcasts and such. I’ve always been better at putting those things in words than doing them in front of others. I’m terribly critical of myself, and I never am able to turn off the editor, which often makes me stumble over my words. When I make a mistake, I hyper-focus on it. For instance, one of the short readings I did for the Ember’s extra material took some twenty or so takes.

Joe: How did being author change you as a person?

KWC: Well, I’ve gotten out there more recently, meeting other authors and talking about the craft and all. That’s been a great experience for me. You now, you sit at a computer all day, all by your lonesome, spending time with fake people you create. It’s a rather introverted practice. So it’s not always so easy turning that off, and suddenly become the extrovert (even if I used to be more one). I’ll talk to anyone who will take the time to talk to me, but I’m not always so great at seeking out those conversations. Still, I’ve gotten better at that recently.

Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

KWC: I created all these illustrated books for my children, trying to help them through specific issues and have some fun doing it. I’m actually glad I put them out there, too. When the shooting at Sandy Hook occurred, I made all the digital copies of those books free, offering them to divert the attention of children away from the tragedy. For a while, I made them available free on each anniversary of that event, and others, as well. Somehow, word of what I’d done got to one of the teachers at Sandy Hook, and she contacted me asking for some signed paperback copies for their library. How could I pass on that? It was such an honour, and it really brought on a good cry, as it made me so happy to be able to give back like that.

Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?

KWC: That’s an easy question. I want—no, need—to write a story to the level of “Pop Art” or “Paper Menagerie”. I place those stories very high on my list because they reached me on a different level than what I expected. There’s a beauty to their words. I want that perfection. Not to hear from someone else who feels I’ve achieved that goal, but to feel it myself, even if no one else ever does. I want all the words to click like some giant puzzle depicting a beautiful scene. That’s my ambition.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind? 

KWC: That wasn’t always an easy question, as I had this need to get my stories out there as soon as possible early on in my career, thinking that was the legacy I wanted to leave behind. As such, not everything I’ve written is at the level I would hope. But I’m not afraid of having all my bumps and bruises out there for everyone to read. I never had the expectation that I would become a great writer overnight. As with any profession, that takes both time and great effort. But, occasionally I did hit the right notes in some of those early pieces. Those are the lower rungs on my ladder, so they’re important to me.
That all changed for me a couple years back, when my daughter started writing. I’m quite proud of both her and my son for their accomplishments. My children are legacy enough for me.

 
Author: Kenneth W. Cain
Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction

Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction

eBook: $3,99
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Where darkness dwells, embers light the way. More info →
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Buy from Amazon
Writers on Writing Volume 1-4 Omnibus: An Author’s Guide
Writers on Writing: Vol. 4
Tales from the Lake: Volume 3

 

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