Tuesday, September 10, 2013
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Peter Kassan
Peter Kassan is not new to the publishing world: he was a published poet in his teens, and also worked on various popular TV shows as a writer.
He recently released an otherworldly novel about near death experiences, life, love & survival.
Read on in my exclusive interview with him to learn about his past, his future & the inspiration behind Lightpoints.
This was a great interview to conduct & I hope you all enjoy his responses as much as I did!
1. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and why?
I’ve been writing one kind of thing or another since I was a child, so I don’t think it was a matter of deciding to be a writer. A narrower question, and one easier to answer is, when did I decide to write a genre novel like Lightpoints? I decided to write the novel that became Lightpoints at a very low point in my life. A business I had started had crashed and burned and I found that I couldn’t get a job—or even consulting work—in my field. Working on Lightpoints allowed me to spend time doing something I (usually) liked and felt competent at. It also served to distract me from my situation.
2. What authors influenced you when you were younger? What authors do you enjoy reading today?
I’ve always enjoyed both genre novels and serious literary fiction. When I was very young, I enjoyed the classic science fiction writers, particularly Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. In my college years, I read a great many detective novels and crime novels. I think I read every book by John D. Macdonald. I was also a devoted follower of Ian Fleming. I loved the mysteries of Raymond Chandler and John Dickson Carr. Later, I was particularly struck by Anne Rice—or at least by Interview with the Vampire and some of her other early novels. Among serious novelists, I especially enjoy and admire William Styron and Philip Roth. I enjoyed and admired many Stephen King and Elmore Leonard novels. There are so many other novelists I’ve liked it’s difficult to remember or name even a small fraction of them. Mark Twain. Charles Dickens. J. D. Salinger. William Gaddis. Although I have to admit that I haven’t enjoyed every novel written by every novelist I like and respect—for some, I don’t enjoy every genre they choose to work in, and for others, I think they just go off the rails now and then. In some cases, it seems their success has thrown them permanently off track.
3. You published poems in literary magazines and even in Seventeen magazine when you were still a teenager. When did you decide to make the switch to novels?
Around my freshman year in college, I began to feel that poetry had become a kind of isolating and elitist art form that was no longer relevant to the wider culture—if it ever really had been. Rock and other popular music seemed to be much more central, so I started writing songs. As to fiction, it was only after college that I seriously tried my hand at it. Back then, I wanted to write a Great American Novel, and I wrote three of them (that is, American novels—not great ones). Fortunately, none was ever published, and I discarded the manuscripts long ago.
4. In your twenties you wrote monologues for Bill Cosby. How did that come about?
I was earning a living working as a freelance technical and educational writer. I worked from home, so I could have the television on. I especially loved the show The Electric Company, which was produced by Children’s Television Workshop. (Among its cast was a very young Morgan Freeman who, if I recall correctly, played a character called Easy Reader.) The show was supposed to teach kids to read, and it indulged in a lot of puns and other silliness—my kind of humor. I mentioned to someone that I would love to write for the show, and he introduced me to one of the writers, who in turn introduced me to the show’s head writer. I wrote an audition script that was well received, but unfortunately it was such a great gig that none of the staff writers quit, so there was never an opening. But that meant that my name was on file at CTW. When they decided to do (here’s a mouthful) an adult health education comedy variety show, they asked me to do an audition script, and this time I was hired. Bill Cosby regularly appeared as a special guest. My writing partner on the show and I were assigned the task of writing his monologues. Unfortunately, the show was very badly received (Time magazine called it the “most dismaying new show of the season”). It was pulled off the air to be reconceived and, along with several other writers, I was let go.
5. In Skeptic Magazine you wrote an article about artificial intelligence, which is a polarizing and fascinating subject on its own. What was the article about, exactly, and why did you decide to write it?
The article was an explanation why, after fifty years of bold promises, the attempt to duplicate (or exceed) human-level intelligence in a computer program was a failure, and doomed always to be. I’d been interested in psychophysiology (that is, the physiology of the brain), philosophy, psychology, the problem of consciousness, the nature of intelligence, and other related subjects for at least as long as I’d been a computer programmer. I felt that most discussions and evaluations of so-called artificial intelligence were ill-informed and unfounded, and I wanted to address that deficiency. The article was actually a very brief summary of an entire book I had written on the subject. Unfortunately, even after the publication of the article, I couldn’t get anyone interested in publishing it. Since then, there have been some interesting developments. The original goals have, it seems, been largely replaced with the more modest goals of imitating human intelligence through statistical techniques. Nobody thinks that Siri is actually an intelligent consciousness living in your iPhone—or at least I hope not.
6. Lightpoints is your first published novel. What was the inspiration behind it?
I had a few different inspirations. I’ve always enjoyed stories—novels and movies—about the paranormal and the supernatural. And I’ve always been interested in the problem of someone conveying the idea of a sense to someone who doesn’t have it. The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an important and influential paper called “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (I’m planning to write another novel—or series of novels—with something of the same premise as Lightpoints. In one of them, I intend to have a character who has been blind from birth. To him, he’s going to say, vision sounds like it’s paranormal.)
7. How did it feel when you saw your hard work completed and getting good reviews online?
Thrilling and gratifying. Is there any way else to feel?
8. In Lightpoints, you talk about numerous characters who have the ability to see people's energy, from gangsters to Bible study leaders. Where did the inspiration for them all come from?
I wanted to write a story in which an unlikely premise is followed as realistically and plausibly as possible. If there really were a faculty as I imagined, how would different people behave? I’m sure people would bring their own temperaments and understanding of the world to it, as they do to everything they experience. People who acquired it would be extremely rare and therefore mostly isolated from one another, so there would be no single, consensus interpretation or way of using it. And of course I had to find a villain whose thread would intersect with my protagonist’s, because otherwise there would be no story.
9. As a self-proclaimed atheist, what was it like for you, personally, writing about the Afterlife, NDEs and spiritual powers? What got you interested in the subject?
I’ve always been interested in out-of-body and near-death experiences in terms of their psychology, the subjective experience. I don’t actually think I was writing about the afterlife at all—I don’t describe the experience of anyone who actually dies, only people who nearly do. Also, although my Bible-study group interprets the faculty as a spiritual one, no one else in the book does. My personal interpretation would be very close to that of the physician who has it—he’s sure that there would be a purely rational, scientific explanation of it. By the way, I find it surprising that anyone finds it surprising that an atheist might write a novel of the paranormal—does anyone suppose that Anne Rice actually thinks that vampires as she describes really exist? There’s a reason it’s called make-believe. Lightpoints was intended to be an entertainment—an intelligent and thought-provoking one, I hope, but still it was just meant for fun.
10. You make the point to stress that the characters in your book are not like vampires. Would you put them in a class all their own?
I would. My goal was to write, to coin a phrase, a naturalistic paranormal novel. It was important to me that everyone with these paranormal abilities all start out as ordinary people, and that this paranormal faculty be part of the ordinary world. I’m not aware of any writer who has imagined the faculty I describe in Lightpoints.
11. Besides the supernatural elements in the story, you also show a lot of love between Amanda and Chris, when he wants to be "like her" to be closer to her. Was it difficult to write about such deep love while making sure the book wasn't too "mushy"?
If anything, my concern was that I wasn’t being mushy enough. Again, my goal was to follow the premise of the story as plausibly as I could. If your honey acquired this extraordinary faculty, wouldn’t you want it, too? I’m sure I would. Would I be willing to risk my life for it? That, I’m not sure of. But, in writing this kind of book, you have to push things as far as they’ll go. If that ends up being too far, you can always dial it back. But if Chris just said to Amanda, “Oh, that’s nice, sweetie. You just go and enjoy your new sense,” it would make for a rather dull story.
12. The novel is actually described in some places as erotica. Was that intentional for you or did people just perceive it that way?
[A quick note: I asked this question after reading an individual reader's review; I did not personally perceive the novel as erotica whatsoever.]
Where? Where? I must have missed that—please send me the link. But, seriously, I was writing about a sense, so I wanted to make it as sensual as possible. If the reader can feel what I’m writing, I succeeded. On the other hand, I was writing a new adult novel I wanted to have crossover appeal to the young adult audience, so it was important for me to keep it PG-13 rather than R. There a few scenes in which sex occurs or is implied, but the sex is only characterized rather than described, much less narrated.All that said, I’ve noticed that there’s an overlap of interest between erotica and paranormal—many readers enjoy both. And, again, if readers enjoy the sensuality of my descriptions of the sense, that’s great.
13. You did numerous types of writing—from manuals to educational workbooks—and are now doing novels. What would you be doing if you weren't writing?
I’m a frustrated teacher. I’d love to teach almost anything I know about at the adult level.
14. Where do you see yourself/your career within the next ten years?
I’m no longer young, so what I’d like to see in the next ten years is the next ten years. I’d love to be earning enough from my novel-writing that I could support myself through it. My wildest dream is that Lightpoints or a future novel is made into a movie.
15. Thank you very much for doing the interview! Can you please leave the reader with three facts that might surprise them about you?
1. I studied Buddhism and practiced Buddhism intensively for two years. 2. I play diatonic and chromatic harmonica. 3. I write and publish under a pseudonym in another genre.
Purchase Lightpoints via the following links:
Melange Books (the publisher)
Barnes & Noble
Visit Peter Kassan on the Internet: