Broody New Englander: Actually, Kenneth Weene has a wicked sense of humor

Humor not only improves perspective, defuses tension, reduces anxiety, and displaces anger, but it also improves stomach muscle tone.

You’ve identified with the title of one of your works, “Broody New Englander,” and yet you live down in Arizona (a situation reminiscent of the lyrics from Steely Dan’s “Hey 19”… sort of). I recall Somerville, your home town – I used to have a friend way back in the early 1990s who lived there in a neighborhood that I’d never suspect would produce anyone broody. Of course Somerville is sort of large when you are on foot, and I suppose he could have lived in a brighter neighborhood than where you might have grown up.

Meanwhile, I like the passage that you used to describe the reason you write: “Sometimes I write to exorcise demons. Sometimes I write because the characters in my head demand to be heard. Sometimes I write because I think what I have to say might amuse or even on occasion inform. Mostly, however, I write because it is a cheaper addiction than drugs, an easier exercise than going to the gym, and a more sociable outlet than sitting at McDonald’s drinking coffee with other old farts: in brief because it keeps me just a bit younger and more alive.”

So, if exercising your creativity improves your outlook on life, would too much writing jeopardize your standing as the “Broody New Englander”? In short, I’d be interested in learning more about your relationship with your art.

Honestly, writing does make me more upbeat and less broody, but my natural disposition is to think about the darkness. That doesn’t mean that all my writing is dark. Indeed, I try to find humor in life, perhaps dark humor but humor none the less. That day humor comes through most clearly in “Tales From the Dew Drop Inne,” but I think it is in most of my novels and short stories. One of my favorite short stories, “Bender,” which is available on my website is, for example, at once sweet and sad, yet the force that makes it work is the dark humor of an old man lying in wait with a water hose to soak a little boy. In “Mothers’ Teat,” the second of the three pieces in “Broody,” that same sense of darkness finds a different expression when the protagonist, representing all womanhood, must decide whom to kill, her tormenting and brutal father or the man who has misled her in love.

Love is a major force in my books. It is the redemption of the principal character in “Times To Try the Soul of Man” and in some ways the moment of the PC in “Widow’s Walk.” It is the starting place of “The Stylite,” the first piece in “Broody” and the force behind the reckoning of the last story in that trilogy, “Hansom Dove.” If that makes you wonder, the answer is, “Yes, I am a romantic and very much in love.”

But, I know that love is not enough to save humankind. Not only is it not enough, “Widow’s Walk” or “Broody” but cannot begin to hold sway in the darkness and madness to which I can so easily slip. In that realm lies “Memoirs From the Asylum.”

I suppose it fair to say that all my work, including poetry and essays, are reflections of who I am and I find myself connecting to them as extensions of my inner life. One of the directions to which I invariably turn is our relationship with death and god. Even when writing horror, for example my Kindle short “Two Tales of Terror,” there is that sense that we are always in dialog with the end. Another Kindle short, “El Catrin,” takes that inner brooding a step further when the conflict is between brothers Jesus and Satan.

So, brooding, love, a sense of conflict, and ultimately the nature of my own madness. All and more reflected in my work. All and more constantly to be embraced and kept at bay.

 

“My wife and I have passed the age for keeping pets, so we have resorted to stuffed animals.” Kenneth Weene, his wife, Bear and his honeypot. Photo via Kenneth Weene

It seems in your creativity that you employ a considerable amount of empathy in your story telling, which turns into a source of what you describe as “madness.” It’s an interesting idea, particularly as a tool for character development. I gather that it’s not just an intellectual exercise, that there is an emotional component in there. How much feeling would you guess that you invest when you create?

How much feeling? It depends on the character and the particular moment in the story, but it is not unusual for me to be on the verge of tears or gnashing my teeth. I have been known to yell at a character when they refuse to think before leaping into a situation. Mostly, however, I try to have quiet dialogs with them.

Years ago, a friend and I had gone to tea at a professor’s home. As the three of us reached his house, Ira, the professor saw that McGregor, his cat, was lying in the street basking in a sunbeam. Stooping so he could look McGregor in the eyes, Ira talked with the cat, explaining the danger of lying in the street. Eventually, McGregor moved to the lawn. Was it because he finally agreed, the sun had moved, or the cat was simply tired of listening to his “owner’s” voice? I don’t know. I do, however, know that remonstrating with Cal, the narrator, protagonist in “Tales from the Dew Drop Inne” seldom got him to stop for a moment.

That’s the thing about caring about my characters, it may make me write their stories better but it doesn’t give me any say in how they actually behave.

 

I don’t think I’ve ever tried to have a conversation with a character that I’ve included in my storytelling. Perhaps I should try. You mentioned in passing an assertion that love is not enough to say mankind. If it’s not, what else is needed to rescue us from the darkness?

If I have a saving grace in myself, it’s my humor, especially my ability to look in the mirror and laugh. We humans are so self-absorbed and so determined to find the course to our destruction and I just wish we could all stop for a moment, take stock, and then laugh our bloody heads off.

While I try to incorporate humor in all my writing—often more irony than outright joking—on occasion I just try to write something funny. Most of my humor writing is short pieces; some of which are on my website. I do have a Kindle collection “Sweet and Sour” that includes some of my lighter pieces.

 

“Give me an audience, and I’ll perform.” Photo via Kenneth Weene

I have to admit that I’m partial to dark humor as well. I used to collect quotes from the film noir genre (i.e., Frank Miller: “She doesn’t quite chop his head off – she makes a Pez dispenser out of him,” from Sin City). I used to be a big fan of the Dr. Demento show when I was a teenager – Tom Lehrer is still god-like to me. Outside of the “sympathetic humor” of writers like Steinbeck and the playful development seen in Chekhov’s writing, what other cultural sources helped develop your flavor of dark humor?

Hey, I’m Jewish. It’s how my people survived. Glad as I am that being Jewish is no longer a sin in America, I fear for us. Forget the Torah and God and all that chosen people stuff, the thing that set Jews apart has always been the Borscht Belt. If you don’t know what I mean, catch the Prime Video TV show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

While I did love Tom Lehrer’s lyrics and particularly relished the dark twists of George Carlin, whom I saw live in Vegas, I have to admit I would have been happier playing the crowd at Grossinger’s than at the Paris.

So, a joke:

Yet another pogrom has swept through the shtetl and the town is reduced to ashes and ruins. Tevya, an old man battered by history, stumbles and crawls down the street to where the shul no longer stands. Desperately, he makes his way through the rubble of the synagogue until he is at the remains of the bema, until he has reached the place where the ark in which the sacred scrolls have been stored. Finally, he looks up and prays: “God, for four thousand years, we have been your chosen people. Would it be too much to ask; give somebody else a chance?”

 

That almost has a Mel Brooks sort of quality to it. I suppose that Jon Stewart has been instrumental in injecting a “Jewish” sense of humor into how the United States handles political strife. At times, it seems to smooth over the rougher parts of our angrier moments in American politics, or carry us through the fear-inducing parts. It seems like maintaining a sense of humor is the key to the calm bravery that is needed in crises, personal or political, is it not?

Humor not only improves perspective, defuses tension, reduces anxiety, and displaces anger, but it also improves stomach muscle tone, which when you eat matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, knishes, and stuffed derma is pretty important, especially for somebody like me whose idea of exercise is putting his shoes on.

 

Was there anything specific about the atmosphere at Grossinger’s Catskill Resort that made it superior to the Vegas Strip? I’m afraid, as a native of the western United States, that I’m rather ignorant of night clubs back east.

Ah, the difference is that Grossinger’s wasn’t a night club. It was summer camp for spoiled adults escaping the heat of New York City. Now, it might be all right to talk smut and say “fuck” in Vegas, but Grossinger’s? Nope, we’re talking family, albeit the entire tribe, or at least the Eastern European part of the tribe. Imagine that you’re doing your routine at your family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Just remember that your uncle who went bankrupt and is living off your grandfather’s money is there so no jokes that will embarrass him and remember that aunt who drinks too much so nothing that will insult her. Who can you joke about? Well, there’s only yourself left…right?! Different crowd, different humor, and instead of showgirls, remember the cha-cha.