Merry Prankster and longtime joined-at-the-imagination soul brother to the late Ken Kesey; Marine Corps vet and chopper pilot; “rookie author at the age of 74” with the release of his long-awaited Vietnam novel Who Shot The Water Buffalo? last year; husband, family man, woodcutter, poet, philosopher, and a mean trombonist. Ken Babbs is all these things and more.
Having played a role in history that helped make the transition from the Beat Generation to the hippies and the protest movements, Babbs, Kesey, and the rest of the Merry Pranksters laid groundwork that is still being employed today. And, as we shall see, Babbs still has hope; he still has a vision; and he certainly still has humor.
Ladies and gentlemen … boys and girls … children of all ages … with reflections on the past and a clear view of the future, we bring you the Skypilot himself: Ken Babbs.
BR: Well, hey, Ken. Thanks for taking the time to chat this morning.
KB: Always good to hear from you, Brian. How’s it going up there in Maine?
BR: Just another winter. How about on your end of the world – what are the current weather conditions at Skypilot HQ in Eugene, OR?
KB: It’s been in the 20s every morning for the last six or seven days. Totally dry and real crisp – frost on everything in the morning.
BR: Ah – good weather for getting in the winter’s wood.
KB: That’s right! And that’s what I’ve been doing – a lot of it. (laughter) Plus, I just sent in final corrections for the paperback version of Who Shot The Water Buffalo? coming out in the spring.
BR: Super – we’ll let folks know it’s coming.
KB: Yeah, thanks. A lot of people wait for the paperback ‘cause it’s a lot cheaper.
BR: If we’re going to talk about some of the events in your world during 2011, Who Shot the Water Buffalo? is a good place to start. You did a bunch of readings and signings around the release of the book. Did you reconnect with anyone that you hadn’t heard from in a while?
KB: Oh, a lot of people. Every reading I did, there’d be old friends coming up that I hadn’t seen for a long time. It was really great to run into them and connect again; get caught up on things. The readings we did were becoming scenes in themselves; I wish we’d done more, and kept working our way east to New York … it would’ve become a great show by then.
BR: One of the things that tickled me about the book was the blend of potential readers: on one hand, you had the people who were interested in a Vietnam story told by somebody who was there; on the other hand, you had people who would be drawn to it simply because of your life as a Merry Prankster. I loved the notion that it brought those groups together.
KB: Oh, yeah – it’s a book for all people. I wrote it with the thought in mind that I read books and I know what I like in a story. People want books that really take off, go somewhere, and keep their attention. I’ve always liked wordplay, too – plenty of wordplay.
BR: I’d say you nailed all of those things.
KB: Well, thank you. You know what was one of the best books I read this year? Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell. It takes off with tremendous action; it has a great leading character who has to overcome all kinds of difficulties; and it’s really inspirational. The main character’s a young girl – only sixteen years old. I’m going to get a copy of it for my granddaughter for Christmas. She’s a freshman in college and loves to read.
BR: Is there any one thing that you would hear from reading to reading – or one main reaction to your book that you’ve been getting from people?
KB: Actually, the main reaction is just how much they enjoyed it – which has been great to hear. (laughs) I heard from this one Marine who liked it a lot.
“But I’ve got to point out to you,” he said, “that jeeps didn’t have keys. You had two switches that you had to hold together. And the other thing is, you can’t pull a grenade pin out with your teeth.” (laughter)
So today I had to go through the book and find those two places where I mentioned the jeep keys and the grenade pin and change those. (laughter)
BR: Of course, as soon as you dole something out, everyone says, “This is great – and what are you going to do next?”
KB: (laughs) That’s true – I get an awful lot of that. But I do have something coming up next: a book called Cronies, which is all about the adventures I had in The Pranksters and with Ken Kesey.
BR: Oh, boy …
KB: Yeah, I’ve already started on it. I had to kind of take a break from writing around the holidays, but I’ll get back on it after the new year.
BR: When you’re head down and burrowed into the writing process, how do you structure your days?
KB: Oh, I get on it first thing in the morning when I’m fresh and my mind is clear and I haven’t bogged down on anything. But I always keep a little notebook in my pocket during the day and whenever I get ideas that come to me, I jot them down. I have a box that I labeled “Cronies” and I throw my notes in that box.
I read a story once about a painter in Paris who set a big easel up in his room with just a blank canvas on it. He worked as a stevedore and he’d be out there working and lifting and carrying stuff. He’d stop every once in a while and sketch scenes while he was working. Then this painter would go back to his room and paste those sketches on the wall and keep collecting them. All of a sudden, when it hit him, he’d start painting and he’d do these big, huge paintings that contained all those scenes he’d collected.
I’m kind of the same way – when I’m working in the morning, every once in a while I’ll reach in the box, pull out one of those slips of paper, and put that into a little scene. This is going to be kind of a book of non sequiturs; it’s going to just be stuff thrown in there – “bits,” as William Burroughs called them – like a standup comic’s recollections and stories. I’m collecting all these bits together in a book.
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