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Books by Michael Kasenow are shown on the left. Click on the cover to order.
Douglas R. Cobb did this interview with Michael Kasenow on April 4, 2009.
Michael Kasenow, with his debut novel The Last Paradise, has written a grand and sweeping historical depiction of the lives and loves of Galveston's poor Alley people in the year of the great hurricane,1900. With the two poor working class heroes of the book, Newt and Maxwell, opposed to the racially prejudiced big businessman and prior slave owner Boss Connor, who owns the saw mill they work at and has his tentacles in most of the other doings in the city, the author has created heroes reminiscent of John Steinbeck at his best. Without any further ado, except to say thanks from myself and the staff here at this web site, here is my review with Mr. Michael Kasenow!
Douglas R. Cobb: I was amazed as I read The Last Paradise about how well you portray and describe Galveston, Texas, in 1900. With your poetic words, you really made the city during that year come alive for me, and in a sense, made it into a major character in your novel.
What first attracted you to the idea of setting a novel in Galveston during this particular year? Is it because you were born in Galveston or once lived there, or did you maybe just read about or hear about the hurricane and think, "There's a story here that needs to be told"?
Michael Kasenow: I lived in Houston for a couple of years in the early 1970s, and went to Galveston a few times. Back then, it was only a shell of itself, of its once great importance. I knew nothing of Galveston’s history back then. A place where the wealthiest once congregated; where Europeans came to visit and vacation. The city before 1900 was on its way to rival New York and Chicago. And Galveston is one of those exotic cities, like New Orleans and Paris. Songs have been written about it. As a geologist, I’ve taught about the tragedy of the Great 1900 Galveston Hurricane for some time now. That’s where I first became interested in the story—in the college classroom. The more I learned, the more I was intrigued. Eight thousand people died in that storm—the greatest natural disaster in US history. However, almost every book I read talked about the tragedy in terms of the middle and upper classes, yet, it was the poor that suffered the most. They always do. So I started to learn about the poor, where they lived, how they handled their existence in the third richest city in the US—as it was called at that time. Then it dawned on me that 1900 was knee deep in the age of Jim Crow—in the south—suddenly the storm became secondary—a metaphor—I focused in on the existence of the poor whites and blacks and how they survived during that oppression. The story is about these people, their hopes and dreams, their faith in a better future.
Douglas R. Cobb: There's something, whether real or imagined, to the inherent nobility and honor of the majority of the downtrodden poor working classes. They've been immortalized in many books, poems, and songs, but your novel is proof (if any was needed) that the subject is far from being like a dried up well.
There are numerous very memorable characters in The Last Paradise, like the simple-minded obese woman Burly Horse and her lover, who was kicked in the head by a horse when he was twelve, Marbles.
Where did you come up with the names Burly Horse and Marbles?
Michael Kasenow: I really don’t know. I don’t know where any of these characters came from. As a young man, I hitchhiked across the country many times and lived in odd places among a curious lot of people. I worked as a bartender, cab drive, lumberman— did a series of odd jobs. Many of these people are bits and pieces of my past relationships. Once a character pops into my head they develop. Sometimes they become an important component of a story. This novel is an ensemble of characters, any one of them can impact a chapter, and often do. In regard to Burly Horse and Marbles, they are accepted by the Alley people without prejudice, which says a lot about the kindness of the poor.
Douglas R. Cobb: Could you go into for us what you mean by the colorful and apt expression describing Maxwell:
"Maxwell Hayes lived outside the law - because he was an honest man."
Michael Kasenow: This is a re-working of a Socratic thought, that bad laws should not be obeyed. Benjamin Disraeli said: “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.” Thoreau said: “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will follow it.” Maxwell does not follow cultural laws; he follows moral laws; laws of common sense. He does what is right, regardless of social rules. He can do this, because he knows the difference between right and wrong—he doesn’t need a priest or lawyer or judge to define this common sense; he doesn’t need a book. He lives outside of social protocol, because he makes good decisions.
Douglas R. Cobb: You write of Galveston, at least in the area of the city known as the Alleys, that it was fairly racially and ethnically diverse, though many middle and upper-class whites had a problem with the diversity:
"For the most part racial and gender issues were common, accepted like a bad, but necessary, habit - dormant - so long as the sandbar prospered." But, still, there were signs everywhere that pointed out dramatically the different ways prejudice influenced everyone's lives, like "businesses with signs that warned":
-- No Negroes Allowed
Did you do much research on this novel? It seems as if you have, at any rate. It's good that there are no longer signs like these at businesses, though sadly prejudices haven't totally been eliminated in America.
-- White Restaurant Only
-- Pool Hall For Coloreds
-- Whites and Negroes Do Not Mix Here
-- No Coloreds - No Mexicans - No Dogs
Michael Kasenow: I’ve at least a dozen books about Galveston, its history, the Great Hurricane, on my book shelf—books written around 1900. A lot of the stories are redundant, some of it with obvious prejudice. You have to filter through that stuff. For example, some of the 1900 books discuss the looting after the storm and blame it on the blacks. Further research dispels that myth. The same thing happened during the Katrina Hurricane. And then there’s the web, you can Google or Yahoo many sites that carry the history of the hurricane, the Jim Crow south, and confirm facts. There are modern books with a better eye that lack the prejudice. Patricia Bixel and Elizabeth Turner have written a fine history, Galveston and the 1900 Storm. And Ellen Beasely, an historic preservationist, has written The Alleys and Back Buildings of Galveston. Both of these are excellent.
The Jim Crow era was insidious. From 1882 to 1930, about 2500 blacks were lynched in ten southern states, by lynch mobs. Some reports put the number higher. However, burning at the stake, beatings, maiming, dismemberment, castration were not uncommon. During slave days, captured runaway slaves were often branded with an “R” on the cheek. An “R” on each cheek meant that the slave had escaped and was caught twice. On the third attempt black males were hung by their wrists in the barn or from trees and castrated. The screams sent out a message. If you want to be disgusted, Google “This Nigger Voted” or “Black Lynchings”, then click on image, and you’ll be surprised at the photos that will pop up. One photo that was printed in Life Magazine, shows a bunch of white people, men and women, nicely dressed, standing around a tree, smiling, laughing and pointing at a lynched black man hanging from that tree. Jim Crow laws were on the books in southern states, but the rules were similar in the north, subtle, unwritten rules of law that kept minorities in their place. We’ve come a good ways since the age of Jim Crow, but it’s a history we should not forget.
Douglas R. Cobb: Was the Klan-loving cruel Boss Connor based on a real person, or maybe a conglomerate of people?
Michael Kasenow: He’s fictional, but a conglomerate. Actually, I have known such a man in my life. These types of greedy people can justify anything. Many, unfortunately go into politics.
Douglas R. Cobb: You make many references to Catholicism in your novel. The Catholic orphanage ran by nuns that Newt does community service at is a very interesting place, and I especially liked the part of the novel where Newt gets rid of a raccoon named Lucy that sometimes comes down the boys' chimney to get scraps of food.
Out of curiosity, I wondered if you, yourself, are Catholic?
Michael Kasenow: I was raised in a Catholic home, but I no longer practice. Like Maxwell, I live in a world of common sense. One can be spiritual without being told the “right way” to be spiritual. The right way is using common sense. I treat people the way I want to be treated. Simple enough. I wanted to include the nuns in the book because of their heroism. Because of the history of the St. Mary’s Orphanage in Galveston, and the brave legacy the nuns have since left behind. I wanted to say something good about these heroes. In today’s popular press, religions and their flock are often portrayed as a bit self-centered. That may be true of some; but for the most part, religious people are good people. They too do the right thing. The nuns were poor, but took care of poor children without families, that’s an incredible act of kindness.
Douglas R. Cobb: On a related topic, you write about a person, Fearless Frank Zimmerman, who helps Newt get rid of the raccoon. This audacious fellow has no qualms about asking one of the Sisters if he can have the cross from around her neck, though he, himself, is Jewish. Also, he worked to fix the Kentucky Derby by drugging the first four leading horses with morphine - all die at some point in the race.
Was there an actual attempt to fix the Derby, on which you base Zimmerman's exploits?
Michael Kasenow: He is an audacious fellow, but no, I know of no one who tried to fix the Derby—like he tried. But it was a good story and fit his personality perfectly. I couldn’t resist.
Douglas R. Cobb: There are so many extremely quotable things you write in The Last Paradise that in the length of this brief interview it's impossible to ask you questions about each quote I wrote down in my notes that I really thought were meaningful and interesting. People will just have to read your book to get the experience for themselves. But, in our era of failing companies, bankruptcies, and massive personal and national debt, the scene you wrote with the Banker, the Old General, Boss Connor, and others - with debt as one of the main topics - struck me as very apropo of our times, as much as theirs.
Will you please talk a little bit about what you mean when you have the Old General say: "Debts are the chains of the new century"?
Michael Kasenow: The easiest way to lose your independence is to purchase stuff beyond your means on credit. At 19% interest your stuck. It will take a lifetime to pay of a mere $10,000 on a charge card at minimal payment. And many of us have more debt than that. Because of our pride, we’re willing to work a lifetime paying our debts off. It really is a form of slavery—working a lifetime to benefit the wealthiest. We’re bombarded by advertisers telling us what we “need”. Then we go out and get it, even if we can’t afford it. In the book bankers brag that people will buy the carriage even though they can’t afford the horse. They put pianos in their parlors, even though they can’t play a tune. This was recognized by Thoreau two hundred years ago. The less you own the more freedom you have, because you have less debt. Freedom to do what? Well, whatever you want. That’s what freedom is all about. But if you owe a lot, you can’t easily switch jobs, or careers, or move, or take chances—you’re stuck. And then when the economy crashes, and you lose your job, psychologically, emotionally, economically, you’re doomed. It is the perfect metaphor for the country and its current crisis. Today, at the beginning of the 21st Century, with the economy falling apart, there’s little difference—just the technology. Most of us are trying to find our way in the changing landscape, especially with the economy collapsing. The storm we have to cut through is an economic storm, but it is still powerful, destructive, ruining families, killing people in different ways. The novel speaks to Americans today—in some ways it is about today—just set in 1900.
Douglas R. Cobb: You write about the struggles that the blacks at Boss Connor's saw mill (along with the whites that work there, like Newt and Maxwell) go through in trying to unionize. I, myself, belong to a union, so that's one aspect that made the story more real and personal for me.
Would it be fair to say that you write about this struggle of the blacks to form a union because you, also, support unions?
Michael Kasenow: I support anyone who works hard and wants to be paid a fair wage for doing so. In my lumberman days I was a Teamster. I was raised in a union household; my mother was a barmaid. So I know the struggles of the-not-so-wealthy. I worked my way through college, and I teach at a middle-class University where students today do the same. Some are going to school fulltime and working two jobs. I don’t know how they do it. To not have empathy for the working man; the single mother; the struggling student; is to have holes in your soul.
Douglas R. Cobb: We've made it to the last question of this interview. You deal with some of literature's Big Questions in The Last Paradise, such as Life, Death, Love, Religion, Injustice, what is the true measure of a man, and ideas about what paradise is to different people.
In what ways would you say that Galveston was a paradise?
Michael Kasenow: The island is a natural beauty. Long shore currents have laid down the sands and dunes. Wetlands and bayous to the south add to the ecology. Economically, in 1900, it claimed to be the “Third Richest City” in the Nation, with the largest cotton port along the coastline. This was important, because cotton was the backbone of the American economy up until about the early 1920s. Like New York’s Ellis Island, Galveston’s Pelican Island is where immigrants came off the boat to build a better future. But there was the Jim Crow era, and before the Civil War, slave ships docked in the North Bay and unloaded its human cargo at Galveston, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The title of the book is ironic, because it’s about the last paradise on the planet, the only paradise, our democracy. The great democratic experiment—an almost mythical land where we tell the world that we can rule ourselves. And we do this with our votes and are wonderful freedom to say how we feel—to speak out, to shout out various points of views—to question, to take chances. Galveston is a metaphor for democratic rule. “A paradise built on sand.” A foundation that can easily erode through crooked politics, deceit and faithless morality. A paradise that can destroy itself through greed and corruption and racial strife—through social class warfare and intolerance.
Douglas R. Cobb: I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions, Michael. In my opinion, The Last Paradise deserves to be on reviewers' lists at the end of the year of the Best Books of the Past Year. I hope that anyone who has not yet had the chance to pick up your book and read it will, because it is a novel that I think will join the ranks of America's greatest novels in the future. I and the staff again extend our thanks to you, and the best wishes for continued success in your writing career!