Dennis Kastendiek uses a lifetime of observation and adds in imagination and a unique voice to create memorable stories. His first book, …and Something Blue: 21 Tales of Love Lost and Found (2017), is an anthology of short stories full of subtle wit and charming characters. When not reading or writing, Dennis plays guitar, helps writers refine their craft at an Albuquerque community center, and serves on the board of directors of SouthWest Writers.
Like many authors, you’ve struggled with your writing. Does the following quote ring true for you? “Fear is felt by writers at every level. Anxiety accompanies the first word they put on paper and the last.” ~ Ralph Keyes
Except for buffoons, plutocrats, and a handful of people suffering from affluenza, I think we all function in an atmosphere of some anxiety. For the writer, it’s “do those words on the page accurately and cleanly reflect the message in my heart and bones and sinew?” Eric Burdon and the Animals had that song with the powerful couplet, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” One of my dictionary (Encarta, 1999) definitions of fear is “awe or reverence, as toward God.” Most of us are aware that life involves risk. Sharing a noncommissioned story with a stranger is one such.
When readers turn the last page of …and Something Blue what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
That life can be looked at in so many different ways, from so many different angles. One of my story characters wears an amber pendant, a dying ant captured within its resin. It might be a beautiful piece of jewelry, but a tragedy is captured within its diorama. How must family members of someone who fell into wet cement pilings while a bridge was being built long ago, how do they feel when they cross that bridge today? Conversely, there are joys and raptures that some of us experience from music or sculpture that others of us pass by without a glance. So short answer—to see or feel a little deeper.
Tell us about a few of your favorite characters from the anthology.
Taranjula, Wally, Frank—exaggerated shades of me in each of them. They all go through a crucible and come out, I hope, a little stronger at the end. I hope readers connect because these characters, as flawed as they might be, are basically good at heart and trying to deal with this world as best they can. Carter Hork had his shallow dreams of wealth and luxury. Well, now he has everything to the gills. But he’s also in a kind of arranged marriage, with all the responsibilities and sacrifices and attempt to love that the situation is going to require. Taranjula has to fight for his friends. Craig has to somehow convince Mona of his love and his willing and patient atonement. One of my favorites was Peter Grindle, who wanted to get back to civilization in the worst way, but we haven’t heard from him since 1972.
What part does setting play in your stories?
Setting is a big part of the title story and also looms large in “The Dawn of Civilization.” Interestingly, I have never set foot on a tropical or desert island, or spent time in a castle or in a medieval prison. But the research was fun. Even though I realize that elements in those stories are stretched and zany. Setting, for me, varies in importance from story to story. I do drop hints here or there that we are in Illinois, or California, in a small town bar, at a Michigan B&B. While setting is important, I was influenced early on by minimalists like Raymond Carver or Lorrie Moore. Characters foremost.
How did the book come together?
Sixty-nine years in the making. Some of these stories are from college days in the 70s. Some from the 80s as I crossed my fingers and tried for a few of the “bigs.” I still have my rejection from McCall’s with the hand-scrawled addition, “Nice work but not right for us. Thanks!” And some are relatively new rejections. But I’ve always revised like mad. Some critics find my sentences too lush and run-on. But I was guided in that direction (and I’m thankful for it) by an instructor from the University of Iowa named Ralph Berry who detected “anecdotalism” in some of my early stories. He encouraged richness, flow, the sprawl of a jazz solo riff as the band is winding up its final set. If a reader feels he’s on a magic carpet ride, I’m happy for him. A good story should feel like a ride through time and space.
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing …and Something Blue?
I guess it was noticing that I haven’t written the same story over and over. I do some realism. I do some madcap. Some are tragic. Others comic. I coined an expression for some of my stuff that I call “magical claptrap.” A writer conceiving his next story while getting a root canal. A small-town bar and the sudden appearance of Beelzebub’s agent. A newspaper want ad for a professional daydreamer. A little Rod Serling, some William Goldman, a dash of Vonnegut.
Who are your favorite authors, and what do you admire most about their writing?
I avoid choosing favorites, which can vary by season, mood, recent experience and so forth, but Kurt Vonnegut, David Morrell, Rod Serling, William Goldman, Doctorow, Salinger and others are certainly up there. And some of their magic is cinematic. From my reading of Morrell and Goldman, I learned they were both heavily influenced by movies. My mother worked second shift at Western Electric when I was a kid, so my grandma often took me to movies for diversion and to get those cool dishes and plates and cups and stuff they gave away. I vividly recall how ANYTHING could happen in the movies. Recently, an interviewer asked a young kid why he liked to read J.K. Rowling’s stories. He looked at her as if she had a screw loose. “I don’t read her stories,” he answered, “I WATCH them.” From the mouths…but what a great way to phrase it.
When did you know you were a writer?
When I was being raised Catholic as a kid, I was intrigued by the confessional. The priest was in the middle and lines formed to the left and right of him. I would see a red light go on shortly after someone entered the booth. I’d look up at the high, high ceiling and wonder how the church paid to heat this huge place. I knew it had to be expensive because my mother and grandma constantly complained about the price of coal that was stored in our basement. Suddenly it came to me. The red light over the confessionals was like the red light on the top of elevator booths. There was probably a big coal mine underneath every church, and the priest was taking these people down to dig coal as penance for their sins. That was why some took longer than others. And how the church was able to afford the heating costs. I puzzled over how their clothes looked so clean, but I figured the priest listened to their sins while they changed into overalls and got their picks and pails and stuff. Then a fast shower before the elevator came up again would explain the beading on some of their foreheads when they walked out of the booth. It would be years before I came to realize the red light was from a switch under the kneeling pads, but my imagination had worked out another answer. I likely had a glimmer then that I could write.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.