Writing Ken Steele's Life
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"What was it like to work with Ken Steele?" asked Danny Frey, Editor-in-Chief of New York City Voices. I thought back to the year and a half in which I worked closely (one might say "intimately") with Ken in writing his life story, and I sighed. Deeply. What was it like to work with Ken? Well, it was by turns exhilarating… exhausting… frustrating… fulfilling… extremely moving.… It was a challenge… and a great privilege.
We met through our agent, Jim Levine. Ken was seeking someone to write his story, and I was looking for an interesting new project. The best thing about being a writer, I've always thought, is the wonderful possibility of traveling new roads -- not knowing quite where you're headed, but bringing with you a great interest in the journey. The world of schizophrenia, though not personally known to me, was one I felt worth exploring. Once I met Ken -- and was exposed to his eloquence and his ardor -- I was hooked on the project. Ken must have understood that, for we quickly agreed to work together.
There followed a honeymoon phase in our relationship. Typically, I would visit Ken at his home off Manhattan's Ninth Avenue, climb the narrow flight of stairs to his apartment, and be admitted by Danny who was there working with Ken on the next edition of Voices. (Ken's apartment was, until his death, both home and newspaper office.) I'd make my way through the paper-strewn living room to the back bedroom, where Ken sat imperiously behind a large desk. (It was hard for Ken to get around, I soon learned.) The desk was the center of a universe that stretched far and wide as Ken fielded calls from across the country, picked up his e-mail, received faxes. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to speak to Ken about something. It was not the best situation in which to conduct an interview.
Soon we hit on a different process. I'd send Ken some questions and he would respond with reams of notes about events of his past life. He'd e-mail or fax these memories to me, after which I would phone him with requests for clarification or more information. Then we'd talk for an hour or two on the phone. Sometimes even longer. It was not unusual for us to speak ten to fifteen times a day.
Sometimes Ken was not available: he had this or that conference to attend, and the work would have to stop. At other times, I was away on assignment. The separations, in that they slowed the pace of our work together, were hard on our relationship. The honeymoon phase ended. For Ken, the work of recall became emotionally and physically taxing. We had agreed at the outset that this would be an honest account, and Ken often felt the pain and the pressure of having to go back into a horrifying past, and remember it in minute detail. I marveled at his ability to do so. "It's hard, really hard," Ken would tell me. And then he'd be hurt when, sometimes, I would have to tell him there were gaps in the story, questions that required further response. Always, there was between us the pressure of meeting our deadline. As an active mental health advocate, Ken was sometimes drawn to other important projects. As the professional writer on the project, I saw one of my tasks as keeping us on track. This led to some friction.
There was even a time when Ken and I decided we needed a break from one another, and would communicate only by e-mail, but not by phone. Looking back, this period was short-lived… but it seemed to go on and on, and it was not a happy time in our collaboration. Luckily, we truly cared for one another, and we were dedicated to making the book work.
In sharing his story, Ken hoped to address the stigma of being mentally ill -- to have the public understand that the vast majority of people with mental illness are productive human beings, not (as they're so often portrayed) crazed individuals who commit antisocial and criminal acts. I tried to help him do that.
What was it like to work with Ken? It was to marvel at his knowledge and his vocabulary; this man whose formal education had been interrupted in his teens by the arrival of imagined voices was able to grasp and grapple with issues of nuance and complexity, then address them with assurance and artistry…. It was to be amazed by his ability to recall things from his past -- not just incidents, but every book he ever read (and he was a prodigious reader).… It was to be constantly concerned about his stamina and his health.
At an early point in our relationship, Ken sent me a note that I now cherish. "I do not feel at ease with most people," he wrote. "With you, I feel like we've been friends for a lifetime already." Well, that's how I felt, too. As a friend, I gave Ken Steele my time and best efforts. He gave me back a remarkable story.
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