Interview: Roger Keen
Roger Keen is an English film-maker and writer. He spent nearly 30 years working for companies like the BBC and ITV making television dramas, documentaries, news and consumer programmes. Since 2006 he has concentrated on his writing and his novelistic memoir ‘The Mad Artist – Psychonautic Adventures from the 1970s’ was published in 2010.
Set between 1975 and 1979, The Mad Artist explores Roger’s experiences of psychedelic awakenings – the trials and tribulations – against the backdrop of his time at art college. The novel manages to combine the best elements of biography and literary flair and carves for itself an exhilarating picture of psychedelic Britain in the late 1970s. To read more about The Mad Artist please visit PsypressUK’s literary review of the book.
Understanding drug literature as a genre is important in coming to know how the spread of ideas contained within the texts has disseminated through society. With this in mind PsypressUK asked Roger what the major psy-literary influences have been on him: “As with so many other people, the first work of psy-lit to make a big impact on me was The Doors of Perception, which I read in my late teens. Aldous Huxley was already familiar to me as a novelist and his literary skill made the psychedelic experience come alive on the page and captivate my imagination.”
However, whilst The Doors of Perception is arguably the beginning of the period of drug writing known as psychedelic literature, Roger’s influences reach farther back: “I also particularly like the more flowery 19th century psy-lit, such as Gautier and Ludlow, both of whom used heroic doses of cannabis for inspiration. The Hasheesh Eater is a psy-lit masterpiece: the uncanny synergy of a young American scholarly mind, steeped in Romanticism and idealist philosophy, and massive doses of cannabis, consumed in a cultural vacuum, psychedelically speaking.” These influences are marked in some of The Mad Artist’s more psychological passages.
Roger mentions another influence on his work and it’s one which crops up numerous time in The Mad Artist; Carlos Castaneda: “Then there’s Castaneda, who played a big part in the years when I was actually doing a lot of psychedelics, and his fanciful metaphysics gave me much food for thought, some of it admittedly misguided.” Castaneda’s influence on society is undeniable and although his work has been academically debunked it has remained a icon for the esoteric and human potential movements. For the mad artist exploring psychedelics he was certainly a cultural moniker and a conversational rallying point between friends.
Another big influence on Roger was Beat literature; especially the works of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs: “Junkie and The Naked Lunch had a huge impact on me, and though the former is mainly about heroin addiction and the latter said to be mainly inspired by addiction and withdrawal, it must be stressed that Burroughs was big on psychedelics as well—peyote, ayahuasca, DMT and, of course, cannabis, and they play an important role in the content of his work.” But it was Jack Kerouac who perhaps had the greatest impact on the writing of The Mad Artist:
“It all comes from Jack Kerouac, in particular the two novels On The Road and The Dharma Bums. From there I got the idea of an autobiographical account or roman à clef, involving a narrator and his best friend as lead characters having a series of picaresque adventures. So in my trippy exploits with ‘Henry’, I began to see him as a Dean Moriarty figure and myself as a Sal Paradise figure, and when sufficient material had accrued the structure for a putative novel sprang into being.”
In coming to fruition the novel went through many revisions in regard to the structure and form it was going to take. Indeed, for a long time Roger had two memoirs in mind, both of which are referenced in The Mad Artist in a sort of post-modern reflection of the writing process. The ‘Geometric Progression’, which makes up the bulk of The Mad Artist deals more explicitly with the psychonautic adventures but the final section, named ‘The Novel’, is introduced at the end as a writing method. Roger has begun to further explore this method in what he terms as ‘The Cult of the Novel’.
“I saw myself as a ‘novelist’ writing ‘fiction’, notwithstanding its autobiographical content; but much more recently I came around to approaching the material as non-fiction and simply telling what happened rather than trying to shape it according to pre-existing novelistic structures. Applying this method to both potential memoirs, I then had the completely new idea of carving up the material in a different way—to assign the best of the psychedelic stuff to The Mad Artist, and to have the aftermath, from the 80s onwards in the next one, which also went with making TMA a nostalgic 70s product.”
Perhaps the major question facing psychedelic culture is how society as a whole could happily integrate the psychedelic experience into its framework. PsypressUK asked Roger how this might be achieved: “Stressing the medicinal, therapeutic and religious uses of psychedelics seems the most profitable way to go about getting them taken more seriously by society at large, which harks back to the original intentions of the psychedelic movement. Then, of course, there’s an ever-increasing awareness of the shamanistic or psychonautic aspects of their use, which again creates a further dimension of possible legitimacy.”
But just as the original intentions of the psychedelic movement were warped over time, Roger recognizes the fact that the “sticking point here, as ever, is that their potential for hedonistic use is just too great to contain. Some might well use substances such as DMT, ayahuasca and Salvia Divinorum in order to gain spiritual and metaphysical insight, but equally others use them just to get off their faces.” Arguably, it is this hedonistic use that has driven psychedelics underground and into alternative culture; largely, no doubt, due to the extreme drug laws that the State introduced in reaction to the psychedelic Sixties. This new spatially delineated culture has evolved and become laced with its own paradigm however.
“As far as alternative society goes, they have and always will play the role of the harbinger of Otherness in all its forms. At the higher dosage end of the spectrum, they represent a rite of passage, an initiation into something that’s potentially transcendental yet challenging and perhaps hazardous—the interior equivalent of mountain climbing perhaps. As Andy Roberts said in Albion Dreaming, acid stories became the psychedelic generation’s war stories, and that’s how it felt to me.”
Finally, PsypressUK asked Roger about why psychedelic literature has been largely the preserve of the U.S.A. and why he thinks that British culture has lagged behind in this concern:
“Regarding the lack of homegrown psy-lit—and specifically literature that puts a positive and constructive spin on psychedelics, such as The Doors of Perception—I think that has a lot to do with the constrictive nature of British society in general and publishing in particular. When I talked to an agent about The Mad Artist, she said she wouldn’t know how to go about marketing it. She went on to say that, as part of the ‘inspirational genre’ drug memoirs should be about the evils of drugs, how they ruin lives, and how one can recover and rebuild one’s life having renounced them.”
It would appear then that the publishing industry has certain preconceived ideals about what literature should be. It is certainly a sad state of affairs when this sort of prejudice – whether monetarily or culturally driven – debars writers from expressing themselves; no matter the quality and insight of their work. This is not only true of psychedelic literature but of literature in general and perhaps it is self-publications like The Mad Artist that can put an end to this narrow and short-sighted practice.
Either way, the one-sidedness of much contemporary mainstream drug writing doesn’t tell a full picture. As Roger notes: “The Mad Artist contains [a] fair amount of negative commentary concerning the ill effects of LSD and cannabis, and, through the character ‘Sean’, the very destructive effects of heavy amphetamine use. But this is only one side of the equation; any thesis or evaluation of drug experience is meaningless without a detailed analysis of the positive effects, which are the reason why people use them.”
PsypressUK would like to thank Roger for answering our questions and wish him the best of luck with all his future endeavours. To find out more about The Mad Artist and to buy a copy of the book please visit Roger’s website ‘Musings of the mad artist’.