K. L. (Kenny) Cook: On Drama, Family, and Home

Ken Cook

Ken Cook. Photo by Deborah Ford

In 2002, Kenny Cook, who publishes as K. L., won the Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP) Literary Award for his debut collection of linked short stories, Last Call, inspired by “a compulsion to tell the stories of my own haunted, conflicted, fragile family members,” he says. “Winning the SFWP contest contributed to my getting an agent and helped provide some validation for my work, which in turn has led to other writing and publishing opportunities. For poets and short story writers, one of the only ways to get a collection published is through major contests that offer, as the primary prize, publication of the book.”

Growing up, Cook wrote poetry, prose, and short scripts, studied English and theater, and performed in plays. His formative writing influences were playwrights: “the Greeks tragedians (especially Sophocles), Ibsen, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw, Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, and above all, Shakespeare.”

“The turning point for me as a writer, though, happened the year I began graduate school in literature and my father died of a heart attack,” he says. “I was 22, and that experience made me want to tell the stories of my own family—eccentric, borderline criminal, working-class West Texans. I felt that if I didn’t do that, then their stories, their lives, in all their complexity, would be lost.”

His most notable professor, Richard Russo, then a young novelist who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize, worked with him on his literature thesis about Larry McMurtry, then encouraged Cook to shift gears from his doctoral work in literature to an MFA at Warren Wilson College. It was there that his creative thesis was drafted, which became Last Call. 

Emotionally urgent and artistically mature work will, I believe, always find a home.

Cook teaches in Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing and Environment Program, the only MFA of its kind in the country. It perfectly marries his passion for stories about family and place. Having lived a nomadic life growing up, moving to more than twenty homes between Amarillo, Houston, Dallas, Wichita Falls, Temple, Las Vegas, and other places, “a sense of home—not just the physical space but the psychological and environmental aspects of it—is a fluid and obsessive reality for me,” he says.

Fifteen years since his SFWP award, Cook has published two other full-length books: another linked collection of stories called Love Songs for the Quarantined and a novel, The Girl from Charnelle, plus multiple poems, stories, and essays in journals, blogs, and educational texts.

Cook, who clearly enjoys writing in all genres, calls himself “a creative polygamist because I am always involved in multiple projects, in various stages of completion,” he jokes. “My primary project right now is a novel set in a Shakespearean repertory company in Arizona.”

“This past year also marked the thirtieth anniversary of my father’s death,” he relates, “and that, coupled with other major health events in my family this past year, including the death a few weeks ago of my mother, has made me hungry to write nonfiction—to tell my own story straight without the mask of fiction.” Cook recently published personal essays in Bluestem Magazine and Alligator Juniper and will have another released in 2018 in Hotel Amerika, which he imagines may turn into a book-length memoir, “But who knows? It usually takes me a few years to see a book take final shape.”

Your job is, like a parent, to help find good homes for your children.

Cook advises writers “to focus on the writing itself—on constantly improving yourself as an artist. Emotionally urgent and artistically mature work will, I believe, always find a home. Once you have made the piece as good as you possibly can, then become its advocate. Your job is, like a parent, to help find good homes for your children, and that may require a lot of marketing grunt-work.”

Though he resides in Iowa with his wife, playwright, director, and actress Charissa Menefee, Cook says “the Southwest—Texas, and especially Arizona, where I lived for twenty-one years—is my home.”

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