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Conversation with Kevin Helock

Kevin dives into collegiate writing workshops, high school student's relationships to writing, Godzilla, D&D, and a closer look into his Radon story.

Conversation with Kevin Helock

Kevin Helock is a writer and recovering teacher currently living in Morristown, NJ, with his fiancée and their twin cats, Bo and Jinx. He started writing to cope with the world and doesn’t expect he’s going to stop. When he isn't writing, you can find him deep in several books at once, running a game of D&D, breaking out of an escape room, or bothering someone about Godzilla. His work has previously been featured in The Best Teen Writing of 2016, Sanctuary Magazine, Santa Fe Writer's Project Quarterly, and Little Patuxent Review.

Kevin is also the author of the short story “Superluminal” from Radon Issue 3.

Q: How does your Radon story reflect your feelings about today’s world? 

In "Superluminal," I wanted to demythologize the notion of a “great man” leading humanity forward from the head of a corporation—an idea that is pervasive in pop culture and in the propagandized version of American history spun by those in power. The story’s protagonist is a self-styled savior of humanity, but ultimately his entire crusade proves to be a lie he hides behind in an attempt to join his pantheon of personal heroes—a group of individuals who are similarly not as great as we’re often taught. While Maxim presents the press with a nonsensical plan to shoot people into the depths of space to ensure humanity’s survival, the only world we have dies around him. At the end of the day, neither he nor any of the other people of means do anything to stop it, just like the ultra-wealthy in our present world profit endlessly through destructive, unsustainable industry.

Q: When did you start writing to cope with the world?

I got my start in tenth grade by writing a short story for a school assignment. My mental health at the time was very poor—the result of constant bullying paired with some self-destructive tendencies that damaged the few friendships I had—so I used my writing as an outlet for emotions I didn’t feel I could express elsewhere. The result was a monstrously angsty, bitter, and judgmental piece that I’m rather ashamed of today, but which nonetheless earned me an honorable mention in the Scholastic Writing Awards. 

A very kind and supportive teacher convinced me to read my story in front of a crowd in the school library, and the experience was so positive that I returned to compete in SWA the next two years, eventually earning a Silver Key at the national level and getting a story published. By the time I was done with high school, I was certain I wanted to be a writer. It’s largely thanks to people willing to look beyond the flaws in my narrow worldview to nurture the developing person inside. I can’t thank those people enough.

Q: How does your writing skill impact your D&D experiences?

D&D is an interesting beast for a writer because of its collaborative and improvisational nature. I’m used to having as much time as I need to brainstorm, outline the plot, find the right voice, translate my plan into writing, and edit my story until it’s just what I want it to be; in a roleplay game like D&D, the story is happening now, and it won’t wait for me to get it all right. Not only that, but I’m not the only one telling the story, and my plans often need to change suddenly as my players make unexpected decisions or a roll of the dice pushes the narrative down a new path. 

I like to think I do a pretty good job keeping up, but in many ways running a game of D&D is as exhausting as an intense round of cardio, albeit a good deal more fun. While I have lots of proud moments creating entertaining characters, thrilling challenges, and evocative action, I also tend to find all the gaps in my own ability as a writer made glaringly obvious, from the character stereotypes I reach for too often to my complete inability to creatively decorate a room on the fly. The game is an invaluable practice tool, and one I love using.

Q: As a high school English teacher, how do you feel about the younger generation's current relationship to writing?

My experience teaching has been a rollercoaster of hope and despair. I’ve had students that are a joy to teach, who engage the class in intelligent conversation about literature and deepen even my own understanding of the stories I share with them through insights and perspectives different from my own—students whose writing is expressive and smart and laugh-out-loud funny and makes grading less of a chore. But in truth, the majority of students I’ve met dislike reading, abhor writing, and produce work so formulaic and bland that it’s torture to read. In my darkest moods I sometimes blame the kids themselves for not caring or being unable to recognize the value of a good story, but the reality is that our educational system damages students’ relationship with literature by placing them in opposition to it. 

Stories aren’t art anymore; they’re hurdles to get over as efficiently as possible, sometimes without even reading them. Writing isn’t a way to express oneself; it’s a chore that must be done exactly to expectations or else. Innovation and creativity aren’t boons; they’re risks that jeopardize the chance to check the best boxes on a rubric. It’s easy to say the kids don’t get it, but it’s the system’s fault that’s the case, and I’m not convinced the system cares either. I’m not sure what the answer is, but so long as writing and reading are only done for a grade, I think we’re going to find that most students have a terrible relationship to our craft.

Q: How did the Creative Writing program at Susquehanna University help your craft? Do any lessons or advice that stick with you?

While I know there’s a lot of discussion around rethinking the “writer’s workshop” style of classes in college writing programs, I personally thrived in this kind of environment and miss it dearly. Not only did I have the chance to regularly read my peers’ work to learn from both their successes and failures, but I also got to see exactly how people respond to my writing. That proved incredibly valuable since a good portion of the class found characters that I’d intended to be quirky and relatable to instead be off-putting assholes, so I learned to adjust my characterization to soften some of their edges. 

The most valuable lesson I learned had to do with flowery, “writerly” language. Going into college, I was coming off a rivalry with another writer in my high school, and his style employed lots of needlessly complicated descriptions. I still recall a whole paragraph of incomprehensible nonsense he wrote that boiled down to “he was wearing a watch.” Even though my most successful story at the time was written very simply, I nonetheless developed a bit of an inferiority complex and tried to model my work on his. Fortunately, my professors weren’t shy about bringing me to my senses, and I do my best to make sure that everything I write is purposeful rather than simply pretension for its own sake.

Q: How did you find your interest in rock climbing? Do you prefer outdoor or bouldering?

Climbing actually came as a bit of a surprise for me. I did some top rope climbs through Scouting and always enjoyed it, but I was often terrified at the same time. When the Scout camp where I worked needed a new climbing director, I jokingly pointed out that I was the only available person old enough to legally run the area, and in response I was offered the job. I cited a fear of heights as proof it was a bad idea, until a good friend of mine asked me whether it was really a fear or just a healthy respect. I conceded that it was the latter, and after a week of special training I was running a 40-foot outdoor climbing tower and a high-ropes course. I still panic sometimes, and I don’t go climbing often (and only ever on carefully maintained courses), but it’s a turn in my life that brought some much-needed adventure, and I value it and my friend’s advice greatly.

Q: How did you develop an interest in Godzilla, and does that interest inform your writing?

When I was a toddler, my dad sometimes called me “Godzilla” because of my tendency to smash my older brother’s block cities when given half a chance. My first proper exposure to the big guy was through a game on our Super Nintendo, and when I enjoyed that I took interest in the movies. For a long while the only thing I spent my allowance on was Godzilla movies from FYE, and it developed into a proper obsession. I got bullied a good deal for it, but Godzilla was always my thing, and I often found myself talking about it just to spite the people who tried to shut me up. All these years later, I’m still a big fan of the series, my love having only deepened as I became mature enough to recognize the anti-nuke messaging of the more serious films. Even the most lighthearted entries (and boy do they get goofy) are such obvious labors of love crafted by teams of skilled and dedicated artists that it’s hard not to appreciate them. As for my own work, even though it would be an absolute dream project to work on a Godzilla story, I doubt I’ll ever get to do so, and the big guy is so intimately tied to Japanese culture that I question whether a white boy like me could do him justice. Still, I have some ideas in mind for some kaiju stories of my own, and I’m excited to give them a try some day.

Q: What genres or types of books do you typically find yourself reading lately?

I’ve been accused of having “English teacher taste” in books, so I do a lot of reading of the classics—often the sorts of books that make so-called “normal people” groan—some my long-time favorite authors being Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Kerouac. Recently I’ve been trying to read more modern works as I seek contemporary influences in my own writing, with some of my current favorites in the world of genre fiction being Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. As of the time of writing, the last book I finished was Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a powerful indictment of western colonialism in the Congo that has made me hungry for more books concerned with social justice. It is a craving I intend on satisfying with Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of no Nation, just as soon as I’m done with a little fantasy fluff I’m reading as a breather in between the heavy stuff.

Q: What are your upcoming wedding plans?

My fiancée and I are getting married this summer, with the reception being held in a cozy lodge in a county park near us. It’s going to be a fairly small event as weddings come, but we wanted to eschew the wedding-factory scene in favor of a more personal and intimate environment. The honeymoon is small as well; we’ll be staying in a “hobbit house” in New England, likely spending the time reading with some hikes and escape rooms thrown in for good measure. It’s the sort of trip that might make some of our friends and family scratch their heads, but one which we’re both looking forward to immensely.

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