July 19, 2009
“It all began with a fuck,” goes the brash opening line of D.R. Haney’s first novel Banned for Life, and the strange seduction begins.
For those who haven’t read Haney’s sprawling debut, it follows Jason Maddox’s serio-comic adventures in the underground punk scene, stretching beyond mosh pit mayhem and barroom brawls to explore death and obsession and purpose. The author zigzags confidently between a resonant coming-of-age tale in North Carolina, la vie boheme in hardscrabble New York, and a tempestuous L.A. love affair which leads our narrator to Belgrade for climax and denouement.
Even readers ambivalent to punk will be drawn in by the peculiarly irresistible voice of Jason, who is at turns heartthrob, heartbroken and healed.
D.R. Haney tells TNB how he went from breaking guitars to becoming a serious novelist.
You’ve said it took 9 years to write the 400 page manuscript. What prevented you from going permanently insane during that time?
I’m not sure I didn’t. It was quite a ride. I mean, if there’s no blood on the keyboard, there should be. Broken bone and gray matter, too.
I was lucky to have good friends. That was my saving grace – that and music. It’s perhaps an embarrassing thing to say, but rock & roll has been a redemptive factor throughout my life. If I’m feeling bad, I only have to pick up a guitar or play a certain record, like “Arboretum” by Unwound or “The Rat” by the Walkmen, and my mood improves. My spiritual sense is absolutely tied to music, specifically to rock & roll.
Jason, the protagonist and narrator, confesses late in the book that his story is memoir “written as a novel for legal reasons”. Can you talk about this?
Well, the book certainly isn’t a memoir in the strict sense, but if it were, Jason would no doubt be worried about the potential for legal fallout, and just plain fallout, period.
I’ll say this much: there are characters in Banned that are very much based on real-life people, and I was (and continue to be) concerned with their reactions. I didn’t even bother to change the names in a few cases. Others are composites or purely the product of my imagination. But I think all narrative writing is finally fiction; it’s only a matter of degree.
Morally, Banned seems concerned with the search for personal meaning, which is achieved, mainly, through defeating a particularly American brand of boredom. Would you agree with this assessment?
To a certain extent, yes, though I think the American brand is something we’ve successfully exported to the rest of the world though movies and TV shows.
American entertainment is hugely popular, even among those who claim to hate us, and its appeal is its very mindlessness, in never allowing the viewer to become bored, when in fact boredom is the very thing is produces, no matter the initial giddiness.
For me, it’s worse than mere boredom; it amounts to the starvation of the soul, in dimmed sense, in unwitting complacency and conformity and alienation. It’s a culture of death. Ironically, death in America is a subject largely avoided, which to me is classically Freudian: you don’t want mentioned what you suspect yourself, perhaps rightly, to be.
I’m not proposing this as an original view. It’s been argued again and again, and there are counterarguments, but when the subject comes up in private conversation, I’ve almost never had anyone disagree with me. Most of us seem to recognize the effects of what I’m calling the culture of death, if not in ourselves then others. But there also seems to be a general feeling of, well, what’s to be done about it? That’s the world we live in. And it is. But the question for me at that point is: How to stay alive?
There’s obviously no single answer, but I do think, as you say, Jason in Banned is searching for a way that will work for him. And a classic starting point for anyone similarly alienated of Jason’s generation was punk rock, because it was forthrightly expressing rage in a way that was forbidden, and continues to be, by mainstream corporate media. These were kids who, whatever their flaws, refused to go along with the program, and that’s something I don’t really see anymore. I don’t think there will be another movement like punk in my lifetime, because we’re all too atomized and prematurely (in the case of the young) jaded, but I want to leave a record of it, and I think and hope Banned can be appreciated by people who dislike punk but still have a streak of resistance in them, or they’re looking to discover or recover it.
That’s what happened to Jason: he both discovered and had to recover it, because he’d once again succumbed to the culture of death.
I couldn’t get past hating the character of Irina. She’s insecure, a compulsive liar, intellectually unimpressive and yet Jason fetishizes her physical beauty. Did you intend for her to be so unlikable?
It’s interesting: I’ve had a number of women readers react as you did, but almost never any male readers.
I don’t know if that’s because men are more superficial than women, if they’re more easily bamboozled by physical beauty or what, but even male musicians I know – guys with deep roots in the punk scene – will read the book and comment mostly on Irina, and rarely in unfavorable terms. And, you know, in the book, Irina says that women don’t like her, so it seems as though that trend carries over with readers.
But to answer your question: I certainly wanted the reader to be exasperated by Irina; to feel about her as Jason feels as she leads him on this agonizing ride of l’amour fou. I mean, the reader is sort of Jason’s confidante, and if a friend comes to you and says, “And then she did this,” you’re almost certainly going to take his side. I personally believe Irina when she says she’s forced to lie because Jason is too possessive to listen when she tries to tell him the truth.
As for her physical beauty, that’s another funny thing, because I didn’t set out to make her so beautiful but she refused to be written any other way, which I’m sure owes to the woman who inspired her. However, I failed in making Irina as smart or as interesting as the woman who inspired her, and that woman was, shall we say, a tad upset when she read the manuscript.
Without giving anything away, could you tell us if in fact there is an Alexi? And if so, where is he?
I wish I could say he’s in Belgrade, but Alexi was kind of a last-minute idea that came to me as a way of trying to close a particular thematic circle. I considered him the riskiest thing I did in the whole book, even though he only appears for a second.
But I included him in part because of the risk. It seemed cowardly to back away from something that, thematically, made sense, at least to me.
Peewee is vivid and memorable. What is it about him, do you think, that makes him so compelling?
I personally think it’s his courage. I mean, here’s this tiny guy, but he’s got the balls to go against everyone and everything. He’s not even afraid to physically take on guys he knows are going to beat the crap out of him. Plus, he’s intellectually courageous, even though some of that arises from his considerable contrarian streak.
It’s also possible that he stands out partly because you know from the beginning of the book he’s going to die. So maybe, at least unconsciously, you think as you’re reading, “Oh God, please don’t let this happen.” I was literally sick with grief when I wrote about the accident. I loved, and love, him so much.
There’s a scene in the book where he has a showdown with his father and sinks to the floor in a flood of tears, and you really see, for the first time, the full extent of his damage. I think he suffered terribly. But what does he do? He cries it all out and walks back to Jason and says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.” That says everything to me about Peewee. He’s a tragic but ballsy little guy.
What is your writing background?
I’m an autodidact. I learned by reading. I was never in a creative writing program or anything like that. And I also learned by doing, by writing a lot and poring over what I wrote and learning from my mistakes.
In terms of professional experience, I’ve had pieces published in zines and small magazines, that kind of thing. And I’ve done some screenwriting and I worked for a number of years on a novel that I ultimately had to scrap. That was a horrible experience, but again, I learned from it and the lesson was: Never, ever write another book told from multiple points of view.
Your sex scenes are…exuberant. How did you approach writing this type of material?
Well, there’s one scene that’s proven popular with early readers and I have to confess that in writing it I thought, “I never read sex scenes that do anything for me, and this one is going to.” It was the only moment in the book when I fully surrendered to my inner pornographer.
It must have worked, because I’ve had male friends, alas, report trips to the bathroom with Banned in hand. And my friend Jane told me she thought the Jason/Irina relationship was “hot”, and that was especially gratifying, not only beacuse it was coming from a woman but because I felt I was holding myself back with those bits.
I don’t know. The sex stuff was the same as the music stuff, the same as the Hollywood stuff: I just tried to put myself in that particular place and describe what I felt and saw.
Jason has a strained relationship with his parents. How has your own family reacted to Banned?
They haven’t read it. My mom wanted a copy, and I said, “Well, you know, Mom, this book is pretty shocking. Even the first sentence is shocking.” And I told her what it was, and she immediately decided this was not a book she preferred to read. I did consider sending a copy to my dad, who I thought would be more open, but my mom said, “Oh, no, your father wouldn’t understand that kind of thing at all.” Which is a pity, because he loves to brag about his kids’ accomplishments. I mean, I showed him the manuscript, which he never read, and he would display it to anyone who stopped by: “Here, look what my boy did.” But, again, he did that with no idea what was in it.
How did you celebrate the news Banned had been picked up by a publisher?
I didn’t, really, because I celebrated the completion of what I thought was the final draft in 2005 and within days I was rewriting it.
Also, I’d gotten an offer from [fellow TNB contributor] Brin Friesen to publish the book with his imprint, And/Or Press, following a reading we did together in 2006. It was only later, after I’d talked to other publishers, that I decided And/Or was the way to go.
The other publishers either wanted to alter the book where I thought it was unnecessary or they’d shake hands on deals only to renege; and I trusted Brin, who’s a friend and a novelist in his own right. Fortunately, he was still open to publishing Banned.
So the celebration may yet occur, when Brin is in L.A. or I’m in Vancouver. We’ve talked about doing a two-man reading tour. It’s only a matter of funds.
In the acknowledgements, Banned lists some recognizable names. Has there been any talk amongst your Hollywood connections of turning the novel into a film?
Some talk, yes. It’s just kind of a low murmur at this point – very low. But I do get the feeling the talk will grow and get louder.
How did you arrive at the title?
Originally the book had a title that now makes me wince. And then that title was used by somebody else and I was in a great state about it, and one day I was reading something in, I think, Spin magazine about a band getting banned for life from Holiday Inn – the whole chain – and I thought, “You know, ‘banned for life’ would be a terrific title for the book.”
As I’ve said, there’s a life/death motif that runs throughout the book along with a big/small motif, among others. So I called a few friends and said, “What do you think?” and everybody seemed to like it as a title so Banned for Life it was.
What’s next for you?
I’ve always been interested in the old physiology-as-destiny idea, in how appearance shapes the way we’re regarded and leads to success or the lack of it, and studies have shown that, contrary to widespread belief, men are judged just as much on appearance as women. Also, I tend to write a lot about brothers, which undoubtedly has to do with my having three of them, so I’m working on a new book concerned with all of the above.
At the moment I’m calling the book Handsome, in tribute to a nineties band of the same name. But I find myself embarrassed whenever I mention it, so it will probably end up getting changed.
Thanks for “talking” to us!
No, thank you. It’s my honor to be asked.