So you’ve written a Rock and Roll Novel. Obviously you must be some sort of former musician and punk rock insider…

Sorry to disappoint you. I’m no such thing. I was in a couple of bands in high school, performed in several shows, and could passably play the drums for a few years of my youth. But I’m no real musician. I’ve been trying to learn the guitar for like a dozen years, and just don’t seem to have the talent. Like many people, I’m a sort of excited and envious onlooker when it comes to music.


So how did you end up writing this book?

While I was a teaching assistant, I taught a class on the History of Rock and Roll to college freshman. For a few years, I buried myself in music articles and documentary footage. There was this constant burden of making music from bygone decades interesting to those kids, so I got very enthusiastic about it, and was always trying to make the case for relevance.

I also discovered Michael Azerrad’s book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, which was the watershed event for conceiving my novel. It seemed to me that there was room for a book that fictionalized the line Azerrad drew between hardcore punk and grunge—and made the connection personal, confined to a few characters.

Elise Blackwell has said that novel writing is an act that rewards dilettantism, and I’ve found that to be the case. Excited curiosity can, at times, be the more useful asset. I often use the example of Hunter S. Thompson and the Hell’s Angels. He knows their lingo and their ways, but he doesn’t fully belong to the gang. It’s that one-foot-in, one-foot-out status that allows him to describe the subculture so well.


Why hardcore and grunge?

The attraction to both was fairly instinctual. As a kid, I’d been vaguely aware of the hardcore scene in DC, though it was far past its prime by the time I was a teenager. It always intimidated and confused me. I wondered if everyone with a shaved head was a Vegan, or a neo-Nazi, or what. Reading about it almost two decades later was like solving a childhood mystery. More importantly, the fact that a ragtag network of teenagers ended up creating a shadow music industry alongside the mainstream—that made it an irresistible subject, with a lot of relevance to the state of contemporary literature and other arts.

I was interested in the grunge thing partly as a validation of that underground movement, partly because it had more personal resonance. The Nirvana phenomenon—the way it looked to a 15-year-old me, at least—was all about some regular guys who hadn’t meant to be stars suddenly becoming the biggest band in the world. That journey, and that dissonance of intentions, is what I wanted to build my novel around.


Was it odd to write from a female point-of-view?

It was different. I’d never written any piece of first-person fiction that way before. But it seemed inevitable. There really isn’t much of a story without Laura telling it. Working on this novel just happened to coincide with a period in which I had a lot of time to write, and less opportunity (or pressure) to get feedback from peers and teachers. So I wasn’t very conscious of it during the actual writing. But it did freak me out once I started showing the manuscript to others.

It was definitely a good thing for me, as a writer. It became doubly important to make the character of Laura convincing—above all other things. Still, when people ask me about that, I don’t think of it as “a woman’s voice” so much as Laura’s voice.


Did you find it intimidating to write about a subject that had been probed by so many great nonfiction writers?

Absolutely! Again, this is something that I wasn’t so conscious of during the blank-page writing, but became hypersensitive about once it looked like this might actually become a book. I still wonder sometimes why the world really needs this novel when so many great music histories exist. Often, I’ve reminded myself that Melville’s inspiration for Moby Dick came through a nonfiction book: Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

It’s a different world now, of course. Novels are the subculture, and narrative nonfiction books are much more prevalent and wield more influence on the popular culture.


Is that frustrating?

No, not in my case. My novel stands on the shoulders of so many journalists, filmmakers, and nonfiction writers. I’m thankful that it’s now so easy to get access to all that information, and that it’s all so incredibly compelling and readable. Also, when you have that great body of factual literature out there, it makes it doubly important to focus on things like character or pace—the stuff that’s more exclusively the domain of the novelist.

The bottom line is: all the great nonfiction books, documentaries, articles, and interviews are the reason I was able to write The Mistakes. Certainly, I was inspired by the music itself. But the biggest inspirations for me were all the little anecdotes I read or heard about. I’m thinking of things like the mysterious story of D. Boon’s death, or of Nirvana’s run-ins with Guns-N-Roses, of Minor Threat packaging their own albums, any number of the incredible tales from Black Flag tours. Those anecdotes are almost like little Old Testament stories: memorable, easily embellished, a simple series of events that often teach a lesson for struggling artists.


What is the relationship between the fake bands in your book and the real ones from the eras described?

In my original drafts, I pictured the book as a Roman á clef like Citizen Kane or Primary Colors—not critical the way those are, but with that same relationship to reality. And I didn’t mention any real-life bands. It was only later that my editor insisted I include references—however passing—to actual groups from that era. Which I think was a great decision, in the end.

Obviously, I borrowed the trajectory of the Mistakes’ career from Nirvana, as well as certain destructive tendencies (onstage and off). But other than that it’s all made up. I cribbed a lot of the visual elements and things for other bands. But I never meant for any of them to be stand-ins or satires of real people. I hope that the passing references to actual bands will discourage readers from seeing any of my fictional bands as lampooned versions of their favorite groups.


Do you worry about that?

It’s another thing that never bothered me as I wrote it, but that I’ve lost some sleep over now that it looks like people might actually read the thing.

Novels thrive on conflict, and as a narrator Laura is opinionated and cynical, quick to pass judgment. So I guess I do worry that readers will mistake her opinions for mine, and some of these fake bands for bands that were important to them.

There were certain issues—about Sub-Pop’s reputation, the notion that Pearl Jam was somehow “inauthentic” as a grunge band, the vilification of Courtney Love, etc.—that demanded to be explored. I hope I treated such things with compassion, even as I leveraged them to provide antagonism and conflict in the novel. In this book, the facts weren’t nearly as important as the impressions and rumors that captured the public’s imagination.


How did you decide to write about synesthesia?

That was one of those strokes of luck that fiction writers wait around for. I stumbled across it. I knew Sean had to be a gifted musician, but as I began drafting I cringed at the task of writing so many descriptive passages about how well he could play. Then one day I found myself writing in the synesthesia. That was a huge relief; it gave me literary handles on an otherwise unwieldy subject. Around that time, a memoir of a high-functioning autistic synesthete called Born on a Blue Day had just come out, and the author was on NPR several times. Also, I was in a class that discussed Nabokov’s synesthesia. It got into my head and bounced around for a while.

As the book was revised, all the outside feedback suggested that I move it more to forefront, which I was happy to do.


Did you do a lot of research on the condition?

I did a fair bit; I wouldn’t call it a lot. It didn’t take me long to realize that there wasn’t much known about the condition (spell check doesn’t consider it a word), but that it could be expressed in many different ways. That gave me license to take it where I wanted. It played nicely into the idea that music chose Sean, rather than the other way around. He was born into it, so to speak. The changes that happen to his condition in the second half of the book, I should say, are nearly all my own invention. I’ve never heard of it having any relationship to head trauma, for instance. But that seemed a good way to push Sean’s self-destruction outward.


Let’s get back to Laura for a second. Obviously, you’re working with this trope of the girl that broke up the band—like Courtney Love or Yoko Ono.

Right. I’m not trying to be an apologist for any real person. I wouldn’t pretend to know all that goes on inside a real band’s dynamics. Many years ago, I read a short article on one of the posthumous Nirvana releases. They were trying to decide how to put out “You Know You’re Right”—then considered the last unreleased song. The article described a disagreement between Love and the two surviving band mates. The writer was obviously on the side of the latter. The piece closed with a sarcastic rhetorical question along the lines of: “correct me if I’m wrong, but she wasn’t actually in the band, right?” That immediately got me thinking: what if she had been in the band? Would we—the public—be any more sympathetic? It was an idea I couldn’t get out of my mind.


The thing is: even though your novel is her defense, her side of the story, she turns out to be technically guilty of many of the things the fans hate her for. Was that intentional?

Intentional or not, it seemed fitting with the voice and character of Laura. I realized that I didn’t want her to be perfect. The point isn’t that she’s without flaw, but that her flaws are exceedingly human—even if they look grotesque under the spotlight.

I’ve always had a tendency to write about characters that carry some shame around with them. That might be to my discredit at times; nobody wants to read about self-pity, at least not for long. But I think shame is different, and is a useful emotion. It’s similar to hope in a way: both show the difference between the way we are and the way that we might be.


Do you plan to write another Rock and Roll Novel?

Never say never, but at the moment I have no such plans. I do believe that there’s room for more Rock Fiction on the literary landscape. It came as shock to hear it dismissed as a kind of ghetto by editors and others. Rock music has the power to tap into the dreams and memories of such a wide swath of our readership; it’s foolish to dismiss it. I’m particularly in awe of its ability to bring order and redemption to the adolescent experience—something we seem to understand less well with each passing year.

What Laura says on the last page of the book—about being moved by rock and roll songs—that’s something I feel as well. If the idea for another music-themed book were to come my way, I’d consider myself lucky.

TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 and How the Mistakes Were Made. He is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He teaches writing at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu. More info at www.tylermcmahon.net.

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