PM: So let me ask you, then, do the characters in your songs or the songs themselves have a tendency to sort of write themselves? Many songwriters have talked about that idea: songs just coming out of nowhere, the feeling of being filled up by some grace or something.
WS: Absolutely. I mean, this is going to sound idiotic, but inspiration has to come from somewhere. Mine often comes from rhymes and words, and stuff like that.
PM: So that brings us to how this book came about. Would you mind telling that story?
WS: Well, very simply, there's a song called "Misfortune." It's on Awake. I wrote the first line of it, I think, walking around Cambridge when I was doing my Ph.D. in probably the mid-'80s. I didn't finish the song or write any more of it until the early mid-'90s. The song tells a story, and then the third verse goes a bit AWOL. I liked playing the song, thought about it, and wanted to do something, wanted to write more about it.
And I tried various kinds of novels, but this suddenly was such an ambitious and ridiculous foolhardy task, to set my first novel in the 1830s, and make up this world. Then I suddenly thought, "I can do this. This is the thing I can do. I can't write a kind of memoir-ish novel about being in the music business. I can't find any interest in it. I can't think of a plot. I'm never going to write the novel of ideas." Inasmuch as I think "Misfortune" explores a lot of ideas, they are explored through action and through dialogue, and through sex, in fact. I will never be writing a character who is dealing with naughty issues which they are carefully working through in their mental process. Therefore, I'm likely to turn to plot. And so when I was thinking about the novel, the song "Misfortune" suddenly mapped it all out in front of me, except for the fact that, after the bridge, the character goes missing.
WS: But it was at that point that the character dies. And in fact, even that gave me the shape for the book, because of course, that's what happens at the end of it. So really, it was a question of filling in missing years. And I was very logical about it. It was like--what was the first line?--"I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth." The first chapter is an abortion. "I was dumped down south. I was found by the richest man in the world." Second chapter. "Who brought me up as a girl." That's kind of like the next hundred pages.
WS: But while it's perfect to say those things that pithily in a song--we like Townes Van Zandt because he says very little, and we think a lot--you don't like a novelist who does that--or I don't. I want a novelist who really says quite a lot, and tells you a lot, he's filling in the picture for you. Immediately I had to think, well, why was the child brought up as a girl? What's the point? Who would have done that? Why would they have done that? Why would the mother have done that? Suddenly you're back-pedaling towards reality. And that's kind of how the novel came about. And obviously, it was a very satisfying task, because the novel got done.
PM: [laughs] Right. It's really only satisfying if it has an end.
PM: The thing that really got me was the fact that there's potential for so much darkness in this book, and there are many very dark things that happened, but the story could have been a lot darker than it is. There's lots of humor and adventure and it seems like you essentially wrote a story about love and hope. I mean, the coat of arms of Rose's family, the Loveall, reads "Love Conquers All." How did it happen that you took these very dark elements and made it into a story of love?
WS: Well, that's a very interesting question. And how can I answer that? I mean, to me, that's what the story was. I think, really, you're asking the question: "Why did you write this novel in the way that you naturally chose to write it?"
PM: Fair enough.
WS: You see what I mean? In a sense it's a very difficult question to answer, because you're really saying, "what do you like?" And the answer is--and I'm really not trying to be difficult--you could find that out through the novel. I mean, there are dark things in there. I think, also, in all my songs over the years there have been dark things happening. But generally those songs are presented with a smile that is not a cynical one--well, it's sometimes a cynical one, but not an insincere one.
I did one of these book groups the other day, and the women were saying, oh, they didn't like it when he was raping, basically, the other guy, or humiliating him, and it didn't seem in character. But to me it totally did because you just see a traumatized individual acting out the childish games of their youth--end of story. To me, that's what we're all doing the whole time, is acting out the childish games of our youth.
PM: Right. And I don't think Rose is a one-dimensional character by any stretch. Of course he would have this incredible darkness to him.
WS: Absolutely. Rose is a complicated character of many facets. It was my goal to let all those things loose, and I really enjoyed that. I hope my next book is in some ways very different but in some ways very similar. The key element of my next book is not gender. It's not set in the 1830s. But it is about families, it is about coming of age, but it's just a whole different world.
PM: Right. Well, we'll look forward to that.
WS: April 2007. The paperback of this one comes out in 2006.
PM: Got it. continue