June 2012

JC Hallman


An Interview with Dylan Hicks

When Dylan Hicks first sent me the CD Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which serves as a kind of weird backdrop to his new novel Boarded Windows, I just let it sit in my house for a long time without playing it. I didn't play it, in fact, until a second copy arrived from the producer, who apparently didn't know that I already had one. Then and only then did I open one of the discs and slip it into my computer...

But this story starts even earlier than that. It's sort of my John Kennedy Toole story, in that a few years back, after I gave a reading at The Loft in Minneapolis, I was approached by a shaggy-haired man who introduced himself and asked me to look at his novel. This is an old, old story, of course, and I figured it would end the way this story usually ends, with me reading the first few pages of a hapless manuscript and banging out a quick note of regrets. But it didn't end that way. I printed the manuscript the man emailed me, and started it at a small bar around the corner. It grabbed me almost at once, and I was struck by a whole range of emotions, not the least of which was that the author was a lot better read than I was, and that this was a pretty amazing novel -- an unapologetically intelligent and cringe-inducingly intimate take on Midwestern hipster culture, armed with a dizzying array of references to art, literature, criticism, and of course music. I read the whole thing in a day or so, and happily wrote a few suggestions to Hicks, with whom I went on to become friends.

But I only ever knew very little of Hicks's background as a musician -- he hadn't talked about it much -- so when the CD arrived, I sort of dreaded it. Which means, in short, that I made the same stupid mistake twice. I listened to that first song, and then the next, and the next, and then I started rereading the novel for this interview only to find that I didn't know which version of him to give my full attention. I was pleased to discover, in the end, that there was no reason for me to decide one way or the other, and the music haunts me to this day as much as the novel does.

Do you notice a difference between writers who are musicians and writers who are not? Do you ever read a writer's work and say to yourself, "That guy knows music"?

Well, I'm most attracted to writing that has a certain musicality -- word pairings, say, that suggest strange and pleasing harmonies, or rhythms that somehow both entrance and invigorate -- but I guess I haven't found that writer-musicians are more likely to have an ear for that than writers with no or negligible musical ability. But I'm not a technically advanced player; a virtuoso might see and hear patterns in this area that I'm missing. A few of my favorite writers were or are musicians; James Joyce, for instance, was reportedly an excellent tenor (his wife Nora: "Jim should have stuck to music instead of bothering with writing"). Thomas Bernhard studied music seriously, and that must have informed how his books are constructed, particularly how his short novels climax rhythmically and emotionally more than dramatically, or find their climactic drama in emotional rhythms. Then again, a nonmusician like Thomas Mann also wrote musically and wonderfully about music. I'm thinking of how Hans Castorp fastidiously cares for and is exalted by the sanatorium's record collection.

In my teens and early twenties, I read more music criticism than anything else, and found that while some of the best critics (the jazz writer Martin Williams, for one) showed a command of musical theory, many (such as most of the major rock critics) had limited technical knowledge of music, but could still describe how something sounded, where it came from, how it felt to listen to it, and maybe use it as a means of talking about sociology, history, race, and broader aesthetics. Greil Marcus is one of my heroes in that latter camp. Among contemporary noncritics, Dana Spiotta, Jonathan Lethem, and Ed Skoog are a few who write perceptively about music and music fandom.

No love for Steve Almond's Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life? I thought he made some great points about criticism -- and you've written a fair amount of criticism yourself.

I've enjoyed two of his other books, but I kind of sidestepped that one. In promoting the book, he wrote an attention-grabbing little commentary piece about music criticism that turned me off. I can't access the piece without paying, and I don't remember it with unimpeachable clarity, but I seem to recall it leaping from a self-deprecating account of his own stint as a pop critic to the silly suggestion that all music criticism was in the end pointless and cynical, that the listening experience could never be properly put into words, that the critic who found fault with an arena show was just a wet blanket -- something like that; I shouldn't summarize from memory. And sure, there's lots of lazy snobbery and fashionable nonsense in music criticism, but among the best critics there are passionate, discerning populists who quite cannily evoke (and enrich) the listening experience. I won't let what I perhaps wrongly remember as a blanket dismissal, however, lead me to a blanket dismissal. Probably the short piece wasn't wholly sincere, and I trust you that the book has more interesting things to say; he's written some funny and heartfelt stuff.

Boarded Windows is one of those books where you read it and sort of suspect that the character is an avatar of the author. In fact, it's got a lot in common with "bad dad" memoirs. In calling it fiction, are you simply giving yourself some license and wiggle-room to invent, or are you commenting somehow on the idea of memoir?

The narrator is in some ways an authorial surrogate, in that he and I are the same age, have lived in the same places, share some occupational experiences, and have sometimes strikingly similar tastes, though he probably overrates Bolling Greene. Still, the story and characters are invented, and none of the core material -- the narrator's odd parentage, for instance, and his confusion about his origins -- are drawn from fact. I'm lucky in that my own parents have always been loving and supportive. The book is in large part about loneliness, and like anyone I can draw from personal experience with that, but the narrator is considerably more forlorn and confused than I am, and -- I hope -- more inclined to think irrationally and make bad, selfish decisions. He's also better looking, allegedly.

The narrator has been telling versions of his story for a long time. In his weaker moments (frequent) he wants it to bring him cachet and sympathy. He doesn't quite know what it is he's writing, but I think he might see it as a kind of cooked memoir, full of highly reconstructed dialogue and other novelistic devices, but aiming to be essentially true, which involves being faithful to how incompletely he knows his story. I'm a regular reader of personal essays, and seem drawn to fiction in which the distance between author and narrator seems small (but might be big); I suppose I was shooting for the sometimes uncomfortable, though for me comforting, intimacy one finds in the best of that sort of work. I didn't plan this, but you're right that the book echoes actual memoirs by, say, Stephen Elliott, and my friend Jennifer Vogel, and maybe especially Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, though that one I haven't read.

The narrator mulls his own process quite a bit, worrying over what he gets "right," and where he's conflating or inventing. Why was this an important element to include, particular when it's a fiction?

Once I settled on a first-person narrator who's something like a memoirist, I tried to work within his dilemma: he wants to tell a story about his past, but he's saddled with gappy and contradictory information and his own naturally imperfect memory, can't or won't consult the key primary sources, and would rather live with some mystery than come to a more complete understanding of the sad facts. On one hand he wants to be a straight shooter; on the other he's evasive and only interested in truths told at a slant. At any rate, the world's blurry to him, and I want the reader to share in some of his bewilderment. I didn't study it closely, but one model for me was Lydia Davis's The End of the Story, whose narrator is all the time coloring in details about a long-ago affair, but is just as often questioning her motivations, acknowledging her lapses in memory, and leaving all these lacunae. Memory becomes a dream world, but a certain mnemonic realism is also observed, sometimes to comically fussy effect. It's been a long time since I read William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, but that was also a back-of-mind presence.

The narrator is a fan of singer Bolling Greene's. The lyrics of the music, which is actually your own music, repeat in the novel. Which came first, the songs or the story?

The story mostly preceded the music, though to some extent the book and songs were written simultaneously. I was originally interested in depicting a somewhat romanticized provincial bohemia, and thought a fictionalized version of '70s outlaw country could help me do that. In writing little critical appraisals and discographies of Greene's work, I came up with a bunch of song titles and lyrical fragments, a lot of them pretty silly, and eventually started turning some of those into playable songs. Greene is supposed to be an also-ran who's had moments of greatness. That second part put me in the awkward position of trying to write a great song by someone else, which seemed even more inhibiting and doomed than trying to write a great song by myself. Also I wanted to avoid pastiche. My solution was to imagine that I was performing unfaithful interpretations of Greene's songs, with added-on anachronisms and some lines that Greene wouldn't have entertained or tolerated. It was like I was covering (invented) songs from memory. A few of the songs were written after the book was finished, and some, despite the album's title (Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene), aren't "by" Bolling, but derive in other ways from the book's narrative, or borrow some of its phrases, images, or themes.

A related question: you've got either the songs, and then you write the novel, or vice versa. What did the novel -- writing -- let you express that the music did not exhaust, or the other way around?

I don't entirely remember how this went down, but I think the songs were initially procrastinatory. I'd reached an impasse in writing the book, and fooling around on the piano seemed more appealing than failing to write the book. I hadn't written any songs for several years, so it was fun just to have something new, and to do something immediate: My writing is usually rooted in improvisation of a sort, but it takes me a lot of revising, second-guessing, and frustration before I feel okay about it, whereas if I start a song after lunch, most likely it'll be ready to play before dinner. I think the songs can be enjoyed on their own, but readers of the book might see them as little rhyming footnotes with occasional steel-guitar solos and harmony vocals.

That was my experience, sort of.  I tried listening to both at the same time, but that was a problem: which Dylan Hicks, the writer or the musician, should get more of my attention? It really was like the soundtrack of the book, kind of its mood music lifted out. Every time I listen to it now, I recall the book.

That's great to hear, exactly what I'd hope for.

Wade Salem, the "bad dad" figure, is a pretty scuzzy dude. There's sort of a tradition of these characters who are difficult to like. Can you describe the process of walking that line, of maybe something you thought of including about him, but decided not to out of fear that it would make him entirely unsympathetic? And were you thinking of any other characters that successful walk that wire?

My first, fruitless attempt at this book was set in the seventies and written in the close third person with Wade as the protagonist. I eventually realized that I didn't want access to Wade's consciousness, that he had to be enigmatic and couldn't be too self-critical. But writing for a while from his vantage helped me sympathize with him. He is, as you say, pretty scuzzy, but also capable of kindness, though some of his kindness is ill-inspired. My hope is that he's both seductive and repellant, and that his allure at least flirts with the Mephistophelean -- that's rather too grand, and he's no genius, but perhaps he's sometimes witty and charming, as well as irritating, infuriating, not at all to be trusted. I was also thinking of bohemian con men like Dean Moriarty (Neil Cassady), of various Byronic heroes, and of the subject of Joni Mitchell's "Coyote."

I think Nicholson Baker is the only modern author to make an appearance in a book filled with references to art, music, literature, and philosophy. I can think of a couple reasons why, but why?

Let me think: a few living but quite elderly writers get mentioned -- John Ashbery, William Gass, Gary Snyder -- and someone rolls a joint on a book by Judith Butler, who's about Baker's age. But yeah, Baker is the only under-sixty novelist or poet to be named. The main thing is that I wanted the book's artistic and philosophical referents to come chiefly from the narrator's parents or parental figures. The majority of the references come from Wade, either in his tirelessly referential speeches, or through the narrator, who's constantly thinking of the music, books, and art that mattered to Wade. Though the narrator spends most of his time soaking up Wade's endorsements, in a few cases he tries to steer Wade toward something, such as when he buys a Baker book for Wade, who returns it. I put that in there for the potential pathos of the narrator failing to impress Wade, but also as a roundabout acknowledgement of one of my own contemporary influences. I do dislike it when artists are eager to name-check all sorts of impressive, canonical, or obscure figures from whom they've supposedly taken inspiration, but slow to admit their more obvious debts, and I hope I haven't used my characters to go through that procedure. Every so often Baker is a bit cute for me, but I feel a strong affinity for his work, and have certainly taken cues from him. Since my novel is set largely in 1991, the book the narrator most likely would have given to Wade is the great U and I, which, being in part about the anxiety of influence, chimes with my novel.

It's not terribly widely known, but Nicholson Baker was a musician, too! Bassoon! (Hard to imagine a bohemian bassoonist.) His early stories -- there are just a few of them -- are all about music. One's called "Playing Trombone," and it's about a prodigy who eventually tries to build the perfect trombone, if memory serves.

I haven't read those early stories, but I knew he studied music as a young man, and I loved seeing the photo of him with his bassoon in the Paris Review interview. (Great Amish or Lincolnian beard too!) I like how he weaves music into his novels. I remember an exclamatory aside about James Taylor's voice in A Box of Matches. There was nothing insightful about it, but the exclamation point was infectiously joyful.

Sounds like Boarded Windows was a while in coming. Do you feel like finishing the book opened anything like a floodgate for you? Are you feeling more drawn to writing or music at this point?

Alas, no. After I felt I'd finished the first book, I did have a confident month or so in which I was really churning out pages, but little from those pages is likely to survive. I'm making slow progress on a second book, writing a few songs and sort-of-poems, and doing freelance work. It's been great to play music again, but writing is my primary pursuit.

Photo of Hicks by Sean Smuda