My Novels Have Soundtracks

One thing that spurs my writing these days, perhaps more effectively than anything else, is a form of music known as “classic rock.” Luckily for us boomers, there are plenty of online radio stations that provide us with these blasts from our past. They make us feel nostalgic for the old days of antiwar protests, civil rights marches, mini-skirts, bell-bottoms … and maybe even “bummers.” I wasn’t brave or stupid enough back then to embrace the drug culture, apart from a few tokes now and then on a peace pipe or a bong. I was a rather sheltered child, to tell the truth. Still, the era of rock and roll dating roughly from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was my particular magic time.

While often raucous, classic rock, at least to my ear, made greater use of melody and harmony than many of the forms of music that gradually overtook it, such as garage and grunge rock, hip hop, and punk. The “British invasion” bands that reached U.S. shores during the early 1960s, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, are often credited with having launched the movement simply by growing more sophisticated as they aged. They provided the basics, but I was equally dazzled in my youth by figures such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Doors’ Jim Morrison. Hendrix and Joplin died suddenly in rapid succession soon after I started college in 1970, and Morrison followed less than a year later. Although others rose up to replace them, there’s nothing like sudden death to romanticize a rocker’s life.

YouTube makes it particularly easy to get quick jolts of the old music when I need them. These, for better or worse, provide more effective inspiration than my current slide into old age. Many of the old records have been re-mastered, which has made them sound better than new. That’s a great thing, although I sometimes miss the imperfections of my old vinyl records. Complete with scratches and skips, they were truly the soundtrack of my youth.

My first novel, Secretarial Wars (2003) was inspired by the partying and clubbing I did in my twenties, while holding down a fairly boring day job. The contrast between day and night life was a theme of the story. Nowadays I live such a prim and proper life, rarely deviating from my strict schedule unless traveling, that it’s hard to believe I was ever that wild. But I must have been, because the song that brings that era back to me in an instant is Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which celebrates the shameless joy of a casual hookup.

After Secretarial Wars, I wrote a campus-based novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007). As a freshman at my small-town college, I felt homesick and friendless at first. The taped music that played in the dining hall often matched my mood, especially the haunting Bee Gees tune, “Lonely Days,” with its strings and minor key. My outlook improved when I met my husband-to-be, and our soundtracks became the bands we saw together, including Elton John (pre-fame), Stephen Stills, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton (twice in one year), the post-Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and many less well-known acts. Now, although we’re divorced and living on opposite sides of the country, my partner in music and I still reminisce and text each other tips for good YouTube listening. I can pretty much relive the ups and downs of our relationship by firing up the British group Blind Faith: “Sea of Joy” for the happy times, “Can’t Find My Way Back Home” for the confusion and sadness that overtook us.

Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my second music-centered novel, was inspired by the Beatles’ story. That is the band whose entire oeuvre reflects my life back to me. It’s a tapestry that took them, and me, from puppy love (P.S. I Love You, Happy Just to Dance with You) to cynicism about love (I’m Looking Through You, No Reply), to peace-and-love idealism (All You Need Is Love, The Word), and toward some kind of hard-fought wisdom about the music business (You Never Give Me Your Money, Carry That Weight). And I musn’t overlook their psychedelic period (Within You Without You, Tomorrow Never Knows), although I mainly experienced that vicariously.

The rock band in my novel forms in high school during the late 1960s, kicks out its original drummer (as the Beatles did to that poor schmuck Pete Best), and then takes off on wild adventures around the world, including time in a Scottish religious commune (replicating the Beatles” sojourn with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India). Then my band heads to California, where the big music festivals are, and embroils itself in the antiwar movement.  This somewhat reflects the temporary radicalism of John Lennon, who moved to New York with his second wife, Yoko Ono, after the Beatles broke up. That pair put out an album full of political screeds, “Some Time In New York City,” which only tended to prove that heavy doses of politics don’t do anything for music. Only the closing number of that misbegotten album, an exuberant embrace of Lennon’s new home entitled “New York City,” is still worth a listen.

Handmaidens of Rock, being chicklit of a sort, focuses on the three women (actually girls at the start) who latch onto the band. Candy, Hope, and Theda disdain the groupie label, being ambitious in their own right. My musicians, much like the Beatles, discard their first loves, the ones who met them as kids and nurtured their pre-fame ambitions. Sad to say, that is typical behavior for rock stars once they hit the big time. There must be hundreds of books about the Beatles, and I’ve read quite a few of them, but none moved me as much as the autobiographies of Cynthia Lennon and Pattie Boyd, the first wives of John and George, respectively. Although they got left behind, they found the strength to tell their stories. My “handmaidens,” too, I’m glad to say, landed on their feet.

Reality-Based Characters Too Real?

To be honest … how many of us authors are willing to admit that much of our fiction is thinly disguised autobiography? And are there times when it’s so thinly disguised that it’s barely fiction at all? I suspect this is particularly true of debut novels, and I’ll cop to it myself. My first two, Secretarial Wars (2003) and The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) feature, respectively, a working girl version of me and a college student version of me. Later, I tried to branch out from myself a little more, since I don’t find my own life endlessly fascinating and I doubt that many readers would either. I suspect that most authors, if they keep at it, become more skilled and imaginative at altering reality.

This topic occurred to me recently while I was immersing myself, yet again, in the recently published letters of Sylvia Plath. During her lifetime, Plath enjoyed her greatest publication success as a poet. When asked about her poetic process in interviews, she described it as highly personal, derived from physical and emotional experiences she’d had.

The same technique of utilizing true-life situations for fictional purposes seems more problematic. A narrative is much more likely to evoke real people, who are sure to recognize themselves and might react badly. Plath encountered this phenomenon once she completed her only novel, The Bell Jar. Her British publisher expressed concerns about possible lawsuits, and Plath wrote a detailed letter in an attempt to address the issue.

There’s no denying that The Bell Jar is an angry novel. The central event of the story, the nervous breakdown suffered by a bright college girl, was based on her own breakdown in the summer of 1953. As described in the story, many people contributed to the girl’s troubles, or at least failed to give her the help she needed. These characters are easily recognizable to anyone who knows her history, and to deny their connections to real people seems disingenuous.

Still, Plath wrote to her publisher: “I’ve gone through the book with great care and have prepared a list of links of fiction to fact, and a list of minor corrections which should alter most specific factual references.” Accordingly, she changed many names that were in the original manuscript. She went on to explain that the setting for the first half of the book was based on the Mademoiselle College Board Program for Guest Editors, in which she participated during June 1953. She changed the number of participants from 20 to 12, and claimed that all twelve were fictitious. But in later years, researchers were able to locate the prototypes for all of these young women, and they all admitted to recognizing themselves.

Plath also claims that her heroine’s supervisory editor at the magazine is fictitious, and at any rate there were dozens of editors at Mademoiselle that summer. The only unfavorable thing about her in the story, according to Plath, was that one of the girls described her as “ugly as sin.” If I were the editor in question, I would probably consider that insulting enough, even if my professional skills were never called into question. Likewise, Plath insists that the initial psychiatrist whom the girl consulted about her deteriorating mental state, and who failed to adequately supervise a shock treatment, could be based on any psychiatrist in the Boston area. But that appalling instance of malpractice actually happened to Plath, and I would think the real doctor deserved to be exposed.

Some of the portrayals of people closest to her proved most painful. Plath admits in her letter to the publisher that the mother in the book is based on her own mother, and is a “dutiful, hard-working woman whose beastly daughter is ungrateful to her.” True, but that mother also comes off as an uncomprehending, platitude-spouting dimwit. Aurelia Plath didn’t read the book until after Sylvia’s death, since her daughter purposely kept it from her. But the portrayal reportedly struck her to the core. Similarly, Plath transformed the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, a major financial and emotional benefactor to her during her college years and beyond, into a comically bad romance novelist called Philomena Guinea. This was a rather stunning act of ingratitude, since Prouty was the one who paid for Sylvia’s psychiatric treatment at a high-quality hospital, which effectively saved her life at that time.

There was also the clueless boyfriend, a medical student who denigrates the girl’s poetic interests because they aren’t science, and therefore not as important as what he’s doing. Is he really sufficiently disguised, as Plath insists, because there were many blond, blue-eyed boys who went to Yale and became doctors? And then there was Jane Anderson, a fellow inmate at the hospital where Sylvia spent six months, whose name was changed to “Joan” in the novel. Many years later, she actually sued the Plath estate, because the character based on her committed suicide in place of the heroine. Anderson, who in real life went on to become a psychiatrist, contended that the portrayal harmed her professionally.

It may seem mean-spirited to criticize Plath at this late date, for writing the novel she evidently needed to write. But it can’t be denied that she published it under a pseudonym, and tried to keep it under wraps as best she could. If she admitted to family and friends that it existed at all, she describing it as a “potboiler, and just practice. Nobody should read it!” Clearly, she feared the reactions of real people.

Maybe if Sylvia Plath had lived long enough to write her own autobiography, she would have explored the roots of these characters, much as the late novelist Pat Conroy did in a couple of autobiographies toward the end of his life. For Conroy, the process of making fiction from reality seemed to work in reverse: rather than pummeling those who had failed him, he tried in some ways to make his harrowing childhood more palatable. For example, he used his own father as the inspiration for the tyrannical military father in The Great Santini, but made him nicer than he actually was, giving him credit for acts of kindness that never happened. Donald Conroy apparently chose to embrace the sanitized version of himself. He even accompanied his son on some of the promotional book tours, posing as the original Great Santini.

So it appears that reality-based fiction can address our emotional needs in many ways … to satirize or to humanize or to exaggerate the traits of our friends and enemies and everyone in between. Can any of us claim that our stories are totally made up? If so, they’re fantasies … and I suspect there are some grains of truth to be found even in that genre.

The Bad Boyfriend Analogy

Somewhere in the blogging universe several months back, I read a rave review of actress-writer Amy Poehler’s 2014 memoir, Yes Please. It was described as a good read for anyone trying to succeed in the arts and encountering mostly frustration. I wondered how this could possibly be true, considering the amazing successes Poehler has enjoyed, including being a full cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2008, and then starring in and co-writing her own series, Parks and Recreation, from 2009 to 2015. What could she possibly have to say to the struggling artist?

Some of her opening remarks in the memoir struck me as encouraging, although perhaps disingenuous. For example: “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect.” Is she telling us satisfaction remains elusive for her, even after having acquired fame and fortune through constant effort? And also: “I am struggling every day, just like you.” I doubt that her struggles are equal to the average creative striver, although maybe she’s simply asserting that she knows what it is to struggle. This is her explanation for the anger she let loose at an aspiring writer who had the nerve to approach her on an Amtrak train and dump his screenplay in her lap. That person, in her view, was trying to take a short cut to success, something she didn’t have the luxury of doing. She spent years honing her craft in humble improv and comedy clubs. Some lucky breaks did come her way, she acknowledges, but nothing was easy. By a combination of good fortune, a natural zest for performing, and most of all perseverance, she was able to impress the kind of people who could help her.

Poehler discusses some of her enduring insecurities, including major doubts about her looks. She has the face of a comedienne rather than a beauty queen, but she found a way around this early in her career. Improvisation provided a way of becoming somebody else, anybody else, at will. Ironically, she devotes part of her book to complaints about the difficulty of writing a book. She just comes straight out with it: “Writing a book is hard!” Don’t we all know that? She offers the only possible solution: “Just do it!”

Poehler’s best piece of advice, in my opinion, can be summed up by one of her chapter headings: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Passion, she explains, is not the same as career. Loving what you do may be a prerequisite for accomplishment, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. You may feel yourself falling in love, but who knows if the object of your passion will reciprocate the way you want him to, for as long as you need him to? Poehler herself was going through a painful divorce while writing the book, and was still figuring out how to co-parent two young sons, so her choice of a metaphor might have been influenced by real life.

That phrase struck an immediate chord with me, as I realized that the unreliable suitor could be a metaphor for any hobby, any relationship, any sports team, or anything else you are irresistibly attracted to that continually lets you down. Since the pain is still relatively fresh, I chose to apply that advice immediately to a certain baseball team that takes me for a ride every season and then drops me off in the wilderness, lost and abandoned. Baseball has always been known to imitate life in many ways, and I admittedly take it too seriously, so why shouldn’t I treat my favorite team like the worst boyfriend ever? My Washington Nationals have won four divisional championships in the past six years, and failed every time to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Talk about a guy who takes you to the prom, buys you a lovely corsage, and then dances with someone else, or worse, leaves with someone else. Or a guy who proposes, and then never sets the date.

Bad boyfriends always have their ingenious excuses, just as the Nationals have a plethora of reasons why they’ve never gotten over that hump. This year, in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series, Matt Wieters, the stalwart although light-hitting Nats catcher, got hit on the head by the follow-through of a batter’s swing. Because of the violent contact, the pitch should have resulted in a strikeout, and the inning should have been over. As it turned out, nobody in authority knew the rule that pertains to a catcher getting beaned. Everyone, including the committee of six umpires and Nats manager Dusty Baker, was caught up in that cluelessness. No one but the catcher himself seemed to know enough even to argue, and it’s doubtful how articulate he was after getting his brain rocked. Maybe that also accounts for the flaky things Wieters did in the immediate aftermath, including a passed ball and a wild throw that cost the Nats two runs in a game they eventually lost 9-8. Some fans continue to malign him, saying he should have reacted like a professional even under duress. Maybe the life lesson to be derived from this is that the worst boyfriends always have the most creative reason for not showing up. “I was in an accident” is a classic.

Since baseball isn’t as heart-rending for most people as it is for me, and there really isn’t anything even an ardent fan can do about it, I’d advise you to apply the bad boyfriend rule to things you can actually control. We all need a little validation to wash away the inevitable bouts of self-pity we suffer when it seems nobody understands us. If your novel simply doesn’t grab the reader, the fact that you spent years writing it will not alleviate that problem. Even the blog articles that we labor over might go days or weeks without being “liked” or commented on. Fans sweat along with their favorite teams at the crucial moments as if they were on the field themselves. Then, as likely as not, they face a long winter, unrewarded.

Amy Poehler would advise us not to bother at all with these endeavors unless we can find a way to enjoy the process. In other words, don’t expect too much. Don’t sweat it. Maybe that good review will come out of the blue. Or it might be a review that’s not so good, but at least shows that the reader took our book seriously and sort of got it. That bad boyfriend might forget your birthday, and then show up unexpectedly one day and bring you flowers for no particular reason at all. So be joyous, Poehler says, but don’t expect to be satisfied. And be careful what you wish for, because the small successes will only make you hungry for more.

The Illiterate President

American history is a long, absorbing tale made up of countless episodes and intriguing characters. The republic began as a radical dream of economic freedom and political independence, cooked up by a handful of East Coast intellectuals who were exuberantly aware that they were committing treason against the British Empire. These ideas spread until they became a cause that enough citizens (although nowhere near a majority) were willing to fight for. The story continued to unfold on a landscape that encouraged westward expansion, a movement that seemed inevitable, yet presented many obstacles and challenges. Several decades after its founding, the young republic was put to the ultimate test when it became plain that two diametrically opposed economic systems, one based on slavery and the other on paid labor, could not remain one. A long, bloody civil war was fought to settle this issue in favor of freedom.

The story never stops unfolding. Democracy is continually threatened by both internal and external forces. In the present day, an unfortunate set of circumstances has elevated to the presidency a kleptomaniac with an untreated mental illness. He was assisted by an anachronism known as the Electoral College, a system originally designed to ensure that under-populated areas of the country would be given a voice. It has served this purpose, but in the present day, long after the nation has ceased to be predominantly rural, it continues to give these areas inordinate power. The electoral process in 2016 was further disrupted by interference from a foreign adversary, probably with the full cooperation of the winning candidate and his campaign. Donald Trump’s ultimate goal is to install a Fascist dictatorship, answerable only to him. Our place in history will depend on how well we resist this threat.

One of Trump’s worst qualities, apart from his extreme narcissism, is his ignorance. These traits are actually two sides of the same coin. His lack of knowledge is something that could have been remedied in school, or by reading books. But how can you educate someone who seems to think he was born knowing everything there is to know? He must have been a nightmare to his teachers. This man is emphatically not a reader. That would require a level of concentration, and an ability to immerse himself in another person’s ideas, that seems beyond him. The American story reads like a novel, with its twists and turns and nuances. It takes real effort to absorb all of its moving parts and get it whole.

Trump recently exclaimed over his incredible discovery that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Does anybody else know that? I bet nobody else knows that!” Actually, that is a fact well known to any halfway attentive school child. He wonders why “nobody” has thought about the causes of the Civil War, which must be the subject of millions of books. Has he ever cracked one open in his life?

Abraham Lincoln was indeed a founding member of the Republican Party. The newly minted party of the 1850s took in both abolitionists and the more moderate proponents of “free soil,” a movement to stop the spread of slavery into territories that were yet to become states. Lincoln at first adhered to the free soil platform, and only gradually became a full-fledged abolitionist. As president, he held back until it suited his military strategy to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The Democrats of that time were generally a pro-slavery party. They continued to hold the south through Reconstruction, and for many years after that, until a gradual realignment began to take place. This movement picked up speed just before and during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and included a major shift in the alliance of African American voters.

The idea of party realignments that unfolded over a period of more than a century would make Trump’s eyes glaze over, if someone were foolhardy enough to try to explain it to him. How to make him understand that the Republican Party has evolved into something that Lincoln wouldn’t recognize? That would be beyond the capability of an extreme narcissist who doesn’t believe in anything except his own life story, suitably embellished to remove any fault.

I like the idea of a president who values the truth that can be found in books, including novels that don’t claim to be the literal truth. When I first read Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father shortly after his election to the presidency in 2008, I thought it read like a novel. Some critics have gone so far as to call it historical fiction. It’s a youthful autobiography, first attempted after Obama’s election as the first black president of Harvard Law Review. By his own admission, it gained only modest attention and lukewarm reviews. A second edition came out during his campaign for the Senate in Illinois. In the foreword, he admitted that some of his writing in the first edition made him cringe in retrospect. Judging by that statement, he showed more self-awareness in his thirties than Trump has ever shown in 70 years.

Obama admitted in that foreword that he occasionally used fictional elements. “There are the dangers inherent in any autobiographical work; the temptation to color events in ways favorable to the writer, the tendency to overestimate the interest one’s experiences hold for others, selective lapses of memory … I can’t say that I’ve avoided all, or any, of these hazards successfully … the dialogue is necessarily an approximation of what was actually said or relayed to me. For the sake of compression, some of the characters that appear are composites of people I’ve known, and some events appear out of precise chronology.” Again, Obama acknowledges falling short of perfection, something that Trump seems incapable of doing.

Can you even imagine Trump reading a novel? That would require him to embrace a world not his own. He’d need to exert some imagination, to develop an attention span of longer than five minutes, to stick with a narrative that stretches beyond 140 characters. Trump is too busy reigning over a fantasy world in which he is the unquestioned supreme dictator of the United States, if not the galaxy. He is Superman and Batman rolled into one, a godlike creature who ordered the sun to come out at his inauguration. Soon he will command the Israelis and Palestinians to embrace one another, and ISIS to disband and give us all their oil. How can they not obey? He is the all-knowing, all-powerful Trump, who surpasses any hero in fact or fiction.

Did Fiction Have To Ruin Her Family?

After reading Jeanne Darst’s entertaining memoir, Fiction Ruined My Family, I can’t argue with her assessment, but I wonder if it had to be that way. Her father was a newspaper reporter who’d had some success publishing magazine articles. He gave up regular day work to become a novelist, and managed to crank out two full-length books. Both were rejected by the publishers of his choice. He never considered revising the novels to suit his chosen publishers, or submitting them to a wider range of markets. Instead he worked a series of temporary jobs that failed to keep his wife in the manner to which she’d been accustomed in her aristocratic youth. She became a bitter alcoholic, and their four daughters had to largely fend for themselves.

It makes me wonder: if self-publishing had been a viable option at the time, would Jeanne’s father have considered it? He seems to have had a generally optimistic outlook on life, a love for all kinds of literature, and the dynamic intellect necessary to promote his own work. But self-publishing requires a certain lowering of expectations that was probably beyond him, considering he couldn’t swallow his pride enough even to revise his work.

The memoir is humorously written, but has elements of tragedy. We see how an endeavor that should be joyous and entertaining can ruin an individual and even a family. Jeanne managed to redeem her own story, despite a broken marriage of her own. She has written and performed solo plays while raising a young son and conquering her own alcoholism. One possible moral to take from all this is that fiction can be fun … as long as we don’t expect to get rich from it.