To prepare for the upcoming Super Super Tuesday event on April 10th (featuring readings from the likes of John Jodzio, Dessa, Dylan Hicks, Lindsay Hunter, and Amelia Gray—judge for our amazing short story contest), I'd like to present to you an interview I did with Dylan Hicks about his new book, Boarded Windows, from Coffee House Press back in January for the Twin Cities Daily Planet. You can read my review of the book here.
What's it like to have your first book completed and published?
I just reread Phillip Lopate’s “Waiting for the Book to Come Out,” a great essay about the year before a book’s release, when the writer passes through, as he puts, “every emotion in the house, from rosy anticipation to exultation, megalomania, brooding, dread, cringing humility, avarice, guilt, and, finally, stolid acceptance.” As I write this the release is still four months away, and I’m more in the dread and brooding stage. But it was hugely exciting to have the book accepted, and so far I’ve gotten some kind responses to it, and have enjoyed working with all the people at Coffee House.
Do you have a second book swirling around in your head?
Yeah, although alas it’s been swirling around my head more efficiently than it’s been expanding in a word-processing document.
The book was originally set in North Dakota, and I was interested in depicting a somewhat romanticized provincial bohemia. The Minneapolis setting, then, wasn’t part of the book’s original conception, but once I moved the principal action here, I started to have more fun and, I think, write with more heart and confidence; perhaps that started to rub off on the sections set elsewhere. The book at least seems fixedly midwestern.
Because it takes place here, and because you've lived here (is that true?) how much of this book has to do with you and your experiences?
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 often strikingly similar tastes, although 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, or so he suggests.
Tell me a little about the character Wade. What's his deal? Sometimes he reminds me of the Motorcycle Boy from S.E. Hinton's Rumble Fish, but other times that idea gets deflated by how passive aggressive he is in his showiness.
Wade is a coke-dealing aesthete, an autodidact, and a con man. My first, fruitless attempt at this book was set in the seventies and written in the close third person with Wade as the protagonist. That failure proved useful, but 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. My hope is that he’s both seductive and repellant, that his allure at least flirts with the Mephistophelean, but that the reader sees that he’s capable of kindness as well, though some of his kindness is ill-inspired.
Tell me a little about Bolling Greene. It's not a real band, right?
Yeah, Bolling Greene is a fictional country singer-songwriter, mostly remembered as a second-tier figure in a moment I’ve modeled very closely on outlaw country. He’s something of a phony, but has grown rather honorably into his adopted roles, as persistent fakes sometimes will.
How many bands in the book are fake?
Perhaps about a quarter of the musicians referenced in the book are fake, and there are also invented movies, comedians, writers, brand names, and lots of made-up places. Sometimes it’s a blend: a fake album by a real artist, for instance, or a real painting in a fake anthology. A few of the fakes have been borrowed from other books in which invented artists appear, so I guess those fakes are in some way realer.
There are a lot of parallels in the book, between the names of many of your women characters, and the relationship between the narrators mothers and his love interests. Are there only so many types of people in the world?
I think that started when I realized I’d inadvertently given two characters—Wade and Wanda—similar names. I was going to change one of those names, but then decided I liked how it paired them. Later I decided to set a scene at a protest in support of the (actual) Marxist sociologist Marlene Dixon, whose name was close to that of one of the narrator’s mothers. Again I thought about changing the names to avoid confusion, but instead, perhaps perversely, chose to make the names even closer, so that we now have Marleen Deskin, Martha Dickson, and (passingly) Marlene Dixon. I guess this amused me. And in some goofy way it made the story more plausible: If this were fiction, the narrator might argue, wouldn’t the names not be so cumbersomely alike?
Anyway, while the narrator has no trouble distinguishing his biological from his adoptive mother, he is confused about their motivations, and about his origins in general, so having the nominal confusion in the book seemed to help amplify that. Those names are echoed again by the Maryanne character mostly because the narrator at one point thinks he has an opportunity to reproduce and improve a period from his childhood, the one in which Wade was his de facto stepfather, and moreover thinks this opportunity might have been elaborately orchestrated for his benefit. From Wade, Bolling, and others, he’s picked up some no doubt misunderstood philosophical ideas about copies and reproduction, and these ideas interact with questions surrounding his parentage. As to your question about the world’s limited types of people, there’s a line from Goethe that gets paraphrased in the book a few times: “If you ask what people are like here, I have to say: like everywhere!” I’m not trying to endorse or advance any grand theories with all of this, though; I was mainly just following hunches that seemed right for the book’s narrator and its form.
What do you hope to achieve by writing a story that is partly rooted in our world, and partly chained in a fictional one where Bolling Greene exists?
I like fiction—I’m thinking now of stuff by Borges, Nabokov, and Thomas Bernhard, but also recent work by Dana Spiotta—in which historical and invented artistic figures intermingle and perhaps blur. I love it when art criticism of a sort is joined with fantasy. Since many of the characters in my book are of questionable reliability, I sort of want the reader to be uncertain as to what’s real and what’s fake, even if the uncertainty sometimes arises at a passing reference to a romantic comedy or a hip-hop band. With pop music the line between real and fake is often fuzzy to begin with. I saw a presentation a year ago by Diane Pecknold, who was talking about Disney groups such as the Jonas Brothers. During the Q&A she related how her young son or daughter (I can’t remember), having recently learned about the Monkees, asked, “Mom, were the Monkees a real band?” Well, yes and no.
Why have a companion album? Why do you think this isn't done more often with books? I know it's not really the same situation, but I remember reading this Whitley Strieber book called Billy the same year the Tripping Daisy's I Am Elastic Firecracker came out, and every song seemed to fit the book so much that it seemed almost intentional. I typically associate music most with movies—if I had to choose a media to associate it with—but it's nice to make that connection with books, too.
It is rare, but I guess it’s happening more and more, and will probably get still more common as it becomes easier to incorporate music into ebooks. A fellow called Jesús Ángel García, for one, did something similar last year. Music was my only real creative pursuit during my teens and twenties. About a decade ago I grew disenchanted with playing music, and stopped writing songs for a long time. So it was fun to feel compelled to write these Bolling Greene songs, and then to write a few more that aren’t, to my mind, by Bolling, but derived from the book in other ways.
Is this how Bolling Greene would actually sound in the 1970s?
No. It’s sort of as if I were in a cabin with a copy of his greatest-hits album, but no stereo, but for some reason I tried to cover his songs from memory, or just from a title. There are a few lyrical anachronisms, such as to Pac-Man and Costco. And though I played with some country motifs, and the band and I nodded here and there to seventies singer-songwriters, there wasn’t a careful effort to make a pastiche, which I probably couldn’t have pulled off anyway.