Friday, January 1, 2016
The South in the 70s. Heartbreak. Soundtracks of our lives. The deep, twisting roots of love. Ed Tarkington talks about his incredible debut, Only Love Can Break Your Heart.
"Love can make people do terrible things." Have you ever read a better line? Ed Tarkington's written for Post Road, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere, and his fabulous debut, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, already has a starred Library Journal review, comparing him to Wiley Cash and Ron Rash, and the novel deserves all the acclaim it is garnering--and more. And here is a fun and wondrous fact (for me, anyway)--I didn't know Ed before my genius editor, Andra Miller, at Algonquin Books, gave me his book to read, sure I'd love it, and then we found out we share the same genius agent, Gail Hochman! I'm so happy to have Ed here. Thank you, Ed.
I always want to know what sparks a book--what was haunting you at the time so you knew you had to write this?
Well, to tell you the truth, I've known I was going to write this book since I was a kid. I had an older half-sister whom I really loved. She turned me on to the music that makes up the soundtrack of the novel, so to speak. Like Paul in the novel, she smoked in the house. I knew she was a bit of a bad girl. What I didn't know--what I didn't find out for several years--was that she was struggling with mental illness, which really thwarted and overtook her life and caused a lot of pain for her and everyone around her. I didn't really find out how bad things were for my sister until I was about ten, when she attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol. That night was also the first time--one of only two times, as a matter of fact--that I saw my father cry. The combined effect of those events moved me profoundly. It was, for me, the origin of the urge, you might say. I understood implicitly that the only way to make sense of the emotions I was feeling would be to write about them. Still, I pushed the core conflicts and characters in this story away for a long time. I needed to find a way to distance myself from the more personal elements of the story. I also had to overcome the fear--acquired from years of mainlining Cormac McCarthy, Robert Stone, and Denis Johnson--that this material wasn't serious or edgy enough. Mercifully, I got over myself and became the writer I was meant to be from the beginning.
I loved the clear, strong indelible voice of Rocky in Only Love Can Break Your Heart. How difficult was it to find that voice and get it to live on the page--and get it to grow through the years?
Thank you. Coming from a writer I admire, your words of praise mean so much. I agree with you that voice is the key to everything in writing--what my friend and teacher Bob Shacochis calls "the music of the story's intelligence." And I think the way into the voice of this book for me came through music. I'm still a vinyl record collector, with an old Technics turntable and a Pioneer receiver and the same records I started collecting after my sister gave me The Best of the Doobies and CSNY's So Far for my sixth birthday. I turned back to that music for the mood of the novel, and the voice flowed from there.
You captured the world of the 70s perfectly. setting off a backdrop of big world events against a sleepy Southern town. How much was memory, how much imagined, and how much do you wish had been imagined?
Well, it's kind of a weird hybrid. To be honest, I don't remember that time that well. I was too young. Beyond the typical markers of time--changes in fashion, technology, etc.--it's all sort of gauzy and indistinct for me, the way I think everyone remembers the earliest years of childhood. What I do remember, very well, was how I felt when I got a little older and began to learn more about what was happening in my family when I was a happy-go-lucky kid, oblivious to the very real adult problems going on around me. I suppose I wanted to meditate on that feeling of longing, and on the process of disillusionment that we all go through as we get older and realize the world was not as it seemed when we were innocent. To me, the 70s in America was the decade of disillusionment. The shine came off of everything. Between Vietnam and Watergate, for young people, trust in the adult world was at an all-time low. The pop culture that had excited everyone in the 60s wasn't doing too great either. Instead of being fun and experimental, drugs turned mean and scary and dangerous, symbolized by the deaths of Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison. Elvis got fat and turned sad and embarrassing before dying in a really pathetic way. The Beatles had broken up and taken to publicly sniping at each other. After a period of very dark and drugged out brilliance, the Stones went disco. It was just terrible, you know! But it was also, I think, a much freer time for young people. Technology has really sort of put a leash on childhood. We're always on a camera somewhere, and thanks to smartphones and social media, kids are hardly ever lost or out of reach. Back in the 70s, you could still disappear, which was both thrilling and terrifying.
Tell me about the soundtrack to your novel, in particular Neil Young/
When I was a very young kid, my friends and I started identifying with these counterculture icons of so-called classic rock music. Not yet articulate enough to do it with our own words, we used rock'n'roll to make sense of our feelings. We idolized the likes of John Lennon, Neil Young, Dylan, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Pete Townshend. Our music heroes legitimized our insecurities. These were all pretty masculine, sometimes swaggering dudes who nevertheless were unafraid to be emotionally vulnerable. Thanks to my half-sister, I was hooked on Neil Young early on. I think Neil became the ultimate symbol for me, because he played this terrifically furious, loud rock but also these soulful, sensitive acoustic ballads. He sang about love and heartbreak, but he also had a social conscience. He did whatever he wanted and couldn't care less what the critics had to say about it. He still does. Back then, having Neil Young on your t-shirt was a way of telling people that you didn't give a shit what they thought about you. For a troubled, vulnerable, insecure kid, Neil was like a suit of armor, in a way. I imagined Paul in the novel being like this. Paul dealt with the pain of his dysfunctional childhood by pretending to be Neil Young--or his idea, constructed from his music and his image, of what Neil Young was like. In the end, of course, you have to figure out how to be yourself--to stand on your own, so to speak, without the crutch of a borrowed persona. Both of the brothers have to learn this, in their own ways.
The relationships are like jagged edges, sometimes, and as Patricia says, “There are different ways of loving someone.” There’s love to the point of madness, accepting love, love with secrets--and without. Can you talk about this please?
In my imagination, Patricia is a person who is very much damaged by love. I think this sense of having been broken--maybe a little warped--by having their love for others betrayed or exploited is a big part of what draws Patricia and Rocky together. There's so much risk in love. Everyone has secrets, some they're keeping for better reasons than others. Sometimes love brings out the worst in us--jealousy, possessiveness, even violence. And of course, as you and I both know as parents, love for a child is both sublime and terrifying. And as our children grow older, we lose the illusion of control over their lives and have to just hope for the best, knowing that they are going to face some struggles we can't help them around.
I also love the line, “Every soul is itself.” That people have layers, and sometimes you don’t see the real person, but it’s there.
Yeah, I nicked that line from Peter Shaffer's play Equus, which figures prominently in one of the novel's subplots. I saw that play performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in the early 90s. It made a big impression on me. When I started writing this novel and was trying to imagine a means for Rocky, the narrator, to create a life for himself apart from his idolatry of his brother Paul, the play just seemed like this perfect vehicle. As I read it again, I found that line, and it really jolted me, both as a way of expressing the complexity of human character and the hard truth that we can't change the people you love. They are going to be who they are, regardless of how we feel about it, or how much it hurts us.
There are so many delicate and wonderful moments of love: when Old Man quietly tells his wife that he would never stop her using the credit cards if she left him, but he would use the trail to find her; when Leigh and Paul stand on the stage bathed in light, and most profound and moving, the very end, where you delve into the love of these two brothers. Do you think there is ever something you would NOT risk for love?
That's a tricky question. My wife would probably laugh at this--in person, I tend to come off as being a little sarcastic, and I'm probably better in writing than in real life at articulating my emotions--but I am, at heart, a pretty hopeless romantic. Now that we have children, however, everything's different. The sense of responsibility we feel to our kids outweighs everything. But that's love, too. And fortunately for me, my wife and I are still very much in love--just a more mature, less impulsive version of the same love we felt for each other when we were crazy kids, richer and deeper from the seasoning of time. Of course, there's always risk in love, but it's mostly the kind that's beyond our control. Some people try to insulate themselves or the people they love from the inevitability of pain and loss. I choose to embrace those realities as essential parts of the human experience.
What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or just wait for the pesky muse?
I have learned over the years to be very disciplined. I work in the early morning hours, five days a week, on a rigid schedule--up at 3:30 a.m., at the computer at 4, work steadily until 6:15, when it's time to get everyone up for school. On holidays, I can sleep a little later and write a little longer. I think writing fiction--at least our kind of fiction--depends on a balance of inspiration and doggedness. We live for those days when you feel as if these incredible words are just flowing off of your fingers, but I think we earn those moments by being willing to put in the long hours where you feel like all you're doing is pushing a heavy cart up a steep hill. As far as outlining goes, I do outline, but fairly loosely and with a lot of openness to change. I need to have a clear idea of where I'm going, but I also want the writing process to be one of invention and discovery. I like that feeling when the characters become fully formed enough that they seem to start making their own decisions, and I love those little 'Eureka!' moments when I'm driving around or jogging or something and a great twist of plot or a solution to a problem in the narrative just comes to me. You have to be open to that, I think.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Well, right now, I'm pretty distracted, with the book coming out and all that involves. It's both exciting and a little frustrating, because it's hard for me to buckle down on the next novel with so many things happening for Only Love Can Break Your Heart. I guess my big obsession right now has to do with the weird shape American culture is taking as we head into the next election cycle--namely, how a pompous billionaire has somehow become the spokesperson for the disenfranchised working class. That's sort of the question I'm plumbing in my next novel: why do poor people worship the rich? It's not a new problem; Dickens wrote about it over and over again. So did George Eliot, and Wharton and James, and many others. But I'm interested in the shape that question takes in our time.
What question didn’t I ask that I should?
It's not really a question, but one of the more exciting things going on with the book has to do with a promotion Algonquin has put together with my friend Will Hoge, who is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and performer from here in Nashville. Will was one of my early readers, and has written and recorded two songs inspired by the book, and Algonquin has printed a limited run of vinyl singles with the two songs. Will is also appearing with me at the book launch in Nashville and maybe a few other dates down the road if we can work it out. The music is really amazing. Will is a phenomenal songwriter and performer, and his tunes really capture the mood and sensibility of the novel in a fresh and original way. He is also a dear friend and incredibly generous essentially to have donated his talents and reputation to help broaden the audience for this novel. We just did a joint interview yesterday for the Tennessean newspaper, and we both came to realize in that conversation with the journalist writing the piece how many similarities exist in our separate creative disciplines, and how much they complement each other. The record symbolizes the value of this relationship--and of our friendship--in a really meaningful way, I think. I feel really fortunate not only to have Will's support, but also to have the opportunity to "collaborate" with him and for us to share this experience together.