Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The hilarious Johnny Pigeau of Backbeat Books & Music talks about rewriting the Bible (and a novel, The Nothing Waltz), math problems, selling books and so much more

If someone is hilarious and irreverent, they usually go to the top of my list--and that would describe Johnny Pigeau, owner of Backbeat Books & Music, in Perth Ontario, (6 Wilson Street W, Perth Ontario,  K7H 2M5) a fabulous store that sells books, vinyl, CDs, DVDs and off-the-wall gifts. I so liked the way he formatted the interview that I left it alone. And I deeply appreciated his attempt at my math problem. Thanks, Johnny!

YOU: You not only sell new and used books, but you also sell vintage vinyl (my husband has our entire basement filled with vinyl), DVDs, and funky gifts. I love this because I bet it means that people come in for a book and they might leave with a lamp shaped like a rocket ship, too. Any further plans for the store?
ME: It’s quite true. People often come in looking for Alice Munro’s newest book, say, and leave with a stack Wham! records and a table lighter from the ‘70s that looks suspiciously like a grenade. Another customer was thrilled to walk out with a tiny Hohner children’s accordion and a Brunswick bowling pin. I believe his girlfriend bought a book.
And nearly everyone wants to buy my U2 “Desire” poster, but, um, no, that’s not for sale.
I’m addicted to thrift shops, flea markets and auction sales, so the shop is always filled with funky gifts. We mostly sell books and music and movies but sometimes that can get boring. You gotta amp it up sometimes. If you leave our shop without at least checking out our vintage Parakeet Training record (“Your parakeet can teach itself to talk!”), well, I’ll consider that a serious personal failure.
YOU: You are an author, too, with a book coming out this January, THE NOTHING WALTZ. So that means I have a million questions for you. First, tell us about the book--which sounds great. How do you manage to write while running a store? What was it like writing the book and what's your daily writing life like? As far as process, do you plan things out or do you write and hope for the best? Are you already writing another book?
ME: Indeed, I am an author. In grade six, I rewrote the Bible. Well, part of it. I made up a bunch of new commandments. True story. Got a check mark. (It wasn’t a formal assignment.)
More recently, in 2009 (ignore what Amazon tells you), I wrote a novel called The Nothing Waltz, which garnered some wonderful reviews and is in its third or fourth printing. I always have a difficult time explaining what it’s about, so here’s the helpful back flap synopsis: “The Nothing Waltz is the story of a misfit. Pigeau, follows the anxiety-riddled misadventures of the prematurely wealthy Finny McKee as he struggles to reconcile a perpetual adolescence-filled with fear, booze, and a string of bewildered ex-girlfriends-with his yearning for an adult relationship. Despite the dubious help of his friends, a troubled collection of fellow eccentrics, Finny finally stumbles into that elusive relationship when he meets Kathleen, a free-spirited single mother. His newfound happiness, however, is threatened when an unexpected crisis forces him to make a difficult decision ... and confront a lifetime of fear.”
I wrote the book before we opened the store, actually, and thankfully I had been awarded an Ontario Arts Council grant which gave me the time to write the book. Writing the book was a fun, exhilarating, nerve-racking, hair-pulling experience. Many moments of great creativity and breakthroughs and the joy that comes with molding a character that feels very real and complex and multidimensional, but there were also moments of pale white terror and feverish doubt and long brainstorming sessions/therapy at the pub when it felt the whole thing would never come together. But thankfully it did and lots of people seem to like it. I credit fairy dust, beer nights and my lovely wife, Erin, for keeping me sane throughout the process.
I did plan the book. That is, I knew the basic story, but then it took turns of its own as the characters became more and more real to me, fleshing themselves out and leading the way, as it were. Writing a novel truly is an organic experience, I found. You get stuck, you curse, you nap, you throw out lots of paper balls. You wake up at 3 a.m. and everything is clear and the next thing you know the sun is rising and you’ve written 40 pages that, when you read them a bit later, are truly (and bizarrely) a pleasure to read. And I don’t mean that in a braggy way. It just happens: you surprise yourself. It’s like a mechanic at day’s end thinking: “Holy crap, I just took that car apart and reassembled it and now it’s purring like a kitten.” I often wish I was paid as much as mechanic.
I’m currently working on my second novel; it’s called Speck (the main character’s name is Templeton Speck) and is due out in the Fall of 2013. Basically, it’s about a shopkeeper who one day realizes he’s living a second-rate sort of life. He’s nearing forty and he’s totally bummed out and baffled as to how to remedy his situation. Templeton’s single, childless, mortageless, perpetually broke, and essentially takes care of his messed up family: a once famous and now drunken father, a sweet, agoraphobic older sister, a rebellious hipster nephew, and a homeless step-mother. Really, it’s more cheerful than it sounds. To me, there is humour in most everything. And if you don’t find it, you’ll go batty. Templeton Speck agrees.
It’s also one man’s spiritual journey; it’s not all all about owning a crappy car or living in a cramped apartment with leaky pipes or eking out a living. Finding your place on the planet is every bit as important, if not much more important, than how much money you earn. As is finding love, that one Big Love. And that’s something else Templeton comes to realize over the course of the novel.
YOU: Can you talk a bit about events and your store? What has worked well (and were there any funny disasters?)
ME: Sure. For two years now, we’ve had a very successful reading series at the shop. It’s called the First Edition Reading Series and we’ve been privileged and honoured to play host to some incredibly talented authors, including some national bestselling authors—Steven Heighton, Tish Cohen, Catherine McKenzie, Terry Fallis, Alison Pick and Tanis Rideout (to name only a few)—and some of Canada’s finest poets, including Phil Hall, who won the 2011 Governor General’s Award (Canada’s version of a Pulitzer) for poetry. Margaret Atwood has agreed to read in Perth in 2013, so we’re looking at organizing a literary festival in Perth—unless she wants to read in our shop, with its 20-seat capacity. That would be super neato cool!
No disasters to speak of except the night we brought in a local country musician and one person showed up. I felt so bad I took the guy (the musician) to the tavern on the corner for drinks. Haven’t seen him since. Hope he’s okay.
YOU: What three books and three albums are you pressing into everyone's hands these days and why?
ME: We’ve been selling Beatles’ albums like crazy since they’ve been remastered and reissued on 180 gram vinyl. Jack White’s album Blunderbuss has been the biggest seller all year, and we’ve also sold quite a few Tom Waits’ records lately. People love them some Tom Waits. Great singer-songwriters—Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Springsteen—seem to sell best around Perth because there are so many musicians here, I think, and people who just love quality music.
As for books, lots of people are picking up Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things, a gorgeous, lyrical first novel that weaves George Mallory’s ill-fated 1924 quest to be the first man to conquer Mount Everest with that of a single day in the life of his wife, Ruth, as she waits at home in England for news of his return. The book will be released in the States in February, I believe; trust me, you’ll be hearing lots about it quite soon!
What else?
Katherine Monk’s Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell, an illuminating, in-depth portrait of Mitchell’s life so far, has also been selling well. She’s a fascinating artist and it’s a well-written book.
A third book doesn’t immediately come to mind but zombies do—anything about zombies is a popular choice right now. Perhaps not coincidentally, Margaret Atwood’s next book is about zombies. Now that will be interesting!
YOU: What's obsessing you now and why?
ME: Recently, all this Black Friday and Cyber Monday nonsense. Be smart, shop local. Would you rather have a funky indie book and music shop in your town or a boarded up storefront? Indie book and music sellers have to adapt their models to a changing market or they’re history. That’s clear to me and that’s why we are bringing in more and more vinyl (it’s making a huge comeback!), and soon, turntables and musical instruments. Thankfully there are many great folks in our town, as in many others, who will always shop locally realizing it creates local jobs and injects money into the community’s economy. We love those people. When customers become more like friends, you know you’re doing something right, and that’s a remarkably wonderful feeling. Also, they will bring you yummy cookies. So, hey, free cookies! (Suck it, WalMart!)

YOU: And finally, if a train going 60 miles an hour is heading west and another train going 3.5 miles an hour is heading southwest, at what angle will the two trains meet?
ME: Don’t trains go a lost faster than 60 miles an hour? They certainly boogie around here. I like riding the train. See lots of pretty girls on the train. Also, peeing while standing and not soiling yourself in one of those tiny washrooms in a speeding train is quite a feat! Proud to say I’ve accomplished that numerous times. At all sorts of angles.


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