Several weeks ago I was fortunate enough to get to meet and talk with author Stacey D’Erasmo about her latest novel, Wonderland, the story of an indie rock star who returns to touring after a seven year absence. I reviewed the book here. What started with a straightforward series of questions digressed into a marvelous conversation about life, memory, and gender dynamics.
What prompted this story?
I was interested in the story of people who come back. I was interested in what it is to try to do it again. Not the first time, not the second time but the fourth time, after a long time away. I was very interested in that. I was very moved by that. I had this idea, this thing that I kept noticing of women who left various scenes, music scenes, art scenes, for a long time, and then returned.
Actually someone reminded me just the other day, years ago when I wrote for the Voice, I was fascinated by the story of Katherine Ann Power. She had been in the Black Panthers and she had been underground for years and finally the weight of essentially being underground for so many years took its toll and she decided to turn herself in. I was fascinated by that story because I thought ‘what is it like for her, because she wasn’t literally underground in a tunnel but she’s been in another identity. Now she’s coming back…someone coming back into the world after having left a certain very vital part of it and now, returning. And so it wasn’t really so much success and failure that was at stake, although that certainly is at stake in the novel, but it was awakening, like, wow, what happens. I’d love to ask Diana Nyad, doing that swim, age 62, whatever she is…
CG: which makes me tired even thinking about it!
SDE: it’s incredible, it’s beyond. But it’s that complicated act of returning to a former self, that of course you can’t ever return to, and returning to a former territory, a former world, a former role and what happens in that moment. I’m just really interested in that.
CG: I think that is one of my favorite lines, picking one sentence, there were many, but “Now I’m trying to go back to a place I’ve never been.”
SDE: Well, exactly…
CG: It just hit me. It was so profound. I thought it was a marvelous sentence.
SDE: What hit you about it?
CG: Because I think we all do that at a certain point. The what-if. And if you had it, as she did, then… but she still didn’t feel like she’d ever been there.
SDE: Don’t you think that’s true of really large things that happen to you? In her case she made this record, if you have a child, you…I don’t know, you fall in love for the first time, whatever it is, there’s a funny way that in the moment you almost don’t realize the magnitude of what’s happened to you. Do you know what I mean? And then years later, it’s almost like the reverberation catches up with you, many many years later. You go, ‘Oh my God, that’s when it all changed.’ And I think with something specific like the industry that she’s working in and the early success that she has. It happens so fast and is so unexpected that she can’t even really take it in while it’s happening. I’ve never had that but I think if you were that kind of musical sensation…how would you know? Do you know what I mean?
CG: Yes. It would be as if you’d never been there. Have I experienced this? Or did I just dream this?
SDE: Did this just happen? Laughs
You went out on tour with the group Scissor Sisters. What was that like?
It was fantastic, extremely interesting. It was also sort of hilarious because I was about 47 and it was like…I was too old to be there. Like, who are you? Are you someone’s mom? Why are you here? It was sort of funny because I was tagging along with these people who were much more glamorous and doing something that I totally cannot do and it was luxurious, which I was not expecting. You’re in a strange reality. You’re never in one place for more than 48 hours. It’s really dizzying. I was gathering up anything I could and writing down details as fast as I could because it is so fleeting and I really wanted to get that onto the page.
Because we were touring Europe in the summer when there are all these festivals I got to see glimpses of all these other bands and they’re all like these little traveling villages. It was astonishing seeing the size of some of these operations. That was completely interesting to me. I’m a writer! I sit in my house by myself and I type.
CG: Laughing I sit and read and then write. I’m alone all the time! This is a big night out for me. It’s like, I have to wear make-up and put on a bra—because it’s a solitary world.
SDE: Exactly! But our world is also a very very mobile world. If you’re the Black Eyed Peas the roadies have to go ahead and set it all up and construct and entire thing and then you do your act. It’s incredibly magical and incredibly ponderous.
The sense of dislocation comes across clearly in the book. Day is night, you eat sometimes you don’t. There is no peace to it- how can you stay focused and gathered to do your job?
It’s a different way of moving through time and space. It’s interesting because right now I’m on my book tour, which is miniscule compared to Scissor Sisters and it’s being different cities and staying in hotels but if you don’t surrender to the flow of it you’ll have a miserable time. It’s an interesting challenge because it’s like, let go of your usual routines or you won’t be able to do this.
So is a book tour like a rock tour—minus the roadies and groupies?
*Laughing* Yeah, at the end of the day it’s the same thing. Bring yourself, your actual mortal three dimensional self to these places so you can meet all these people and do your act. It is the same idea and it is really weird. It’s odd as I make my way as I make my way around the west coast and Texas. Along the way I’m seeing old friends, meeting people I’ve never met before but you have to learn to enjoy that lightness or it’s a misery.
CG: If you can embrace the sense of letting go, that you have no control, which is very difficult, I would imagine, for a writer…
SDE: Yeah, we love control! We sit in our house, make this stuff up, then go and have some green tea, then go back…
CG: Play with the cat…
SDE: Make a piece of toast! No, it’s a very different rhythm and parts of it are very enjoyable. Going to places I would never have gone to.
CG: Was there anything you saw that changed your thoughts or perceptions about the plot?
SDE: Yes. I understood the weird combination of lightness in skipping from city to city combined with long hours of drift. Sometimes we flew and sometimes we were on the bus. You arrive at the destination and have nothing to do for 8 hours. It’s a funny feeling of moving really fast and then being suspended in time. It made a huge impression on me. In regular life there is always something to do but on a bus in the middle of the Latvian forest there is nothing to do.
Anna has a secure everyday life, why go back on tour?
What happened was, before the book starts she had slid down a bit a bit from her previous incarnation of an indie star—with record one she kind of blew up with this unexpected success but by the time she got to record three it wasn’t working, it wasn’t gripping, it wasn’t holding. She had kind of walked away and couldn’t find her sound for a long time. Just before the book begins she’s found her way back, at least to making a CD, to get these tracks down and I would say that whether or not she knows it, in quite these specific terms, she’s thinking can I still do this, do I still have this or is this it? I’m going to give it one last shot, not just to make it in the world’s material terms but also to continue to create as an artist. And then with a record (what we used to call a record!) the next thing you do is you have to take it out on the road. That’s what people do. That requires letting go of the relative safety that she has in a job that’s steady. The other thing that is just prior to the book starting is that her marriage has broken up, this marriage that she thought would work, he was also a musician, he helped her make the record Wonderland. And I think that often in the wake of a very deep break-up people take other kinds of risks and so that’s what she does.
You mentioned your father earlier and how he brought a love of music into your life. It reminded me of the relationship between Anna and her father. His death was so devastating for her and I wondered why you think that was. Was it his death or what he had become in old age?
I think that for her she became an artist like him in a different medium but he, for reasons she can’t understand and that remained in a sense mysterious, he basically was unable to continue to be truly passionate about his art. He lost heart. And one of the things I think she’s mulling over and trying to figure out in the book is why did that happen and how does she get her own heart back.
We do see this where some artists have that hunger all their lives and keep creating and other people seem to fold up at a certain point and they’re done. Harper Lee. Ralph Ellison. We say ‘well, the first book was so massive that they could never’ but I don’t think that’s what it is. So, her father…with his death she’s mourning both him and the loss of him as an artist. He had been done for a long time.
CG: When she and her sister went into his studio after his death and she’s just so undone by the painting he’s done of the same field over and over—as if it were a betrayal.
SDE: Exactly. He was her hero in many ways and after being so bold and so incredible and game changing, he lost heart and basically was painting landscapes that were pleasing but had nothing else going on.
CG: Then there’s the fact that, even after death, he’s funding her return to her creativity.
SDE: Right! With that little piece of rubble. Laughs.
CD: It was such an incredible construct—that such a little piece of rock was worth enough…it funded her. It was kind of a pull, a contradiction, he was giving back to her…
SDE: Absolutely. That is absolutely right. It’s like…with someone who did the work he did, conceptual work; those are not objects that can be sold to make money. So what he had to give her materially was actually very small. That’s what he had given her so there is that feeling of ‘I’ve got this one last chip. I’m going to turn it in for some cash and make this record.
At the beginning of the tour Anna is nervous energy and anticipation, by the middle disharmony creeps in, where do you feel she is by the end of the tour?
I feel like it’s an optimistic ending, but it’s not a wish fulfillment ending, like “yea, an 18 record deal, meets the love of her life…no, no, it’s not that but by the end of the book she has chosen. She has shifted. She ends the book certainly happier than where she began but absolutely in a state of optimistic uncertainty. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.
CG: So maybe that’s the difference between the artists who can do the comeback and the ones who just stop? The uncertainty was greater than the potential to do it again successfully.
SDE: Right, if you’re not willing to take a belly flop, you’re not going to get out there. I don’t want to gender all of it but it is a common gender thing—we encourage boys to fall. I think it can still be hard for girls to allow themselves to do that. Too allow themselves to look foolish. To fall. To fuck up. To, you know, it can be hard for us, to be seen doing that.
CG: Do you think that’s a generational thing? Getting better now?
SDE: Oh man, I really hope so. That all those soccer girls are smashing into the dirt and getting bloody knees. I don’t have kids so I don’t know but the images I see on TV and in movies look that way. I’m going to say…we had I Dream of Jeannie and she lived in a bottle! laughing
CG: And only did what a man needed her to do!
SDE: But she always looked great in her little perfect outfit and hat! But I hope, I deeply deeply hope that this generation of girls gets permission to fall because it is absolutely true that that’s true how you get there.