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May 4, 2012

Matthew Friedberger Interviews Dylan Hicks

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Matthew Friedberger is a musician, his most recent solo album is Arrested on Charges of Unemployment. He is also a member of the Fiery Furnaces.

Dylan Hicks is an author and musician, his debut novel Boarded Windows was published earlier this month, and includes a companion album, Sings Bolling Greene.

Musician Matthew Friedberger interviews author/musician Dylan Hicks:

Matthew Friedberger: I know you've said that the record [Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene] isn't a compilation of illustrative examples of the musical world of the book, even though some of the song titles are mentioned in the book. "West Texas Winds" and "My Red Ideal"—obviously they're countryish songs, but listening to the record, I didn't imagine that these were actually the songs.

Dylan Hicks: Yeah, they're meant to be free interpretations. I was trying to avoid pastiche, so I kind of imagined myself in a remote place where I had a copy of Bolling Greene's Greatest Hits but no turntable, and was trying to play the songs from distant memory.

MF: Did you worry that by recording some of these songs you might inhibit the reader's ability to imagine the music as described in the book?

DH: Maybe a little.

MF: I don't think that examples ever really limit people's imaginings of things like that; I think it gives them something to play off, either positively or negatively.

DH: I suppose it'd be great if they listened to the record as its liner notes kind of advise. The notes suggest that the original music remains elusive, because these are covers, perhaps even grasping or inferior covers of things that are still unknown.

MF: How much have you been writing songs the last ten years?

DH: Not very much at all. My last record was in 2001. The songs I wrote in the year after that felt like songs I'd written before, so I stopped. After that I was doing journalism, sometimes music journalism, and I didn't want to be playing and writing about music at the same time.

MF: In another interview, the interviewer read the book as a Minneapolis novel. Not being a Minnesotan, I didn't take it that way; it seemed to me an environs book, a book about a region. And the narrator talks very much about having a car, not having a car, the car's broken, borrowing a car … How much does driving around make an old-fashioned city book not really relevant? I didn't get a sense of a city, I got a sense of people moving a lot. Do you think of it as a regional book? Is the depiction of the locales in which the book takes place important to you?

DH: Originally I was attracted to this idea of writing something about an isolated bohemia in north-central North Dakota. I had these hazy memories from my childhood of something resembling that. By the time I was remembering things it was the middle and late '70s, so the '60s counterculture was, by the standard historical argument, dead, but of course it lingers, on top of which I was remembering a place quite removed from the epicenters of bohemian activity. I wanted a romanticized version of that. But I ended up writing a different version of the book, and relocated much of the action. The Minneapolis stuff came without much planning, just from remembering and trying to describe the world of things.

MF: To me the most impressive description of place was the "In the Ditch, In the Ditch …" chapter, which is about walking. Almost the tone changes. I imagine that if you read that chapter at a reading, it would get laughs. When I first saw that you had a book with an album, I thought, Oh, that's nice, when he does readings, he doesn't have to read, he can play a song. Because there's nothing more dispiriting than people sitting around—not that you would be nervous—but sitting around listening to a nervous writer. And if the writer isn't nervous, it's even worse. Who wants to see a slick writer? I assume you have plans to perform the songs in some way as part of promoting the book.

DH: Yeah, I'll probably play a song or two at some of the readings, especially if there's a keyboard handy. And then we have separate band shows.

MF: Now I might remember this wrong, but I remember you saying to me that when you decided to think of yourself as a writer, you were relieved to be doing something where all you had to worry about was whether it was good or not—you were trying to make art, and it was as simple as that, even if that's quite complicated. You were happy to be out of the performance requirements of rock music in its various forms.

DH: That was probably sincere at the time.

MF: The other thing I thought when I saw you had a record, was, Ah, people just can't give it up.

DH: Yeah.

MF: Once you make a rock record, you can't stop doing it. Anyone will use any excuse to make one. I don't know if I have any of that right, but did you feel that you had to move to a literary culture from the rock-music culture to do work you were satisfied with?

DH: Well, it's always convenient to say that whatever you're doing right now makes the most sense. I started playing music when I was really young, as kind of a lark, but then later I started to have ambitions to do it professionally, to make it … not exactly a career, maybe not even earn poverty-level wages, but to turn it into something like a job. When that didn't work out, and I felt like I was repeating myself, I got disheartened. It felt like I was giving up this dream, and the only way I could that was to not do that at all.

MF: But the dream wasn't about making a just little bit of money. You don't have to be as modest about it as that. I mean, you wanted to do something you thought was good.

DH: In order to do it, though, I felt like I needed to put a fair amount of time into it, and I couldn't justify that at a loss year after year. Either economically I couldn't do that, or, at the time at least, it was difficult for me psychologically. You're right that it really wasn't about the money. It was just a point in my life where I hadn't figured out a way to make a living, or what I wanted to do. I was working uninteresting jobs.

MF: But you're never in a vacuum in that situation. Like you say, the impetus for your book was about little bohemian scenes, and you were part of a complex of scenes. Did you feel that you weren't supported, did you feel bored by it? You express it very nicely, because a lot of people don't talk about: I couldn't do it anymore. They'll say, My friends wanted to give up and get married, and have a lawn, and everybody started liking that other shit music that I refused to go in for. Now you're obviously more mature than that, so you're not saying those things, but I wonder how interested you were in the context you were working in. Now you're published by a Minneapolis press. You've switched support staffs, so to speak. I don't mean that to sound mechanical, but did any of those considerations come into play for you? Did it have anything to do with the environment you were in, or was it completely your own evolution?

DH: Mm, I don't know. A lot of it was my own change. I did well in English classes, but I wasn't a literary intellectual as a teenager or in my twenties. I was almost singled-mindedly focused on music.

MF: When did you become one?

DH: Well, I don't know if I really qualify at this point.

MF: Oh, come on! Why don't you qualify?

DH: I probably do.

MF: Probably? Who does, if you don't? I mean, I understand modesty. I understand that everyone has huge holes in their education, wherever they got their education from, from themselves or institutions, but come on.

DH: I don't know. There's a line in that Padgett Powell book The interrogative Mood. It's a book in questions, and one of the questions is "Do you know any bona fide intellectuals"? I guess I don't feel bona fide. I'm essentially monolingual, and I don't feel like a person of great ideas; I feel like a person who likes to read and who's pretty intelligent—

MF: There's a difference between being an intellectual and being a scholar. Monolingual, I mean, in pseudointellectual 101 you learn that the Greeks were a monolingual culture. If they weren't intellectual, who was? I think what you're talking about is cultural—

DH: Yeah, this may be a regional thing.

MF: You mentioned this in your author statement. You say that "talking this way is intolerable to my midwestern …"—I'm quoting you incorrectly, but you say "midwestern" and "intolerable." I know someone—he may even be related to me—who has written quite a few novels. I heard an interview with him on the radio in Chicago, and he said, "I don't think of myself as a novelist, I'm just a humorist." This guy has had his books translated across the world, but he wouldn't even call himself a novelist. Too pretentious to call yourself a novelist! Whatever his secret hopes and dreams are, he thinks it's a matter of politeness, intellectual politeness, to present yourself—not as unlearned as possible, but as if you're a bumpkin. So it's this midwestern reticence.

DH: Well, you've called me on something. Part of this is partly personal. I have intellectual insecurities, and then, as you imply to some extent, there's that risk of partaking in a kind of modesty that is in fact hubris, and I hope I'm not doing that.

MF: No.

DH: I feel confident about my abilities in—wait, at?—writing sentences and doing creative work, and less confident about generating original-seeming ideas. Maybe I think of an intellectual as a very rarified person whose way of seeing is much different than that of most of us, whereas I know that in conventional usage it's a lot less strict. In the Midwest—not just here, of course—but here there's a modesty and a lack of pretension that I like and would probably miss if I weren't here. But that can quickly drift into anti-intellectualism.

MF: I had a friend from Michigan say that in Detroit you get made fun of for making an effort, for working. In Chicago, you're meant to work hard, but if you take yourself seriously, you're made fun of. That's not quite right, because you can't be humorous about it in Chicago, you have to be very grim about it. But if you shift from the tone of the Chicago sections of Kenneth Rexroth's autobiographical novel—do you know that book?

DH: No.

MF: Everyone's an intellectual in that book, especially the prostitutes. And there's a big shift from that to the kind of writerly pose you get from Nelson Algren, where you're so much a working person that any trappings of being an artist disqualifies you from being an artist. That kind of attitude is important in the bohemian culture in general, and it was important in the rock culture. And all that stuff has a lot to do with masculinity. Being an intellectual is seen as not masculine, and if you're not masculine, you're not serious.

DH: In this book, too, the Wade character represents a bohemian ideal that rejects credentials and bourgeois status, and the narrator struggles with that.

MF: Yes. Wade has no shame about—he wants to make himself up, and he has no difficulty with that process, and the narrator does. But let me ask you some questions about actual writing. I was struck with the beginning, straight off on the first page, with you not writing "Etch A Sketch." Instead you write "our magnetic drawing toys." Later, you write "American hatchback," as opposed to Ford Escort or whatever. The Etch A Sketch thing was impressive, because Etch A Sketch is almost one of those names, like Kleenex or Vaseline, that describes the object. It's not a brand name anymore. In another part of the book, you have—it's like a line from a country song—"My Coke was a Pepsi." But in general you don't use brand names, you'll say "regional brand," "preparing my toasted sub sandwich." For the "magnetic drawing toys," I assume you chose the phrase, and that was more important than avoiding the brand name.

DH: In that case, there was another toy that you erased differently, you erased it by sliding a bar, whereas the Etch A Sketch you erase by shaking it, right? And the Etch A Sketch you operated with those two knobs, whereas I'm thinking of the one where you write with a little stylus. The only reason that's important—

MF: It's very important.

DH: —is that wanted the idea that Wade was "erased" from the car window in that sliding way, although the toy erased things horizontally not vertically. I looked up what that other toy is called, but I've forgotten it.

MF: Well, I completely misread it. But I never had an Etch A Sketch. I didn't know there was another one.

DH: They're of the same family.

MF: There's another phrase: "pretentiously named Nixon-era Apartment building." A lot of writers might come up with some ridiculously glib name for the apartment. But especially in the beginning, you didn't do that. It was very descriptive as opposed to going in for something big, loud, and catchy.

DH: I like it when there's a joke there, but you haven't really told it. Then the reader is invited to say, well, what might that apartment have been called?

MF: Exactly. My experience of the opening of the book was that you were very much inviting the reader to describe along.

DH: I don't have a policy about product names, but I dislike it when I read contemporary fiction that seems full of product placement for which the artist wasn't even compensated.

MF: Of course, there are lots of times, especially if you're dealing with American subject matter, where you can't shy away from brand names or things that sound like brand names.

DH: Yeah. There's some Annie Dillard line against the use of all product names. That seems austere.

MF: One of the most striking sentences to me in the book is a description of an erection, or not an erection. You write, "She said she'd love to see me, said so with a mellow yet frank enthusiasm that made my penis creep tinglingly away from my slightly tacky testicular skin." You must have been proud of that sentence—it's one of the least invigorated descriptions of getting an erection I've ever read. I assume that was the intention.

DH: Mainly I was trying to describe a real feeling.

MF: Let me ask you just in general about the masculinity of the narrator. He describes himself: "My unusual handsomeness (really, alas, it's a kind of electric cuteness) …" It's not only emasculating—"cute" as opposed to "handsome." But you use "electric," and I read that as making him a thing instead of an animal. It made him tool-like.

DH: That was a funny part of writing of the book. It came to me in the middle of writing it that this guy is probably quite good-looking, because—

MF: Because I'm quite good-looking?

DH: That was the problem, that it would seem to the reader like a wish-fulfillment thing.

MF: Would that be a problem?

DH: Maybe not. The book's autobiographical elements are to me kind of superficial. I realize that by not naming the narrator I'm inviting the reader to conflate the narrator and the author.

MF: You're trapping the reader to do so.

DH: Yeah, and there are a lot of biographical, geographic, and demographic parallels.

MF: There was something in it that I thought you actually said it to me. It was about being sober.

DH: Undoubtedly. I put many of my own thoughts into his head, like a lot of writers do, as well as thoughts I don't share, or only shared while writing this.

MF: I read somewhere that in some coming-of-age books, whether presented as fiction or not, the central character or narrator is a version of the author, and in others, the narrator or central character is played by the author. In other words, as opposed to the character being an ideally good or bad or indifferent self-description of the writer, the details of the character are filled out with details from the author. And those are the best kind of coming-of-age books, because the writer is forming the character out of their own traits, along with the fictional incidents and the actions and reactions forming the character in the book.

DH: All of the more substantial material that the narrator's working with—these issues of paternity and maternity, his isolation and extreme loneliness—all of those are invented. I mean, of course I've dealt with loneliness, but all of that more substantial stuff is made up.

MF: Right, right, but getting back to his relative deprecation of his own masculinity: it was so consistent in the book as to draw it into question. He didn't necessarily think of himself in these terms.

DH: A lot of the stuff he's dealing with is contrasting himself with the Wade character, who is at once more conventionally masculine and probably more—well, Wade would probably say "polymorphously perverse."

MF: He wouldn't give a description of himself having an orgasm by saying, "all these qualifications are tiring even me," as the narrator does. To some extent, the narrator thinks of Wade as someone who has the power to fashion himself however he likes, and the narrator doesn't give himself that ability. Does the book present that as a generational thing?

DH: I'm not sure. I'd originally tried to write this thing in the close third person from Wade's perspective. That was useful, but I found later that Wade had be pretty mysterious, and I couldn't have him be too self-aware. It ruined it when I tried to introduce more interiority to that character.

MF: Well, that's very interesting. I mean, he doesn't think twice.

DH: Yeah, right. The Wade character, even though he's troubling character and unlikable in many ways, he's that fantasy of being—not unselfconscious, but not nearly as self-conscious as the narrator, who's constantly apologizing and equivocating.

MF: But one thing he doesn't apologize for is saying mean things about the Maggie Tollefsrud character, who's introduced as a "failed singer-songwriter." She's not just a singer-songwriter, she's a failed singer-songwriter.

DH: Yeah, the narrator is kind of a jerk, and at least can be. I hope the reader will have some sympathy for him, but he's not a man of the highest moral or ethical standards, and he's something of an opportunist and a sponge.

MF: Do you worry about people having to empathize or identify with your characters? Or do you take pleasure in putting them off?

DH: I tend to be wary around really ingratiating narrators, where I start to feel that the writer is desperate to be liked, and wants to do that by having his or her narrator be charming and funny and clever, but also down-to-earth and essentially good, able to learn from mistakes, and so on. I often see that as another irritating love-me device. But then there's that other mode of depicting darkness and ugliness, and hoping that people will applaud you for that, as if that's really so unusual or brave. Hopefully there's a balance here between those poles. I haven't gotten a lot of responses to the characters, since the book isn't out yet, but some seem to find them really unlikable.

MF: I'm surprised by people's tendency to not like characters. But maybe when I read a book, I don't expect to like the people. I saw a film—one of the great movies, The Roaring Twenties—I saw it in a movie theater not long ago. A guy got up at the end of it and said, "I didn't like anybody in this movie! What a terrible movie!" And I was shocked that he didn't like anybody in the movie. They're nearly all likable in that movie, except maybe the Bogart character—I don't know if you know that movie.

DH: No.

MF: It's a Cagney movie. But even the Bogart character is understandable. So first of all that was a shock. And second of all, what has that got to do with it? This was in the sort of movie theater where people aren't supposed to say things like that. These were supposed to be clever, very self-regarding people who wouldn't be quick to say things other people might find stupid.

DH: As a reader, I tend to think more about the writer's decisions. I do imagine the characters as actual individuals, and I can get drawn into a the drama, but I'm usually more focused on the writer's decisions.

MF: Well, that's the thing. When you read something or watch something and you get interested in the writer's or director's or musician's decisions, it draws you into the material more; it doesn't alienate you from the material. Even if you are alienated by the characters—or the writer's treatment of the material in general. That kind of thing is more entertaining than likability. Don't you think, Dylan?

DH: I tend to think so. As a reader I'm usually hoping to develop some sense of intimacy with the writer. Of course sometimes that comes about because the writing displays wit, magnanimity, intelligence, and other qualities I'd associate with likability in regular life. But often it's about honesty, and in most cases it's hard be honest and remain "likable" in that test-audience way we're talking about. I'll sometimes read about a book whose characters are said be so lifelike, it's as if they "walk right off the page," and I'll look at the book, and think, Yeah, they're walking right off the page and onto the set of a sitcom.

Dylan Hicks links:

Dylan Hicks's website
Dylan Hicks's Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist essay for Boarded Windows

Matthew Friedberger links:

Matthew Friedberger's Wikipedia entry
Matthew Friedberger's MySpace page
Fiery Furnaces website

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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