Bio-based fiction

This essay was originally published at

Instruments by Steve Miller, from the exhibit "Buncombe Built" at Asheville Area Arts Council

Instruments by Steve Miller, from the exhibit “Buncombe Built” at Asheville Area Arts Council

Since publishing How to Talk to Rockstars, a novel inspired by my work as an arts and entertainment reporter at The Mountain Xpress, I’ve been answering a lot of questions about how much of the book comes from real life.

It’s a reasonable question. Even though the novel is fiction (the producer/Roxy Music star Brian Eno makes a cameo, but all of the other characters are from my imagination), it does dovetail neatly with my day job. In fact, without the experience of countless hours logged on the phone (and occasionally in person) with touring musicians, I wouldn’t have had a story to write.

I live in Asheville, N.C., home of Thomas Wolfe who famously wrote Look Homeward Angel and infamously filled it with thinly veiled characters drawn from people from his hometown. While the book is, today, part of the literary cannon, in 1929 the people of Asheville didn’t take it so well. Wolfe barely returned to town after the publication of his magnum opus.

That’s not what I wanted for Rockstars. I did want to book to pay homage to the artists, albums and venues that have meant so much to me, but I didn’t want to make anyone feel weird or uncomfortable. It’s possible that I erred too far on the side of caution as even those characters who borrowed the most from Asheville-based musicians have yet to be identified by my friends who’ve read the novel.

Blake Burris aka Shake It Like a Caveman, onstage at Jack of the Wood

Blake Burris aka Shake It Like a Caveman, onstage at Jack of the Wood

For that I’m actually glad, but not because I feel bad about creating fiction from real-life inspiration. In fact, I think it’s an important literary tool and an inroad to rich fiction. In Rockstars, main character Bryn — a shy music journalist who learns to navigate the very extroverted world of bands, concerts and stages despite her own very introverted tendencies — originally gets into music writing because a guy in a band treats her badly. We’ve all been there (if not with a guy in a band then the cool artist, aloof poet, star soccer player, etc.) and one balm to the sting of rejection is a revenge plot. Not to carry out revenge, of course. But to think about it. The perfect retort, the steady-handed delivery of justice.

That’s where fiction comes in. While real-life revenge is kind of sociopathic, revenge on the page is (for the most part) a healthy outlet. Especially when it transcends pettiness and leads to greater creativity. Bryn’s plan is to become a music journalist so when Preston Schotte, the burgeoning rockstar who blew her off, finally releases an album, she can pan it. But she quickly finds that music opens a whole world to her that is much richer and more interesting than simple pay back.

That particular situation is not culled from my own life. There was no Preston Schotte. There was, however, a Dex Danson (not his real name). Here’s a passage from How to Talk to Rockstars based on a real-life experience with getting stood up for an interview:

The interview time came and went, and Bryn sat alone by her silent phone. An hour passed, though she knew by fifteen minutes in. He wouldn’t call. Eventually the publicist called, said Dex Dansen wasn’t available after all. He couldn’t do the interview, and he wouldn’t be able to do it later, either.

Bryn sat for awhile longer with her notes in front of her. She read over them again and scratched out a couple of unfortunate word choices. She felt sort of like a blind date left sitting in a restaurant, picking her way through the bread basket and watching the ice melt in her water glass.

The blind date knew, almost immediately, that she was being stood up. There’s a sense. The first five minutes, she chides herself for being cynical. Ten minutes in she takes a different tact. I hope he isn’t hurt. I hope nothing bad happened. At fifteen minutes, she gets angry. When he shows up, I’ll let him know he should have called. Being late is one thing but not to call? And finally, at twenty minutes, she begins to accept what’s happening. It’s just a matter of how much longer she needs to sit so that, when she leaves, she’ll know she was, indeed, stood up. She won’t be left wondering if she’d just given it ten more minutes…

But no.

And then all the lead up, all the one-sided conversations, all the what- ifs, all the projections of happily-ever-afters—all of that has to be unraveled.There was never to be a happily-ever-after with Dex Dansen. All he denied Bryn was an interview. A story that she alone would get, and then not get. But he also denied the place she’d set for him at the table.

It happened, though. Rockstars, by nature, were required to turn down a certain number of interviews. And reviewers, by nature, were required to not really care. So Bryn learned to play her role, keeping a backup plan at the ready, trying find the balance between not doing enough research and over-investing herself.

She learned to draw a line between respect and admiration, and actual love. Love was for real people. Flesh-and-blood people. People who called. People who showed up for coffee and for movie dates. People who were there after work and on the weekends. People who were not rockstars.

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