About the Author:
Dylan Hicks is a songwriter, musician, and writer. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, New York Times, Star Tribune, City Pages, and Rain Taxi, and he has released three albums under his own name. A fourth, Sings Bolling Greene, is a companion album to his first novel Boarded Windows and will be released in May 2012. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Nina Hale, and his son, Jackson.
On Boarded Windows: Brad Zellar and Dylan Hicks in discussion
Brad Zellar: Let’s talk about the genesis of the book. The challenge always seems to me to be what book to write. What’s the great Lewis Carroll quote? “The question someday will be not what book to write, but which book.” I know you started writing something longer quite a few years ago. Has it always been this, or was there something earlier that you scrapped, or has this book just gone through many iterations?
Dylan Hicks: Well, when I left City Pages, one of the reasons I gave for leaving was that I had an idea for a novel, which I suppose in some ways was this novel. But I didn’t really have anything; I hadn’t written anything, at least, and I didn’t start writing this novel for a year and a half or so, in November of 2007. But the seed I had when I was just talking, which does relate to what became the novel, was a scene from my childhood, a scene in a parking lot of the Minot Municipal Auditorium, where Waylon Jennings was performing a concert. I think we saw him twice there during the late seventies. The time I’m remembering was probably from 1978. It was one of those memories that felt vivid, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how hazy it really was, which is a nice place to invent from.
Anyway, it made me think of the counter-cultural milieu that I may have seen in central North Dakota as a child, and may in part have imagined. In reality my parents were pretty straight at that point, but they were members of the counterculture when I was born, in 1970, and by the late 70s there were naturally still vestiges of that in my upbringing and in the air. And there were other people around us who were products of campus activism, or from some other hippie sect. We talk about the sixties-born counterculture as being in decline by the late seventies—really not in decline but in defeat. But often in the Midwest and certainly throughout the country, much of what we associate with sixties activism, for instance, doesn’t really happen until well into the seventies.
Brad Zellar: It’s curious to me that you talk about protest and dissent, the politics of the counterculture, but there’s also, as we’ve said, the trappings and the pop culture, and I’ve always thought it was interesting—your book deals with this, and your Waylon story deals with this—that if Waylon Jennings comes to play an auditorium in North Dakota, it’s a counter-cultural event. Sha Na Na came to Austin [Minnesota] and it was a counter-cultural event. The hipsters would go to see them because they were emissaries from the outside world.
Dylan Hicks: In Minot there was a little leftist newspaper that, I think, one of the professors put out, and there was a record store with a head shop. And my dad had some friends that were definitely outsiders—but, you know, they’d also golf at the public course, so there was this mixture. Outlaw country appealed to me in that same way, that it obviously grew in part out of the hippie scene in Austin and elsewhere, but it was also socially conservative in many ways, and was still deeply embedded with the Nashville establishment, or at least it’s most famous practitioners were; they were change-from-within types. And outlaw country became faddish when the mainstream packaged it as an alternative to itself.
Brad Zellar: Right, it was the great musical contradiction. Johnny Cash could be fast friends with Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, and also record with Bob Dylan. Country was the great cultural contradiction of the sixties and seventies. These guys are probably the only artists of our lifetimes that could have their cake and eat it too. The Johnny Cash of my childhood had very broad appeal in a blue-collar, slaughterhouse town. You’d hear him everywhere: the guys who boned hogs listened to him, and the hipsters listened to him.
Dylan Hicks: Anyway, as often happens, this inchoate sociopolitical idea of mine didn’t really lead to a novel.
Brad Zellar: Right.
Dylan Hicks: I originally approached things in the third person, and the Wade Salem character was the protagonist. Eventually I decided I didn’t really want access to his consciousness, or I only wanted it through whatever he’d say, or what he might betray through his actions. If he weren’t mysterious, I figured, he wouldn’t be alluring in that Mephistophelean way I had in mind. And that appeal only made sense to me psychologically if it was filtered through someone who might romanticize him, so I settled on having the child in my initial attempt narrate as an adult, and the book turned more into a memory novel.
Brad Zellar: Wade’s a devastatingly effective character, perhaps especially so given that the narrator is almost diligently a cipher. Wade Salem is both this monologist and this chorus, and he provides almost all of the background information, some of which may or may not be trustworthy. One of the really
interesting things about the book is how virtually every source of information in it is unreliable. An unreliable narrator is kind of a cliché, but in this book it’s not just that the narrator is unreliable, it’s that he himself doesn’t know what’s what. Wade Salem is hugely entertaining, and he has most of the great lines in the book, and all the big set pieces with the exception of one that I can think of, but you absolutely had to have an outsider seeing and recounting his behavior, because what you hear from him is that he’s not terribly self-aware. Well, at least not in the modern sense.
Dylan Hicks: Yeah, I have Wade reveal a few instances of self-doubt, self-deprecation, or insecurity, but I tried to limit that. When I was trying to write in the close third person with him as the protagonist, I kept introducing how I tend to depict inner life, which is long on those things: insecurity, self-doubt, and so on. And more than a dab of that seemed to destroy his character.
Also—this may have been a failure of imagination—but when I started writing in the first person, as someone who is precisely my age and is in some ways an authorial surrogate, even though we don’t share experiences, and I hope we diverge significantly psychologically, as well as in other ways, the demographic commonality between me and the narrator seemed to free me. If I were making a cultural reference, or reacting to something, I felt it was probably authentic, that it might be odd but probably convincing; I wouldn’t have to think so much about whether someone twenty-five years my senior would really think that. Granted, that’s the sort of thing novels are supposed to do, imagine other minds, but creating an authentic older protagonist wasn’t my chief aim. The same goes for setting the book mostly in Minneapolis; even if I made something up, or included something about the city that wasn’t quite accurate, I didn’t worry, because I felt I knew Minneapolis, and that the inventions or inaccuracies were part of the fiction, whereas if I’d tried to set the book in Dubuque, I would’ve been anxious about misrepresentation.
Brad Zellar: That’s that fine line between a character and a narrator. As a character Wade is very entertaining, but as a narrator he’d be insufferable; he’d probably still be entertaining, but he’d be much less mysterious and sympathetic. It’s interesting to me that in the earlier version of this book I saw, the narrator was named. He’s now unnamed, which I think is much more effective for his character. This is a very sharp and funny book, but it’s also extremely sad, one of the loneliest books I’ve ever read. And I think the contrast between the narrator and Wade, who for all of his monologues, his passionate excursions on all manner of topics, for all that I don’t sense loneliness or regret, he doesn’t have those shadows. At what point did you decide to lose the name, and make the narrator even sketchier than he was in the in first version?
Dylan Hicks: One reason is that I never really liked the name.
Brad Zellar: Yeah, I didn’t like the name either, I’ll be honest with you. I think it’s more effective to have him be unnamed, because the essential nature of his character, and his voice, and his doubt, and his sadness, is that he doesn’t really have an identity, and the things he knows seem to be appropriated.
Dylan Hicks: I guess another reason for dropping the name is that often when you have a first-person novel with an unnamed narrator, the reader is especially invited to conflate the narrator with the writer, and that conflation can have a certain voyeuristic pleasure. Sometimes, if the writer is fairly well-known, that pleasure is related to celebrity: How much of this is Lydia Davis, or W. G. Sebald, or whoever? Obviously I’m not the kind of writer who will inspire that sort of curiosity, but I think the blurring can add to the interest.
Brad Zellar: Well, I don’t think you should sell yourself short. And you’ve played right into my hands, in that I’ve looked at this book a lot, four or five times now in its various versions, and I’ve thought about it a lot. And we’ve lived through this long controversy about fictionalized memoirs and fraudulent memoirs, James Frey having to go on Oprah and basically bow to her, and apologize for having told lies in a work that was purported to be the truth. So I’ve been curious for quite some time if there would ever be a work of fiction that would be scandalously exposed as a work of complete truth. And I’m starting to suspect that that might be what I have here in my hands. When you took that name away, then I began to really think, this is scandalous. And you basically just accused yourself.
Dylan Hicks: Well, I do like the idea of inviting the reader to make those assumptions, because I think it probably makes the reading experience more interesting. I do share a lot with the narrator. I didn’t firmly establish his birthday in the book, but I took it to be mine, and that works out in the book’s chronology.
Brad Zellar: And did you or did you not work in a downtown chain record store during the exact same time period? I’ve seen you wearing cowboy boots. I’ve had conversations with you—
Dylan Hicks: In which I’ve said the same things my narrator says in the book?
Brad Zellar: Well, with some of these lines, there were these weird echoes. I was thinking, where have I heard this before?
Dylan Hicks: That’s always embarrassing when some topic comes up and you find yourself quoting something you’ve written, and so you try to paraphrase it so you won’t be that jerk who quotes his own material. It’s easier when the book isn’t out yet. So yeah, it’s true.
But then again, all the familial stuff: I mean, this character is essentially an orphan, and I’m nothing of the sort. There’s no Wade Salem in my life. My parents were very present, very supportive and loving; mine was a stable, middle-class household. My parents were divorced, but my father remained an active parent, and my stepfather was also a great parent from the start. So none of that material from the book is true, and that’s at least the narrative core of the loneliness we spoke of. So it seems to me that most of the significant stuff, the emotionally significant facts, were invented. Plugging in all the superficial autobiographical stuff just seemed useful. With this narrator I felt like I could weave between things I believe, things I halfway believe, and things I don’t believe at all.
Brad Zellar: What is wonderful about this book, and also something that I think will be challenging to a lot of readers, is that that conflation of fact and fiction, autobiography and invention, extends to everything; you can’t be certain if a band name, a literary source, a film, whether any of these are actual or not. A made-up book or something will be mixed in with the real, and they won’t be obvious fakes. There were many times—I’m obsessive about this stuff—when I’d think, how did I never hear of the movie, the card shop . . . ?
Dylan Hicks: San Pedro Cards & Gifts?
Brad Zellar: Right. It really takes away that feeling that I’m being pounded by somebody—I won’t name names—who knows way more about music or books than I do. And it’s consistent throughout the book, the unreliability extends in every direction. It’s an entertaining intellectual exercise to sort through those references to learn whether this is an actual work or not. Was that something that was a lot of fun for you to play with? This is a very ruminative, sad book, but then there are these bursts of play that are not part of the narrator’s world, they’re your world.
Dylan Hicks: That was fun. I’ve always enjoyed false discographies and false bibliographies. I think the Other Knee makes it into this book. That was a group I invented as a kid. I would draw their album covers. So it was fun in a long-familiar way to write songs and invent a discography for Bolling Greene, the country singer who’s a secondary figure in the book. And I like Borges and things that derive from his work. In a lot of fiction I enjoy it when imaginary and real things are blended toward a kind of realism in which people live in a slightly different world, one recognizably our own, but maybe with some different songs or cars or books or what have you. One thing that I dislike is when some name or song or television show is mentioned as if the reference were its own punch line.
Brad Zellar: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m trying to get at it. Those kind of references often serve as a lazy shorthand for ironists, or for establishing “I know enough about this character because he wore a Members Only jacket, or listened to a bad band.”
Dylan Hicks: It just gets mentioned, and we all have this moment of shared memory, and we laugh, but nothing has been said. I tried to blend the real and the imaginary in such a way that I could write about things that are important to me, and acknowledge some influences along the way, but also undercut any potential nostalgia, or reverence, or the ostentation of excessive references, with these sometimes silly but usually plausible imaginary things.
Brad Zellar: I was thinking about nostalgia with this book. There’s a whiff of nostalgia, but it’s not the nostalgia of Hollywood or of most fiction. It’s the real, etymological nostalgia, which very few American writers do. The etymology of that word, I think, is the pain of returning home, of revisiting something; but it’s not warm.
Dylan Hicks: The way nostalgia is often presented, or the way we’ve come to think about it, it might acknowledge that there was something more joyful about one’s youth, but it doesn’t get to the second step. That it’s forever gone, and that not only is it lost but that the feelings are lost as well; it’s not only that you can’t hear something for the first time and have it completely surprise you like it did when you were seventeen, but that you can’t even recapture that feeling.
Brad Zellar: And this character is not an effusively joyful participant even in the pleasures of his memories. One of the interesting things about the narrator is that he’s very much a reactor. Some of the great lines in this book are his short attempts to join a conversation, which are completely ignored; the conversation resumes between the other participants without acknowledging the things he says. It’s sort of essential to his character. Throughout the book he’ll raise questions or raise flags or eyebrows, but he’ll never dig in and take a stand. He’s not the guy to argue a point and almost everything he says is ignored. It’s almost like little static interruptions. If you grew up with telephones—or cellphones, early on— sometimes a disembodied voice would suddenly come on the line, and you’d pause in your conversation, and then you’d go on.
Dylan Hicks: Or an amplifier would pick up radio signals, and you listen for a few seconds.
Brad Zellar: Yeah. He’s that guy. So music plays a huge role in this thing. It’s one of the smarter books on music. A number of the best monologues and conversations in the book pertain to music and its power and effects. And how certain records play: There’s a discussion of how a Pat Metheny record sounds perfect for one stretch of a journey, but wrong for the retracing of that exact same trip. And I totally see that; when I drive west, I have a soundtrack that’s been inviolate over the years, but it would never work coming back. You’re a musician, and an extremely knowledgeable music fan; music is one of your passions. There really is kind of a central musical theory to the book that works its way all the way to the end, to that fabulous, very Borgesian tape monologue from Bolling Greene, which is really the book in a nutshell. I’m curious how you decided when and where to work the music in, whether you knew right from the get-go that it was going to be part of the obsessive undercurrent of the book, and also how you chose your chapter headings, most of which are Joni Mitchell album titles.
Dylan Hicks: I always knew that the Wade Salem character would be a musician, a supporting musician, and Bolling Greene developed pretty early. As I wrote more, I started to think that I wanted the book to resemble a country song. Eventually I knew it would have some relationship to orphan stories, but not so much the orphan stories that are so important in the Victorian novel, but more the orphan stories you might hear in folk songs, that get handed down in things like the Carter Family’s “The Poor Orphan Child.” So I thought that at least in mood I wanted to evoke a country song about orphans.
As to the Mitchell thing, there is just so much resonance with her songs, particularly for boomer women, and I grew up in a house where I’d probably heard Blue 300 times before I could talk. So I have these deep associations with Mitchell’s music, and for me it’s so tied to motherhood. So since this book is about maternity, about someone who doesn’t know precisely who his mother is, Joni Mitchell seemed like a central figure for the soundtrack.
Brad Zellar: Well, the range of music is amazing. Bolling Greene is a very memorable character, with a memorable get-up—the physical descriptions in the book are tremendous. The material about him—that culture, the albums, the songs, the musicians involved, some of whom again are real, some of whom are not—feels very accurate, and at the same time often a devastating parody, but a loving parody. It seems to be stuff you have an affection for.
Dylan Hicks: Very much so, and I’ve always had an interest in artistic minority, the condition of being a minor artist, and I never tire of the pathos around artistic failure of various kinds. Here again this is sometimes sharply autobiographical, and in thinking about my own work, or I guess about my own career, I’ve never been able to distinguish very well between realism and resignation. But at any rate I love those moments when the also-ran makes something fantastic, when you’re at a show by a second-tier artist and it’s transcendent. I’ve sometimes been motivated by the idea that, even though I’ll never be able to write a song on the level of the great songs by Carole King or Bob Dylan or Smokey Robinson or whoever you want to name, I could probably write a few that are better than some of their worst songs.
Brad Zellar: Yeah, for sure. Lastly I want to ask a bit about place. There are all these cities that, without having visited them, you can know just through their literature. You could map the city, whether it’s Joyce’s Dublin, and certainly Chicago and New York, L.A., even New Orleans. And it’s always frustrated me that there’s no Minneapolis novel. Mystery writers have often gone there. Unfortunately they don’t go there in a way that I necessarily would like. They might fill in a lot of details about the streets someone’s driving down, but I never feel, yeah, I know that, that’s the city I know. And I think that this is the first book that I can think of that’s really steeped in Minneapolis, that really gets it. And I’m curious if that was something you had to work on, or if it was something, like you were saying, that if you had set it in Dubuque or somewhere else you’d have to do all sorts of research, and wonder if you’d gotten it right—whereas evoking Minneapolis came naturally.
Dylan Hicks: Yeah, I didn’t think too much about that. I was at first reluctant to write in the first person, from a position not wildly unlike my own, and then to set things in Minneapolis—it all felt like cheating, kind of lazy. But once I’d surrendered to doing that, it was just a reflection of accumulated knowledge and affection, and I never worried too much about getting the details right because I felt I could probably get the feel. At some point I told my wife that I wanted to write a book that was a mix of what I calling a short Continental novel—by which I guess I meant stuff by Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, this guy Michael Krüger I was reading at the time, and various things that come out of Beckett and . . . to be honest I wasn’t entirely clear on what I meant—a mix of that and a kind of openhearted Midwestern coming-of- age novel. In the end I didn’t do that, and I never took deliberate steps to make that happen, but the idea somehow seemed to motivate me. That and walking and biking around the city quite a lot.
Brad Zellar is a writer and editor in Minneapolis. He is the author of Suburban World: The Norling Photographs, and his work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. His most recent books are Conductors of the Moving World, and House of Coates, a collaboration with Lester B. Morrison.