Posts Tagged With: writing

Parallel universes: “Lonesome Lies Before Us”

LonesomeA time or two over the years, I’ve had the idle thought: What if, after Whiskeytown disbanded and its members went their separate ways, Caitlin Cary rather than Ryan Adams had been the one to hit it big? How might Ryan’s life have turned out then?

While it doesn’t offer a hundred-percent accurate analog for either person, something like that alternative reality is the backdrop to Don Lee’s very fine new novel, “Lonesome Lies Before Us,” which is as tragicomic and shatteringly sad as, well, a Ryan Adams song. The main character in “Lonesome Lies Before Us” is Yadin Park, an alternative-country singer/songwriter modeled roughly on the real-life musicians Damien Jurado and Richard Buckner. But like Ryan, Yadin suffers from Miniere’s Disease — only Yadin’s case is severe enough to have forced his retirement as a professional musician.

Having retreated from the spotlight, Yadin lives a quiet life in small-town California. The story opens with him drifting into middle age while working as a carpet installer, and trying to keep from going numb in a loveless relationship of convenience with his boss’s daughter. Lee’s portrait seems pretty much exactly how things might have gone for Ryan if music hadn’t worked out as a career.

From afar, Yadin follows the career of his long-ago bandmate and girlfriend Mallory Wicks. Caitlin was never Ryan’s girlfriend, but she and Mallory are both fiddlers who learned the instrument by the Suzuki method. And in this book, Mallory is the one who went on to a high-profile and glamorous career involving stage, screen and radio hits. In the grips of a crisis of spiritual faith, and with his hearing beginning to fade as his life threatens to fall apart, Yadin suddenly finds himself writing songs again for the first time in years.

So he resolves to make one last album to put out into the world before disappearing from the scene for good (which he has to keep secret from his disapproving boss and girlfriend). That’s when Mallory unexpectedly reappears, in a reckoning that forces both of them to contemplate their individual and shared histories as well as motivations about music, art and life. It’s a fine read and a tale well-told, with a conclusion as tragic as it is inevitable.

I was honored to discover that “Losering” played a small role in “Lonesome Lies Before Us.” After hearing that author Don Lee had acknowledged my book in his “Author’s Note” (which is below), I got in touch to ask him about some of the background. Here is what he had to say:

I first got the idea for the novel when I read that Ryan Adams had contracted Ménière’s disease and was afraid he’d have to quit music. That really intrigued me, so I embarked on this story about an indie singer-songwriter losing his hearing to Ménière’s, who wants to self-release one last album. But the model for Yadin was more Richard Buckner and Damien Jurado, homely guys who don’t have much stage presence.

The model for the Yadin-Mallory duo was more Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires,  Mandolin Orange and HoneyHoney (all with female fiddle players). Also I thought a lot about the Civil Wars, and Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, and of course Gram and Emmylou. That film about Gram, “Fallen Angel,” was a big source of inspiration.

 “Losering” was instrumental as a source. A chapter toward the end is a flashback to when the characters had been alt-country musicians in Raleigh, and I cribbed much of the local flavor from your book. I wouldn’t have been able to write that chapter without “Losering,” which really is terrific. I loved it.

 

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Words, between the lines of age

It was March 2011 by the time I got revved up enough to start actually writing “Losering.” Although I say “writing,” when an outside observer would have witnessed long stretches of me doing things like rearranging my CD collection; watching televised sports; puttering aimlessly around the house. You might conclude I was wasting time with busy work, but I prefer to think of it as “the creative process.”

Okay, I’m not continuing until you stop with the snickering. Done yet? Show some respect.

As March wore into April, I was well into that long hard slog familiar to anybody who has ever done this. And “Losering” isn’t even all that long or complicated — 50,000 words, a tale told in roughly chronological order, much of it drawn from things I’d already written over the years. I don’t want to represent the process as more than it was.

Still, it was a tall mountain to climb. Most stories I write for the paper come in somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll do a 3,000-word story for a magazine, and that feels like a lot. But 50,000 words is the equivalent of 17 of those long magazine articles. Well, 16.666; but close enough.

Maybe there are people who can blast out 50,000 words without feeling overwhelmed. Sadly, I’m not one of them. The only way I know how to do this is jump in, get fully immersed and let the thing drive me nuts as I attempt to subdue it. So I spent the first half of 2011 basically chained to my laptop. It involved a brutal amount of word-processing. Between interviews and multiple drafts of the manuscript, I bet I typed at least a half-million words — not including what I was writing for the paper during regular business hours.

I did most of the writing either at my kitchen table or sprawled in a recliner, evenings after dinner and late into the night. I took my computer everywhere, writing in coffeeshops, waiting rooms, nightclubs, hotel rooms, airplanes. If I had a spare half-hour, I spent it on this book. I’ve always been a light sleeper, and my sleep shrank to almost nothing that spring. I’d work on it until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, pass out and awaken a few hours later, mind and stomach all a-churn. Since I wasn’t sleeping anyway, I’d sometimes get up and resume writing.

It takes a fairly maniacal level of focus and it isn’t exactly what you’d call “fun.” But there is still something exhilarating about the process. I don’t miss the headaches, the insomnia, the exhaustion or the neck/shoulder/back pain from being hunched over a computer for long stretches of time. But I do miss that sense of being in the moment of creation, putting the pieces together. It was a challenge, and I did my best to be equal to it.

I wish I could write a book all the way through to the end, start to finish, before going back to revise. But I just can’t work that way. Instead, I have to advance it along in a slow torturous process that goes chapter by chapter, section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence and even word by word — repeatedly. It’s a painstaking grind, trying to figure out if there’s a better way to say something, down to the last punctuation mark.

Each chapter of “Losering” consists of three to six sections, ranging from several hundred to several thousand words. I’d start a section and get as far as I could with it. First crack at each one, it would usually break down into something resembling a rough outline after not too many paragraphs. So I’d go back to the beginning of that section and start over, again and again, as many drafts as it took. I’d get a little farther with it each time, and eventually that section would be solid enough to where I could move beyond it and start on the next one.

The great Don Dixon once told me that making records in the studio “involves a lot of ditch-digging,” and this is kind of similar. I’d liken it to building a ridge of dirt with a shovel. You have to pat down, firm up and stablize each section before it will bear your weight enough for you to move on to the next part.

Either way, you’re using a shovel. And it’s hard work.

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