Sunday, October 6, 2013

Song for Chance

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am celebrating a bunch of writer friends who are publishing debut novels this year.

The second of these is the remarkable Song for Chance by John Van Kirk, which garnered a New York Times review this week. It's the gritty tale of rock legend, Jack Voss, who shot to fame in the 70s for his rock opera, The Enchanted Pond. Inspired by a doomed love triangle, the rock opera ended with a triple suicide -- and even inspired fans to mimic the violence.

Decades later, Voss's mellow life is shattered by the news of his daughter's death, which appears to be another Enchanted Pond suicide. How does an aging, self-absorbed rock star face the effects of his own tragic mistakes? With music, naturally (including liner notes, bonus tracks and a discography.) With incredible skill, Van Kirk brings you right into the center of the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll culture, but Voss's story is the most melodic bit of all: unsentimental, thought-provoking and raw.

Van Kirk, an O. Henry Award and Iowa Review fiction prize winner, answers some questions about music, writing and being a navy man:

First of all, can you describe the moment of conception for this book? When did it first appear in your mind (or your ear)? And how?

Years ago I wrote a short short story about a pianist who is suddenly inspired with a new piece of music—the problem is that he is actually in the middle of a public performance of a concerto for piano and orchestra at the time of his inspiration.  Does he keep performing and let the inspiration go, knowing that in all likelihood it won’t come back?  Or does he risk professional disaster and abandon the sheet music before him, ruining the concert, baffling the other musicians and the conductor?  That character is the forerunner of Jack Voss.  (The story, called “Concert(o),” was published in 2011 by The Sonora Review and is available on their website.)

The second thing happened several years later when I was dipping into Ovid and challenged myself to come up with a myth of my own.  I was thinking about love charms, and how they always go wrong—there’s a great John Collier story about that.  Anyway I came up with a magical pond which would confer unending love on partners who bathed in it.  And I asked myself how that could go wrong.  That was the seed of Jack Voss’s rock opera “The Enchanted Pond.”  The rest was writing the novel to see how things turned out.

"Song For Chance" contains song titles and lyrics and even liner notes, and the book's attention to past and present music scenes creates such a vivid and authentic world. What real-life characters inspired the story and the creation of Jack Voss?

I always wondered why people who could make beautiful music together so frequently ended up in acrimonious feuds, mutual denunciations, ugly partings.  Think of Lennon and McCartney, Roger Waters and David Gilmore, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson.  Not that any of my characters were based on those specific people, but the novel is my way of exploring that dynamic.  As for the music itself, it’s the soundtrack of my generation.

Jack Voss is a rock god, and yet beneath all the sex, drugs and rock and roll, his story is about redemption and loss. I'm curious about how writers create their novels: did anything in particular draw you to these themes, or did you choose your setting and characters first, and let the themes emerge....?

I’m an ex-Catholic, educated by nuns and priests through the 12th grade.  That early training in the cycle of sin, atonement, and redemption sticks with you.  As for loss, isn’t that the theme of all writing in some way?  As Robert Haas puts it in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”: “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

What music did you listen to while you were writing the book?

I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing—it interferes with the music of the prose.  That said, I listened to a lot of music when I wasn’t actually writing, especially pop music from the 70s and 80s, some for enjoyment, some to make sure I remembered it accurately.

Could you give us a playlist - something you think we should listen to while reading "Song for Chance"? 

The book is full of titles, as you know.  I’d probably start with something from Thelonious Monk—“Epistrophy” would be a good choice.  Jack hears Monk on the second page of the novel.  Next would be Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night,” which Jack is trying to record in the second scene.  After those two, I’d turn off the stereo and just read.

Do you compose or play music yourself?

I’d call myself an amateur musician.  Which is more than I could say when I started the novel.  At that time, I was just a listener.  But I had to become at least a bit of a musician to write the book.  I took piano and guitar lessons, and I started playing the harmonica again, which I had played a little in high school and college but hadn’t touched for more than 20 years.  I still take a guitar lesson once a week, and the poet Art Stringer and I have worked up a few tunes together.  I call it “home-made music,” and it’s a little rough around the edges, but we have a lot of fun.

You teach writing, and yet you started a career in the navy - how did you come to writing from that? Did the navy give you any good writing tools?

I was writing before I joined the navy, while I was in the navy, and after I left the navy.  In a sense the navy period of my life was the detour.  I imagined a career for myself as a writer/professor about halfway through college.  I spent a year and a half as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis.  One of my teachers was William Gass, and when I could I sat in on classes taught by Stanley Elkin and Howard Nemerov.  It looked like a good life, teaching and writing.  But I didn’t yet have the maturity to teach, the experience to write, or the discipline to get through the graduate program.  The navy helped me in all those areas.

A huge congratulations to John! For more on the author or his writing, check him out on Goodreads and Amazon

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