Love, the 60s and Garage Rock: An Interview with Jenny Grover
Jenny Grover is a great writer, a good friend, and one of my most valued writing mentors. I have loved both of her novels. In 2006 she published Second Choices, a tale of two artists and the woman who affects both of them. Her latest, The Rooks Parliament, is a novel about teens growing up in the mid-60s, their dreams, their loves, and their music.
I recently interviewed Ms. Grover about her new book. Her answers are interesting, funny, and insightful.
AW: I've not read every book about the 60s ever published, but the ones I have read make very little mention of the middle class and garage rock. Nor did the books I read cover ordinary teens; if teens were shown, they were stand-ins for a whole generation. What inspired you to write a book that stands in contrast to all of this?
JG: Well, in large part, what you said. A lot of the 60s books I've read focus more on hippies and protest music, political protest, or on the more sordid aspects of the sexual revolution and the drug culture. I haven't read many stories about what things were like for the older kids I knew or the hipsters we had our eyes on, ordinary middle class kids listening to AM radio, some of them picking up instruments. Maybe that seems too ordinary for a lot of people to want to write about. Maybe it doesn't carry a heavy enough agenda.
AW: "All You Need Is Love" seems to be a theme of this book, and the mention of "Hang On To a Dream" seems to have some significance. How much of an inspiration were these songs, and which is the bigger theme?
JG: "All You Need Is Love". That idea, and the questioning of that idea, does figure in quite a lot, and I think it's a question that figures heavily into our thinking anyway. Is love all we need? And yes, of course we need food and shelter and such, and holding hands and prancing through the daisies doesn't put food on the table, and anyone who pipes up with that argument at the outset is usually just being a prick [laughs]. Love in the broader sense, love as an approach to how we live, including how we produce and consume that food we have to have, and the other survival necessities and reasonable comforts, not just in terms of the people we work with, but the animals we employ, the earth... but I digress. Love is a big theme of the book, largely in terms of what love can or can't or should or shouldn't endure.
"Hang On To a Dream". Yes, apart from the more obvious use in the story, the title and some lines of the lyrics did appeal to me in light of the story, of people hanging onto dreams, but more as an afterthought than an actual inspiration.
But separation, of various sorts, is a primary theme.
AW: The characters are so real. Was it hard keeping them real? Was it fun trying to make them real?
JG: First of all, thank you. I'm one of these writers who is going to tell you that it's like they already existed and just showed up in my head and started telling me their story, but that really is what it felt like. But in terms of bringing out those individual personalities and keeping their actions consistent with that, you need to be able to get inside their heads, their different heads, and see things and consider things the way they do, and then act on those things in the manner they would. Even the villains. Even someone as loathsome as Dan should make sense as a complex personality and not just be a cartoon villain. I hope I've been successful in that respect. Was it fun? A lot of the time it was, but it was also quite painful at times. I put a lot of myself into my main characters, one in particular, and the pain I funneled into the story came from some very real experiences.
AW: Which one?
JG: Bobby. Yeah, I know it may surprise some people that it's not one of the girls, but I really feel like he's the one who carries my personality and motivations the most. He even stole a lot of my mannerisms.
AW: Who is your favorite character?
JG: Bobby, without a doubt. And now that's going to sound conceited! [laughs].
AW: This seems to be Jules' story as much as Bobby's, and in fact we start out from Jules' point of view. In Second Choices you had Blake and Gus presented in a similar way. Why the dual protagonists?
JG: Dueling Protagonists [begins imitating banjo music]. Sorry. I find first person too limiting for certain stories, and sometimes a more scenic kind of omniscient voice is too removed to suit me. I want a focused story with personalized emotional content, but I like to explore the notion of two intersecting lives, and what those lives are like when they are apart, as well as when they're together. A couple, or a pair of friends, comprise two entities, but when they are together they become another entity still.
AW: Was it difficult to write from different points of view?
JG: I actually find it difficult to not write from different points of view. I am, first and foremost, a visual artist. I'm used to looking at things from a variety of angles, and that carries on into my other thought processes. So, changing viewpoints is just rather like putting on a play when you're the only person in the cast. You switch up roles. If you know your characters well, their personalities and differences and motivations, it's not difficult to get into character for a scene. I try to choose the viewpoint that best gets the message and the emotional impact of the scene across, which usually seems to suggest itself naturally. On occasion during the initial writing phase, I'll write a scene from more than one point of view and then choose the one I like best.
AW: What kind of painful personal experiences?
JG: Phew. Separations. Losing people. I've lost most of my blood relatives now. There are almost none of us left, except distant relatives I don't know. There's also a rift in my family that's resulted in some people just not having anything to do with each other anymore. Thank God my in-laws are wonderful people, because they comprise the bulk of my family anymore. I suffered, and I don't use that word lightly, two serious long-distance love affairs, one of which ended badly, and the other, well, we're coming up on our 28th wedding anniversary, so at least that turned out well. Oh, and a guy I worked with years ago disappeared. That was weird. We weren't real close friends, but we both worked in the camera department, and were planning to go out on a photo shoot our next day off in common, and then a couple days later he just didn't show up at work. They phoned him and his mother and everything and he was just gone. They never did find out what happened to him, at least while I was still working there.
AW: Why garage rock?
JG: Well, like you said earlier, in a lot of books about the 60s, it seems to get overlooked or undermentioned, but it was a huge phenomenon. I love that stuff. A friend of mine referred to my collection of 60s garage band comps as "sick"
AW: One of Bobby and Jules' first conversations is about electronic organs. Could you recommend some well known garage rock songs so that people could tell the difference between different types of organs?
JG: Ah, yes. Vox vs. Farfisa. There were a number of different portable organs that got used by garage bands, as well as the big name bands, but Vox and Farfisa made the most popular and ubiquitous ones. It's not always easy to tell them apart, though Farfisas are generally described as sounding more "reedy". I can toss out a few examples people might know. "Light My Fire" and "House of the Rising Sun" are Vox. "Incense and Peppermints", early Pink Floyd, and the B-52s are Farfisa. But if people are curious enough, there are demos of all sorts of vintage organs on YouTube.
AW: I like how music is used to set a scene. Did you have songs in mind before writing a scene, or did you think of them as you wrote?
JG: I mostly thought of them as I wrote. In some cases I had a band or song in mind that I ended up not using, because I got really anal about being historically correct, so I would check to make sure what year, and, when possible, what month a particular song or album came out. If it didn't fit the chronology, then I chose something else.
AW: Did you write the original lyrics as songs or just as lyrics?
JG: They're songs. The music is in my head. I need to write it out or record it someday.
AW: The sex and romance scenes are handled very well. How hard was it to write them?
JG: How hard? Heheh... Sorry. When I was a kid my mind fell into the gutter and I was never able to retrieve it. But seriously, love scenes and sex scenes are always a challenge for writers. Love scenes can easily get goopy or sappy. With sex scenes you have to decide not only how detailed you want to get about who's doing what to whom, but what tone you want to convey and carefully choose your language to reflect that, and language choices are challenging, particularly when referring to body parts. You can easily sound like you're at a doctor's office, or hanging around the docks, or in some ridiculously euphemistic Romance novel. With this story, I knew there were some places I needed to get into detail, but much of it I leave implied, or referred to in conversation. I've had a lot of practice writing sex scenes, because I've never shied away from it. In fact, I quite enjoy it. And since I try to bring my poetic sense into my prose, I go for language sound and how the sounds of the words relate to the mood I'm trying to convey.
AW: I love the organ joke in Chapter 6. Did you find yourself restraining yourself from writing more?
JG: Well, let me tell you, there is just no way around organ jokes. Someone will always find a way to make one. I really put a lot of work into removing as many potential ones as I reasonably could from the straight narrative. I have writer friends who saw sample chapters or scenes, and I thought surely they would be more mature than that. Boy, was I wrong
AW: If you could picture your characters as real people, who would they be?
JG: Oh man, that's tough. I really, honestly didn't base any of my characters in this story on actual people, and I can't think of any particular real people that fit the bill for any of them.
AW: The Mary Street reference is so cool. Is that one of your favorite Bangles songs?
JG: I do like that song a lot, so when I was making up street names, that just popped into my head, so I used it. I figured people would have fun with it.
AW: I love the cover. Who took the photo? And tell me about the instruments in the picture.
JG: I took the photo and that's some of my gear. The bass is a 1968 Univox Ventures model. I don't have any vintage organs, other than the ones in my body, so that's my Nord C2 with its modernity discreetly covered by a paisley sarong.
AW: San Francisco is portrayed very well. Have you been there or to California in general?
JG: I have visited San Francisco in one of my several visits to California, though I've mostly spent time in Southern California. And my half brother lived in San Francisco in the 60s as a hippie for a while, so I've heard his stories.
AW: San Francisco stands in contrast to L.A. Were you trying to show the good and bad parts of hippie culture and later on, politics? And we see London, as well.
JG: I did want to show the difference in flavor of the music scenes, with San Francisco representing more of the peace and love flower child thing and L.A. getting into some darker things, and use that progression to show not only lighter and darker sides of hippie culture, but of the music industry to some implied extent, and politically, since the band arrives in L.A. just days after Robert Kennedy's assassination, of the country getting increasingly domestically dangerous. And the band is losing its innocence, as well. As for London, I wanted to show some contrast between the US and UK psychedelic scenes, including the rise of art rock, and that many kids in the US were still looking to the UK for inspiration.
AW: You mention a number of well-known real bands, and then you bring in the Nice. Why the Nice? I don't think a lot of people, at least in the US, know who they were.
JG: And that's a shame. They were very popular in Britain, and they did tour the US. I do believe many people are familiar with their keyboard player, however, Keith Emerson. Since this is a keyboard-centric story and the Nice were at the forefront of progressive rock, and Keith had earned the nickname "the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboards" for the wild and creatively noisy way he interacted with his instruments, they seemed a logical choice to me, and I wanted to give them props, as well. Maybe it will inspire people to check out their music.
AW: Why do you choose prog to point to the future, from the vantage point of 1969?
JG: Obviously prog wasn't the only music rising up then that would prove important in the 70s, and beyond. Heavy rock, proto-metal, was developing and gaining prominence, as well. That was more guitar-driven, though, and prog gave keyboards a prominent role. But using the Nice as a reference point, Keith Emerson was really pushing his equipment, quite literally, to do interesting things it wasn't originally intended to do, and he was also experimenting with synthesizers. He wasn't the first to use a Moog in a rock song, nor the first to use one in a public performance, but he was the first person crazy enough to take one out on the road, something they weren't originally designed for, and he worked with Bob Moog over the years to stabilize and perfect the system for that application. Technology kept growing from there.
AW: I don't want to spoil anything for people who haven't read it yet, so I won't mention specifics, but you leave some things up in the air at the end of the book. Do you yourself know the answers, where the story and the characters go from there?
JG: Absolutely. I know what happens to them for years on down the road, and the answers to all the unanswered questions. I could start on the sequel tomorrow, if I chose, but I hesitate to do that. I left those things open for a reason. I want the reader to decide for him or herself what happens. I think each reader will have his or her own desires for what they want to happen, how they want these people's lives to go, and that's part of the point of the story, and their versions might be quite different from mine. I suppose if people did clamor loud enough to hear my vision of these characters' futures I could be tempted to write it, but that doesn't feel right right now.
The Rooks Parliament
Brushpanther Press, September 2010.
What seems on the surface to be a conventional boy-meets-girl, takes that well-trodden setting and knocks it askew with what these characters are, and the time period they live in.
I can’t claim to have read everything about the 60s, but what I have read is about hippies, protests, drugs, sex, and famous musicians of the time, but rarely do they mention the middle class, ordinary teens, or garage rock. And while this book does have the usual things, they are seen through the eyes of middle class teens involved in garage rock. That makes for an interesting and exciting novel.
Bobby Lott is a garage rocker, an organ player who plays in three bands over the course of the book. Garage rock was a thriving underground culture of teens who wanted to be whatever Beatle, Byrd, or Stone, and for a while, especially in the mid 60s, it was The Culture. Julia Greene is a rather innocent teen at the start of the story, giggling over rock bands on TV, but her world changes when she meets Bobby. Their relationship makes her grow up fast, in every single way, challenging her views on love and her family, and affects the lives of everyone they know.
Separation in various forms, as well as questioning if "all you need is love,” are the main themes of this book.
The characters jump off the page and come alive. The plot is more than believable. The town they live in could exist somewhere, anywhere in the US. There is an ease to reading this book; while the story is not simple, the language flows soulfully, making for heart-wrenching scenes, but also ones that burst with joy. A compelling story, three-dimensional characters, and a window on a part of the 60s that seems to always slide by unnoticed, make it more than recommended reading for anyone who likes a good story.