18 April, 2017

I know a young man who makes beautiful music alone in his apartment, layering his voice over looped sound samples embellished with his fingers on guitars and keyboards. He will not exploit his work for personal gain. He shares it freely with close friends and select social media. Once I asked him, why do you do this? He said, hey, don’t you remember when we were little kids, we just wanted to make up worlds? It’s like that.

When I was a little kid, I wanted to make up worlds, but soon my teachers noticed. They told me I was an artist, and I could use my art to become rich and famous. It wasn’t long before my daydreams were as much about becoming rich and famous as they were about the art I was creating.

In my early twenties I lived for a time in a cabin in the mountains with three friends and a typewriter. I said to my friends, “I’ll think I’ll write a novel.” Every evening I sat at the typewriter with a bowl of candy, transforming the sweetness into literature, furiously pecking out the first (and only) draft of Jimmy Shuffle, a novel by Jim Nail. My friends stood around waiting to rip the pages from the carriage and read them, warm from my fecund mind. It was a very sweet time. I still keep that original manuscript in a drawer, the faded words barely legible on the brittle onionskin. It’s probably not good writing, but I can’t bring myself to throw it away.

And I didn’t become rich and famous, and little by little I gave up writing novels. The expectations of the ego had grown too strong. The initial creative urge was quashed by the lack of resonance from the canyon walls. 

Then around the time I turned 50, something happened. Stories started coming to me, insisting they be told. It was no longer about fame and fortune. It was like being a child, making up worlds. It was a state of bliss. It still is. The time I feel most connected and alive is the time when a story is streaming through me. I can’t make it happen. I can only remain open to it. I have found the best way to channel a story is to walk with an open mind and a portable voice recorder, speaking the words as they come. The entire first draft of The Ballad of Johnny Arcane was created this way.

I had the basic themes, but the real transmission began when I took my friend Fred to Pickathon in the summer of 2011. Fred was dying of ALS and there was a deep sweet sadness in being there with him, totally engulfed in the music while his body and mind were fading. So many of the songs were about the sorrows and struggles of life, yet it was all lifted above by the power of the music, and this kept resonating inside me: sweetness is just sorrow that has been transformed.

Fred had to leave early due to a family commitment and I spent the second half of the festival alone, feeling desolate and isolated in the crowd. Sunday morning I went down to the communal showers and washed myself clean, and at that moment a major passage of the book was revealed, Johnny Arcane, losing his voice, stumbling through the forest alienated from human contact, until he comes upon the bath house where Lucy washes him clean…

Sometimes it just works like that.

I had no specific agenda when writing Johnny Arcane. I had a lot of concerns that filtered into the book, the way that specific concerns filter into your dreams. I was (and still am) concerned about the fate of the human experiment- we seem to be taking so many wrong turns! I was reading a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, but at one point I decided I didn’t want my book to be another piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. I wanted to keep it mysterious, open to interpretation. If you solve all the mysteries, what you have left is a dead, flat world. Some mysteries are meant to remain mysterious.

After all the fun stuff was done I got some incredible help from my sweetheart Claire who had already been through this when she self-published her magnificent debut novel, Saint Sullivan’s Daughter. Together we ferreted out the typos, misprints, bloopers and boing-boings until I had something I liked enough to want to share, maybe not for fame and fortune, maybe just the joy of the outpouring of the heart. 

You can get a copy of The Ballad of Johnny Arcane from me directly. You can purchase it from Amazon Books https://www.amazon.com/Ballad-Johnny-Arcane-Novel/dp/1629013099, or just about any other online bookseller. Or you can go to your favorite independent bookstore and ask them to get you a copy.

And if you want to hear the song that became the story, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c09hFr0lalY