Approaching middle age, the wealthiest man in Britain lacks an heir and any realistic hope of bearing one until on a carriage ride through London he comes upon an abandoned baby in the street. Here she is, incredibly, the young girl he's been pining for since the accidental death of his beloved sister, years ago. And more: a daughter to carry on the family line.
Just one problem: The child is a boy.
"I was dumped down south," Wesley Stace sang on the 1998 album, Awake, the eleventh recorded under his stage name, John Wesley Harding. "I was found by the richest man in the world," the first verse of a song called "Miss Fortune" continues, "who brought me up as a girl."
Over the next six years, Stace went on recording and touring, putting out three more albums and playing to live audiences around the world. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to friends and fans, he was busy turning that five-minute pop song into a five-hundred page novel.
The Washington Post raves that Misfortune "reads like some inspired collaboration between Charles Dickens and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar." "The results are sparkling," the Village Voice concurs. "A most auspicious debut." Before his appearance at Portland's inaugural Wordstock Book Fair, Stace spoke on subjects ranging from pop music and nineteenth century literature to Peter Sellers's brief ukulele career and the elegance of ankles and wrists.
Dave: I had my iPod shuffling through your music last night. "I'm Wrong about Everything" came on, and I wondered, what have you been wrong about lately?
Wesley Stace: I just took my second novel somewhere it didn't need to go; after about a week and a half of work, I realized I was very wrong about that.
I was wrong that I thought a book tour would in some way be more relaxing and laid back than a rock tour. It's much more grueling, in every way. Rock tours have rhythms of long drives and sound checks and meals and gigs. The book tour is short trips on an airplane; you're whisked off, dumped, picked up; you sign books, you're picked up; you eat, go to the reading, sign, go to your hotel there's no time to relax.
Dave: How did the Live Wire! show go last night?
Stace: I had one of the great nights of my life, really. I did the event with Colin Meloy [of the Decemberists] and all those comedians; Scott Poole read some fantastic poems; Marty Hughley interviewed me; and I played some songs to a full Aladdin Theater. I've never experienced a full Aladdin in my musical career, and though I'm well aware they weren't just there for me it was a fantastic feeling.
It makes me very happy to hear you say you were listening to my music on shuffle. I don't know whether you would have been or not, but you are. Last night, Marty Hughley wanted me to sing the song "Goth Girl," which is off Confessions of Saint Ace, and it kind of brought the house down. I thought, Wow, those people are hearing my music for the first time because I'm a writer. That makes me really happy.
I don't think my music career had hit the wall, but Entertainment Weekly and USA Today were not about to do interviews with me about my fifteenth record. Now they've done interviews about my first book and they mention my fourteen records. It's a nice feeling.
Dave: The new Decemberists album may be about as close as pop songs get to Victorian literature.
Stace: I love it. The guy is great. We met last night at seven thirty and we did a song together at about ten.
Dave: What did you play?
Stace: "Wild Mountain Thyme," which he knows by Robyn Hitchcock and I know by Bob Dylan, the version from the Isle of Wight concert. Our two versions aren't quite the same, but they asked us to close off the evening with a song together. I discovered afterwards that he's a Morrissey fan; we could have done any number of Morrissey songs.
Clearly the guy is a rip-roaring talent and a super good guy. I'm hoping we have more to say to each other.
Dave: Is that how these collaborations and co-tours often come together? A mutual admiration society?
Stace: It is. I ended up on tour with Bruce Springsteen because I met him he'd heard my music and liked it. I'm still the only opening act for a Springsteen headline show apart from R.E.M. recently when they were doing the political shows since 1978. Why he asked me, I don't know.
To be brutally honest, a lot of those collaborations amongst tedious people that you probably don't like and I don't either are all label ordained, just as a movie gets made by an agency putting together its directors and its stars and making a package to sell to a studio. It's all a marriage of convenience.
Dave: Is there one moment from those Springsteen shows that stands out in your memory?
Stace: Well, it was hardly a tour; it was just a few days, really, but there were many moments.
He brought his mother around to my house for dinner that was pretty memorable. I cooked them a curry. The other two guests were Dave Pirner and Winona Ryder. In case Bruce Springsteen and his mother weren't enough! He said, "I'm bringing my friend Dave around." I was like, "Okay." It turned out to be Dave Pirner and his girlfriend.
Dave: Is curry your specialty?
Stace: It is. I really like cooking it. I like grinding the spices, spending three or four hours doing that. I have a recipe called "Not My Curry Recipe" in a cookery book you probably stock called Food that Rocks.
Dave: Did songwriting and playing prepare you for novel writing in any way?
Stace: It was useful in terms of creative preparation, knowing when to let your subconscious take over, to keep writing and moving forward, even though you don't quite understand what you're writing about. It was very good for that. It was no preparation at all for getting a plot together. None.
Dave: So how did you approach such a large project in this unfamiliar territory?
Stace: Rick Moody was the first person I gave the novel to; I gave him the first hundred pages. He said, "You musn't hand this book in or try to sell it in advance because it's not what people write right now at all. It's a big, fat, juicy story with big characters; it's a swashbuckling kind of novel. You're not playing your cards close to your chest." He said, "You must finish it. I know that's probably what you don't want to hear." So I then went to work for another two or three years. It was really good advice.
There was a quote by Rick in Entertainment Weekly when they did the article about me. He said, "It's not like it's written by someone from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. It's nothing like that. It's like he's channeling Dickens and Fielding, which is so unusual these days that it seems new."
I thought that was a really nice compliment. I tried to write the kind of novel I like to read, but it's like pop music I'm forever having to discover more obscure writers. Right now I'm reading John Meade Falkner, Patrick Hamilton, and L. P. Hartley because I haven't read them before. I'm reading everything I can by those particular writers; part of the reason I'm doing that is because I've read all the Dickens books, I've read all the Trollope books, I've read lots of Walter Scott books I didn't even like.
I tried to make one of those novels that tell a whole story and create a whole world, a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story but with a subject matter they couldn't have written about in the nineteenth century. That was my initial idea, after I'd written the song.
Dave: How does one go about turning a five-minute pop song into a five-hundred page novel?
Stace: The song gave me a blueprint; that was helpful. The whole plot emerged from my backpedaling away from unlikelihood. In other words, the song goes, "I was dumped down south / I was found by the richest man in the world / Who bought me up as a girl." That's fine in a song; that's all you need to say. But in a book, unless it's an experimental novel, that's useless. You need to know Why? Who? How? The whole book came about from me justifying these lines.
I'm an inveterate interviewer of authors, and a long time ago I interviewed Haruki Murakami, a great favorite of mine, for BOMB magazine when The Elephant Vanishes came out. I remember sitting across the table from him, and he said, "A lot of my books come out of dreams. I don't know what the characters are or who I'm going to create. I love the movies of David Lynch because you can't quite make sense of them but obviously it all means something."
I remember thinking, That's so admirable. If I ever wrote a novel, it would so not be like that. I'd have to work it all out mathematically in Venn diagrams. Then I wrote a novel and found he was quite right. Unless you're a visionary person, you can't know until you do it. And I'm just not that guy. I write songs very consciously. I sometimes write a line for the sake of it or just because it rhymes. With a book, you have to give yourself over to it. It's so big.
Dave: The novel took you six years to write. That's a long time to wait for feedback and gratification, which is very different than music, where you might play a show every night for a stretch, hear the cheers, share the theater with your fans. How did you keep at it for so long?
Stace: To start with, I didn't tell anybody I was doing it, so there were no expectations on me to finish. I told a couple people, that was all. My girlfriend knew. Otherwise, I didn't tell people until it was done. Then they were like, "How long did that take you, a week?" "Um, six years."
I don't feel the need to keep the stuff I'm doing too silent, so I realize now it was a very conscious decision not to be the guy who was always writing a novel and on whom would be placed expectations for what that novel would be. That was a help. Also, because I was a songwriter, I was getting fulfillment and gratification just not for this. I could go and do a gig.
But I did stop lots of times. I couldn't work when I was on the road. Then sometimes I'd sit at home and, you know, you're on page eighty out of five hundred; by the end of the day you've made it to page eighty-three but it's a really bad three pages. And the other four hundred some-odd pages don't even exist yet! The focus that takes... I don't know how there could be adequate preparation.
Many times I'd sit down and in a very practical way financial considerations I'd say, "Why are you doing this? Why don't you get a gig and make a thousand dollars? How would that be? Pay the rent!" This was an incredible amount of work with no promise of fulfillment whatsoever, no promise that it would published. Nobody knew about it. But I was really enjoying it. I felt fulfilled doing it, that I was bringing a world to life; honestly, I felt that I was adding something. There was a niche for it. I hadn't seen this book around, and I thought I'd like to read it, myself.
Dave: When you started writing fiction, you tried material that was closer to your own life experience. But that didn't go so well. Why not?
Stace: It didn't really work for me at all. I won't say it was Hornby-esque, but there were elements of my music life in there, jiggling about, and I thought, This is not what I like. I felt the need to skewer things more satirically when I was writing in the modern time. I felt the need to hit the nail on the head when it came to cell phones and Subarus and Viagra and pagers and people on their health food diets; I needed to bring all that in because it's how my mind works, but I didn't want to bring it in.
When I set stuff in the past, when I decided that Misfortune was something that I could write, I determined very early on not to have it be a pastiche of nineteenth century literature; I wanted it to be a modern novel set in the past. It's narrated in 1918, which is basically modern. I decided to call a carriage a carriage, not a barouche or a brougham or any of the thirty-seven Eskimo words for snow; I just decided to call a spade a spade. I decided not to fetishize the past in the way that I was caught up by the paraphernalia of the present.
In the book, when I sat two people down to talk, I just sat them down in a completely empty space like a modern theater, and I had them read their dialogue. I realized that I was writing about emotions and people's feelings, which is what I really wanted to write about. Then I filled in all the space around them with what I thought were telling details. It isn't over-fetishized the materials, the paneling or the portraits and when it is, it's generally done to emphasize extravagance rather than to take the eye away from the action.
By setting it in the past, I was able to more purely write about things that are important in the present. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have said that, but that was my true and honest experience. I think that I'm more emotionally connected to this book than any song I've ever written, even those that were about my real life.
Dave: You have that gothic thing going on for much of the novel, characters withdrawn from society, held apart. The Lovealls, the family and its servants, live within the walls of Love Hall, and that's the scope of their everyday world. When Ann Patchett was here, she made fun of herself for relying on much the same idea, always shutting people off in a small space and seeing what happens.
Stace: A hothouse. Exactly.
For my character to be believable, she can't see too much of the world. I've had a couple of picky reviews where they've said, "This is ridiculous. They'd have seen animals." I felt like, "You don't think this family is powerful enough to control their environment?" I've made it clear already that there's no art around. That's what happening to Rose.
It's just like where I went to school. Every night I was enclosed into Canterbury Cathedral walls; the whole school was stuck in the perimeter of the cathedral. Insane. She's brought up in this kind of sheltered environment.
There's quite a lot of the world in Misfortune, but it's very important that Love Hall becomes a pleasure palace that turns into a ghost train. Somebody said in a review that it was like The Secret Garden or Narnia, and that's exactly right but it becomes a nightmarish version because the things that make it nice are then the things that make it nasty.
Dave: Tell me about Geoffroy's doll house, The Hemmen House. Where did that element come from?
Stace: I took a very important trip, by chance, to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There's one of these doll houses there, exactly as described. It's not for a kid; it's for a woman with no children, or an older woman with grown children it stands on tall legs, at that eye level.
Behind me, as I was standing looking at this doll house, which was the only thing in the room, were these incredible tiles; each one of them was a personification of a trait of business, for example industry or diplomacy, in the form of a woman. One of them was called Negotia, and I guess it represented the spirit of diplomacy. That was where I got Anonyma from. That one room in the Rijksmuseum, for just an idle trip to Holland, was quite influential.
Dave: You mention Anonyma. Another great name in the book is Rubberguts, the name of Geoffroy and Delores' tree.
Stace: Rubberguts was the name of the tree at my school. It's not a name you forget. I'm trying to think of a name for a tree with a lot of branches how can you make up a better one than Rubberguts?
Dave: You seemed to have a lot of fun with the names.
Stace: I really did. Geoffroy Loveall is a very cerebral and damaged man. He gets his sexual fun with words. That's where we see his liveliness and his spunk, as it were, in his playing with words, his naming of people. His sister is Delores; he calls her Rose Old because it's Delores reborn. Then later on when he sees her dressed up as a boy, he renames her Lord Ose, which is obviously Rose Old reconfigured.
Dave: Then there's the balladeer, Pharaoh, also known as Mr. Farrow, who becomes the de facto historian despite the fact that he can't read or write. It's an interesting glimpse into a changing society, that remnant of the oral tradition.
Stace: That's exactly what it's meant to be. It's also the story of printing presses and the way news is disseminated.
I started the novel in the third person. You're meant to meet this Pharaoh character and think, Huh, this is an interesting main character. Then you lose him and you're meant to think, I've lost him forever; that was weird. The rest is not something I'd like to give away, but it's a mirroring of Rose's own life.
In the same way, Geoffroy and Anonyma are mirrored by Pharaoh and Bellman; they need each other in order to start their empire or their family. But these are not things I thought about when I started the novel. Some of them, other people have told me.
Somebody said to me the other day, "I've heard this compared to The Crimson Petal and the White and I've heard it compared to Middlesex and Smollett" this really old guy, I thought he was a bit loopy "but to me this novel is the movie Greystoke and the first Tarzan novel." That's kind of dead on. It's a wild child who represents a challenge to the conventions of the house and makes everybody respect that other way of doing things. I thought that was brilliant. It would take a very unique person to come up with that analogy because it's not a much read book. In that movie, if you remember, Ralph Richardson plays the very uptight father and ends up going down the stairs on a silver salva, like he's sledding down the stairs. That's kind of what Rose does to the rest of the world in a sense; she brings them to her level, where people have to accept her.
But I was going to say that I started the novel off in the third person and it switches to first person. Originally, that first section was a lot more pompous and a lot more boring, on purpose, because I wanted it to be more like Henry Fielding. The first go-through of the opening section was like, Man in his time has discovered... or Dear Reader, you look at my hero as he walks down the road and you will know that there are only two things a man can eat for lunch... But Little, Brown said to me, and quite rightly, "You're setting people a difficult task. You're writing a hundred and fifty boring pages before you give them the fun. It's a great trick, but it's a trick." So I cut that back. Now, really it's more like Rose narrating in the third person, then Rose narrating in the first.
Dave: Much of the book revolves around difficult choices, people choosing one path or another. So I have a list of questions our Impossible Choice segment.
Stace: And I have to pick one?
Dave: Answer however you like.
Studio or stage?
Dave: Blood on the Tracks or Highway 61?
Stace: Very difficult. No, Highway 61 without a doubt, actually. Not that difficult.
Dave: You've really come around on that one.
Stace: The thing about Highway 61 is that it's an album of Nietzschean perfection it creates something new and destroys it for all time. Blood on the Tracks is a great record. But the answer to that question could also be Love and Theft.
Stace: [very long pause] Pass. That's a really horrible choice. That's Sophie's Choice.
Dave: 33 or 45?
Stace: In my life, 33 probably.
Dave: Tube or subway?
Stace: Tube. The subway system is a lot better than the tube system, but I habitually call it the tube. "We're gonna get the tube." "You're gonna get the what?" I can't call it anything but the tube.
Dave: Do you find yourself warning people to mind the gap?
Stace: You're best not to tell anyone about the gap.
Dave: Sexiest song of all-time?
Dave: Best album to play on a raw, rainy day?
Stace: Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt.
Dave: You say you've done interviews with authors. What would be your opening question if you interviewed yourself?
Stace: If it was about the book, it would be whether, in the appendix, the character Rowan Bryars is really Rose what Rose did between the end of the book as written and the epilogue of the book.
Dave: And the answer is?
Stace: Yes. But no one's asked me that.
It's just silly stuff, but right at the end of the book there's a note about "'The Young Lord Loveall, a posthumous portrait by Rowan Bryars.' The central figure of The Young Lord Loveall is surrounded by whimsical references to fairy tale of the artist's own invention..." It's her childhood in symbolism. "Though Bryars was the first female painter exhibited in The New British Gallery, she has long been ignored in her home country. The Love Hall Trust, in tandem with The English Heritage Committee, is now planning the first major exhibition of the paintings of Rowan Bryars, including, for the first time in England, the notorious exercises in symbolism 'La Vie Sexuelle.'"
To me, Rowan Bryars, with that name and all its implications, that's Rose; that's what she did between the end of the novel and when she died: she became a symbolist painter under a pseudonym. That's what I'd like her to have done.
Dave: Rose grows up wearing women's clothes, and later, when people expect him to stop, he wonders, why should he? He simply finds women's clothes more comfortable.
Stace: People call it a gender bending novel. To me that's a very silly pigeonhole to put it in. It's nothing to do with Middlesex; that's not a book you could really compare it to. The guy is straight. He happens to wear women's clothes.
I read a lot of stuff about attitudes to cross dressing and the clothes men wore back then. It was really only when we got to Victorian times and Oscar Wilde that men started to look like black, erect penises seriously with big top hats and canes. Before that, it was the elegance of people's ankles and wrists that was important, the hair and the beauty spots. That's just fascinating to me. That's why he says at the beginning, "There have even been improvements in punctuation, although these are balanced by disastrous deteriorations in the world of fashion."
Dave: Judging by the extensive list of further reading at the end of the book, I imagine you did your share of research to fill out the storylines.
Stace: I did, but I didn't think of it as research because they're all things I'm interested in. They were the things I've been reading about for years. Folk ballad books, libraries, the excavation of Troy...
There were a few things I had to learn about because one thing would lead to another. Like when I was reading Ovid I love Ovid and I was thinking, Wouldn't it be great if that was a book [Metamorphoses] he read when he was a kid? That idea of transformation might be so important to him. I looked it up on the web and I found the picture of Salmacis. I thought, What if that painting was in the house and it had been explained to him? Then I was reading my Ovid and I came across the story; and subsequently, on a Genesis album I have I'd never put two and two together I heard the song called "Fountains of Salmacis," an original Peter Gabriel, Genesis classic. Things roll into one another.
I don't know how Norman Mailer does it, but to me, that's how you write a novel: you leave yourself open to all these coincidences, and you pick the really good ones. That's how the themes emerge. So many of the folk ballads have this element of cross dressing in them. I let myself be open to what I discovered.
I'm glad it seems well researched, but I look at the entire load of books I bought to write this book and it's hardly any. Definitely one on hermaphrodites because I knew nothing about them and I wanted to know what people thought of them back then; and I suppose a couple of books about English country houses, to find out what the silver looked like, stuff like that. I basically wrote this novel because I gave up my Ph.D. and I missed hanging around in libraries. I like that kind of thing.
Stace: A fantastic book, a book you would never have suspected he would have been able to write or want to write. An incredible love letter to all the art that's inspired him throughout his life; a wonderful, humble book not without its own self-justifying moments, but definitely a great book.
Dave: Is there anything that fans don't know about you at this point, after all the albums and now the novel?
Stace: People might not know that I just wrote the introduction to The Haunted House, the Modern Library edition of Charles Dickens that just came out. And if they look in a magazine called Ukulele Occasional they'll find an article about how Peter Sellers came to wind up playing ukulele on a Steeleye Span record.
I'm into so many stupid little things, and I just have to write about them when they come up. It's fantastic to me that those things aren't written about, so whenever I find something I don't think has been done I want to write about it.
I also write pseudonymous letters to the editor. I used to do it to the Seattle Weekly quite a bit, purely for my own amusement.
Dave: What's the best book that someone has given you recently?
Stace: Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton, which my girlfriend gave me for Christmas. It's a trilogy of novels that came out in '29, '32, and '35, something like that; then immediately in '35 they were bound together as a trilogy. It's just come out again, probably one of the worst reissues with the most misprints I've ever seen in my life, including one on the back cover. But it's a fantastically good book.
Dave: How about contemporary novels?
Stace: I was recently given twenty or thirty novels by the New York Public Library in order to judge them for their Young Lions fiction award. Of the five books that were picked, two were great favorites of mine; the other three I wouldn't touch with a barge pole, but it's all a big compromise, isn't it?
My favorite of the lot was called How to Be Lost, a book by Amanda Eyre Ward. I honestly thought that was the best book I read last year, certainly the best new book I read. I'm recommending that to a lot of people. Because I failed with it in my attempt there, I'm trying to win people over with it now.
Wesley Stace read on the Powell's stage at Portland's inaugural Wordstock Book Fair on April 23, 2005.
An interesting tidbit Wes mentioned before the interview began: the woman pictured on the novel's cover is Lady Caroline Lamb. He explained, "She very famously sent Byron a lock of her pubic hair. That's where she pops up in literary history. And she wrote some great poems, herself."
And this, too: Stace types with just his two index fingers but quite efficiently, he swears.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State