Thursday, March 20, 2014

Talking with Eric Gansworth, part 1

The Beatles

We’re trying something new on our CCBC-Net listserv this year.  Each month we’ll be discussing a particular trend or broad topic in children’s and young adult literature for the first two weeks of the month, and then discussing a couple of recent books that reflect that trend or topic. 

In February we discussed the novel If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, published by Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholastic Publishing. The author himself joined our discussion at the end of the month to answer some questions from participants, and his responses were so enlightening (and funny) that we wanted to share some of them here on the CCBC’s blog, as well. We are sharing them here with Eric Gansworth's permission and we'll spread them out over three blog posts. The first one deals with The Beatles and Paul McCartney, the second is about the military, and the third about writing for teens. Enjoy!

CCBC-Net: Would you talk a bit about why the Beatles play such an important role in the book from your perspective as writer?

Eric Gansworth: Often I work on multiple projects at once, and whichever has the most fire, that’s the one I go with. I was working on the book my editor, Cheryl Klein, mentioned here, the one she passed on. It had a lot of pop culture (or probably fringe pop culture, since I’m not sure how popular any of it really was). I was also working on a collection of poems anchored by a section concerning The Beatles’ ABBEY ROAD.

In early stages, I work dreamily, having loose ideas about where a book is going. I enjoy this discovery stage. It allows for free associations that deliver lovely connections to me that, if I were trying, probably would not have surfaced. I trust that my unconscious often pulls real things forward for my use in work. In my first novel, INDIAN SUMMERS, I knew that a central figure was going to draw from one of my uncles, (the character shows back up here, The Bug, Lewis’s guitar teacher). That novel had autobiographical elements. The protagonist, Floyd, is an amateur visual artist, who admires one of his older cousins who draws traditional Indian images on the walls of the The Bug’s house. The Bug, encouraging Floyd, suggests he add his own drawing to the wall. Floyd, a kid, draws a super hero instead of traditional imagery. The super hero is Captain America. I didn’t even realize, at the time, what my unconscious was choosing to include because, all of that story is true; my clunky and culturally dubious Captain America is still on that wall, next to the beautifully rendered, but highly traditional charcoal drawings of my cousin. No one lives in the house, since my uncle passed, but my Captain America is still keeping my cousin’s Eagle Dancer company on those dark, lonely walls, and every once in a while, my cousins still kid me about the choice I made.

The formal composition process comes after I know what the story is, in tightening, expanding, and rearranging. I knew a few things were going to happen. When I proposed the idea to Cheryl, the story chronicled the lives of these characters in the Blizzard of 77, which now takes up only the final 50 or so pages. I knew they would attend a concert, but at first, it was going to be Queen. George’s personality and much of his history is an amalgam of a few people I knew. With the friend whose life was closest to George’s, Chuck Collins, I did share a common love of music. And we were both very interested in The Beatles, but maybe Queen, more so. Because I shuffled so many elements around to accommodate the Blizzard of ’77, the dates didn’t work out for the only time Queen ever played Buffalo. That anomaly is probably irrelevant in the larger scheme, but I’m weird that way, as a writer. Maybe it’s part of being an Indian, and being keenly aware of treaty dates and landmarks, but I am very oriented to representing real world events and correct dates in my fictional world. I needed them to be right.

Immersing myself into the emotional world of these characters, I’d included a lot more, too much more (as I’m sure Cheryl could attest to) detail of everyday middle school life into the first draft. The Beatles are never far from my daily world, even now, so there was no great leap once I knew the Queen concert was not feasible. The “Paul is Dead” passages were in that first draft because I did have that chorus teacher who was obsessed with the conspiracy, had us listen to that radio show, look at her albums, etc. and it was when I realized a large percent of my musical taste was in fact, one band, the Beatles and its members after they broke up. I’m not sure I’d made that connection before then.

With the help of the internet, I tracked down that original radio program and the date that the WINGS OVER AMERICA tour hit Toronto. I realized the two careers--group and solo--were going to be dominant forces so I explored the possibilities. I loved the ambivalence of each post-Beatles career, and the weird conspiracy theory about Billy Shears giving up his family and home to play Paul McCartney forever. Together, they seemed like such great ways to express the tension in Lewis’s life. When I hit VENUS AND MARS, and saw all it could do for the book, it was like an explosion in my head. I understood the book in an entirely different way and the places it had to go. I knew my unconscious had been working over-time on all these motifs, and I made the full commitment to go through the Wings back catalogue to see what else it offered that I hadn’t discovered yet.

CCBC-Net: Why Paul rather than John?

Eric Gansworth: It has seemed for a long time that, in the wake of John Lennon’s assassination we, as a culture, have rewritten both McCartney’s and Lennon’s history. This novel exists largely in 1976. Lennon’s last album had come out in 1975, and it was a collection of fifties covers, and his last album of new, original music before that, came out in 1974. The release of DOUBLE FANTASY, and his horrifying murder a few weeks later, did not happen until the winter of 1980. The novel’s events take place in the middle of a five year span when John Lennon had removed himself from the public consciousness. 

McCartney’s WINGS AT THE SPEED OF SOUND, by contrast, was the 1976 Billboard No. 3 album of the year and had stayed in the Number One slot for weeks that summer, even blocking a then new Beatles collection from reaching that chart position. I’m excited (naturally) to see the recent resurgence of interest and re-evaluation of McCartney’s Wings era material. The great simultaneous release last year of the box-set of WINGS OVER AMERICA and the Blu-Ray of its accompanying concert film, ROCKSHOW, is a testament to the staying power of that material. These releases originally marked the first major tour by a former Beatle and the tour was also one of the first to utilize the more “spectacle” show design that would become the standard for modern rock concerts. It would have been nice for research to have had it all released a year or two before, but I’m just delighted it’s all out there.

Because I’m a little OCD, (a lot OCD) once I see such a possibility, I go all out, so in that period, I knew the chapters would alternate between Beatles titles and post-Beatles McCartney titles. At first, I had been a little more flexible with that, but I loved the idea too much, so had to see it through.

The last part of this answer is the one people might find a little counter-intuitive to their good intentions and will perhaps put them outside their comfort zone. Writers often wrestle with the idea of how much of the real world to include in novels. I’m old enough to remember that the inclusion of brand names in Stephen King’s early novels was scandalous enough for some critics to A.) not only make note of in reviews, but B.) also to offer as proof that he was not a serious writer. This ludicrous critical distinction now seems unbelievable but I remember it as it was unfolding. Apparently, before that point, you were supposed to say “soda,” instead of “Pepsi,” if your characters were having soft drinks. Thank you, Stephen King, (for so many things). Any time I even think the word “soda,” I feel like Marcia Brady, so I’m super relieved it’s okay now to give my characters a Pepsi.

Pop culture has played a role in my work from the beginning. The Monkees and the Jefferson Airplane make an appearance in the first story I ever published. And as that story evolved into a novel, Hank Williams, The Three Stooges, Patrick Nagel, Billie Holliday, police scanners, and a whole host of other pop culture touchstones joined them. In part, those are just things I’m interested in, and if you’re an artist, those interests leak into your work. Among the most loved traditions within my young life was sitting out at a bonfire late at night, with cousins, toasting marshmallows and listening to the police scanner, hoping we didn’t recognize any names. Those memories were at odds with the broader American cultural expectations of what “standard equipment” Indians are supposed to have: spiritualism; nobility; solemnity; and inexplicable communication powers with wild animals. Those expectations, and a whole host of other qualities that people expect to see in Indian fiction, drive me crazy. Over the course of my career, people have said the oddest of things to me--usually in trying to be nice or polite--but a flattering stereotype is still a stereotype. Though I am indeed an enrolled member of an indigenous nation, and though I grew up solely on one small reservation in New York State, I am not immune from dog bites and unfortunately, birds still occasionally shit in my general direction while flying. My Indian blood has not made my “animal friends” behave better. The marshmallows and police scanners and my uncle’s guitar were the true ceremonial objects that kept my family close, not various officially sanctioned “Indian talisman.”

I realized that I was also partly to blame for keeping some stereotypes alive, and I had to face that ownership. I’d internalized the same ideas early in my professional life. I have--as many Indians do--naturally very curly hair. I’m talking: “Paul Stanley from KISS” curly hair. It does not look good long (no offense intended, Paul--it’s just not for me). I had so bought into what I thought other people expected me to look like, that I continued to grow my hair, got it regularly straightened conditioned it like crazy, and kept it tied tight in a two-foot long braid. (I can not believe the things people go through to manipulate their hair--braver than me!) I still kept my mustache and goatee and got these weird comments, like “Indians can’t grow facial hair.” People said this, directly to my hairy face. It was like the ghost of Edward Curtis was chasing me around in some nightmare Indian version of What Not to Wear. I looked in the mirror one day shortly after my first novel had been published, trying to see where I’d screwed up the braid that day, and thought: “This isn’t even me. It’s a huge pain in the ass, daily, and I don’t even like it.” I had made a conscious effort to keep that appearance and once I recognized that, in my work, I’d already begun the job of confronting the “Sacred Indian” stereotype, I got rid of the personal look too. I didn’t need the braid to prove who I was.

The Beatles’ presence here is as dominant as it is because it reflects the life I knew, and an Indian life I don’t see represented all that much in fiction. Are there traditional beadworkers and drummers and singers and dancers on the reservation? Yes, naturally, there are, but they’re not the only Indians, not even the only Indians living on the reservation. Nobody in my immediate family drummed, or made turtle rattles, or played cedar flutes. My mother played the piano, my uncle, the guitar, and their siblings all sang incredibly complex harmonies, but what they sang was an odd mix of standard church hymns and classic country and western songs, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn. When the Beatles arrived, my mother learned those songs, and songs of Queen, and the Grateful Dead. She particularly liked The Dead’s “Truckin’,” with its chorus: “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” She also had a thing for Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” even before Tom Cruise paraded around the movie screen in his tighty whities.

On the occasions that white people wind up on our reservation, it’s usually for something formal and showy, and intended for an audience of non-Indians, like the National Picnic I’ve included in the novel. These events include traditional singing, Smoke Dance competitions, “Indian Princess” contest (a culturally aware reservation take on the Miss America pageant), etc. but that’s not our every day lives. And yet, if those are the only times outsiders see us, then they somehow get the impression we’re still living in the 19th century--that every day, we’re spontaneously bursting into vocables with drums, and solemn ceremonies. I have written, for adults, a lot about this interior struggle many Indians wrestle with: how to be an Indian; am I Indian enough; am I Indian in the right ways? are my friends more Indian than I am? It’s a really wearing force if we try to live up to the expectations of others’ stereotypes. I wanted the Beatles to be so present here in part so that some kids on some reservation right now who like Jay-Z or Death Cab for Cutie can see that it’s all right, that they are not less Indian because outsiders suggest they’re not traditional enough, because they don’t chat regularly with their animal friends and dance to manipulate weather patterns.

Sorry for the length of that answer. I promise, the others will be shorter.

Next up: Eric Gansworth talks about the military

For more about the music, check out the discography and playlist Eric Gansworth created for the book.


  1. Great job Eric, keep up the good work~ Quite Enjoyable` Good Luck~

  2. Great job Eric, keep up the good work~ Quite Enjoyable` Good Luck~

  3. Great Job~ Take Care~ Good luck~