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Shreveport, Louisiana-based energetic pop band Super Water Sympathy formed in 2010. The group consists of brothers Billy and Clyde Hargrove (bass and guitar, respectively), Ryan Robinson (drums), Jason Mills (keys), and Ansley Hughes (vocals). Hughes took the time to answer my questions about the band and the new album Hydrogen Child.
Amy Steele: How did you get together?
Ansley Hughes: I’ll try to make this short and to-the-point. The only member of our band I knew personally before the band started was Ryan Robinson (drummer). Billy and Clyde Hargrove knew each other, obviously, since they came from the same womb, although Clyde has never admitted to being born a human. He says one day he just “was”, haha. Jason and Clyde were pals growing up. And I’m pretty sure Ryan didn’t really know any of them well. Although he says he did have lunch with Clyde once at Tacomania.
Clyde and Billy used to be in a band together called The Sidewalks. Billy played rhythm guitar, I think, and Clyde played lead guitar. Billy had to quit because of school (he’s the responsible one). The band then added a new member and changed their name to The Terms. Once everyone from that project parted ways, Clyde went on about his business… A few years later he and Billy decided they wanted to give the band thing another shot.
Ryan was recommended by their cousin, as was I. At the time I was working professionally doing outdoor theatre in North Carolina. Clyde called me and asked if I wanted to come sing with them, and I said, sure, why not? The day after I got back from North Carolina, we had our first “jam session”. It was August 16, 2010. It wasn’t until about our third practice when I realized we had something unique. I didn’t know if it was good, necessarily, but I knew it was definitely different. Jason joined the band about a month after that. His pads really glued our sound together.
Now when we practice, we cover ourselves in blue body paint and warm up by mimicking native birds of the Cayman Islands.
Amy Steele: Why do you call your music water pop?
Ansley Hughes: One of the hardest questions to answer is when people ask us what kind of music we play… because, well, we don’t really know. So one day we decided to come up with a genre. Something we could say, other than Billy’s famous, “We’re a mix between Marilyn Manson and Taylor Swift,” response. So we came up with “water pop”. First of all, it has a great ring to it. Second of all, I like to think it represents the fluidity of our sound. And coincidently, one day we realized every one of our songs on our freshman album (Vesper Belle) had some sort of reference to water, whether it be a waterfall or a tear drop. We like water. Bodies of water are great visual images… and considering we tend to focus more on painting pictures in people’s minds with our lyrics, rather than always trying to make perfect lyrical sense, it fits.
Amy Steele: How did you come up with the name Super Water Sympathy?
Ansley Hughes: Clyde has a really beautiful definition of our name.. It goes something like – “super water sympathy represents the recognition of the history of the world taking advantage of water.. And now, having the ability to sympathize with its abuse.” water is a necessity. Something everyone needs to survive… Yet we abuse it daily.. Water has the power to give life, and also take life… It’s origination came from lyrics to “Spain”.. A song off our first album. Clyde thought it had a cool ring. So we ran with it.
Amy Steele: What makes you work well together?
Ansley Hughes: We all have different strengths and weaknesses. Jason and Clyde are really good at composing. Billy has a great ear for bass parts that aren’t what you’d expect. Ryan is a brilliant poet. And I specialize in melodies and phrasing.. But even though we all have these strengths, we have all dabbled quite a bit in all aspects of songwriting. Every one of us writes lyrics. Every one of us composes. We collaborate, and I think that is very important in any band.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Ansley Hughes: That’s a great question. One that we ask ourselves regularly. We listen to the radio, and we’re like “what makes THIS song a hit, and how can WE write something equally as classic?” it’s hard because no one really knows. I think it’s important to write music that ages well. If you follow some type of fad or formula, I feel like that’s less likely to happen. We focus on innovative lyrics, melodies and composition… And hopefully, there will end up being a classic tune in the midst of everything we’ve created thus far… Or in the future.
Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the following songs—what inspired them, how you wrote them, recorded them etc?—
Amy Steele: “Uh Oh”
Ansley Hughes: We wrote “Uh Oh” in an RV park in Oregon, I think. Of all the tracks on Hydrogen Child, I’d say “Uh Oh” was probably the most collaborative of them all. There are literally lyrics from every member of the band, as well as composition. All five of us hold an equal 20% of that song… It was inspired by all the uproar of the apocalypse happening in the coming months. (dec. 2013). It was a very fun song to write.
Amy Steele:“Purple Poppies”
Ansley Hughes: We actually wrote “Purple Poppies” before we went on tour (along with “Avalon”). Those were the only two songs we wrote prior to the tour. The rest (sans “Magnolia Parade”) were written on the road during our 2012 West Coast tour… We all have our own analysis of “Purple Poppies” so I’m not really gonna get too deep into that.. But I will say for me it’s about a struggle. A struggle to communicate for whatever reason.
Amy Steele: “Fire Me Up”
Ansley Hughes: The original idea of this song came up when Clyde and I stayed at my Aunt’s lake house for a couple nights about a year or so ago. We wanted to write a song about feeling cold and wanting to feel warm again.. Metaphorically of course.. But we wanted to make it very literal to create more of an image. I remember Clyde saying things like “what if we were saying we wanted to jump in a cold lake just to get out and feel warm again” which I thought was really cool.
We ended up only writing the chorus. And when we collaborated with the whole band, it took a turn for something I find much more relatable. I’ll go into this with a little more detail just because I think it’s a cool story… But the idea is a woman at her own wedding experiencing “cold feet”. She’s kind of watching it all unfold and realizing how silly it all is.. How mundane her relationship has become and just wanting something exciting to happen.
“I turn my back upon their faces as the ladies take their places, like a family of wolves” is one of my favorite lines.. It continues with “and my deception in these flowers makes the world of wedding showers for magnolia fools.”
I just visualize this terrified bride looking at this big catastrophe of a ceremony.. When all she really really wants is to feel warm again.
Ansley Hughes: This tune is a bit darker than we tend to go.. But upon listening to it, you gather that the singer is not happy with whoever it is she’s talking about. It’s about seeking revenge.. But not necessarily in this life.. You could say that the subject is expressing that he/she would rather be dead than be in their current relationship… Because the afterlife has to be more fun than this. Whatever “this” is.
“You can throw me to the gallows, we can get down low, watching our bones dance in their graves”…
Its like get me out of here, man. I’m gonna party no matter where I go.
That’s what I Get from it at least. I know each band member would have their own interpretation of any of our songs.
Amy Steele: “Pistol”
Ansley Hughes: I’m not entirely sure what exactly this song means, to be honest. However, today it still marks, in my book, one of Clyde’s most clever lyrical moments.
We were writing one day.. And he was all, “hey, isn’t a pistol a part of a flower?” and I was like, “yeah, I mean, a pist-IL is part of a flower.. Where are
You going with this, you lyrical genius?!” I was so excited. Anyway, he was like, “what if we wrote a song about someone being a pistil in someone’s flower and, like, at any moment they will explode or something???” ..and from that, we constructed the chorus to “Pistol”, as well as the bridge in Sunday School Dress.. And as far as verses go, they’re just pretty words put together to make you feel on top of the world. That’s what I think.
Amy Steele: What can people expect when seeing Super Water Sympathy on tour?
Ansley Hughes: Bubbles and a killer light show. And hopefully some songs they want to listen to over and over. If we can sell at least one album per show, we will consider that a huge success. We’ve always said that… And if a new listener talks to Clyde Hargrove for more than five minutes, they’ll be hooked, regardless.
Amy Steele: thanks for taking the time to answer some questions! Hope to see you soon in Boston.
Ansley Hughes: Thanks so much!!!
Laura Dern directed “Grace” one of the five short films which comprise CALL ME CRAZY: A Five Film. It airs on Lifetime Saturday April 18 at 8 p.m. This is the second film that Dern’s directed [her first film was a short back in the 90s]. She said she’s been contemplating directing for quite some time. Some of Dern’s films include Citizen Ruth, We Don’t Live Here Any More, Jurassic Park, Blue Velvet, Rambling Rose and October Sky. Most recently Dern starred in the fantastic series Enlightened on HBO.
Amy Steele: Hi Laura.
Laura Dern: Hey.
Amy Steele: I loved Enlightened by the way.
Laura Dern: Thank you Amy. That’s hilarious. Not that I’m saying there are any similarities, but every time I meet an Amy now I feel so close to them because I love the name so much because I love that character.
Amy Steele: So how did you prepare to direct?
Laura Dern: You know, I mentioned earlier it was really run and gun. We actually were finishing Enlightened in the middle of this, so it was a really insane time for me. It was literally a matter of days.
I got the call and they needed to start immediately. Mine was the first one up. So it was literally a matter of –I think– five days between, “hey can we send a script over” and needing to be on a set with a cast, a crew and a vision. So good news and bad news is I think I didn’t have time to even figure out what I needed to know. I just had to go for it.
I love working with actors. I’ve done it my whole life. I’ve been raised by them so I don’t have a lot of fear about that. It feels quite natural to me, I guess. I felt surprised by my awareness of where the camera should be. That seemed natural too oddly and luckily for me I had the brilliant DP, Gail Tattersall, who came and shot it. He and I were in sync about the vision as he supported me immensely.
The part that I think was hardest was just, you know, scheduling the day (time management), making sure actors had the time in something this emotional and shifting locations and all of that. Just the real producerial managing of getting your work done in a very, very short window is probably the area I learned the most from and had the most to learn about.
Amy Steele: There’s a clear difference between the manic and depressive scenes. Darker when she’s having depressive episodes and real quick scenes, brighter colors during her manic scenes when she takes the girls shopping and everything. What approach did you take for the different scenes?
Laura Dern: You know, relying on a totally brilliant actor like Melissa Leo. Really spending time talking through it before we started and spending time speaking to specialists and someone I know who has the disorder. Making sure that Melissa felt comfortable with really understanding the highs, the lows, and the in-between. You know, the medicated version which was important to me that when we did the un-medicated version, it’s not healed.
It’s all about degrees with the disorder and really trying to stay true to that, when someone comes off a manic episode like how they come down off of it. So in a very short time, there were scenes which dealt with every single one of those things, so I think it was more spending time with Melissa and making sure we knew exactly what that was and hoping to capture that in at least one take in each area so that people could really feel the differentiation.
The third album from Montreal musician Patrick Krief — Hundred Thousand Pieces—is out today on Rock Ridge. It’s a beautifully crafted alt-folk collection filled with hopeful, poignant, lush arrangements. Krief, guitar player for The Dears, played all the instruments, layering them for the self-produced album. At 10 years old, he got a guitar, playing what he’d hear on the radio. His musical family encouraged his artistic pursuits.
While on his current tour, Patrick and I spoke by cell [Rather unreliable coverage. We rescheduled by a week and then unfortunately I couldn't hear the last few questions I asked. I'm blaming Texas.] as he drove through Texas en route to Austin and the South by Southwest Music Festival. The tour finishes up at O’Brien’s in Allston this Saturday March 23.
Amy Steele: Do you think you have a different approach and perspective being a self-taught musician?
Patrick Krief: I’ve always only been interested in writing my own music and I’ve never felt the need to actually be able to score it. With the technology these days I just bang out on a keyboard/ piano and the music sheet comes up. Whatever I’ve needed to communicated with musicians that do read I either sing what I want for them to play and they dictate it or I use software to translate what I’m playing on the keyboard onto manuscript paper.
Amy Steele: How has technology changed the writing process?
Patrick Krief: Sometimes you rely on your eyes more than your ears. When I write I try to get all my ideas out in my head on a guitar and arrange it there before I go to the computer to lay it down to execute it.
Amy Steele: What comes first music or lyrics?
Patrick Krief: I just wait. Songwriting hits me at random times. Whatever I happen to have around me, I’ll grab the voice recorder on my iPhone and a guitar or lyrics that come to me I’ll write down in a note pad. But I’ve never succeeded at sitting down and trying to write something. I’ll never be happy with that type of song. Usually a good one hits me like a lightning bolt and I’m rushing to find something to document the idea.
Amy Steele: It’s a beautiful album. Lovely songs. Really gorgeous. Some of the songs linger in my head after I’ve heard them.
Patrick Krief: I appreciate that.
Amy Steele: Why’d you want to do solo projects?
Patrick Krief: The idea of being a guitar for a band was more the why did you want to do that because I’ve always been doing this. The keyboardist and I have been playing music together for 10 years. Before joining The Dears I’d been reluctant to be a guitar player. I got something out of it that I didn’t think I would. It’s a focused, no-stress kind of vibe. I enjoy it. This is always something I’ve wanted to do and what I’ve been working towards. It’s a lot more stress and it’s a lot more rewarding.
Amy Steele: Who are you as a solo artist?
Patrick Krief: I’m just a fucked up guy like everyone else. I just want to be as real as possible and give people something they can relate to.
Amy Steele: What are the greatest challenges as a solo artist?
Patrick Krief: Being as strong as being able to be selfish and not caring what people like. Making art for yourself and it’s self-indulgent. Once it’s done you hope that it connect with people so that you can have a career. In the process you have to divide those worlds of career and artist.
Amy Steele: What’s the best part about being a solo artist?
Patrick Krief: When you feel like you’ve actually connected with anybody. When somebody talks to you and says “I love this song” or they get it, there’s no single greater reward than that.
3/19 – Local 506, Chapel Hill, NC
3/21 – Rock Shop, Brooklyn, NY
3/22 – M Room, Philadelphia, PA
3/23 – O’Brien’s Pub, Allston, MA
Chicago duo My Gold Mask furnishes a trippy journey into resplendent darkness and emotionality. Dramatic, layered songs awash in goth splendor. Unique experimentation and textured melodies orchestrated with merely guitar, drums and vocals that present as a rich aural tapestry– bit of 60s and 70s psychedelia. Gretta Rochelle’s impressive vocal range —from vulnerable to intense— equates the music to Siouxsie and the Banshees. My Gold Mask released its second full length album Leave Me Midnight on February 19th.
I interviewed vocalist/drummer Gretta Rochelle and guitarist Jack Armondo by email.
Amy Steele: My Gold Mask’s been together since 2009. How did you get together?
Gretta Rochelle: Jack and I met at a party years ago. Right off, we started talking about music. Like two days later, we were writing together.
Jack Armondo : It was like serendipity in a way. Because almost immediately I knew we would be making music together. As far as My Gold Mask goes, it really started off with us just experimenting and playing around with new sounds. Pushing ourselves artistically.
Amy Steele: What makes you work well together?
Gretta Rochelle: haha, history I guess. We’ve been working together for a while. We both know what the other person is trying to do even before they do it at this point. We share similar aesthetic views and have similar writing styles.
Jack Armondo: We are on the same page creatively speaking. Even when we argue we come to an understanding fairly quickly. There isn’t a lot of disagreement about the overall direction of things. That’s not to say we don’t fight, because oh yeah we do.
Amy Steele: What challenges you about being in a two-piece band?
Gretta Rochelle: The fact that I couldn’t focus on one particular thing was challenging for me. I was splintered between vox and beats. I really like to give attention to what needs to be nourished and for me, the vocals were where I wanted to grow and spend more time. Now that we have a live drummer, I can focus more on the delivery that the songs demand.
Jack Armondo: For me, it was a challenge to fill the sound out. In the beginning we were more minimal and inspired by bands like Young Marble Giants. It taught us that taking something away can work just as well as adding something, if arranged properly. For “Leave Me Midnight” we wanted a bigger sound. I love synths but they’re not really my forte, so I try out different sounds with the guitar and make it almost otherworldly. But as we fill things out we also try not to forget the things you learn playing in a minimal band. Limitations can be inspiring.
Amy Steele: How did you get the name My Gold Mask?
Jack Armondo: We like masks. We like the idea of dual identity. We also just like how it sounds. It sort of popped out in a conversation we were having about luche libre masks.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about making music?
Gretta Rochelle: It’s gratifying to be able to convert raw emotion into something audible. It’s magic to me to be able to pull out the clutter from my head and make it into something musical.
Jack Armondo: I guess if I had to pick my favorite thing, it’d be performing live. There is an energy you don’t get in the studio. But really we love every aspect of making music and try and focus on what we are doing at the time. It’s exciting when something you’ve been creating really starts to come to life.
Amy Steele: Gretta, you have such an amazing vocal range. Haunting, powerful, delicate. . . what type of vocal training have you had? How do you protect your voice when you’re on tour?
Gretta Rochelle: Thank you, you’re sweet. I’ve had no formal training…just singing along to awesome vocalists like Bruce Dickinson, Kathleen Hanna, Robert Smith, Billy Holiday and Ma Rainey…yeah. I actually have a super sensitive voice. I’m allergic to everything and lose my voice from just talking too much. On tour, I keep quiet and drink a lot of water….in between some Patron and yummy beers, of course. Carrot juice, Slippery Elm and Throat Coat are my best friends on tour.
Amy Steele: Let’s talk about the song “Some Secrets.” Synth beats, precious vocals. What inspired this song?
Jack Armondo: It’s just about when someone is telling you too much. Either about themselves or people you know. Rumours, secrets, things like that. Whether truthful or not, it can be destructive. Sometimes you don’t want to know everything. Sometimes the mystery is more attractive.
Amy Steele: I also really like the song “I, Animal.” What is this about?
Gretta Rochelle: Thank you, I really like singing it. To me “I, Animal” is a primal seduction song. I play around with my voice a little bit more on this one. There’s an unpredictability about it that mimics a sort of crazy love affair that may even be more one-sided if anything. Then at the chorus, it’s asking for the lover to just roll with it, regardless of the danger or threat of anything insane happening.
Amy Steele: “Without” is a beautiful, slower song where you both sing. What do you like
about this song?
Gretta Rochelle: Everything. It’s so sad. Jack wrote this song. I love harmonizing with him. He has an incredible voice and I think our vocals really lay lovely over each other.
Jack Armondo: I literally dreamt this song up. I woke up from a very sad dream and it was in my head and I immediately recorded it on my phone. The lyrics are simple, it’s about the feeling of the melody. At one point we tried adding more to it but it just seemed to take something away, so we left it simple. Gretta liked it and decided to make it a duet , which gave it that something extra I think. Sanford [Parker-- engineer/producer] told us it was one of his favorite songs while he was mixing it, which was pretty cool to hear. He mixed it perfectly, it sounds haunting to me like it was in my dream.
Amy Steele: On “Lost in My Head” at times it’s almost as if you get into another character, Gretta. Is that your intent or do you feel that certain emotions must be sung in certain keys?
Gretta Rochelle: This song is probably the most “me” song on the record. I suffer from major panic disorder and have incredible panic attacks daily. The song isn’t sung in different keys, but the voices are different from verse to bridge to chorus to translate the roller coaster effect as accurately as I can via song.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Jack Armondo: There’s not really one particular formula. There are so many different types of songs that can work for so many different reasons. I like songs with hooks, but that has to be accompanied by some real emotion. We like songs that feel immediate but pull you in deeper the more you listen and can challenge artistically as well. It’s not easy to write a song that encompasses all of that. But when it does come together, it’s a great feeling.
Gretta Rochelle: Hitting that sweet spot. Usually a dark, sweet spot for me. A good song is one that stays for life. I become obsessed with the feeling it gives me. Wherever I am in life, if that song comes on, I stop what I’m doing and let myself remember why I fell in love with it, what was going on when I found it.
purchase at Amazon: Leave Me Midnight
March 2nd – Milwaukee, WI – Mad Planet
March 9th – Chicago, IL – Schubas
March 16th @ Midnight – Austin, TX – SXSW (Hickory Street)
March 19th – Hot Springs, AR – Low Key Arts
April 13th – Cincinnati, OH – MOTR
April 26th – Des Moines, IA – Vaudeville Mews
Apr 6th – Kansas City – Middle Of The Map Fest
June 25 – Philadelphia, PA – Kung Fu Necktie
June 26 – Cambridge, MA – The Middle East
June 27 – Brooklyn, NY – Knitting Factory
Liam O’Donnell grew up in Leeds, the son of a Scottish father and an Irish mother. They moved to London where Liam played around as a singer/songwriter for some time. In 2010, he formed pop group Various Cruelties which blends Britpop, mod and funk. The song “It Wasn’t for You” is featured in a holiday ad for Zales jewelry. The band supported Mumford and Sons and The Vaccines.
Debut album available for download now and on CD on February 26 in the U.S.
Amy Steele: Where did the name Various Cruelties come from?
Liam O’Donnell: The name Various Cruelties comes from a painting by the artist Ed Ruscha. I saw the picture on a wall and thought it looked like great and I really loved the name. It was a beautiful deep red colour and almost looked like dried blood. It was reminiscent of something like The White Stripes would have put up. It had a classic yet, darker, distressed feel to it.
Amy Steele: You look so young. When did you first become interested in music? Have you professional training?
Liam O’Donnell: My family was musical. So I can’t really remember not being interested in music. I don’t have any professional training except I used to play in bars when I was a kid. I could do an excellent rendition of “The Fairytale of New York” on violin at 12.30 a.m. or down the phone to someone.
Amy Steele: You started out a solo artist. What made you decide to get a band together?
Liam O’Donnell: It felt natural. It was a bit lonely being a solo artist sometimes. In the studio I could bring different colours and personalities to the songs I was creating. But playing them live on an acoustic guitar just didn’t hit the spot in the same way. When I met the other guys, we hit it off very quickly and were able to bring the songs to life in a live environment.
Amy Steele: What do you like about being in a band?
Liam O’Donnell: I like being able to hang out with my mates. I love people coming to and enjoying the shows. We get to meet our fans, make friends, all alongside the funny things that happen along the way. Such as our drummer being told he looks like “George Washington”. The amusing thing being that the guy who said he looks like “George Washington” meant “Denzel Washington”. Most people would think there’s quite a difference between the two individuals, but obviously not this guy.
Amy Steele: You are a big The Strokes fan. What do you like about the band?
Liam O’Donnell: I guess there’s always one band or musician that growing up you connect with. They are such a great pop/guitar band with timeless songs. I saw them when I was 15 and Julian sat on a chair, with his ankle in a cast but was still cool. Discovering your first band is a bit like falling in love for the first time. As you get older, you like other bands, but you never fall in love as much as you did the first time.
Amy Steele: I hear Britpop, folk, funk fused in your music. What other bands and musicians influence you musically?
Liam O’Donnell: I’m from Leeds. So we have a heritage of Northern British music. It’s not that we ‘totally invented pop music’ but so much has come out of this region. I couldn’t avoid not hearing The Beatles, The Smiths, Arctic Monkeys, growing up. I also developed quite an eclectic taste quite early. I became fascinated with musical scenes from Britain such as mod, goth and to a certain extent hip hop. I liked listening to old soul records and embracing culture of northern soul, ska and jazz nights that are quite prevalent in Yorkshire.
Amy Steele: I adore the song “Magnetic Fields.” What can you tell me about it?
Liam O’Donnell: “Magnetic Fields” is about a girl I used to hang out with. We weren’t very good for each other at certain points. Yet we had this strange connection.
Amy Steele: Tell me about the impetus for “Beautiful Delirium.”
Liam O’Donnell: “Beautiful Delirium” is about when you’re young and life is perhaps a bit changeable. Sometimes you feel thrilled but daunted at the same time. It’s about that. Sometimes I find those feelings to be quite intense.
Amy Steele: How about the song “Capsize?” There’s a cool Calypso-esque beat to it.
Liam O’Donnell: In all honesty. I had recorded the song in another style for the demo. Then shortly before recording the album I listened to aht ah mi hed by Shuggie Otis. Thought the “Calypso” vibe from that was pretty cool, so decided to try nick the vibe of that song for “Capsize.”
Amy Steele: What comes first the music or the lyrics?
Liam O’Donnell: I need to feel the music first to inspire the lyrics. I get to the point where I feel like I want to sing along. Then the lyrics just happen. Normally regarding the subconscious focus of whatever is on my mind.
Amy Steele: What inspires you?
Liam O’Donnell: Mainly things in day to day life. I’d be lying if I said all my ideas came from 19th Century Irish literature.
Amy Steele: If you weren’t a musician what would you be doing?
Liam O’Donnell: I did study for a law degree for a while. But I can’t see myself going back to that. I used to have a job where I maintained industrial dishwashers capable of washing an incredible 2000 plates an hour. I liked being able to fix them. So maybe something where I could take that to the next level. A dishwasher to support an army or something.
Amy Steele: What football team do you root for?
Liam O’Donnell: I have two to be brutally honest. I am from Leeds so Leeds United. But my Dad is a proud Scotsman and he supports Glasgow Celtic. But our manager’s first name is “Neil”. So let’s hope Leeds achieves promotion this year and Celtic beats Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League. The final is at Wembley which isn’t that far from my house. I can but dream. Closer than going all the way up to Scotland anyway!
In terms of US sports I need someone to tell me about the history of all the big sports teams. Then I can pick one?
purchase on Amazon: Various Cruelties
One of my favorite singer-songwriters, the beguiling Chelsea Wolfe tours this winter in support of her Sargent House release Unknown Rooms: A Collection of Acoustic Songs. I play this repeatedly. I can’t get enough of her dramatic, haunting vocals and lush arrangements. Honest, heartbreaking, gorgeous, dark, lovely. And live, Chelsea Wolfe mesmerized the crowd with her aura and talent. Now living in Los Angeles, Wolfe grew up in Northern California.
Amy Steele: Your father played country music. How did that influence you?
Chelsea Wolfe: He had a home studio that I’d sneak into and record songs I’d written. Being around music and seeing him go to shows was of course what introduced me to the world of music, even though I wasn’t very involved back then.
Amy Steele: When did you start singing?
Chelsea Wolfe: When I was seven or eight years old.
Amy Steele: What type of musical training have you had?
Chelsea Wolfe: I’ve taken classes here and there but usually dropped out before they finished. I love learning but I’m not very good with institutions.
Amy Steele: Have you been in bands before?
Chelsea Wolfe: I’ve messed around with some rock bands but always ended up doing my own thing.
Amy Steele: What do you like about being a solo artist?
Chelsea Wolfe: I like it because there is a freedom to play alone or play with a group of musicians. And I’m really lucky to play and write with some brilliant people.
Amy Steele: Your music is beautifully dark and mysterious. Are you a dark person?
Chelsea Wolfe: Thank you. I can be. Sometimes I get on autopilot and just focus on the work, but then there will be a lull and I sort of stop and breathe and look around and sometimes it can get dark.
Amy Steele: What inspires your songs?
Chelsea Wolfe: The world around me and the world at large.. news stories, films, literature. A mix of reality and mystical or mythical elements. Love, life and death.
Amy Steele: When I saw you perform this past year at the Middle East in Cambridge, Mass. you captivated the audience and truly engulfed everyone in your music. What do you like about performing? How do you transform your music into a live performance?
Chelsea Wolfe: Performing is a challenge for me; writing and recording is a much more natural state for me. But I like the challenge of performing the songs live and I’ve come to enjoy the energies of the audience and meeting the people who come to my shows.
Amy Steele: What’s the greatest challenge about being a women in the music business?
Chelsea Wolfe: I think because I present my music in an androgynous way I don’t have like, problems or challenges because I’m a woman. The one thing I’d say is that I get compared to other female artists that I have nothing to do with because critics love to group us all together, but my influences are mostly male artists actually. Not a big deal though.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to do this acoustic album?
Chelsea Wolfe: I started working with Sargent House earlier this year and they suggested I release an album of all my orphaned acoustic songs that I would play live or demo but had never actually released on an album. I was excited about the idea and as I gathered the old recordings I decided to re-approach most of them with new instrumentation and also wrote and recorded some new acoustic/folk songs for the record.
Amy Steele: What can fans expect on this winter tour?
Chelsea Wolfe: A much more intimate experience.. It’s going to be pretty stripped down, to guitar, vocals, synth and violin. Sometimes I get a little nervous about how personal it will be, but I’m also looking forward to experiencing it myself and pushing myself to do something I’m not completely comfortable with.
Friday, January 11
Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, Calif
Sunday, January 13
Doug Fir Lounge
Monday, January 14
The Triple Door
Tuesday, January 15
The Media Club
Friday, January 18
Triple Rock Social Club
Crofoot Pike Room
The Drake Hotel
Wednesday, January 23
Friday, January 25
First Unitarian Church
Saturday, January 26
Music Hall of Williamsburg
Sunday, January 27
Rock and Roll Hotel
Tuesday, January 29
Chapel Hill, NC
Wednesday, January 30
Thursday, January 31
Baton Rouge, LA
Friday, February 1
Saturday, February 2
Central Presbytarian Church
Sunday, February 3
House of Blues – Cambridge Room
Tuesday, February 5
Wednesday, February 6
The Loft @ UCSD
Friday, February 8
First Unitarian Church
THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D is a wonderful novel about friendships, family and ambitions. It focuses on two women post-9/11. Elizabeth died prior to 9/11 and left a life’s worth of journaling to her friend Kate to figure out what she should do with them. The novel delves into both women’s lives prior to meeting each other as well as during their seemingly strong friendship. How well did Kate truly know her best friend? Nichole Bernier turns out a sharp, thoughtful novel with a twist.
Nichole answered some questions earlier this week via email.
Amy Steele: When I first heard the title of your book, I really thought it was going to be historical fiction. Where did you get the idea for the novel?
Nichole Bernier: I lost a friend in the September 11th attacks, a new mother who’d been on the first plane. That week I helped her husband by returning the media calls, so he wouldn’t have to describe over and over the person she’d been. I wondered for a long time afterward how she would have felt about the sound bites and how she would have perceived the eulogizing, and how well any of our obituaries represent the people we’ve been. It’s probably inevitable that there’s a difference in the way we see ourselves and the way we’re seen by others. We all die with part of our stories untold, the quiet fears and unfulfilled dreams.
My novel is in no way about my friend or her family, but is about the questions that stayed with me about identity women have as wives and mothers, sisters and friends. The difference between the faces we show the world and the aspects of ourselves we keep private. The “what-if” of the novel spooled off from there, and became about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and learns she didn’t know her friend as well as she thought — including where she was really going when she died.
Amy Steele: Why did you want to set it right after 9/11?
Nichole Bernier: There are several levels of trust and fear and trust in the novel, but the most literal fear is the anxiety for your family’s safety in an unsafe world. The summer of 2002 was such a horribly fascinating time. Watching CNN then, it felt as if anything could happen —anthrax, Mad Cow disease, sneaker bombs, why not poisoned reservoirs, mushroom clouds, detonating shopping malls? I think many people, myself included, felt for a while that anything was not only possible, but likely. Most of us moved on from that paralyzing place, but it was fascinating to me to create a character who became quietly obsessed with the unknowns and could not move on.
Amy Steele: You have a journalism degree from Columbia. Is it difficult to transition to a novelist from a journalist? Do you have any interest in writing non-fiction books?
Nichole Bernier: Initially, the hardest thing was permitting myself to write something I was not contracted to write, and no one was waiting for or paying me to do. For years. That was a hard indulgence not just because I was accustomed to the parameter of deadlines, but because I had three young children when I started the book, and five by the time I finished. Time spent working on my novel was time away from a family schedule that didn’t allow for much slipping away easily. And yes, I’d love to write a nonfiction book if the right idea grabbed me by the jugular.
Amy Steele: How did your journalistic training come into play in writing Elizabeth D?
Nichole Bernier: Funny, but the formats were not as different as you might think. I came from being a writer and editor at Conde Nast Traveler magazine, and for me, the features that make for the best, most transporting travel article have some of the best elements of fiction: a vivid sense of place and characters, a plot trajectory, and a sense of growth through journey.
Also, the research came naturally, the kind of digging you have to do to find out about the daily details of the protagonist’s career. My main character was a pastry chef, and though she was on hiatus raising her children, she helped out at a friend’s bakery. When she worked on a cream cheese-based tart I needed to know whether she’d fling open a foil package the way I do at home, or if it would be a 20-pound foil package, or if she’d scoop it from an industrial 50-pound tub. The same thing was even more true of accurately writing the husband who’d been a golf pro.
Amy Steele: Coming from the journalism world, how difficult is it to transition to fiction?
Nichole Bernier: From a business sense, and from a timeline of contract-paycheck-publication, it couldn’t be more different. The only thing fiction had in common with my magazine life is that it used the same alphabet. But I was surprised by how much I loved that learning curve — the query letters, the foreign rights process, writing marketing materials. Old dog with five pups learning new tricks.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about writing fiction?
Nichole Bernier: It’s like opening the throttle and letting it go. When I’m really going with a section of description I just stare at the wall and let my fingers translate. I took typing in high school, thank God, (do they even offer that anymore?), and I don’t have to think or look down. It’s more natural to me than writing longhand, and sometimes more than speaking.
But it’s equally true of writing essays, which I love as much as fiction, maybe more. I find when I’m chewing on a thought, or an issue in the news, I don’t really understand or process my thoughts until I write it through.
Amy Steele: Do you write journals? I’ve done so myself off and on since high school but did destroy some after I re-read them. Why do you think people write them and why do they save them?
Nichole Bernier: I’ve always been fascinated with why, exactly, people do this crazy thing, putting private thoughts to paper, and what they think will become of them someday. What if you’re hit by a Mack truck tomorrow? Who do you want to read them, or to take responsibility for them so that no one does?
I’ve kept a journal intermittently since I was a teen. I never thought of my journals as something for others to eventually read—or as a way to be fully known, or to have my final say —though I imagine some people do. I always thought they would be interesting for me to have and revisit someday or call back up some time of my life, and in fact, I did mine them for some details for the novel. There’s a scene about a new mother who calls 911 when she smashes a mercury thermometer in the baby’s room, and a HAZMAT team storms the house. It’s nerve-janglingly chaotic and slapstick at the same time, the way so many of those new-motherhood experiences can be. That came almost verbatim from my own experience written in my journal.
Amy Steele: You really successfully delved into the various facades that people keep, the appearances. What interested you about that? Was this based on experience or did you draw from other sources?
Nichole Bernier: I’ve moved a lot, both as a child and since I’ve married and had kids, and I’ve come to know the work of making inroads into a new community. It’s a bit of a dance, feeling out how — and whether — friendships can get beyond the day-to-day PTA machinery and reach more candid ground. My first experience in a playgroup as a new mother for the first time was a very positive one. But it was easy for me to imagine a situation for my book that wasn’t that way.
Amy Steele: What do you think the challenge is for most suburban moms?
Nichole Bernier: It depends on the person. Many would say, just getting in a shower. But probably finding common ground with likeminded people that is honest and doesn’t have to do 100 percent with your children. Finding people with whom you can be authentic and not worry about whether an admission of being frustrated makes you sound as if you aren’t a loving enough mother. People are so unforgiving of themselves as it is.
Amy Steele: What appealed to you about writing about a female friendship?
Nichole Bernier: In the beginning I didn’t think I was writing about women’s friendships so much as a wide range of influential relationships: spouses, children and siblings, our families of origin and how the ties in those early years shape our perceptions of ourselves. The friends we make and keep as adults are relationships of our own choosing, constantly, so one would think they’d be in some ways the most honest and mature.
But there are any number of reasons we become friends with those around us — including proximity, and children — and those relationships can be wonderful, or can even be somewhat destructive. I was interested in the middle ground: people who have experienced the same things but have perceived them differently, or people who hold back a bit because they don’t trust how they will be assessed. That caution is a kind of self-censorship that results in two potentially good friends passing like ships in the night.
Amy Steele: Kate seemed to think it strange that Elizabeth was SO different in her 20s as evidenced in her journals. Don’t you think that people use their 20s to find themselves and that she would be a bit different as an adult? People change yet retain many of the same inherent characteristics?
Nichole Bernier: I think it’s always a jolt when we learn that someone we think we know well has a surprising bit in their past that seems out of character. Though it may be simply that it never came up. Or perhaps it’s more complex than that, and a person harbors guilt about a past incident and would prefer not to talk about it. There are so many reasons why people don’t volunteer information about themselves. My motto has become, You just never know. Because you can’t imagine what people might be dealing with behind the scenes, and why people might behave the way they do.
Amy Steele: Why do you think readers can relate to this story, wherever they are in their lives?
Nichole Bernier: I hope they can. I think most people have struggled with how much of themselves to entrust to others, and have been surprised at one time or another by something unexpected in someone they’re close to. That to me is the common denominator in my book. Though if a reader has lost a close friend or struggled with issues of identity and personal aspirations while being a parent, those specifics might resonate in particular.
And yet I can think of any number of novels that have resonated with me even if the protagonists have wildly different lives than mine. I may not be able to relate directly to the things they deal with daily or agree with their choices. But the book was written in a way that puts me under their skin, or makes me so curious and invested that I care.
Amy Steele: Each woman has or had different types of careers that neither knew very much about as they met in a play group. What did you want to say about working mothers in this novel?
Nichole Bernier: There are so many ways mothers work — and by work I include volunteerism and community organizing, self-employment and creativity — and so many ways they try to juggle it with family. There is no one right answer; we all find our own way. And there can be subtle or not-so-subtle value judgments made about what others do or don’t do. I once heard a PTO member suggest, while room-parent positions were being assigned in a private committee, that so-and-so who’d put in her name worked full time and hadn’t been very involved before, so….perhaps we should find someone else who might have more time?
Well, that might be true. Or it might be her one time to be involved in her kid’s class, and she was going to work like hell to make it happen. Or maybe she’d just lost her job. Or maybe it’s none of our freaking business at all, and she was the first to volunteer for the position, so give it to her.
People size up the way others parent, and have opinions about how and why they juggling things a certain way and what gets lost in the process. But in most cases they really don’t know what they’re talking about. You simply don’t know what someone else’s world is like until you’ve walked in their shoes.
Amy Steele: You’re very blunt about the challenges in raising children and the special moments. Yet in a funny way. Even though I don’t have children I appreciate that. You made very real and varied characters. People will relate to each in some way. How difficult was it to create all the characters? How did you develop each character?
Nichole Bernier: In building a character you can take a germ of an idea, or something you’ve observed in someone, and use it as a launching pad to imagine what a character would be like if that were his or her motivating principle, or paralyzing flaw. That is fascinating to me. But it’s only the pencil sketch. They don’t become colorful and three-dimensional until you shade in the reasons they’ve become the people they are: the family in which this one grew up, the cad who broke that one’s heart. Life experiences are the building blocks that explain how a character came to be the complex collection of foibles and sensitivities that he or she is. That was the fun part behind the character building — figuring out the why behind the traits.
Amy Steele: Do you have a favorite character? Is any character most like you?
Nichole Bernier: Nope. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Nichole Bernier is author of the novel THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. (Crown/Random House), a finalist for the 2012 New England Independent Booksellers Association fiction award, and has written for magazines including Elle, Self, Health, and Men’s Journal. A Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler for 14 years, she was previously on staff as the magazine’s golf and ski editor, columnist, and television spokesperson. She is a founder of the literary blog Beyond the Margins, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and five children. She can be found online at nicholebernier.com and on Twitter @nicholebernier.
On her new album Circus Heart, Rebecca Loebe showcases an impressive vocal range from bold and commanding on title track “Circus Heart” to gentle and sweet on “Georgia.” Unusual arrangements and varied instrumentation all add to her charm. This is alt-folk at its best. Rebecca took the time to answer a few questions while on tour.
Amy Steele: You went to Berklee College of Music and got a degree in music production and engineering. How has that helped your own singing and songwriting? What did you like about Berklee? What’s the most important thing you took away from your four years there?
Rebecca Loebe: I had a great experience at Berklee – I was a teenager when I enrolled, and I was incredibly inspired by all of the talent and passion that surrounded me there. The environment was bustling with creativity and drive, and I think that definitely sparked a fire within me that I am still fueled by. After school I worked as an engineer at a recording studio, which was really helpful work experience and gave me a deeper appreciation for the roles everyone has to play in order to get a project done. It also gave me access to a recording studio, which helped me get my first album Hey It’s a Lonely World together.
Amy Steele: What do you like most and dislike most about touring?
Rebecca Loebe: What I love most about touring, without a doubt, is the opportunity to meet and get to know so many people as I travel around the country. There are so many incredible people out there, and I feel really fortunate to meet a ton of them as I go about doing my job. I like to cook, and eat meals at home, and I don’t get to do that much when I’m touring, so I guess that would be my least favorite part.
Amy Steele: Where do you get ideas for songs?
Rebecca Loebe: Song ideas come at me from everywhere – conversations with friends or strangers, snippets of stories on the radio, weird dreams…
Amy Steele: What is your song-writing process like?
Rebecca Loebe: Unhealthy! Every song comes together differently, but in general I come up with one line (a few words with a melody) first. This line usually ends up being the first line of the song or some part of the chorus. Once I have that line, I try to find paper and write as many words as I can – rhyming, non rhyming, lists of concepts, everything I can think of that has anything to do with that topic. Slowly I mold the words into verses, kind of figuring out what it’s about as I’m going. Then I pick up the guitar again, and start working on chords and a melody for the lyrics I’ve come up with.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Rebecca Loebe: Honesty.
Amy Steele: You said the first song you learned to play was “Joey” by Concrete Blonde. Who are some artists you admire?
Rebecca Loebe: Ooh, there are tons! I love: Randy Newman, Patty Griffin, Ben Folds, Gillian Welch, Regina Spektor, Matt the Electrician, Joni Mitchell, Crooked Still, Shawn Mullins, Devon Sproule, The Old 97’s…I could go on…
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to go on “The Voice?” What did you learn from the competition? What was the best part of it?
Rebecca Loebe: Honestly, the only reason I auditioned for “The Voice” is that I felt completely positive that there was no way in hell they would possibly pick me (the logic being that they don’t put folk singers on national network singing competition shows). I was very surprised when they asked me to come to the callback auditions, and then invited me to LA…I just sort of went along for the ride to see how far it would go. I admit that I was a bit cynical about it when I went out to the final auditions in LA – I’m not the biggest fan of reality TV and I was worried that it would be sleazy or negative. I was happily surprised to learn that “The Voice” was neither of those things – I really had an incredibly positive experience…I got to sing two songs I love in a style that I believe in, backed by an awesome band on national television. I feel like I played with fire and didn’t get burned.
Amy Steele: Who are you currently listening to?
Rebecca Loebe: I’m on the road right now, so I’m listening to a lot of music! I’ve been listening to a lot of Allen Stone, Milk Carton Kids and Alabama Shakes, after seeing them all at SXSW. Anais Mitchell, Cory Brannan and Nels Andrews all released albums earlier this year that I’m really enjoying, and most recently I’ve been wearing out Danny Malone’s upcoming release Balloons (I backed it on Kickstarter so I got it early!)
Amy Steele: What attracted you to folk music versus any other genre?
Rebecca Loebe: Funny you should ask that – I never really decided to be a folk singer. I just started writing songs and playing guitar to accompany myself doing it, and people call it folk. What I have come to appreciate about folk music is that it is an honest and unpretentious medium; I write about the world as I see it, and I offer my musings for people to enjoy or not, as it is useful to them.
Amy Steele: Have you had any major issues as a woman in the music industry?
Rebecca Loebe: Luckily, I haven’t had too many annoying run-ins that felt blatantly sexist.
I feel incredibly fortunate to be living and performing in this day and age with relative easy and equality. It seems to me that I’m able to do so because those 20, 30, 50 and 100 years older than me broke down a lot of barriers, and I try to live in a way that honors their efforts.
Amy Steele: What is your greatest challenge as a songwriter?
Rebecca Loebe: Remembering that I will write another good song again. I have trouble writing when I’m on the road, surrounded by people, not able to be alone with my thoughts…sometimes, when it has been months since I’ve written anything, I get scared that I’ll never write another song again!
Amy Steele: What is your favorite thing about being a singer/songwriter?
Rebecca Loebe: Watching the songs I write land on the faces of people in the audience – when I see that connection being made, I know that the songs are now out of my control and will have an entirely new life, and take on new meanings to every person who hears them. I love that.
Rebecca’s new album Circus Heart is out now.
check her website for tour dates.
purchase album at Amazon: Circus Heart
Jennie Fields is the author of The Age of Desire, a novel that imagines the details of the affair between Pulitzer-prize winning author Edith Wharton and journalist Morton Fullerton when Edith was 45 years old. The affair took place mostly in Paris. It ultimately affected Edith’s relationship with her husband Teddy Wharton and her best friend and literary secretary Anna Bahlmann. The Age of Desire is told through Edith’s and Anna’s eyes.
Fields received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of three other novels, Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and The Middle Ages. An Illinois native, she spent many years as an advertising creative director in New York and currently lives with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee. Jennie spoke with me by phone last week. Read more information on her website.
Amy Steele: When did you first become interested in Edith Wharton?
Jennie Fields: I was probably in my early 20s when I first discovered her and the minute I did, I felt this tremendous kinship with her. Her books thrilled me and I never tire of reading them and rereading them. I discover something new. There’s always something new. Now you can get e-books that haven’t been in print for years through the Guttenberg Project. I never ever run out of new things to learn from her work.
Amy Steele: Your agent gave you this idea for this novel when you were in Paris.
Jennie Fields: It’s all true. It’s one of those aha moments.
Amy Steele:She suggested you write about your favorite author Edith Wharton but how did you decide what to write about?
Jennie Fields: I knew only vaguely about her life at that point. I knew she’d had an affair. I immediately got every book I could find about her—there were a number of biographies. I just started reading everything. I narrowed down a part of her life. I clearly wanted to write about her relationship with Fullerton because not only were the letters available but her love diary was available. There was one part of her life where she wrote a diary on a daily basis where you could really get a sense of what she was going through.
Then I had a sense that you needed to see her from the outside as well. I decided I wanted a secondary character. I identified Anna Bahlmann and no one had really written anything about her. She clearly was important to Edith. She was with her for years on and off. It was serendipity that her letter came up for auction. I went to my computer and put in Anna Bahlmann and that week at Christie’s, letters that had been in an attic for over 100 years, that nobody had read from Edith to Anna, were going to auction. What a thrill. I ran over to Christie’s. They let me look at the letters. Everything I’d surmised about the relationship was true. It gave me insight into how Anna fit into Edith’s life. I loved that there was a counter-relationship not just with Morton (Fullerton) but with someone who loved Edith more than Morton ever did.
Edith couldn’t have been an easy person to live with. By many accounts Edith was very imperious and difficult. She was up against a world where women didn’t succeed and she was determined to succeed. Anna was a good way to look at that.
Amy Steele: I was confused with the finances in the novel. Edith married Teddy for money at the beginning but then he stole from her trust fund later on.
Jennie Fields: The majority of the money that built the Mount and that Teddy stole from was money from her books. She was tremendously successful with her books. People don’t really recognize how successful she was. Really stunningly successful. She had way more money than him. [Teddy] was never a wealthy man; he was just an appropriate man.
Amy Steele: That’s too bad because she should have married Walter Berry.
Jennie Fields: She really should have married Walter. And when you read the House of Mirth you know that Selden is based on Walter. He’s just a penniless lawyer. He clearly loved her but didn’t declare himself and he wasn’t wealthy enough. And when he was, she was married to Teddy Wharton.
Amy Steele: She did divorce Teddy.
Jennie Fields: She finally divorced Teddy, in 1911 or 1912, at Walter’s behest because he was so dangerous.
Amy Steele: Sounded like a manic-depressive with no treatment.
Jennie Fields: They said he had gout in the head. And hot springs was all they could recommend.
Amy Steele:Amy: So I’ve read A Backward Glance but no biographies on Edith Wharton.
Jennie Fields: What’s interesting about A Backward Glance is it’s how Edith wants others to view her. She cut out Anna. She said she taught herself everything and no one encouraged her to read. Now we know from these letters that Anna saved that Anna encouraged her to read all the time. Even her parents were much more encouraging of her as a writer than she ever let on. She wanted people to believe she was born from her own power and that nobody encouraged her. It really wasn’t true.
Amy Steele: What do you really like about Edith Wharton?
Jennie Fields: The thing that draws me to her is that she always writes about people who are caught in the net of society’s expectations. They fight against that and often they don’t win.
A good example of that is Lily Barth [The House of Mirth]. One of the reasons why that book is so beautiful is that the tragedy of it is it’s her better nature that kills her. If she was a better person she would have gone ahead and married someone wealthier. She was too bright and too good to marry these wretched people.
And Newland Archer in Age of Innocence. He is told he is supposed to marry May and stay with May and he falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska. It’s not what he’s slated to do. But he can’t fight society. He’s exhausted and can’t fight society.
But Edith herself was told she couldn’t do what she wanted to do and she did it anyway. The only thing she never succeeded at was love until she was 45 years old. Of course how well did she succeed but at least she found passion.
Amy Steele: Do you think Edith was that insecure in her relationship with Morton Fullerton? It was so uncomfortable reading some of it.
Jennie Fields: Those were her real letters and if you read the diary and the letters just on their own you will find how she was tremendously insecure and she really abased herself in front of this man who was not worthy of her. It’s painful to read but it’s the truth. There were moments when it was hard to write that book because I had to make Edith less heroic. She also didn’t sleep with him for a very long time. Probably longer than I’d like to go with fictionally but I had to go with the truth.
A: She wrote such strong female characters. Vulnerable but strong.
Jennie Fields: It’s true. Her mother never made her feel she was attractive in any way which I think made her prey to his interest in her. She was extremely girlish in her figure. Had gorgeous hair and had tremendous bearing. She held her back straight, her neck long. And she was tall for that era.
Amy Steele: what do you think attracted her to Morton?
Jennie Fields: He was extremely charming, very intelligent and very attractive. He had lovers of both sexes who could hardly say goodbye to him and he kept the letters to prove it. He must have been incredibly charming. She’d never had anybody pursue her like that before. She was pretty intimidating as a woman. A lot of men were not attracted to a very intelligent woman. He was attracted to her, he wanted her. He paid attention to her. And that was pretty heady stuff to her.
Amy Steele: What do you think Morton saw in her?
Jennie Fields: She was older, successful. He was drawn to success, fortune, fame. He saw her as a mark.
Amy Steele: Why hasn’t much been written about Anna (Bahlmann) up until now?
Jennie Fields: Anna said in a letter to her friends and to her family that all she wanted in her life was to make Edith’s life easier. I started to wonder why Edith would say in one summer ‘I can’t function without Anna. Where is Anna?’ and then the following summer she sent her away and then she sent her away again. I had to make my own conjectures.
Amy Steele: How fun is it to do that?
Jennie Fields: Well it makes a whole cloth for those who want to read it. So I really enjoy that but I want to tread lightly and carefully because I don’t want to misinterpret things. I wish the whole story were there and I could tell it exactly as it was but I can’t. I have to create scenes that make you understand why something may have happened.
Amy Steele: What was your greatest challenge in writing this novel?
Jennie Fields: Trying to tell a story that was as close to history as possible but trying to make you feel it. Sometimes I had to create my own answers and had to make sure it was credible. It’s so telling that she could be so powerful in the world but in the face of love she was really cut down.
Amy Steele: From the novel it sounds like she left The Mount and became an ex-pat and wanted to live in Paris.
Jennie Fields: That’s what happened. They built The Mount and they ended up moving to the suburbs of Paris and she won the French Legion of Honor for what she did during WWI and was buried in Versailles. She spent the rest of her life in Paris. I think she believed that American life was stifling and so prescribed that there was no room for her especially after she divorced Teddy. She was afraid to go back to America. By the 20s things have changes tremendously and she went to Yale University to get an award and it was her last trip to America. She just thought it was provincial.
Amy Steele: How was she able to write about New York society so well?
Jennie Fields: In The Age of Innocence she writes about society in the 1870s so it’s the past. She asked her friends what was going on. But a lot of her later stuff she’s conjecturing and that might be why it’s not as popular because it’s probably not as accurate.
MIT professor and Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Diaz kindly agreed to speak with me by phone earlier this week about his new collection of stories This is How You Lose Her. Diaz writes raw, visceral prose that bursts from the page with a gritty intensity. The stories revolve around Yunior, a young smug Dominican as he navigates love in New Jersey. My review here. He’s currently on a 30 city nationwide tour and will appear at Brookline Booksmith on September 19, Harvard Bookstore on September 26 and Concord Festival of Authors on November 3. For other area dates, see Diaz’s website.
Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing short stories?
Junot Diaz: There’s something about their fragmentation. There’s something about their awesome intensity that really just does it for me.
Amy Steele: What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories vs. writing novels?
Junot Diaz: When it comes down to it, they’re two entirely different forms. The novel is a marathon in many ways. At least what I’ve written is more of a marathon. The short stories, in my mind, require an entirely different calibration. The short story’s so much about silence and the novel’s so much about how much you put into your world.
Amy Steele: It seems that not many authors can do both short stories and novels well. And many choose to do one or the other.
Junot Diaz: I’m not sure, myself, if I’ll write anymore short stories. I think I’ve burned myself out for a while.
Amy Steele: Do you think writing short stories is a more difficult format?
Junot Diaz: I don’t know. It’s just time for me to go back to the novel. To spend more time in that longitudinal form, in that more expansive form.
Amy Steele: Did you set out to write thematically based stories for This is How You Lose Her or did it end up that way?
Junot Diaz: I started it from the beginning. A book like this does not come together by accident. You set yourself up right from the start. You try to get all the stories to work together, to get all the basic scenes in play and have the arc intact. I had the idea for the overarching story first and then I had to fit the other stories in.
Amy Steele: Why did you think it would work better as stories than as a novel?
Junot Diaz: I just think they’re totally different forms. It’s a different game. It’s like asking why kickball vs. hopscotch? In our minds we think of these forms as directly related but it’s not so clear when you’re creating them how connected they are. there was something very useful and constructive about all the silences between the stories. There is a way that a reader reads this collection that the reader is going to ask important questions. They’re going to provide a lot of answers themselves. In a novel, there’s a lot less fragmentation. A novel is less a game. A book like this is more of a game that asks a person’s help to participate in the assemblage.
Stories have a way at the end of reminding us of how short our lives our but also just how irrevocable some of the moments in our lives are. You can’t regain them. Stories have a lot of finality in them. Where novels save all of its finality until the end.
Amy Steele: When I read your stories or novels, I become immediately immersed in the culture, which I suppose is the point but I find it so impressive and not easily done. How did you develop such a contemporary structure that seems simultaneously simple and complex?
Junot Diaz: There’s a part of me that knows the interface and what lies behind it and there’s this voice, conversation, vernacular—that’s just interface. That’s what the reader connects with. If someone’s interested in narrative, in the way a story works, they look behind the mask. My approach is always to hide the complexity. To do everything possible to distract, to misdirect that this is an artifact. That it’s highly provisional, highly contingent. And there’s a part of me that’s just nerdy. I love puzzles.
Amy Steele: What do you like about Yunior?
Junot Diaz: He’s incredibly complex. I wrestled with him because he’s so difficult. He has a suite of charms. But in other ways he’s sort of brutal. There’s a sensitivity and an intelligence and a cowardice and a self-obsessiveness that works for me.
Amy Steele: How did you develop him as a character?
Junot Diaz: He’s been with me for a long time. I’ve always liked the idea of a character who would allow me to talk about the way that masculinity and the way that race and the way that culture and the way that American-ness works from the inside. He’s so smart and so honest. He’s a wonderful observer. He has kinda cool judgments. But all those credits means there’s gotta be a lot of hurt and a lot of damage.
Amy Steele: What makes a good story?
Junot Diaz: A whole combination of traits for me. What matters most is a believable human character by which we mean contradictory and conflicted.