Three ‘wordy’ singer/songwriters have just written novels and they gathered at the New York Public Library to talk about writing and to sing songs. The show wasn’t sold out but each of them has a loyal fan base, who were there to cheer and applaud.
In Paul Holdengräber’s absence Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding) served as moderator. He’s written his third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered a Murderer, which is narrated by a British classical music critic from the turn of the last century.
This is my fourth time seeing Josh Ritter and, of the three novels, his reading left me the most cold. Not unlike what his performances do for me. His first novel is Bright’s Passage: A Novel about a WWI soldier returning home to Appalachia and he finds that an angel followed him from France and has taken residence in his home.
If Steve Earle were not so goddamn happily married he would be my new musician boyfriend and I would be stalking him daily. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive is the name of his first novel (he’s also written a play and book of short stories) and his latest album. It’s also the name of the last song Hank Williams recorded and the book is a fictional story of what became of the doctor who traveled with Hank and is rumored to have been there when Hank died.
Holdengräber always asks his interview subjects to describe themselves in seven words – a sort of haiku. The Live from the NYPL producer read aloud how each writer described himself:
Earle – singer, songwriter, novelist, actor, activist, husband, father
Ritter – writes rock and roll with lots of words
Stace – writes in rhymes sometimes or chapters
Why a novel?
Earle started journaling when he started 12-stepping and that lead to short stories, which lead to the novel. Originally he wasn’t going to read his book but then he had to do the audio version and he discovered that he really liked it. Listening to him read made me as happy as listening to him sing – he was making his way down the page in his Texas drawl and someone dropped a nickel in the jukebox and suddenly the room was full of Earle’s voice singing the lyrics of Hank’s last song. If you’re going to get this book you might want to think about getting the audio version.
Ritter was always a reader – where he grew up in Idaho you either threw stones at rocks or you read. Songs are very concise and he wanted to expand – he could write without worrying about rhymes and he could make it as long as he wanted. The novel is bit of an expansion of one of his songs but the story is not exactly the same.
Stace’s first novel was well received and then he was dropped by his publishing company while out promoting his second novel. Stace sees songwriting as a kind of writing school. By the way, when he chose his stage name he never thought he’d still be performing over 20 years later. Had he known he wouldn’t have taken his name from a Bob Dylan album.
Stace writes books under his real name, which he thinks works in his favor since the critics (who seem to dislike anyone who does more than one thing) treat it separately from his songwriting and don’t view his work as dilettantish. Which is the problem Earle had when the NY Times reviewed his short stories and viewed it as a vanity project. Now he doesn’t read any reviews – for his books, plays, performances, or albums.
All three only use two fingers to type so writing takes a long time. Earle said computers made it possible for him to write a novel since he writes songs in longhand. It took him eight years to write the book and it takes him one day to write a song. He was also writing his first play during that time. His second play, Dangerous Songs, is about Pete Seeger’s HUAC testimony. If you read the transcript there are several times when Pete offered to sing but was refused. The play imagines that he did sing his testimony.
Ritter only took two months to write his first draft. For him it’s like a sculptor who looks at a slab of marble and sees what s/he needs to cut away; a first draft is the accumulation of that marble and the editing is the easy part. Stace said that after the first novel that the second is much easier and Earle was very glad to hear that.
When Earle was writing he was looking for the rhythm and the beats. Shakespeare wrote in verse and if the best wrote musically then it made sense for him to do the same. Stace said he tries to write literary songs and now, after three novels, he makes his novels as musical as possible.
The three talked about how novel writing is a solitary activity. Stace said he enjoys readings so much because it was an opportunity to be social. Earle said the great thing about songwriting is that you can write a song in an afternoon and perform it that evening. Guy Clark told Earle that a song isn’t finished until you play them for people. Ritter said it’s putting yourself out there and hoping it’s accepted.
Earle mentioned Townes Van Zandt a few times and Stace asked Earle about being compared with Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis since all three came up in country music at the same time. Earle said he was never a country artist – like a lot of singer/songwriters he went to Nashville because Kris Kristofferson was there and if the powers that be would allow a Rhodes scholar to write a “Silver Tongued Devil” because they knew they’d get a “Help Me Make It Through the Night” then that was the place to be.
Earle sang a 20-year-old song about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that owes a lot to Dylan’s “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.”
Ritter performed a new song, “Galahad” that reminded me a little of Leonard Cohen. It’s probably one of the best songs I’ve heard from him.
Stace commented on how the energy of the room changed when the others were performing and how much more fun it is to be a singer than a novelist. He sang a new song (about a break-up), which is also new for him because he usually doesn’t write about himself.
Earle’s next book will be a historical novel about a slave who was at the Alamo and escaped. The second song he performed was a new one with a chorus “thinking about burning the Walmart down.” As soon as he finished Stace asked about the open E and the strumming and the Steve Earle sound. Stace followed with “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be).”
Ritter finished with “Folk Bloodbath” about the bad things that happen to characters in folk songs. Earle started playing harmony and then Stace/Harding came in on lead during the breaks.
Although they were always conscious of the audience, it sometimes felt as if we were watching three road warriors hanging out in a hotel room, talking music, talking writing, and playing songs.