"What It Means to be a Rock-Fiction Author" - interview
In her anthology, The Best of Rock Fiction, editor June Skinner Sawyers writes, "Rock fiction has not received the proper respect it deserves, which is unfortunate given the caliber of writers who have captured its fleeting essence on the written page."
Nick Horby's High Fidelity is credited as the first rock-fiction novel published in 1995. In 2011, Writer's Digest held a contest to "write a story based on your favorite song's lyrics." This prompted Randy Blazak to write his novelization of Electric Light Orchestra's A New World Record album, titled Mission of the Sacred Heart. Inspired by Blazak, Brian Paone published Yours Truly, 2095, credited as the third-ever rock fiction novel.
I had the pleasure to interview Brian Paone, a pioneer in writing rock fiction, and Pam Van Allen, who recently released her debut novel, to discuss the musical genre category of rock fiction.
How would you define rock fiction? Can a non-musical fan enjoy your work?
Pam Van Allen: Rock fiction can be any fiction that incorporates rock music in the storyline. The first few works were novelizations of albums but stories about purely fictional rock stars and their music would qualify too. Even fictional accounts of real rock stars would fall under that rubic. I wrote Midnight on the Water intending that people who had never heard an Electric Light Orchestra song would be able to enjoy the story. The main character wants to escape his boring life and many people can relate to that. He is swept up in a search for meaning that many people can relate to as well. The Easter eggs (hidden meanings) buried in the story will delight and entertain the ELO fans, while the non-musical fans will just skip over them. I don't think they will miss out.
Brian Paone: A genre where a single song, an entire album, or the span of a band/artist's complete work is adapted into a work of literature (novel, novella, short story, etc) using the literal lyrics to directly create the plotline and story arc, and usually the title of the book/story is taken directly from the song/album that the work is an adaptation of. But what makes it special, is being able to write a story or a novel where the reader doesn't even have to have heard the songs/albums to understand and enjoy the work. These novels and stories, although adaptations of songs/albums are also stand-alone books. Just like you don't need to have read a book to enjoy or understand the movie adaptation, you don't need to have heard the album (or even need to have heard OF the band before) to understand or love a rock-fiction novel. (Think the film or play adaptations of albums like Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Who's Tommy, except it's the novelization of the album, not the movie adaptation.) Rock-fiction novels are unique in the sense they already have two built-in audiences right out of the gate: the fan base of whatever the band's album is being adapted and the fan base of the genre book it's written in. It's not a prerequisite to know the album to read a rock-fiction novel. In fact, I bet most people read a rock-fiction novel based on its blurb and have no idea its an album adaptation. That's the beauty of rock fiction.
How did you become interested in writing rock fiction?
Pam Van Allen: I read two books that were novelizations of my two favorite ELO albums: Randy Blazak's Mission of the Sacred Heart and Brian Paone's Yours Truly, 2095. The albums they adapted were respectively, A New World Record and Time. I thought: These books are great! Where's the book for the other ELO concept album, Eldorado? I looked all over and it hadn't been written, so I decided to write it.
Brian Paone: It was 1991. I was on a Billy Joel kick and overdosing on his iconic hit, "Piano Man," to the point where I was listening to just that song upward of ten times a day; just obsessing over the lyrics and characters he sings about. I had been writing short stores for three years at this point (not a single one having anything to do with music; just random horror, drama and sci-fi to amuse myself and my friends). I was lying in bed one night and thinking about the people in the bar portrayed in "Piano Man" and wondering if any of them had a backstory, or if any of them had a future story past that night Joel sings about. I decided to write my first novel and base if off Piano Man. I was going to congregate all these random people in a bar and just see what happens. Basically wanting the bar to be the main character of the book and the people secondary. Coincidentally, my stepfather came home late that very night and I had gotten inspired to write this rock-fiction novel (this type of writing didn't have a name yet) and I heard my mother ask him why he was so late. He told her a bad accident had happened in front of the bar Sneakers (a real bar in my hometown). As soon as I heard the name of the bar, I immediately knew I had to put some Piano Man-like characters in there and just let them ... exist. And see what kind of stories they had. So I started writing (at the time, the novel's working title was A Bar Called Sneakers) what would eventually become my second published novel in 2010: Welcome to Parkview. Throughout the writing of multiple drafts, the bar (even though it makes an appearance in multiple chapters) took a backseat and the city of Parkview became the main character--hence the novel's name change when I finished it. Once I realized I was writing a novel version of "Piano Man." I knew more songs needed to be adapted in order to move my characters around the town and create conflict and an actual story arc. Different songs by different bands organically inspired me throughout the novel's multiple drafts. I found songs that led my characters through their journeys and expanded upon the building of their town. Specific songs spawned specific characters. As "Piano Man" was the original catalyst to springboard the book from the speakers to the page (and I guess is also ground-zero song for me to become a rock-fiction author) the other credited songs for the novel's creation dictated pinpointing moments or conflicts for the characters. I started the book in 1991 and finished in 2009, coming in at 246k words. I hired three different professional editors, and in 2010, we had whittled it to a neat and concise 88k words. Welcome to Parkview was published in August 2010 (nineteen years after the night I decided to write my first novel based off a Billy Joel song).
How many rock-fiction books have you written?
Pam Van Allen: Midnight on the Water is my first rock-fiction book. I'm working on another one based on the Traveling Wilburys. I've written five rock-fiction stories. Two of them placed in a flash fiction writing contest for New Mexico State University.
Brian Paone: If you don't count Welcome to Parkview (because that novel is more of a smorgasbord of songs turned into a single novel), then I have written two rock-fiction novels and four rock-fiction short stories, covering Electric Light Orchestra's album Time (my time travel romance novel, Yours Truly, 2095), Dog Fashion Disco's album Adultery (my crime-noir novel, Moonlight City Drive), Moby's song "Spiders" (short story "Outside of Heaven"), Jethro Tull's album Rock Island (my short story "The Whaler's Dues") Porcupine Tree's album Fear of a Blank Planet (my short story, "Anesthetize (or a Dream Played in Reverse on Piano Keys)") and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' song "Two Gunslingers" (my short story of the same name).
What is the title of your latest release? What album is it based on? Did you have any input or approval from the band?
Pam Van Allen: Midnight on the Water was published on December 14, 2017. It's based on Electric Light Orchestra's Eldorado: A Symphony, released in 1974. I contacted a friend of mine who runs the American fan club and works for Jeff Lynne's management. She said there was no point in sending Jeff Lynne or his manager a copy because they throw things like books and recordings away. Apparently, they don't want to give the appearance of endorsing such works.
Brian Paone: Moonlight City Drive, released in November 2017, is the supernatural, crime-noir novelization of Dog Fashion Disco's Adultery album. The band gave me the green light to write the adaptation before I had written a single word. The singer and guitarist were present during the entire process from the first and second drafts through the editing process. The singer even gave me some "insights past the lyrics" to help me fill in some holes that created the plot within the songs. He was also very forthcoming with which lyrics were concrete and which were ambiguous. The singer made the official announcement of the writing of the book on stage during one of their Baltimore shows in May 2017. Then the book's official release party was held at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland during the band's two-day music festival that they headline. Before the first show, all members of the band and I autographed 200 paperback copies of the book as a "limited special edition" to be sold during the shows. During their set the second night, right before they played a handful of songs from Adultery, the singer announced to the crowd that it was the book's official release weekend and that copies were available for sale at the merch table, and I was there to meet and greet fans and sign copies.
Do you develop a general concept of the album or do you study the lyrics and attempt to write the story literally from the lyrics? Do you listen to the music while writing?
Pam Van Allen: I already knew the lyrics well when I started writing, having listened to them for so many years. I went much deeper into the meaning and looked for connections to other ELO lyrics. I did quite a bit of research to figure out how a man could actually live forever in his dreams since that is how the album ends. There is a real documented way, but you have to read the book to find out what it is. I used the sound of the music to develop the imagery and dialogue in the book. ELO fans don't seem to talk about this much, but I will. Jeff Lynne, as a producer, is an absolute master of musical imagery. He can create a picture in your mind or an emotion in your body with the instrumentation he chooses and the way that he uses the combination of instruments. The impact of his music is much like the classical composers such as Debussy, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. Jeff has voiced his admiration for Debussy and I can certainly hear how he was influenced by him.
Brian Paone: It begins with the music first. Because, honestly, rock fiction isn't a genre within itself, it's a category of writing. A genre is romance, horror, sci-fi, action, crime, drama, comedy, etc. A rock-fiction novel still needs to be a "genre." For instance, Yours Truly, 2095 is a time-travel romance, and Moonlight City Drive is a supernatural crime-noir. Both are rock-fiction novels, but both are polar opposites of genre. So I first have to decide what genre the novel/story is going to be set in. That happens with the music, not the lyrics. I let the music--the tone, atmosphere--dictate if the novel is going to be horror, drama, or even western (as in my new Tom Petty story, "Two Gunslingers"). After I have committed to the genre, then I study the lyrics word for word. This may take weeks. I try to interpret them frontward, backward, sideward. I even have contacted other fans to ask for their input on certain lines of lyrics that seem ambiguous. Once I feel I have a good idea of how the story will translate to a piece of literature, that's when I create an actual outline. Because most albums are about 2k words worth of lyrics, and I'm trying to create something about 80k words long, I need to fill in a lot of gaps. This is where my creative license comes in. And because songs on an album can jump from one major event in the story to the next with no inclination of what happened in between, it's my job to create scenes that are only alluded to in the lyrics so the narrative flows like a novel, and not listening to a bunch of separate musical tracks. I only listen to the source material while I am writing and editing the manuscript.
What has feedback from musical fans been like?
Pam Van Allen: My book was published such a short time ago, I haven't received much feedback from fans of the music. The few people who have gotten back to me have loved it. They feel it honors the album by expanding the story and tells us what happened to the protagonist on his quest.
Brian Paone: Both of my novels have a 4.5 star rating on Amazon. Excluding the readers who had no idea they were reading rock fiction (the readers who read Yours Truly, 2095 because they liked The Time Traveler's Wife and had no idea it's an Electric Light Orchestra's novelization), I would say about 5% of readers who bought and read books because they are fans of the band had some issues with the way I handled some scenes. Of course, we are talking about extremely heralded albums. But, it's the same when the film adaptation of a well-loved novel is made. You can't please everyone who holds the source material dear to their heart, but the ratio of readers who love the adaptation to the readers who think my head should be on a stake is so skewed that I know I must be doing something right with my interpretations and novelizations.
Where can readers find your books?
Pam Van Allen: Midnight on the Water is currently on sale in eBook and paperback versions through Amazon worldwide. Readers can email me at Pam@pamvanallen.com if they would like a signed copy. You can also obtain a signed eBook at Amazon.
Brian Paone: My four novels are available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook through my online store www.BrianPaone.com (the only place you can get a signed copy along with a free companion soundtrack CD for each book) Amazon worldwide, Barnes & Nobles, Books-A-Million, and Target. My short stories appear in the "Of Words" series, which are available through Scout Media's online store: www.ScoutMediaBooksMusic.com as well as the other stores listed above.
Interview by Dawn Taylor