Author and frequent music lover and listener, Bryn Greenwood, is as passionate about music as she is about writing. It's her love of music that sometimes influences her writing, and sometimes it provides great background noise at just the right time. Greenwood recently released her third novel, a compelling account of first love, its complications, and the book is aptly titled, "All The Ugly and Wonderful Things." The book has received a number of excellent reviews by fans and critics alike. We chatted with Greenwood about how her love of music connects with her love of writing and reading.
AXS: What's the backstory for the controversial theme featured in your newest novel, "All The Ugly and Wonderful Things"?
Bryn Greenwood: Oh, I see we're starting with the hard questions first. My interpretation of why my book gets called provocative and controversial is that as a society, we want love to fit into these neat categories. Paternal love, familial love, the love of friends, romantic love. When love crosses over boundaries or ignores them altogether it makes us uneasy. I don't think I would have tackled something so complicated, except that I have been in relationships that make a mess of boundaries. When I was very young, I loved a much older man. He loved me, too, at first in an avuncular way, and then as a friend. When I hit that dangerous, chaotic cusp of puberty, it turned into romantic love and lust. Of course, our relationship was illegal, and over the years, I've struggled to explain the nature of our love to people in my life who disapproved. Although this book isn't remotely autobiographical, it's maybe an extension of my effort to explain that love is complicated and there's a lot of gray area.
AXS: Was there a time that you thought "writing isn't for me, so I'm going to focus on something else?"
BG: It has never crossed my mind that writing wasn't for me. I wrote my first story before I learned to write—my older sister was kind enough to take dictation-- and I haven't stopped writing since. I became serious about writing novels when I was 16, and it only took me about 20 years to start producing things people wanted to read. I'm not sure if that makes me an early bloomer or a late bloomer. I did for a while have a passionate interest in music performance. At various times, I played piano, saxophone, guitar, and cello, but ultimately I didn't have the talent necessary to be anything more than just an average musician.
AXS: While you're writing, do you listen to music to help you through it, or do you prefer silence?
BG: Sometimes I'll have a familiar TV show on in the background, something I've seen so many times I have it memorized ("X-Files," "Buffy," "Veronica Mars"). Not where I can watch it, but just hear it. Other times, I prefer to have music. If I'm writing during the day, I'm more likely to have music on in the background. In the evening, I'll turn the music up so that it's more of a presence in the house. Late at night, when I'm hitting my stride, I prefer silence. There's something about the sound of the night that works for me. The wind, crickets, trains in the distance, neighbors on their back porch talking too quietly to make out what they're saying.
AXS: Like music, books speak to people in different ways. How do they speak to you?
BG: A musician friend of mine talks about how there are two aspects to musical appreciation. There's the part where you can identify and admire the skill and technique that goes into a great piece of music, but there's the other part of you that connects emotionally, intuitively with music, without regard for the technique involved. I feel like that about books. There are books that I can read and think, "Oh, look at this very clever device the author has used to make me respond in a particular way," or "Look at this brilliant use of language." Then there are books that I immerse myself in and connect with the characters, and I never think about technique or language. The stories that enter my heart and set up camp there, those are my very favorites. That's the way I prefer to connect with books, but it requires a kind of disconnect. As a writer, I've had to learn how to employ those techniques in my own books, but the result is that I'm constantly seeking out books that let me forget I'm a writer.
AXS: You have several events/book signings coming up. What do you enjoy the most about these appearances?
BG: I'm an introvert, so doing public events requires me to put on a persona, which can be exhausting. However, at nearly every event, there's a moment when someone asks a question that really matters. It produces this little bubble of connection that reminds me of all my favorite things about when I used to teach. Inside that bubble, there's an incredible opportunity to talk about something that's important to me with other people who also feel passionately about the topic, whatever it is. It only takes two or three people to create that bubble, and while we're in it, we're having honest dialogue with each other. Sometimes, you can get nearly the whole audience inside the bubble, but that's a magical rarity that I mostly associate with concerts, when the whole audience is sharing an emotional experience with the band.
AXS: What was your first book, and who was your first concert? Which of both is your favorite?
BG: The first book I learned to read is one of those childhood classics that's completely problematic, so it's a bit weird to discuss it. That said, when I learned to read, it was 1975, and "Little Black Sambo" was still on the public library shelves in my small Kansas town. It's since been redone without the racist illustrations as "The Story of Little Babaji." The first concert I spent my own money to buy a ticket for was Twisted Sister in 1983, which was the start of my lifelong love for everything on the metal spectrum.
In terms of favorites, that honor goes to Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Tombs of Atuan," and B.B. King, whom I saw nine times in concert.
AXS: What five bands/albums, and books would you not want to live without?
"The Way We Live Now" by Anthony Trollope
"Maurice" by E.M. Forster
"The Color Purple" by Alice Walker
"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison
Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life
Every song Roy Orbison ever sang
Cake's Motorcade of Generosity, which literally saved my life the first winter I spent in the snow hell that is northern Japan.
AC/DC's Back in Black
AXS: Do you have a guilty music or entertainment pleasure?
BG: I don't believe in feeling guilty about what gives me pleasure. So I'm not ashamed to admit that I sometimes enjoy books that are not literature, from smutty romance novels to cheap, pulp murder mysteries. I love great cinema, but I am also a huge fan of mindless action movies and ridiculous French romantic comedies. Similarly, there's nothing in my musical collection that would embarrass me. The other day, someone was mocking my love for Rammstein's "Sonne," but that song lights up all the pleasure centers in my brain. I think it's sad when people feel ashamed of what gives them joy.
AXS: What's your go-to song to get you pumped to start writing?
BG: It varies from book to book, as each story tends to have its own soundtrack. I know it will seem bizarre, but that song for "All the Ugly and Wonderful Things" was Roy Orbison's "Almost Eighteen." In general, though, I have two go-to songs that help me face all manner of things. For nearly three decades, Prince's "Starfish and Coffee" has been the song that renews my will to live as I get ready for work in the morning. For everything else: AC/DC's "Jailbreak."
AXS: Current book you're reading?
BG: I'm about halfway through Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing," which is an incredible saga that follows the development, growth, and eventual end of the Atlantic slave trade through a single family. It's simultaneously horrific and beautiful and very profound.