“If Stalin or Hitler arrested me and tossed me into one of those camps, I would carve words with my fingernails. If they cut off my fingers, I would write with my teeth. If they pulled out my teeth, I would blink my words to any listening bird. If they cut off my eyelids, I would fart code into the troposphere. You’d have to kill me to stop me from writing. It’s how I breathe.” - Jonathan in Adios, Nirvana
Jonathan is not the frontrunner of the thicks- that was Telly's role. He’s always played second string to Telly; his idol, his mentor, his twin. But Telly is dead, and Jonathan’s adrift in sea where his thicks refuse to let him sink. Jonathan, a 'poet savante' is afraid that what he's always searched for on his odyssey through poetry, music and life will never be found, now that Telly's gone.
Will Jonathan find his voice? Don't you hope so? (I mean, he had me at 'fart code into the troposphere'.)
Really. Conrad Wesselhoeft went and bashed his heart out into his moving, at times absurdly funny debut novel Adios, Nirvana. For me, he's such a welcome new voice on the YA scene. And he's kindly stopped by for questions.
AB: Conrad, I loved this book and wrapped my heart around Jonathan, the main character. He’s a bit of a navel-gazer, flirts casually with suicide, speaks in boy teen, calls things ‘pussy’ and ‘faggy’, but writes to breathe. He abuses his body with alcohol and crap food, and erodes his sleep cycle with an unending stream of Red Bull. He’s not without his faults, thank the gods, but is endearing for his depth of character and his painful odyssey through profound grief. Was it difficult to create a character that rings so true?
CW: Jonathan is reeling from grief. Not only has he lost his twin brother, he’s lost his best friend and mentor. Once I understood that grief burned at his core, I began to hear his voice clearly. You’d think that voice would sound mournful, but in fact it’s feisty, arrogant, rebellious, at times even joyous. The point is, the voice of grief has many inflections. Jonathan literally stands on the edge several times—of bridges and scaffoldings—but he wants to live; he wants to get better. He just doesn’t know how. That’s where his “Thicks” and David come in. They basically provide the safety net. Jonathan was easy to hear in my head but not easy to create. Everything about writing is difficult for me. It doesn’t seem to get easier—well, maybe a little.
AB: What led you to write this story?
CW: I stumbled upon this quote in a newspaper column: “In darkness, it slowly came to me that what happens to a man isn’t nearly as important as how he meets it.” The author of the quote was Victor Riesel, a labor journalist who was blinded when a mobster flung sulfuric acid in his face.” I jotted Riesel’s words in my journal, then added, spur of the moment: “Story about a young man who becomes a stenographer/writer of a blind man’s life, and in so doing exorcises his own demons.”
In 2007, my agent, Erin Murphy, asked to see some of my ideas for future projects. I sent her a long list. The idea for Adios was buried near the bottom, barely an afterthought, yet it was this idea that spoke loudest to Erin. So the fermentation process began with a nudge from her.
AB: What was the time line between idea to publication?
CW: About five years. The first draft took just over a year.
AB: What led you to write for young readers in particular? What about Young Adult fiction appeals to you?
CW: Years ago, I spent a day with Scott O’Dell, the acclaimed young-adult novelist (“Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Sing Down the Moon,” and many more.) “I’ve forsaken (writing for) adults,” he told me, “because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.” I’m still clinging to hope for adults, but I do agree with Scott that books can profoundly affect children’s lives for the better.
AB: What help, if any, did your background in journalism lend you in the writing of Adios, Nirvana?
CW: Journalism teaches many of the necessary skills—strong leads, accuracy, probing, editing, fact-checking, and more—but it doesn’t teach invention; that you have to learn yourself, or with the help of trusted writing teachers and friends. Also, journalism squeezes your diaphragm so that you sound like everybody else. There comes a time when you simply have to loosen up and say it your way.
AB: How would you describe your writing process?
CW: I’m a basher. (Kurt Vonnegut divided all writers into two groups, “bashers” and “swoopers.” Bashers are painfully slow, yet meticulous; swoopers are fast, yet a bit sloppy.) As soon as my kids leave for school, I set up my laptop in the kitchen, pour some coffee, and get to work. I bash and bash. Only when I’ve bashed all the bumps down to practically dust do I move to the next chapter. I wish I bashed less and swooped more. The best I can hope for is “swashing.”
AB: Better than 'booping', I guess. What is most challenging to you about the craft of novel writing?
CW: The architecture. It’s like building a house: you have a million things to work out, from the tiniest bolts to the biggest beams. You especially want to make sure that the high beam is solidly in place—in other words, that the overarching story is strong. It’s not enough to write vivid characters. Those characters have to move about within a strong structure.
AB: What have you loved reading? What are some works that you’ve admired that have inspired your spare, vivid writing style?
CW: Up until my early teens, I chose books based on subjects, my favorites being the Civil War, the American West, and carrier combat in the Pacific. When I was sixteen, I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories” and a bell dinged. I sensed that Hemingway knew a lot about life that I didn’t, so I better pay attention. From then on, I became interested in the idea of writing as a form of creative expression. How something was said became as important as what was said.
AB: Who are your favorite writers? What book is on your bedside table?
CW: My favorite writers are Hemingway, Steinbeck, W. Somerset Maugham, Willa Cather, Jack Kerouac, Louis L’Amour, Charles Bukowski, Larry McMurtry, Richard Hugo, and probably lots more. My favorite YA writers are Scott O’Dell, Jean Craighead George, Marguerite Henry, Holly Cupala, and probably lots more.
I keep Kit Carson’s autobiography on my bedside table. It’s the world’s driest memoir and most perfect sleep aid.
AB: What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?
CW: Abide by the three P’s and one B: Practice, patience, and perseverance. (The greatest of these is perseverance: Never give up!) The “B” is believe in yourself, because at first editors and agents won’t believe in you. They will probably say “No” many times before they say “Yes.”
My favorite books on the craft are: “Hemingway on Writing,” by Larry W. Phillips; “Zen and the Writing Life,” by Peter Matthiessen; and “Story,” by Robert McKee. My favorite memoirs by writers are: “Education of a Wandering Man,” by Louis L’Amour; and “On Writing,” by Stephen King.
AB: Do you play music? Guitar? If so, what kind of music do you play and listen to?
CW: My dad bought me my first guitar—a Harmony acoustic—when I was about seventeen. I’ve always messed around, but I don’t read music. I keep various guitars planted on stands around the house—guitars should not be imprisoned in cases. Noodling on guitar is a good way to anchor and think. Playing with friends is pure joy. Jonathan (the protagonist) is a much better guitar player than I am. And Telly, his brother, was sublime. I listen to rock, folk, ballad, and blues. I love the NPR show “American Roots.”
AB: Did you ever have a mentor in your life? If so, in what ways did s/he help shape your life?
CW: Like David Cosgrove, who becomes a mentor for Jonathan, my dad was a Navy lieutenant in World War II and saw lots of action in the South Pacific, from Guadalcanal to Leyte Gulf to Okinawa. Fortunately, his ship didn’t sink, while David’s did. Also like David, my dad spent his last year and a half in a hospital environment, coping with multiple illnesses, but nonetheless alert, funny, and wise. His boyhood balanced Boston discipline with Cape Cod freedom. He had a strong work ethic, a strong play ethic, and a wide circle of friends. He grew up in a family of storytellers. It definitely rubbed off on him.
AB: How many hours do you sleep, and how many do you really need?
CW: Hmmm. I guess I sleep about six-and-a-half or seven hours at night. Whenever possible, I catch a nap. If I have one real talent, it is for napping.
AB: Is there a back story here for why you chose to feature Eddie Vedder in your story? Do you know him?
CW: Eddie Vedder is a fellow West Seattle resident (“Mr. Wes C. Addle”), and though we have a friend in common, I’ve never met him. I do know, however, that he’s a big believer in the power of music to inspire children, plus a quiet giver to many worthy causes. In the book, he’s portrayed as a musical mentor to Jonathan and Telly. One of my favorite scenes is when the boys visit him, and he and Telly jam on guitar while Jonathan sits “guitarless” on “the timid couch.” I’d always planned to change his name to something fictional, but left it in, as a kind of tribute.
AB: Your flap copy mentions you worked as a tugboat hand in Singapore. How did this come about?
CW: I was nineteen and starved for adventure. I dropped out of college and got a job as an ordinary seaman aboard the Quenett, based in Singapore. We towed barges to Borneo, Sumatra, and Thailand, through fair and foul seas. It was the hardest physical labor of my life. Three books inspired me to take this step: “Tramping on Life,” by Harry Kemp; “Of Human Bondage,” by W. Somerset Maugham; and (dare I say it?) “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” by Errol Flynn. All three books were about young men struggling with the idea of living a conventional life, and hungry to get out into the world. My crewmates were from New Zealand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Plus two scrawny cats and a huge orange cat that had been hurled off a passing ship, for good reason: he was the incarnation of the devil. It was a great adventure, but eventually I had to decide whether to stay at sea or come home and finish college. I opted for college and was a better student when I returned. I’d grown up a lot.
AB: You also spent time in Polynesia volunteering through the Peace Corps. Did you have to learn to speak any new languages? What led you there?
CW: I joined the Peace Corps right out of college, basically to buy time before committing to a career—and also because I hadn’t quite filled my belly with adventure. I served for two years in Western Samoa (today it’s called simply Samoa). I taught English literature to high school students, using decades-old, abridged editions of such books as “The Time Machine,” “Great Expectations,” and “Silas Marner.” Most of my students had never been off the island, never known winter. Nor had they read widely or seen many movies, outside of martial arts epics from Hong Kong. So it was quite a leap for them to imagine the glowering streets of 19th Century London, for example. However, the themes were universal—like redemption. Everybody got that. I’m sure my students taught me more than I taught them. I learned a smattering of Samoan, just enough to get “cheeky.”
AB: What do your kids like to read?
CW: My sixteen-year-old son recently devoured “The Outsiders” and “Ender’s Game.” His twin sister segued from re-readings of Harry Potter to “The Lovely Bones” and “Eat, Pray, Love.” When they were young, we did a lot of reading aloud. Our favorites included: “Goodnight, Moon”; “Paddle to the Sea”; “Island of the Blue Dolphins”; “Julie of the Wolves”; “Bud, Not Buddy”; and “Anne of Green Gables.” Also, books by Lois Lowry and Louis Sachar. I think that the last book I read aloud to them was “Maniac Magee,” which we loved. I miss those days.
AB: In Adios, Nirvana, when Jonathan finally finds his voice musically, he's playing to for a full house, but really to one person in the back. Who’s watching you from the back auditorium when you’re on stage, so to speak? Anyone?
CW: For years, Simon Cowell watched me with withering eyes. These days, it’s someone more forgiving. Let’s say a cross between Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, with a pinch of Betty White, for good measure.
AB: Where would you place yourself on the Odysseus/ Telemachus spectrum?
CW: If Odysseus is the man of action, and Telemachus the dreamer, then I’m more like Telemachus, he who puts the seashell to his ear and wanders away from “the ringing plains of windy Troy.”
AB: Conrad, thanks so much for lending me your time. One last question: what’s next on the agenda?
CW: I’m working on a YA novel set in the Southwest. I’m a bit superstitious about saying too much, so I’ll leave it at that.
Conrad Wesselhoeft will be featured at the PNBA Trade Show Celebration of Authors luncheon on Thursday, October 7th. He'll also appear at Wordstock Festival on Saturday, October 9th at 12pm on the McMenamins Stage, and again on Sunday, October 10th at 2pm on the Target Stage. Don't miss him.
Here's yet another fascinating interview with Conrad in the West Seattle Herald.
Here's yet another fascinating interview with Conrad in the West Seattle Herald.