After far too long of a hiatus on Word Nerd, we're back with Wednesday guest posts from writers. Kicking the series off again is debut novelist Tyler McMahon with a Q&A about his novel, "How the Mistakes Were Made."
WN: What is it that drew you to setting a novel in the grunge music world of the 90s?
McMahon: Seattle—especially at this time period—has always cast a long shadow for me. I was 15 or so when Nirvana’s Nevermind was released. As a teenage misfit on the other side of the country, all the Sub-Pop and so-called “grunge” music—as well as the photographs and clever liner notes—fed a certain illusion that there was a place out west filled with people like my friends and me. It was a sort of Utopian vision for sloppy outsiders.
I was also interested in grunge’s relationship to earlier underground punk scenes. I think that the mainstream success of grunge gave them a certain validation. I wanted to show how marginalized or fringe artistic movements can shift the paradigm of pop culture—and grunge is a great example of that.
WN: What kind of reader is going to really get into "How the Mistakes were Made"?
McMahon: I hope it has a fairly wide appeal. So far, I’ve been very flattered that readers with varying degrees of foreknowledge or experience with these music scenes have connected to it. Certainly, the novel doesn’t assume any punk or indie rock expertise.
Certainly, Gen X readers who grew up with Nirvana and their peers should find some resonance. However, I conjured up this idea when I was a Teaching Assistant, lecturing to college freshman about rock history. So I’ve always held out hope that the book might appeal to a younger readership, and to folks that might not otherwise read a lot of fiction.
In an odd and personal way, I truly hope that readers in the Northwest will get into the book. I started this novel after living in some small towns in Idaho and Montana, and there’s a way in which How the Mistakes Were Made is my love song to that part of the world. It’s a beautiful region full of big-hearted, creative people, and it deserves more attention that it gets in contemporary literature.
WN: You've written a lot of short stories -- what were the biggest challenges in writing a novel?
McMahon: I was ridiculously lucky in that—as a young writer towards the end of my graduate study—I stumbled into a sort of accidental apprenticeship with Brady Udall, an amazing novelist and teacher. He was my thesis advisor, and also taught a course on novel structure. Between those two things, I had a year of novel “training” that very few writers ever get.
I’ve given a lot of thought to the differences between short stories and novels in the past few years. Others have said that novels are more like drama, and that short stories are more like poetry. I’d say that’s accurate. But to my mind, novels have two fundamental requirements that shorter pieces might get away without.
The first is that a novel’s protagonist must—to some extent—be likeable. You can’t ask a reader to spend that many pages with a voice that they loathe. That’s not to say that protagonists have to be nice and charming, but they must show some redeeming qualities and inner humanity.
The second is that a novel must control tension and release—almost the way that a song does. With short stories, I used to get away with simply ramping up the tension for ten or twenty pages and then breaking the action off decisively. With novels, it’s necessary to ease up at times and let the characters catch their breath.
WN: How did your Peace Corps experience contribute to writing a novel?
McMahon: My time in El Salvador informed so much about my life since; I almost can’t imagine what things might be like if I’d not had that experience. It was certainly good training for a writer: you work on projects that are difficult, thankless, and often don’t make any sense to people outside of a small group of peers.
In another way, all the Peace Corps Volunteers I knew in El Salvador were storytellers. We might only see one another every few weeks, but our ritual gatherings invariably consisted of late-night bull sessions. We all tried to top each other with stories and anecdotes from our villages and rural communities. Some of the accounts would be second- or third-hand. The best ones would be repeated over and over, often by request.
Because that was a small community of people with shared experiences, we had a kind of shorthand, and a highly idiosyncratic lingo. Once back in the States, I often had to “translate” those stories to other friends and family. It was a great lesson in how to specific details can both pull readers in and push them out.
WN: What's next for you as an author?
McMahon: I’m a little superstitious when it comes to talking about works-in-progress. But at the moment I’m working on a manuscript about some expat surfers stuck in El Salvador in the wake of the earthquakes that devastated the country in early 2001. There’s a small port town there called La Libertad, which has an incredible world-class point break, along with an insidious crack-cocaine epidemic. The juxtaposition has always fascinated me.
It’s a subject that’s close to my heart, but the piece has moved in stops and starts, and been fraught with setbacks and second guesses. I’m hoping I can get a version of it into shape sometime in the next few months.