Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Joe Pernice: Interview Outtakes

September 24th, 2009


As promised, bits of my interview with author/musician Joe Pernice (tonight @ the Dakota) that didn’t appear in my profile of him today in the Globe.

We start off talking a bit about music, books and changing technology.

Joe: We’re having a contest, if you do the best Twitter review of my book you win a Kindle that’s filled with 10 books that I like. I’m like, I want to win that contest - I want that Kindle out of circulation! When you own a book, it is more than just the ideas in the book; there’s something romantic and something pleasing about it. … I like to hold a book. I wonder how books will affect people when every book looks the same, if you’re reading it on a Kindle. I think music is faring better - people don’t care that every CD is the same. So maybe it will be all about the ideas. It’s true that with albums, you might be holding a gatefold but the thing that contained the magic was out of your hands, over on the other side of the room, being played. [...]

I never had a huge record collection. I do collect bicycles. I’m a freak for those. I probably have 10 bicycles right now. For me that’s a lot. I continually get rid of some, give them away as gifts - build them, restore them, get rid of them. I think it’s all about a time of your life. I have very specific tastes. It’s certainly attached to some pivot in your life.

Does that connect to the bicycle in the book?

I don’t know, the bike in the book is this girl’s, rundown bike and here’s a grown man who that’s his only means of transportation. And he’s not too proud to do it. On the other hand… My friend Warren Zanes, I was telling him about this bike I was restoring, and he’s got this kind of nasally voice and he goes, “Ahhh, revisiting the boy to discover the man.” And I was like, fuck you, Warren. So I don’t know what kind of crazy mechanics are at work in my head. But it’s a good hobby and I don’t apologize it.

The girl’s-bike seems like an example of how the whole book works, that it’s very sharply about gender but kind of keeping that concern camouflaged.

There’s a lot of gender in the book, that is a fact. That wasn’t my main thrust but it became really apparent to me. … When you look at responsibility the gender things became just so apparent. … Jocelyn [the narrator's girlfriend and eventually wife], even though she’s a pain in the neck and is high-strung, she seems to be the most sympathetic character there is in the book I think. I certainly could have included plenty of women who were equally fucked up as my narrator but that wasn’t my thrust.

Cape Cod in the book is so different than our stereotypes of it.

In the off-season, it’s tough. There are a lot of people, now more than ever, who are just kinda hanging on. Not every town is Provincetown. … They live for the year. The number of house painters, sheet rockers, men with families whose jobs disappear for the winter and start again for the summer… It’s not the Kennedys. I’ve been there in the winter a lot, and it’s dark, it’s beautiful - I’m attracted to the grim and I love it. I’m not just saying that in an article so people won’t get bummed out. It’s so crowded and bustling during the season and then in the off-season you could vanish, you could go there and no one ever notice you, and I just thought this would be a great place for someone to hide.

It serves as such a foil to New York, the place the narrator flees. You’re always aware that New York is back there: “Hey, your real life is falling apart back there and you’re out here.”

New York is New York all the time and Cape Cod is different things all the time - they’re so close and yet you might as well be in two different countries.

It made me think of Northrop Frye’s “green world” theory about Shakespeare - in the comedies, when the social order is out of balance, you have to leave the city and go out to the woods, where all the rules are suspended, in order to sort it all out, before you can go back.

Well, this guy ain’t going back. Or, maybe, I dunno.

It’s a very open-ended ending.

I’m not a big fan of the sew-it-up type of thing, it’s just my taste. Even when there’s an epiphany, catharsis, the whole nine yards, I always feel a little unsettled about it. Because in my own life there might be a few points where real noticeable catharsis processes took place, a real pivot I could pinpoint in a matter of months to a year, it’s real gradual - it’s not even a curve, it’s more of a snaking thing. And I just find that life is messy - it’s grey if you’re lucky. But a character who starts and we see a conflict and things fall apart and then he pulls it together in some way in the end and the reader’s left with a real momentum and a direction, if not a literal resolution of some type - that’s not interesting to me. … I was trying to microscope, put the growth on a real microscopic level: This is a guy who’s fucked-up who’s maybe realizing he’s fucked up. That’s his change, maybe a change of consciousness, if there is such a thing.

And he realizes that there are people more fucked up than him.

And it’s partly through a kid that he gets that little bit of awareness.

I had to kind of undercut the real emotion that comes with being a father - I wanted my narrator to just get a sniff of that kind of love, or selflessness. I’m astounded by it, being a father. I almost don’t trust it. My wife is fantastic, before we had kids I was always - I’m a faithful husband, but if I wanted to go anywhere, I’m going to London for a week, I’m going on tour for six months - it’s easy compared to having a kid. … As soon as you can cope with the idea that you’re gonna be exhausted for the rest of your natural life, you know, it’s good. Once you get over that hump, six or eight months into being a parent, you think, I can survive on two hours of sleep, three hours of sleep, then you can kind of push through and get stuff done. It reminds me of in Glengarry Glen Ross when Ricky Roma says, “All subway cars smell vaguely of shit…. It gets to the point where you don’t even really mind it. That’s the saddest thing I ever heard.” It’s similar to that but you get a big payoff.

In writing the book I had to keep Joe’s joy out of this guy’s experience with the kid, but I wanted him to glimpse it.

Both with him and the nephew and him and Marie, the whole last quarter of the book is him doing stuff that’s not self-centred.

Yeah, but the thing with Marie is - I was trying to make a parallel or contrast to the thing with Jocelyn, where it was very fiery and they had this super connection, and he couldn’t do anything right. It was just like a minefield, that relationship. Whereas this woman Marie, things he didn’t even mean to do would help her in a way. There is a degree of chance to all of this. It’s a drag: To one person your personality is stellar, whereas the very same traits would drive someone else batshit. I think my narrator is kind of astounded by his ability to be decent without even trying to, just by being himself. I think maybe he glimpses a value in that, like maybe he’s just been choosing wrong.

Is it also that the relationship with Jocelyn was too romanticized?

I think there’s as equal a pull to a thing that doesn’t even exist as there is to the real person. And when he has real glimpses of - I wouldn’t call those moments with Marie peace, but they can foreshadow a peace that could happen. Maybe being mature is avoiding a thing too. Being who you are but avoiding the things that bring out your worst. Maybe being mature is not removing those bad parts of you but avoiding the triggers that really exacerbate those things.

I bet he goes back to Jocelyn, they get all fucked up, they have kids, they’re miserable, she kills herself, he feels guilty for the rest of his life. I wanna write Part 2.

(A little diversion about the pitching/outlining process when Riverhead bought the book.)

I had a really good time. I learned a lot about writing a book, so I feel more relaxed about going into another one. Writing something that I had to - it wasn’t an astronomical amount they paid, but it was a chunk, a lot more than I had been paid for my other book. So you start thinking about owing something - you don’t want to die in the middle. So there was kind of a worry that was in the background: Can I do it, can I finish an idea or follow to a point that at least I think is complete? I wasn’t sure that I could, to be honest with you. So now I know that I could, so there’s a kind of an ease that I think will inform another book in a positive way, I think.

When you graduated in Creative Writing, did you gravitate to music rather than books because it seemed too huge an undertaking to write something like a novel?

At the time, probably. Songs - what I do, it’s never been really hard for me and I love to do it. When I signed to Sub Pop, the amount of money they were waving around, it was a feeding frenzy of labels, and I was like, wow. I really had no idea about the music industry and advances, and I didn’t think I could live doing it. And then when someone said you can… well, okay, let’s do it. Getting the work done has never been a struggle for me. It wasn’t like, oh, I’ve got to get up and go to work. I’d rather do that than most things. For me it was always keeping up with - I couldn’t put out records fast enough, and it kind of cramped my style signing with a record label. My first band put out three records in a year and a half. We put out two records in a month. After that it was, well, you’ve gotta slow down.

I never think of albums as concepts. It’s all about, I write a song, finish it, put it aside, next thing, next thing - oh, you’ve got 20 done, let’s see how 10 of ‘em go together. So it’s not about sustaining one idea. [Novel writing] is: You have to get in the zone every day; you have to get back in that head space. And I found to never leave it was the best thing. The book followed me after I wrote, it was there when I woke up and strangely enough - I’m pretty disciplined about working, but when I would miss a day or two it would take me three extra days to get back in it. So I don’t really get drunk any more because I know the hangover will be crippling - I wouldn’t drop the ball even if I had to work. Let’s stoke the fire or it goes out. So it’s a bigger challenge.

Has that affected the way you write songs?

It could. But when I wrote the book I laid off of music, because I’d made 10 or 11 albums nonstop and I purposely said, once I signed the book deal, that I’d deliver a manuscript in one year’s time. I don’t know where that came from. But I wanted to focus on it completely. And I also wanted some time to not write songs. I just wanted to stop for a while. I never feared that I would give up, but I wanted to give it a break, because it’s what I did exclusively for 12, 15 years. But I think it’s made me way more relaxed, more in touch with just doing the thing I want to do…. More than ever I don’t care how my music’s received, from a commercial standpoint. I really don’t. My business is running and I do okay, the book deal’s been really good, and in a way having another form has just taken a lot of pressure off of this other thing saying everything. It’s not like everything is riding on this. Music was my living so even though I try not to kowtow to fashion or the commercial part of it, the truth is if I don’t sell any records, I go get a job. That hasn’t had to happen, but now it can just be what it is - I’ve got this other thing.

When I started in music, when I got a record deal, you were still aiming to make a radio single - Sub Pop made radio singles off my first two albums, for commercial radio, which is kind of outrageous. Does it even exist? So I come from the tail end of that world, where I had to fight… and I have fought the idea of, oh well, this guitar-up mix, drum-up mix, vocal-up mix is the radio mix. But in my heart I’d rather be like Guided By Voices, which I love. So I always have this desire, the things I feel - record it on a four-track, who cares? - but there’s still that part of me that is, wait, it has to be a certain sonic quality, something you could number from 1 to 10. My songwriting is very classic in the sense that it’s pretty linear, because that’s where I come from. But I combat less than I did early on the desire to make it commercially sound a certain way.

Records are easy to make. You can have a limited amount of talent and sit down to make a record. Books - not everyone can do it. The people that record-making attracts are much more social - you can be a scenester and talk about making your record. You and I could sit here all night and talk about making our records. But writing a book takes time - and you don’t want to talk about it! The solitude of it makes it a club, or not a club, but a genre of still making work that can stand out.

I loved it, after so long of working with other people, recording records, then touring records - I can go into a restaurant and order for all the other guys in my band, right down to who gets ice in their drink and who doesn’t. That’s why I just wanted to sit alone and think. It’s a lot of fun.

Has being in Toronto and a certain distance from the music and U.S. publishing businesses, affected what you’ve done in the last three years or so?

I made three albums - I have a record that’s just about done - and I wrote a novel, so I got a lot done. That has more to do with having a kid, you become super-disciplined - or you don’t! I think I did.

Or for that matter has it affected you just to be in a different country?

It did. I’ve been here a few years - I loved living in New York, I liked living in America, my family was all there, but I came here, so it wasn’t like I was one of those anti-Canada freaks, they’re fucking crazy.

There’s a very funny quick moment about that in the book that I think only Canadians will notice.

It certainly is different, but it just takes a little while. I lived in New York for 5 years, so leaving New York for anywhere is going to be a bit different. I wasn’t ready to go, but we were having a kid and my wife wanted to be near her family, fair enough, and that’s the deal. I feel really comfortable working here. I haven’t made a record here but I probably would. I wrote this book here. Thinking about the places rather than visiting the places - I didn’t even go to Cape Cod, I just thought about Cape Cod. My sister who lives near there sent me a couple of photos. I might have glanced at two or three photos of Cape Cod, while I made this. I just want to see it because sometimes you know - I don’t think in colour, when I close my eyes I can’t see colour. Pictures for me just vanish.

I think there’s a divide between visual people and audio people - like, if your main two things are music and words, you’re probably an audio-oriented person.

I don’t know. My wife studied drawing and she can think about the shading on a tree, and I’m like, I can’t even see the tree! And when I do it’s like a grey blob after a couple of seconds. So when I close my eyes, the images are constantly just disappearing. So being away from the place, whether it was here or anywhere else, really made my brain work more in a way I can’t understand, don’t really know. I certainly thought about it a lot.

Canada’s an interesting place and I don’t have my thumb on it yet. … I’ve been to the west coast, Victoria, Montreal, Ottawa - not the places in betwee, and I’d like to see them for sure. But for me the real experience is living in them, right? I’ve been to all the states in America, but I’ve only lived in a handful of places.

This is a good place, and people here know it. It is astounding to see the perception, American’s perception of Canada. My wife’s Canadian and we’ve been together since 1998, so I’ve had a good perception and even before that, because I traveled here to play. I know that health care comes to the surface, but it’s not just that: Compared to America, this is such a kind place, and I don’t mean an easy place, or a soft place, but a kind place for people to live. … I talk to my friends about their wives having kids, and I say my wife had a year of maternity leave, and they say, “how did you live?” No, I say, you get paid, and then her job topped it off. Their jaws drop. People get three weeks off, and there are kids whose eyes are just opening going into day-care that they can barely pay for. Yay, Canada, just for that.

Yeah, although I like the vigour of Americans - the passivity of Canadians can be frustrating. Maybe it’s just that in America you can’t be that passive and survive.

I’ve never been without insurance, because I’ve always known that you’re fucked - my parents taught me, you get insured… My [American] friends, unless they’re fried from doing drugs or something, there’s a real paranoia, a legitimate fear of a gallstone putting them in thousands of dollars of debt. That kind of fear informs you. Maybe that passivity you’re talking about comes from, “why, don’t worry about it.” When you’re not terrified you’re going to die of an impacted molar - awesome, it frees you up to do a few things.

Fear is an energy but opportunity is another kind of energy.

Put them together and it can be a powerful thing, and interesting to witness from the outside.

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  2. Paul M says:

    Interesting how much press Joe has generated from a relatively slight (albeit very entertaining) novel. I hope the new readership rushes out and buys “Yours, Mine & Ours”, which is one of my favourite CDs of the past ten years.

  3. Merv H says:

    great interview, delighted to see Joe’s book in print.

  4. Greg says:

    Absolutely love your blog! Definitely bookmarking it.

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