A Conversation with Mark Lindquist
Conducted by Rich Rennicks, Borders.com Fiction Editor
Mark Lindquist was an up-and-coming young author in the late ’80s with the success of his first two books, Sad Movies and Carnival Desires. Then, he disappeared from the literary scene for 10 years. He’s just reemerged with Never Mind Nirvana, a hilarious contemporary tale of urban angst set amid the grunge music scene in Seattle. His protagonist Pete Tyler is a thirtysomething prosecutor who used to be in a seminal Seattle grunge band. Unfortunately, Pete still lives like he’s an irresponsible teenager, and Never Mind Nirvana follows his struggle to grow up. Our fiction editor recently corresponded with Lindquist and found out what he’s been doing for the last decade.
What was the main thing that drove you to write this book? Were you most interested in the inability of the protagonist to mature fully, or in exploring the contradiction between the more serious world of his day job and the apparently trivial world he can’t quite leave behind?
Mark Lindquist: They say people who are in their 20s and 30s now are going to have three or four careers in their lives, maybe more. The idea of transitions interests me, and the idea of someone making an extreme transition — from rock musician to prosecuting attorney — hooked me.
The novel takes place in a milieu that most children of the ’70s and ’80s will have at least a passing familiarity with: the grunge-era Seattle of the ’90s. The risk with this setting is that people may assume that many of the asides about semi-famous musicians and personalities are true. Was this something you were concerned about? Did the reality of the setting and personalities that move on the fringe of the book cause you to treat this story any differently than your first two books?
ML: If people assume some of the asides are true, well, they’ll be right occasionally. Fiction and fact are intermingled in Never Mind. I did this in my first two novels, and the artists who influenced me also did this. I just saw Springsteen last night, which was an amazing show, and I don’t know if there was an actual Mary or Wendy or Bobby Jean in Springsteen’s life at some point, but his songs — “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” and “Bobby Jean” — make me think there was. The songs ring true, even if not literally true, and I think it’s good when the audience wonders.
The dialogue in Never Mind Nirvana is hilarious and very real. When I found out you wrote screenplays for years, this made complete sense — screenplays rely on dialogue for everything. How did your experience writing screenplays in Hollywood affect your fiction?
ML: Dialogue you either have an ear for or not, but writing and rewriting screenplays teaches you two important things: how to structure a story, and how to cut the boring stuff.
Did you need to do much research for this book? Or did it spring from worlds you’re already familiar with — like being a prosecutor?
ML: I didn’t do any research per se, but I did make some major changes: I left L.A. and moved back to Seattle, hung out with friends in local bands, went to law school, became a prosecutor, took notes all the way along. I knew I would eventually write this book, though it took longer than I expected.
Was the move back to Seattle integral to the book, or would you have written a book on that subject anyway? And on this subject, do you always change your life to help the book your writing?
ML: I wanted to set my next book in Seattle, and that was one of the reasons I moved back here, but not the only reason. I’m not sure if my life follows my books or vice versa.
ML: I hit a wall. I think no matter what you are doing, no matter how good of a gig it is, there are times when you need a break, you need to step back and remember why it is you wanted to do whatever it is you’re doing. I figured the desire to write would eventually come back. And it did. I know music had a lot to do with this. Among other songs, I remember listening to The Posies’ “Any Other Way” over and over to psych myself up.
Music is one of the most notoriously difficult things to write about. Salman Rushdie lost the plot trying to write the “big rock ‘n’ roll novel” last year, mainly because he was trying to describe earth-shattering music that nobody had ever heard. Did you encounter difficulty writing about the music itself in Never Mind Nirvana, or did the fact that you were dealing with real songs help?
ML: Real songs help. I don’t try to describe the music, but instead focus on how the music acts as a soundtrack for the characters, how it affects them, and most of the music mentioned will be familiar to readers and so I trust they will get it without much explanation.
OK, since music features so heavily in this book, I’ve got to ask you, who are your favorite bands and why?
ML: The Replacements, R.E.M., Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole, The Posies, Everclear, The Dandy Warhols, Elvis Costello, U2, the Cure, the Clash, the Beatles, Fiona Apple, Leonard Cohen, too many to list. I should also admit I like Blink 182.
Who do you prefer, Nirvana or Pearl Jam? (You knew that was coming didn’t you?)
ML: I don’t want to sound like I’m dodging this one, but here’s the true answer: Nirvana early in the evening, Pearl Jam later.
Why do you write fiction? Who are your major influences?
ML: Pretty standard: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Salinger, Vonnegut, Raymond Carver. And, of course, the bands I mentioned earlier.
To detour into the realm of unrepentant philosophizing for a moment, do you think grunge will have any lasting legacy on the American music scene?
ML: Yes, and it definitely changed Seattle. The grunge tide left behind a legacy of flotsam and jetsam that continues to attract outsiders. Seattle, when I grew up, was a place adventurous people fled from. Now it’s a place adventurous people flee to.
In many ways, a career in law would appear to be at the opposite extreme from the punk ethos behind the grunge scene. Pete has the self-discipline to get through law school and be reasonably conscientious as a lawyer, but he can’t get the rest of his life together. When he leaves work he’s the same restless adolescent he always was. Esmé captures him perfectly when she quips that Pete “can’t even commit to a couch.” Do you feel this inability to commit is a curious result of our ever-changing society, or just part of being twentysomething (even though Pete’s chronologically older than that…)?
ML: I think the nearly epidemic inability to commit these days — to a partner, to a job, to a city — is at least partly related to the constant flux of modern life, but then again, guys have always been guys, so it’s hard to say for sure.