An Evening with an Established Writer Adapting to Change

Last night Julia and I went to my favorite local independent bookstore to attend a reading by one of my favorite writers, Rick Bass. Reflecting after the reading, I realized I’ve read more of his work than just about any other author; certainly among contemporary writers anyway. I’ve read a number of his essays in magazines I buy, and I’ve read several of his nonfiction books. Beyond a couple short stories, though, I am not familiar with his fiction, so this reading would be something different.

Rick was promoting, and reading from, his new (and 3rd) novel, Nashville Chrome. Here is the synopsis from the Amazon listing for the book:

Late in 1959, the Brown siblings–Maxine, Bonnie, and Jim Ed–were enjoying unprecedented international success, rivaled only by their longtime friend Elvis Presley. They had a bona fide megahit on their hands, which topped both the country and pop charts and gave rise to the polished sound of the multibillion dollar country music industry we know today. Mesmerized by the Browns’ haunting harmonies, the Beatles even tried to learn their secret. Their unique harmony, however, was only achievable through shared blood, and the trio’s perfect pitch was honed by a childhood spent listening for the elusive pulse and tone of an impeccably tempered blade at their parent’s Arkansas sawmill.

But the Browns’ celebrity couldn’t survive the world changing around them, and the bonds of family began to fray along with the fame. Heartbreakingly, the novel jumps between the Browns’ promising past and the present, which finds Maxine–once supremely confident and ravenous in her pursuit of applause–ailing and alone. As her world increasingly narrows, her hunger for just one more chance to secure her legacy only grows, as does her need for human connection.

Lyrical and nuanced, Nashville Chrome hits all the right grace notes with its vivid evocation of an era in American music, while at its heart it is a wrenching meditation on the complexities of fame and of one family–forgotten yet utterly unforgettable when reclaimed by Bass–who experienced them firsthand.

I definitely recommend checking out that Amazon link, if only to read the short essay Rick wrote about how the book came to be, all as the result of him trying to track down a means to contact Keith Urban on behalf of his daughters:

The Browns were the first group to have a number one hit on both the country and the pop charts (and later on the folk charts–pioneers in the phenomenon of crossover hits) and were the number one selling group in England in 1957.

By the 1960s, however, they had practically vanished, and today, hardly anyone has heard of them or knows who they are–who they were. The novel quickly became an examination about the costs and nature of fame in America. I was particularly struck by how one sister, Bonnie, accepted the return of anonymity with grace and even what seemed to me like relief, while Maxine, the older sister, burned–and still burns, dreaming of fame’s return. And I was fascinated, too, by the way the greatness of the era–Johnny Cash, Elvis, the Beatles, Chet Atkins, etc.–was drawn to the Browns, as if to a source or wellspring. What such springs exist today, and will they dry up, and if so, why?

Fires, floods, bars, and the heartbreak of betrayals–all the stuff of country music, then and now, was braided throughout the Browns’ lives, occurring often and with great drama. It’s a miracle they survived. In so many ways they were pioneers who blazed a way for the easy road, the silk road of wealth that would attend to talent in subsequent generations. Yet the burden of fame would become no easier–the Browns struggled with it then as entertainers of today still do.

Although I didn’t get the story I initially went after (though I haven’t given up; what kind of lesson would that be for the girls?), at least there was something that came out of the Keith Urban wild goose chase. A novel doesn’t just come along every day.

What surprised me is that Julia, who is something of an expert in this kind of music, hadn’t heard of The Browns. That alone, and Rick’s reading, made it clear that this book will likely be a big hit in our house. I also realized, based on his hints, that I’d like to get Mr. Bass a little tuned up so I could hear all the juicy stories that aren’t in the book.

At one point during the Q&A portion of the reading, Rick mentioned the “troubled publishing industry.” Getting back to that, I asked him how the current environment, with writers encouraged (if not forced) into self-promotional enterprises that don’t have a lot to do with getting words on the page — personal websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. — had affected his career/life as a writer.

Without really answering my question directly, Rick responded that publishing isn’t the only industry going through hard times. He rattled off a number of industries struggling, and made the point that one either adapts to change or falls by the wayside. In his personal life and career, he said he has gone from what was basically an upper middle class lifestyle to whatever it is you call the class just below what has typically been labeled middle class. Then he shrugged and smiled, if a bit wry. He said he has had to seek out writing work of a nature he doesn’t really like at all, whether it is reviews or articles and essays on topics he really doesn’t care about, to maintain his income. However, he concluded by saying he still gets to spend most of his time doing the writing that he most loves, and that as a writer he still doesn’t have to have “a real job” and for that he is grateful.

I thought that was a telling, and honest, answer from a guy who is essentially a perfect example of a “mid list” writer. The guy has written several books, mostly nonfiction, with a couple other novels and story collections. He’s been nominated for, and won, various awards. He continues to make his living, but not as well as he was a few years ago. Sounds like just about everyone I know, writers or not.

It also made me feel kind of guilty. Some months ago I decided to stop writing for the local weekly paper, the Independent. I was pretty much only doing music reviews to the tune of 200 words with payment totaling roughly the cost of a CD. My decision was based mainly on the time involved, that the money wasn’t really worth the effort of trying to find things to say about music I usually didn’t care much for. The other feature-writing opportunities were nice, where I could write longer pieces that would pay closer to a c-note, or even 3-digits for the one cover story I did. Those opportunities were fewer and farther between given the Indy’s freelance budget had been reduced, but it was still nice to sit on an invoice for a while until I’d written four or five reviews, then get a check for enough to take the family out for dinner or something.

I stopped because I wanted to devote more time to my fiction writing. Nothing wrong with that, in theory. In reality, though, as a writer who wants to generate a little income to ultimately (and hopefully) make at least part of my living over the next few years from my work, it was a mistake. I can write a 5000 or 6000 word short story, and, if I am lucky, it might land in a paying market that will probably get me $15 – $20. Yeah, there are better paying markets out there, sure, but I’m not likely to land in one any time soon. Hell, the one short article I landed in Vintage Guitar magazine paid more than a year’s worth of stories will (especially considering everything I’ve done so far with my fiction, both already published or soon to be, pays nothing at all).

I’m not complaining. It is just a hard realization of a “career mistake” made that can hopefully be rectified with a little more effort. Sure, it would be nice to devote all my writing time to my fiction, but that is probably short-sighted, at least for the purpose of my goals. And I have some fiction opportunities on the near horizon that may generate income as well. The proper thing as an artist is to say, “it ain’t about money,” and really it isn’t. But for art sometimes one must make a few sacrifices here and there, at least if one wants it to put a little food on the table.

6 thoughts on “An Evening with an Established Writer Adapting to Change”

  1. >That was a great read as I wasn't familiar with Mr. Bass' work. But I'm damn sure going to seek his stuff out now. I think the biggest thing for me is the validation of getting a story or book in print. But trying to make a living writing fiction is akin to winning the lottery in this day and age, especially for a publisher trying to break a new author. If a book becomes a runaway success and/or there's interest from Hollywood then BAM! you've got a career. But unless you're willing to stick to a particular genre (or character), publishers don't want to bother with genre-jumping talent. They view it as starting from scratch with each book. I'm sure if you asked 10 successful writers over the age of 45 about their path to publication, you'd get 10 different accounts. It'll be interesting to propose the same question to the next generation of writers…the one's fighting to get published in this tenuous, tougher-than-hell environment.

  2. >David: I've gotten tired of the eBooks debate myself. They're here and likely aren't going anywhere. No one is obligating anyone to buy them, not yet anyway.Peter: Winter is one of my favorites that Bass has written. It's well worth checking out, in my opinion.I usually feel doomed as a fiction writer, because I don't want to write just one thing. Can't say I've found my stride necessarily, but I like so many different things that I want to try them all. Time will tell, I guess.

  3. >I can't remember the Browns either. It reminds me a little of the Carter Family, who had a huge crossover hit "Goodnight, Irene" in the 1950s and then faded in popularity. They were "folkies" and that was a phase of pop music that didn't last long. This book of Rick Bass sounds well worth reading.I've read Rick Bass's THE BOOK OF YAAK. He's a great nature writer and has fought the good fight as an environmentalist in Montana. In his words, though, it has always seemed like a losing battle. I can only read him in small quanitites, as I get depressed.I'm glad you were able to spend some time in his presence and speak with him. He's a champ and a fine writer.

  4. >Yeah, The Carter Family is big in this household. We had a family band going for a while, and we covered a handful of their tunes. My wife really, really loves that old country and folk music. Which is odd, because she doesn't like bluegrass and is nuts for old Slayer and Sleep. And she practices and performs bellydance to Ufomammut. Kinda funny, really.As for his environmentalism, Bass has definitely fought an uphill battle. Last reading of his, I asked him if he intended to just be a fiction writer when he moved to the Yaak, or if he knew he was this hardcore wilderness/activist writer. He said he never had any intention of writing anything but fiction, but couldn't not get involved. In this past year Senator Jon Tester introduced a wilderness bill that has drawn all kinds of heat, but Bass has come out strongly in favor of it. The last reading I went to, which wasn't all that long ago, he was quite upbeat. So at least in his eyes there has been some progress.Here is a guest column/editorial he wrote in our local paper, if you're interested:http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/article_c5adef42-1d66-11df-8b1b-001cc4c03286.html

  5. >Bass makes strong arguments for the preservation of wilderness because so many wild species require a large area to roam in just to survive.He may also have been the one to lament the way the immense natural resources of Montana have been farmed out to interests from elsewhere (even foreign-owned companies) – and that Montanans have benefited very little from it financially. Treated like a colony to be exploited.

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