Posts Tagged ‘Gerry LaFemina’

Gerry LaFeminaI recently reviewed poet Gerry LaFemina’s debut novel “Clamor” for Chamber of the Bizarre. Drawing on his own background in the punk scene, Gerry crafted a complex portrait of a middle-aged punk rocker that I found refreshingly free of the kind of clichés you usually find in stories about musicians. Gerry agreed to talk a little bit about his personal history with punk, and about “Clamor.”

Q: Could you talk a little bit about your background, and your involvement with punk rock?

A: I started going to punk shows when I was 14/15. I was an outer boro kid—a Staten Islander—and didn’t really fit in with my peers. I had access to a lot of counter culture music from my older sister, mostly Zappa and Neil Young and the Dead, as a kid, but it wasn’t my music. I discovered the Ramones and Bowie and the Clash when I was about 13 and then Kraut, a band from New York, on MTV (was it the Basement Tapes?) at a friend’s house. Then it was onward to the Dead Kennedys and Bad Brains, etc. I joined my first band with that same friend when I was 15, but really didn’t do anything as a hardcore musician until I was 16 and founded Expletive Deleted. We eventually played with a ton of great bands, starting with our first show ever, opening for Suicidal Tendencies at CBGB.

Q: What drew you to punk rock in the first place?

A: I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was one of the few kids at my school whose parents were divorced. I loved books and music and just kind of had my own private life. Punk allowed me to reject mainstream values in an environment where rejection was not only accepted but encouraged. It felt safe at a time when I was looking for safety. That said, it didn’t take me long to realize the inherent limitations of punk as a cultural philosophy—nihilism was never my bag, nor was conforming even to a brand of non-conformity.

 

Q: What inspired the book, and what were you trying to accomplish?

A: “Clamor” started at a family party: I was looking at my older sister and brother and tried to imagine what it would be like to turn the volume of our personalities up to 11 as it were. I mean, those characters aren’t us in the least, but that’s how it started. Then I had to think what was going on. I don’t write with an outline or an agenda. Once I figured out that the father had died, I had some sense that this was a kind of Prodigal Son story, but that’s not enough to go on

What’s funny to me is that one of the most interesting characters in the book, for me, is Jessica — Johnny’s niece. She didn’t even exist as an idea when I first started writing. That’s all it took.

 

Q: Is there anything about the punk rock scene that you consider to be widely unknown or misunderstood?

A: When I was shopping the book I had one agent ask me to make it more “punk rock” — by which he said he wanted “more heroin or cocaine and some more sex.” I wanted to avoid these clichés. I was much more interested in the family dynamic that exists. This is a family drama. The drugs, the fighting, all that, that’s a very young take on punk. The fact is when punks survive into their thirties and forties, their concerns are adult concerns — paying the bills, raising the kids, living a life. Touring, writing new music, maybe some sort of secondary income source, all of that is real. Being a punk musician is a job at that point.

 

Q: Do you have any new projects in the works?

A: Always. I’m working on the fourth draft of a new, untitled novel. I’m playing around with a few short stories, and maybe I’ll eventually have another story collection. But it always comes back to the poems. I’m working on a new book of poems that is tentatively titled “The Story of Ash” but that’s still at least another year from being finished. My first book of essays on poetry, “Palpable Magic,” comes out in early 2015. And musically I’m working with a band called The Downstrokes.

 

 

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Well, I had a great time representing Codorus Press at the Western Md. Independent Lit Festival at Frostburg State University this past weekend. Got to hang out with a few of my favorite authors, such as Gerry LaFemina, and some of my favorite publishers, such as Bill Olver of Big Pulp. Also walked away with a few new favorite authors, including Bram Stoker Award-winner Michael Arnzen. I got to sit in on a panel discussion with Michael about speculative fiction, and it was a lot of fun. An informal atmosphere and a smart, friendly audience turned it into quite a lively discussion.

As an added bonus, I picked up Michael’s new novel titled “Play Dead.” I’m only a couple of chapters in, but I’m already impressed. Look for a forthcoming review.

Much as I enjoy all the book festivals I attend for Codorus Press, the Indie Lit Festival has a special place in my heart. The vibe isn’t about selling books, so much as participating in an event by and for people who really love books.

The cool thing about sitting in on panels is that it makes you think about what you do as a writer, and sometimes things occur to you that might not have otherwise. On the speculative fiction panel discussion, a young lady asked us why horror, fantasy and science fiction are grouped together under the classification “speculative fiction.”I’d really never thought about it before. And in answering, I realized for the first time what’s always drawn me to those three genres.

I told her the common denominator of horror, science fiction and fantasy is that they all deal with something outside the reader’s everyday life. Maybe something possible. Maybe something completely outlandish. But all three genres make a point out of taking the reader to new realms of existence and experience, and showing how characters deal with them.

And really, I think that’s what we should all be doing with our lives in one way or another. Constantly introducing new elements and new experiences that negate our previous conceptions of what’s possible and what isn’t.

Oh yeah. Michael took a picture of me striking a writerly pose. I couldn’t track down a tweed jacket or pipe on short notice, but here it is.

writer

 

clamorThere are plenty of things I like in Gerry LaFemina’s novel “Clamor,” which is the story of a 39-year-old punk rocker going home for his father’s funeral. But it’s one of those books that I like just as much for what’s not in it. More on that presently.

When I was reading it, I found myself remembering a question that a black friend of mine once asked me more than a decade ago. Why don’t white people respect older musicians?

I told her that I don’t think that’s true. These days, older musicians such as Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello are regarded more as revered elder statesmen than creaky relics. But I could see where she was coming from.

In thinking of the musicians that white people are into, she was probably thinking of rock stars. (And for the time being, I’m not going to go into the oversimplified but certainly not meritless assertion that white people simply appropriated rock music from black people. That’s a big can of worms.) And the template for rock stars was forged, with some overlap in adjacent decades, in the youth-obsessed 1960s.

I remember a time not so long ago (By my standards. I’m no spring chicken myself.) when the mere act of getting older was considered a kind of failing on the part of rock musicians.

Back in 1989 when the Rolling Stones were on their Steel Wheels tour, a lot of my peers were making dismissive cracks about “Steel Wheelchairs.” As if the fact that the Stones were in their 40s — their freakin 40s! — meant they were far too old and decrepit to continue their careers, and it was pathetic of them to even try. I can’t see anybody harboring that attitude toward a painter or a writer. Or a classical musician, for that matter. (more…)