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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In Which Kristin Hersh Calls Our Book Club and is Dark and Blue and Sweet

I'd never heard of Kristin Hersh, or her art rock band,Throwing Muses, which she formed at age 14. I know, I know, I'm about as hip as a walker. My Book and Cake Club picked her memoir, Rat Girl as our October read.  (BTW, if you don't belong to a book club where everyone brings cake, you're in the wrong book club.) Hersh's email address is printed in the back of her book, so Noah Scalin emailed and asked her if she'd like to "attend." Noah has been a fan for a long time; he saw her band play at a club in Richmond when he was too young to be there. I imagine that struck a chord (no pun intended) with Kristin, who for six years was too young herself to be in the clubs she played. She answered Noah right away and said sure. We met on Oct. 24, and Kristin Hersh participated via speakerphone.

I love people who love to laugh, and Kristin loves to laugh. Notoriously shy, she commented on her recent experiences at "literary events," where people often ask her very personal questions. "I go with it," she said, but as she says in the introduction, "I'm not interested in self-expression—I don’t want people to listen to my songs so that they’ll care about me.” And I don't think she wrote this book so people would care about her, either. Rather, she has shared with bone white honesty what is was like to be 18, freakishly talented and walking a line between sanity and stability, adventure and responsibility, ambition and integrity, music and motherhood.

Initially approached by a ghost writer who apparently felt comfortable enough to suggest that he "move in" as part of his research, Kristin stopped returning his calls and decided to write her story herself, using her 1985 diary as the starting point. "I kept a diary because someone told me I should," she said. "It was like homework to me." The book includes passages from her diary as well song lyrics which inform the memoir, and offer glimpses into her creative process.

What surprised me about his memoir is how "sweet" it is. "I wanted it to be sweet," Kristin said. Indeed, "dark and blue and sweet" is a recurring theme, and listening to her talk about Betty Hutton, with whom she had a remarkable college friendship in the mid-80s, her voice takes on those colors. "I feel a little guilty about Betty," she says of the years they were not in touch. (For those of you who don't know, Hutton was a Hollywood star who hit her stride in the 60s, playing Annie Oakley in the MGM movie. Hutton was in her 60s when she attended Kristin's gigs, and gave advice on connecting with an audience.) Hersh paints other characters with equally heartfelt strokes: her parents, whom we might expect to be neglectful or oblivious are instead loving and sweet. Her therapist (Dr. SevenSyllables), whom we might expect to be detached or cluelessly cerebral, is instead empathetic and hip. He "gets" her, and perhaps more importantly, guides her through a pregnancy without drugs. Hersh describes no petty behavior among her band members, although I'm sure there must have been some. These things don't interest Kristin, even as they were undoubtedly of interest to her editor at Penguin.

"She wrote in the margins, EXPLAIN! in big red letters. But I didn't want to write about the boring stuff. I wanted to write about the stuff that interested me." For four years, she wrote from 2:00 am until dawn (insomnia seemed another creative stimulant), then rewrote, erased it all, and rewrote again. "I hate it when people ask me 'what are you working on next?' It took me four years to write this one!"

Following a car crash which left her crumpled on the side of a road, Hersh developed a condition that sounds like synesthesia. As she described it: "I would hear ambient noise as music which sounded like me playing next door." Imagine the everyday background noise in your life arranging itself into the building blocks of songs, sometimes wild or twisted up, other times electrified and flitchy. And that's her music: surprising, haunting, sometimes loud, always compelling.


She also suffers from bi-polar disorder. It's onset, at 18, helped bring about a sort of "Art as Danger" lifestyle, in which Hersh found herself homeless, self-destructive and so creatively alive she almost combusted. Add to this mix an unplanned pregnancy, and you might expect a boiling cauldron of sadness and regret. But this memoir doesn't go where you think it will, doesn't ask what you expect it to answer. Neither depressing or triumphant, it is a glimpse into one woman's creative process by way of the most remarkable year in her life (arguably) as recorded in her diary and music. The memoir doesn't try to make a statement; Hersh sees only concerned with making music. And she puts her money where her mouth is: she found the nonprofit Coalition of Artists and Stakeholders (www.cash-music.com) in which she records and releases music without the aid of a record company. She is entirely listener-funded and makes her music available, free of charge and free to be shared, via CreativeCommons.org.You can download acoustic songs that complement her memoir at www.kristinhersh.com/seasonsessions.

The book is impressionistic. Hersh leaves out as much as she includes, which fascinated me. She never tells us who the father of her child is, for instance (indeed she makes little reference to having sex at all), and I felt that the question was beside the point. But we wanted to ask, more out of a sense of connection than curiosity. But we didn't ask, and she didn't offer. Rat Girl is not about romance, after all. It is about passion. "Passion for sound, reptiles, old ladies, guitars, a car, water, weather, friends, colors, chords, children, a band, fish, light and shadow.”

 Passion that is dark and blue and sweet.

11 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed reading this terrific review, Irene -- I hope Kristin Hersh has read it! And it makes me want to read her book as well.

    (How old is she now, by the way?)

    What a cool book group you've got! Who's up next?

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  2. Hey, three years on it was fun to read this post. Is your book group still active? If so, whatcha readin' now?

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