Every now and then I do an interview where I find myself nodding along at every sentence, feeling like the author and I are on the same page, even more so than I was reading said author's novel. This conversation with Ed Tarkington, author of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a visceral novel of growing pangs set in a small Southern town in the 1970s, is one of those interviews.... Enjoy.
Steph Post: I'd like to go ahead and start with the coming-of-age theme running through Only Love Can Break Your Heart. At its core, the novel is about Paul, and then his younger half-brother Rocky, coming of age, exploring their identities and learning their places in the world. In this day and age, most novels dealing with these themes are considered YA, but I definitely felt that Only Love Can Break Your Heart was written for adults. Who was your intended audience with the novel and why?
Ed Tarkington: I try not to think too much about audience when I’m writing. I begin with a character and an emotion or conflict and just go from there. Only Love Can Break Your Heart came from a deep-rooted desire to resolve or make sense of some difficult and disillusioning events from my own childhood, so it just seemed natural to tell a story that began in the narrator’s early years and encompassed the ensuing process of growth and reckoning. I think most writers are in search of insight or epiphany regarding the people and events or circumstances that gnaw at them. I still have a fairly romantic view of where writing comes from. The first audience is me. If the text feels true on the page, I figure maybe the people who read the same books I read and love will be moved by the story I’m telling.
Regarding the YA thing: I have to admit, the concept was not something I’d thought about at all until I started traveling to promote Only Love Can Break Your Heart and have met some YA writers and seen them in action at trade shows and festivals and so forth. The YA writers I’ve met are amazing people, and amazingly talented. I know a few novelists who are intentionally writing in that genre and producing incredible work for younger readers. But I know others who, like me and probably you too, just wrote the best book they could about the things they cared deeply about, and then an agent or editor said “we could do well if we pitched this as YA.”
If “Coming of Age” is a YA theme, then The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a YA novel. So is Great Expectations, and Catcher in the Rye, and The Unvanquished, and The Bluest Eye, or, more recently, The Goldfinch, which sold a bajillion copies in hardcover and won the Pulitzer Prize. I don’t mention these titles to invite comparison, but, rather, to say that I don’t see the theme as being the sole province of adolescent readers, or a book that speaks to young writers as one that should not also be read and taken seriously by adults. These days, genre is a pretty unstable concept anyway. Remember, the last book Colson Whitehead published before The Underground Railroad was about a zombie apocalypse. The one he wrote before that was about a teenaged boy and his friends spending a summer at the beach. Does it get any more YA/Coming-of-Age than that?
SP: As we just discussed, Only Love Can Break Your Heart is about growing up and, aside from time passing, hallmarks of this experience abound: discovering music, smoking cigarettes, admiring the cool kids and learning about sex. Was it deliberate to include these markers along the way or did these totemic moments come about naturally in the course of the story?
ET: Honestly, I don’t make any deliberate choices in my writing beyond what feels urgent and natural and rooted in a character’s desires and the obstacles between her/him and their fulfillment. As I mentioned above, the origin of this story was very personal for me. I have a much older half-sister with whom I had a relationship somewhat similar to Rocky’s and Paul’s. I wanted to write about that, but I was reluctant to write a memoir. I’m from one of those Southern families that doesn’t want its dirty laundry aired in public, and I love my mother too much to tell the truth. Furthermore, I think emotional truth is easier to get at when you distance yourself from the facts. So I decided to flip the gender and turn my sister into one of the “bad boys” from my street whom I observed when I was a kid with a mixture of awe and terror. They all smoked and drank and started having sex pretty young. So the story I had to tell was true to their experience, along with Rocky’s as a kid who idolizes and desires to emulate his older brother but doesn’t really fit that mold. As for totemic moments, well, isn’t that the stuff that matters to everyone when they’re going through that time of their lives?
SP: While many of the characters in your novel illicit sympathy from the reader, they are all deeply flawed- a characteristic that adds to the authenticity of the novel. What draws you to writing about these types of characters?
ET: What draws me to writing about flawed people? Being one, I suppose. Plus flawed people are the most interesting. Like that Kerouac quotation on ten thousand dorm room posters says, “the mad ones are the only ones for me.” I’ve always been drawn to the outsiders. I think this is a persistent theme in most of the novels I really love. Hester Prynne, Ahab, Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, the Invisible Man, Randall McMurphy, T.S. Garp, Sethe—they are all so different, but in the most important ways, they’re wrestling with the same problem, whether it takes the form of resistance to social and political injustice or to the issues that arise in the smallest, but perhaps most influential, institution in all of our lives: our families. I just have enormous empathy for those who by choice or circumstance are unable to fit or conform into institutions or situations where most people appear to feel at ease. The reality, of course, is that, at least a some point, we all feel that we don’t belong, and we all struggle with our sense of self and our places in the world. I do, anyway—still. So those are the people I’m interested in—my people, I guess you could say.
SP: Only Love Can Break Your Heart, set in the 1970s, really plays up the element of nostalgia, something I've noticed more and more books, films and shows doing as of late. Do you think there is a reasoning behind this trend? And why do you think readers are so affected by the nostalgia in the novel?
ET: I wrote this book at a crisis point in my writing life. I’d worked for seven years on another book which was good enough (along with a referral and a lot of luck) to get me a really good agent, but the book did not sell. I was married with a toddler. I’d left the graduate creative writing world and taken a job teaching English and coaching wrestling at a prep school because I couldn’t afford not to have health insurance. The price of this compromise was a dearth of time to write, travel, or research the way I had for the first book. So I had no choice but to turn back to the place where I started—the place where I was formed, and where the urge to tell stories originated in me.
I don’t think that the nostalgia you’re noticing is a new trend, particularly in novels with adult narrators reflecting on childhood. Any time adults look back on the past, they do so with at least a small measure of nostalgia, because the world always seems simpler and more comprehensible through a child’s eyes. The point of what happens in Only Love Can Break Your Heart is to carry the narrator—and, by extension, the reader—through the process whereby the child narrator matures and begins to see the world and the people he loves for what they really are. If there is a particular trend of nostalgia in this cultural moment for the period of time I’m writing about, that’s circumstantial, dictated, I suspect, mostly by the fact that people who can remember those years are a big market with a lot of buying power. Twenty-five years ago, pop culture was dominated by nostalgia for the World War II generation. A decade ago, Mad Men kicked off this huge nostalgia for the early 60s, which was a pretty grim time but which still came across on TV as comparatively sexy and glamorous, despite the misogyny and racism, the alcoholism and serial infidelity, etc. Now the 70s, which I barely remember but know from history class was not exactly the smoothest decade in American history, and the 80s, which, in my recollection was a pretty tedious time characterized by terrible fashion, lame music, insipid sit-coms, and perpetual fear that we were all either going to get blown up by the Russians or catch AIDS, are getting the same treatment,. Even books, films, and TV shows that mean to satirize or critique those times unintentionally romanticize them, the way even a decidedly anti-war movie like Apocalypse Now or Platoon makes combat seem thrilling and adventurous. So it goes.
SP: Finally, music plays a big role in the novel: the title itself comes from a Neil Young song. Why was it so necessary to include all of the song and music references? How important is music to you, both in your personal and writing life?
ET: When I started the book in response to the urge I mentioned earlier to write about my half-sister, the first thing I thought of was the voice of Neil Young. When I was six years old, my half-sister gave me my first rock records—Best of the Doobies by the Doobie Brothers and So Far by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I would sit in my room and listen to those records over and over. My favorite song was “Helpless” by CSNY, which is basically a Neil Young solo track. The voice just hypnotized me. Listening to that song was probably one of the most important formative influences in my life as an artist. In school, when I was supposed to be doing math problems, I would stare out the window and just think about the sound of that voice and the images it describes. A big part of the bond I formed with my half-sister revolved around that music—sitting in her room listening to records while she drew or painted and smoked one cigarette after the other. So really, the soundtrack of the book was set twenty years before I began to write the story.
I think the extent to which people of mine and previous generations fetishized specific music and musicians may be difficult to fathom for people who have grown up with streaming media. This is not a criticism so much as an explanation. Before everyone had perpetual access to everyone, you latched on to someone like Neil Young or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan and literally wore them as badges on your jacket, both as signifiers of your identity and talismans of safety in the feral halls of public middle and high schools. So this isn’t a contrivance for me; it’s utterly organic to the lives of the characters I’m writing, who began as memories of people I once knew.
Music is less important to me now than it was then, though it still matters a lot. We connect most viscerally to music when we’re kids, because it offers a vehicle or conduit for our emotions at a time when most of us lack the vocabulary to express those feelings in language. Before we can even read or form words, we make and respond to music. So there’s really nothing purer or more primal. As we get older and our understanding of language catches up, we find a different, perhaps deeper means of self-knowledge through reading and writing poetry and prose. So I still get the same satisfactions as always from music, but my heart belongs to the novel.
Living in Nashville and having worked in my twenties at a music club, I’ve met a lot of famous musicians, and I can’t deny being a little giddy at times. But I nearly fainted after I met Louise Erdrich. Writers are my rock stars.
So many thanks to Ed Tarkington for stopping by and giving so much to this interview. Be sure to pick up your copy of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, available now from Algonquin Books, today. And, as always, Read, Review and Recommend. Cheers!