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An Interview with Dylan Hicks

2012 April 25
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Editors’ note: We at Hazel & Wren have been giddily anticipating the annual literary benefit of Coffee House Press‘s Biblio Bash: A Literary Carnival. (For any Minnesota folk, this is a MUST-DO event! Cotton candy, ice cream sundaes, barkers, and more, oh my!) A highlight of the bash is a performance by author and musician Dylan Hicks, reading from his new novel, Boarded Windows. We picked his brain for an inside scoop. Stay tuned for a What We’re Reading review of Boarded Windows tomorrow. 


Hazel & Wren: Let’s begin with your writing process. How did this book begin for you? How long did the entire writing process take, in the end?

Dylan Hicks: The seed of the book was a hazy yet evocative childhood memory of being taken to a Waylon Jennings concert in Minot, North Dakota, in what was probably 1978. I would have been seven or eight. I guess this memory’s combination of resonance and unreliability made it seem like a good foundation on which to overlay characters and narrative. My initial ideas, though, were pretty far afield from what I wound up with. All in all it took me about three years to write the book.

H&W: What are some tools, resources, or prompts that get you writing? Do you have a routine of any sort?

DH: Reading is what most spurs me to write, though certain books can be discouraging—for instance, if I fail to enjoy a book that I know has merit, I’ll sometimes start to feel insecure as a writer. I’ll often read books that I think one of my characters would read, or that I hope will be otherwise helpful. Lately I’m working on a book that borrows some of its form from romantic comedies, so I’m happily rereading Jane Austen’s Emma. I generally can’t listen to music while I’m writing, but I sometimes listen to it while revising, and it’s a regular source of inspiration. My schedule varies. Ideally, I do creative work during the morning, remunerative work in the afternoon, and spend the evenings, I don’t know, frolicking. Often it doesn’t work out that way.

H&W: Boarded Windows is the story of country musician Wade Salem, told in the first person by an unnamed narrator. You mention in your author statement that you originally wrote this novel from the third-person point of view of Wade. What prompted you to change the point of view? What freedoms and/or limitations did that switch give you?

DH: Attempting to write in the close third person with Wade as the protagonist helped me imagine his worldview, but it also introduced a lot of problematic interiority. He became too reflective, vulnerable, and self-critical, and I started to see that those qualities were generally at odds with how I wanted to present the character. When I started writing about him in the context of a first-person narrator’s story, he became darker and more mysterious, which felt right. It’s often said that certain famous literary characters—Ahab, Heathcliff, Gatsby—wouldn’t be equipped to tell their own story, that their stories could only to be filtered through another vantage. By mentioning this I’m by no means comparing my modest efforts to those creations, but I suppose I was working in that tradition.

H&W: The novel takes place during the ’90s, and includes memories set in the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s. What drew you most to these time periods?

DH: I was originally interested in depicting a provincial bohemia, specifically a hippie bohemia existing long past that sector’s prime and far removed from the epicenters of countercultural activity. That interest remained, but it shifted when I settled on a narrator who’s in some (limited) ways an authorial surrogate, who in any case is my contemporary. I wasn’t drawn to the ’90s per se, but I did need the central story to take place when the narrator was a very young man.

H&W: As the author, you have the power to set this story anywhere in the entire world. And yet, in Boarded Windows, you chose Minneapolis, Minnesota (more specifically: Uptown). What on earth would possess you to do such a thing?

DH: I’m not sure I do have that globe-spanning power. I admire how Saul Bellow set Henderson the Rain King in Africa without having been there, and there are many similar examples, but I feel more confident, and freer to invent, when I have a fairly strong sense of place. I’ve lived in Minneapolis for a long time, and feel conversant with it, or at least with the milieu I settled on portraying. The book moves around a bit, to North Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and, briefly, Paris, but yes, quite a lot of it takes place within walking distance of my house. That was convenient; if I wanted to picture how something might look, I could just walk there.

H&W: This book is dripping with musical (and other cultural) references, including the chapter titles, some of which are Joni Mitchell album titles. (To be fair, I did not catch on to this until I read your interview with Brad Zellar.) Why this choice?

DH: The people in the novel tend to be aesthetes of a kind, and maybe the references help mirror their world, in which art and pop culture color everything. Some of the references are invented figures or works, so the world I’m trying to mirror isn’t exactly this one. Joni Mitchell’s ’70s records, though often witty, are filled with a sadness and longing that chimes with the mood I was after with the novel. The narrator is trying—often evasively or obliquely—to make sense of his origins, his paternity, and the relationship between his biological and adoptive mothers, and this also led me to Mitchell. For me, her music is closely associated with maternity, if only because it’s music my mother listened to a lot, and despite the fact that her ’70s songs are often about people leading drifting, anti-domestic lives, or struggling, like some of my novel’s characters, with competing desires for autonomy and domesticity.

H&W: In that same interview, you mentioned that you meant for this book to resemble a country song. Explain what you mean by this, please. Did country music inspire the book, or was it the story that came first?

DH: I wanted the book to have some of the slumped loneliness found in certain ballads by George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams, and others. I was also, since the narrator at least fancies himself to be an orphan, thinking of the Carter Family song “The Poor Orphan Child.” Probably this is just a variation on Walter Pater’s famous line that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” Country and other music was an inspiration for the book, but it provided little concrete guidance for shaping the story.

H&W: This book is accompanied by the album Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, in which you wrote and performed songs referenced in the novel, or inspired by the novel in some way. How did this idea come about? How does the process of telling Wade’s story through the album’s lyrics and liner notes (in which the fictional Bolling Greene’s fictional wife, Cynthia Greene, supplies her opinion of the album: “I just don’t consider Hicks to be an interpreter of the first tier.”) compare to (and complement) the novel?

DH: The Bolling Greene character emerged very early in working on the manuscript. To understand him better, and just for fun, I sketched his biography and discography, and wrote some critical appraisals of his work. A handful of song titles and lyrical fragments came out of those efforts, and about a year into writing the book I felt compelled to turn five or six of those titles and fragments into playable songs. Then, after the book was sold, I decided to write additional songs and make this companion album, on which I—or some fictionalized version of myself—interpret songs by Greene. Since the book and its characters often blur truth and fabrication, it seemed apt to make an album in which a fake version of a real guy plays real songs by a fake singer in a real book, or something like that. (Although some of the songs, despite the album’s title, aren’t to my mind by Greene, but derive in other ways from the book.) I sort of see the songs as endnotes; the reader is free to skip them, but maybe they enrich the main text. Conversely, the music, I think, stands on their own, so some people might enjoy the songs and skip the book. Still others, in fact the vast majority of the world’s people, will pass over both. But I’m not going to dwell on that just now.

H&W: You’ll be performing at Coffee House Press’ annual literary benefit, Biblio Bash: A Literary Carnival, on May 5. Is performing onstage as a musician old hat for you? Or will this be a new experience?

DH: It’s sort of like an old hat that I haven’t worn much lately. In the ’90s and early ’00s, I performed quite a lot in this area and did some financially irrational touring. Then I became disillusioned with playing music in public, and quit for several years. Now I’m reillusioned. My band and I have played some shows recently, and will be doing more, such as (here’s my plug) the two sets we’ll be playing on Saturday, May 12 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.


Biblio Bash 2012: A Literary Carnival will be held on Saturday, May 5, from 7–11 pm, in the atrium of the historic Grain Belt Brewery Bottling House, just outside Coffee House Press’s offices at 79 Thirteenth Ave NE, Minneapolis. Buy your tickets here, or at the door.