Music Meets Fiction: Josh Ritter, Steve Earle, Wes Stace Live at NYPL
Folk music seekers and bookworms alike wriggled in their seats for the closing night event from LIVE at the New York Public Library. Josh Ritter, author of Bright Passages, Wes Stace, author of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer and Steve Earle, author of I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, discussed their latest best-reviewed novels of the year. Primarily known as folk and rock musicians, all three artists took the leap from notes to novels, hoping the trust developed between a musician and his audience could transfer to a new medium.
For the past six years, LIVE has organized a space for conversations with famous musicians, actors and writers to encourage creativity and foster inspiration. This allowed the three musicians to speak freely on stage and interview one another about their personal journeys from musicians to authors. It was apparent that Ritter and Earle, newer novelists, were less confident in reading passages than was Wes Stace, who had written three novels previously.
Unlike many other authors, the three artists agreed that their lyrical background allowed them to bring a musical element to fiction. Wes Stace noted, “Songwriting is an apprenticeship for writing. I used to try to make songs as literary as they can be. Now I make novels as musical as possible.” Steve Earle, previously nominated for 16 Grammies and a student of Townes Van Zandt and Rodney Crowell, always viewed music as “literature you could hear in your car.”
With all three writers relating to fiction as extended lyrics, it makes sense that all their novels were inspired by songs. Ritter’s first novel, Passage Ways, was based off a song he wrote about a man who receives notes from an angel. His fictional novel depicts the life of Henry Bright, a soldier in WWI who returns from the war with an angel. On a whim he and his combat unit flee to France and take refuge in a church. Ritter joked, “This is not a Steven Spielberg movie,” while Wes Stace interjected, “Not yet.”
Likewise, Stace based his first novel off the lyrics, “I was found by the richest man in the world / Oh yeah, who bought me up as a girl” from his song “Mrs. Fortune.” He added, “I worked on this line and turned it into a story over the next seven years.” His latest novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, is a comedic story of a wealthy but uneducated critic of classical music pre-WWII, which was inspired not by a single song, but a genre.
Steve Earle’s novel and album, I’ll Never Make it Out of This World Alive, were both inspired by Hank Williams’s last song released before his death with the same title. His novel takes place in San Antonio, 1963, where Doc Ebersole, the protagonist, follows Hank Williams through Texas and performs abortions on prostitutes. The passage Earle read concluded with his singing in country twang, “No matter how I struggle and strive / I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
However, there are significant differences that come with being a writer compared to being a musician. Steve Earle recalled, “Most songs are written in a day. My book took eight years. Typing is hard!” Wes Stace added, “A blank page with songwriting is never that scary. With novels, blank pages on computer screens are absolutely terrifying.” Contrary to Stace and Earle, Ritter originally wrote his book in two months at 1000 words a day. “I was used to the rhythm of putting out records,” said Ritter. However, he quickly realized the finished product was far from a rough draft. “I read it again afterwards and realized it was awful and rewrote it. From songwriting I learned every word [is] important.”
Being a musician first, Earle is well aware that book critics might dismiss his novels as publicity scams, recalling how his first book of short stories, Dog House Roses, received a poor review from The New York Times. Earle’s survival method against negative reviews is simple —“I stopped reading reviews. There is no reason for any artist to adjust their art.” Regarding music criticism, Wes agreed, “I don’t care about music criticism, because I’ll never change the way I sing, but reading criticism on my books is different. I like when people take time to review; it’s kind of nice.” Ritter adds, “Some people don’t get it, some will.” He continues, “My job as an artist is to do what I feel I should. A record might not go in a direction people will like, but that’s my job.”
Josh Ritter, a young Denis Quaide look-alike, is most recognized for his soothing voice and intricate song lyrics, which earned him the title of “100 Greatest Living Songwriters” by Paste Magazine in 2006. Despite Ritter’s musical fame over the last couple of years, he’s surprisingly humble. When asked how he began novel writing, he recalled growing up in Idaho, “A place where there was nothing going on but throwing rocks at rocks and reading.” Ritter tends to speak in metaphors and similes, comparing songs to “novels on grains of rice,” and comparing his childhood self to “water with no bucket, a shape with no form.” Ritter found new freedom in novel writing separate from lyrics, exclaiming, “I can write as long as I want. I don’t have to rhyme!”
Steve Earle, a classic looking rock musician, showcasing a long ponytail and beard, dropped out of school after eighth grade, and began performing at 20 years old. He recalled the first time he wrote prose in 1994, “I began by writing in my journal, because my sponsor told me to. Somewhere in between I had writers block for four to five years.” He also gives credit to computers, which according to Earle, “Made it possible for me to write anything longer than a song.”
Wes Stace‘s British accent and gestural manner oozed confidence easily mistaken for pretention. He took seven years to write his first book, and gave encouragement to the other two writers who still seemed self-conscious. “It’s about confidence. When I got my second book it was massively easier.” He joked, “I wrote three novels with two fingers,” referring to his slow typing method.
Putting books aside, when it comes to singing, all three musicians forgot their nervousness and exuded a confident energy only experienced folk and rock singers are capable of. Josh Ritter performed two exceptionally story-like songs, “Sir Gallahan” and “Folk Blood Bath.” Wes Stace sang, “There is a Starbucks Where the Starbucks Used to Be,” and Steve Earle played, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The tension that came with reading fiction eased, and the entire audience relaxed as new life filled each artist. All three musicians brought out their guitars and jammed, quickly reminding themselves that above being writers they are first performers, a role they hope to uphold for many years to come.
The new spring schedule starts on Thurs, Jan. 19, and past conversations, including this one, can be viewed at www.nypl.org/live. Past conversations feature Elizabeth Gilbert, Diane Keaton, Lou Reed, and Jay-Z.