It’s a completely acceptable and expected question, the equivalent of “What’s your music sound like?” for people in bands. Of course, I never really mastered the art of answering that one, either. Sometimes I went for a laugh, with a variation of “Barely competent guitar rock,” and sometimes I went straight comparison: “Music made by people who grew up listening to the Beatles and the Clash.” The answers were probably as unsatisfying to hear as they were to give, but whoever I was talking usually just nodded, as if they now knew exactly what our music sounded like.
Last weekend I walked around the Decatur Book Festival, as I have been lucky enough to do most of its twelve years, but this time I got to wear a cool badge that had my name on it, just above the word “author.” I attended seven panels—on everything from memoirs about mothers, to novels about mothers, to memoirs about guitar heroes—and even got to speak on one, which means I can cross a DBF appearance off my To Do List. I also answered the “What’s your book about?” question more times than I can remember. My standard reply mentioned the lives of struggling musicians, but sometimes I skipped any mention of music, and focused on the other aspects of the novel, like the search for family. More than once I stole my friend Kim’s description: “It’s a coming-of-middle-age novel.”
What makes the question so hard? For one thing, I never think about it as I’m writing. Ask me what the book is about before it’s done, and all I can manage is a blank stare. I could name some of the characters for you, but all they do in the early stages is talk a lot and wander around. I usually have a few thousand words written before somebody decides to actually, like, do something, and it’s not until the third or fourth or fifth round of revision that I begin to see themes emerging. Even then, I don’t look too closely. It’s best not to address themes and meaning directly when writing; to do so risks scaring them off, or, even worse, making them feel so welcome they step out of the shadows and make themselves too at home, drinking all the booze and chewing all the scenery.
Now that the book is out there, in the world, I am just beginning to understand what it may be about. I understand the need to ask the question—hundreds of thousands of books will be released this year, and we all need some method to try and find the ones that could speak to us, if only given the chance—but it could be someone else will have a better answer.
Monkeyhole’s first single was “Pay Me Now.” Spider could tell you what it’s about, but he’d probably make up a more entertaining lie, instead. From the Book Launch, here’s a clip of some talented friends helping bringing it to life, for what may be the last time.