by Pamme Boutselis
Scott Alarik covered folk music in the Boston Globe for 20 years. Pete Seeger says he’s “one of the best writers in America,” and Dar Williams calls him “the finest folk writer in the country.” His new book, “Revival: A Folk Music Novel,” won the Benjamin Franlin Silver Award for Popular Fiction. He’s also a folksinger who toured the national folk circuit and performed regularly on “A Prairie Home Companion.” He talked with us about his new novel.
Have you always written?
I’ve always been a storyteller. My father told me that as soon as I could talk, I tried to turn everything into a story with a beginning, middle, and end––whether or not it had them. Professionally, I began my career as a Minnesota folksinger-songwriter, writing mostly narrative ballads – story-songs. In fact, my first album was called “Stories.”
After moving to Boston in the mid-80s, I covered folk music in the Boston Globe for over 20 years. That was a great discipline, writing short-form journalism for a paper that prided itself as being a writer’s paper. Every time an editor asked me a question, I became a better writer.
While preparing to write my first novel, I thought the combination of songwriter and journalist could be a good alloy. And it was. As a songwriter, and particularly a writer of narrative ballads, I was accustomed to using poetic tools like imagery, metaphor, and symbolism in ways that served a story, rather than distracting from it. A songwriter also has to be very spare and deliberate about the use of description. As a journalist, I was accustomed to keeping the story front and center, telling it in a rich, condensed way. It was a good formula; I wish I could say I was clever enough to have done it on purpose.
What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Before I fully committed to writing the novel, I began a file called “Revival Doodles.” I used it the way a musician might use practice time–to riff on ideas, improvise, wander. I jotted down character ideas, vignettes, dialogue scenes, plot ideas, etc. But–and this was important–I always tried to write ideas out in prose form, as they might appear in a novel. I didn’t care if they were any good, or if they’d end up in the finished book. It just made sense to begin writing ideas out in fiction form––to turn ideas into stories.
When I wrote the first draft of “Revival,” I realized the Doodles had helped me find the narrative voice of the novel, vernacular that distinguished each character, and to better understand how and where to place description, thematic passages, etc.
The biggest surprise, though, was that the Doodles process continued as I wrote the draft. Ideas still came in that freer, more improvisatory way, and I jammed on them. Often, structural problems a few chapters ahead would become suddenly untangled through the Doodles process. So many times, I would finish writing, run errands to clear my mind, and find myself pulled over on the road, furiously scribbling down an idea that exploded into my resolved an upcoming problem. I came to see that my Doodles file was the place where my subconscious could continue to play with the story like a rumpus room in the basement of my conscious brain. And it felt like it was always a few chapters ahead of where I was in the drafts.
What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge was simply believing I could write a novel, but I was familiar with that fear from my years on stage, and with the Boston Globe. It’s the same, really, the fear that nothing will come, the disciplines will fail. And the only remedy is to get to work. As Dorothy Parker said, “To write is not good; to have written is good.”
As to shaping a novel, the most daunting challenge was creating believable characters. The modern folk world had never really been captured in a novel, so I wanted “Revival” to feel real to readers, with knowable characters and believable situations. I wanted it to feel true.
I worried the most about the young female protagonist, Kit Palmer, because she was the furthest from my experience. I wanted to tell her truth, not mine. I listened to young musicians, picked up a bit of their vernacular and ways of discussing music and careers. But I didn’t want to mimic my way into her. I wanted to find a real person. So I also listened to Kit Palmer.
I know that sounds crazy, but there was a process in which all the characters began to come to life, to become real people in my imagination, and take control of their own creation. The question stopped being “What should Kit say here?” It became, “What would Kit say here?”
My experience as a songwriter helped me recognize that strange process, because there is a moment you feel a song come to life, become its own organism, and not just a tangle of ideas. From that moment, the song participates in its own creation, often becoming a different song than you thought it was. Paul Simon said that moment––I call it “the Pinocchio moment” in “Revival”––was the best feeling he knew, except for a few seconds of sex; and that if he could buy that feeling in a drug, he would spend all his money on it.
What has the road to publication been like for you?
The folk world is a vibrant sub-stream community these days, but has never attracted the attention of the publishing industry. There are biographies, and the occasional anthropological look at various corners of the folk world, but very little fiction.
Because folk is so ignored by the mainstream music industry, it’s learned to be a self-sustaining form, developing its own marketplace. Most artists sell their CDs directly to fans at concerts, and function as their own primary retailers. That artist-fan interaction has become a cherished part of the folk experience, and fans relish getting to meet performers, and love the idea that they are helping to support them by purchasing CDs. As a result, folk has suffered less from the decline of retail record stores than other forms, and artists actually make a higher percentage of their income from sales than mainstream artists.
I wanted to tap into that with “Revival,” so I asked people if there was a publisher that knew about the folk world, and a friend mentioned Peter E Randall Publisher in Portsmouth because it was run by Deidre Randall, Peter’s daughter and a fine songwriter. As a veteran of the folk world, the idea of a subsidy press was appealing. It’s common for folk musicians to make creative deals with labels, in which costs are shared, in order to allow each party to focus resources on what they do best. A mantra of the folk business is, “Share the risk, share the reward.” It is also a bedrock principle of the folk world that artists should control their own art.
I’m proud that Randall not only wanted to publish my book, but to invest in my larger dream of creating a place for more literary books about folk music. For “Revival,” they created Songsmith, a new imprint devoted to books by, for, and about, musicians, and there are now several titles on the imprint.
How do you market your work?
I wanted the book to be successful within the folk marketplace, offering direct sales of “Revival” at music events. Artists and venues were highly supportive, so I offered to open shows with a couple of brief readings from the book. I launched the book before thousands of fans at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in New York. Club Passim, the legendary Harvard Square coffeehouse, connected me with the Harvard Square Business Association, who named the entire month of the book’s release “Revival Month in Harvard Square.” That has now become an annual tradition, and every September is Revival Month in Harvard Square. The role of tradition in modern culture is a major theme of the novel, so having it inspire a modern tradition is terrific.
I toured the country after that, going to coffeehouses and festivals, concerts and open mikes, usually doing a couple of readings to begin the show, then selling books at intermission. About half of “Revival”’s sales have come this way. Folk stars have also been supportive, and “Revival” has received valuable marketing quotes from Tom Paxton, Mary Gauthier, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary, Meg Hutchinson, Ellis Paul, Gordon Bok, and many others.
Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
The writers who influenced me the most are the nameless authors of the great folk ballads. All our storytelling, from songs and poems to short stories and novels, have their roots in those old ballads. In writing “Revival,” I learned so much from traditional lyrics about how and where to use imagery, description, metaphor, and other literary techniques. The architecture of all storytelling is traced in the old ballads, because that’s how we first learned to tell our stories.
If you keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
First would be the single-volume collection of the great English and Scottish folk ballads collected in the 19th-century by Harvard scholar Francis James Child, commonly known as the “Child ballads.” As ancient as they are, they explore the same things we write about today, ambition and envy, greed and sacrifice, love and loss, fear and faith, ambition and jealousy, hope and death, oppression and power. The elemental ways they explore these things shows us what is timeless about being human.
I’ve learned the most about fiction from historical novels. If I had to single out one, it would be Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels” about the battle of Gettysburg. It’s a stunningly effective meld of intimate meditation and external action, showing how each can serve the other.
The best memoir I’ve read is “My Autobiography” by Charles Chaplin. It’s an epic journey from Dickensian rags to Hollywood riches, street beggar to the best-known star in history. He tells it all with the same realness and revealing humor that make his films such classics. And the artist who practically invented the vocabulary of cinema narrative goes on delicious tangents, musing on the nature of art, offering profound wisdom and technical savvy. It’s a pure joy.