A friend of mine read the following column and said, “That’s a nice story, but what happened on your panel? Who was there? What’d you talk about?” Well, I didn’t bother recapping the dialog between myself and the authors because it was only interesting at the moment — or as they say, you had to be there. It was mostly back and forth about how music kind of influenced the panelists. Carleen Brice’s novel probably had the most direct link to music, having written Nina Simone into the story line. But all the writers said they don’t really draw directly from music when they write, and like me, can’t write while there’s music playing in the background, especially music with lyrics. It’s too distracting bordering on impossible. Even when I’m reviewing an album, I might have the record playing when I get started, but eventually I grab the remote and turn it off. Charles Bock uses music to mentally set a tone before he writes. So the underlying theme was, yes, music influenced the authors’ creative process, but really, how could it not? I’ve never met a creative person that isn’t inspired in some way by music or art.
The most interesting part of the panel was hearing Dana Rasso discuss her love for The Minutemen and the film We Jam Econo, and hearing Bock complain about Pitchfork and other online music review sites. Part of his comments are below. I had a great time, and from what I can tell, so did the 30 or so people in the gallery.
Column 191: Book Learned
Confessions of a Lit Fest moderator
The (downtown Omaha) Lit Fest was last weekend at the Bemis Center. It was an opportunity for local writers and people who like writers (readers?) to meet and discuss the art of writing with people who do it for a living.
This year I was asked by Lit Fest organizer, novelist Timothy Schaffert, to moderate a panel discussion about music and writing. “Taking Notes: Music and Writing,” the panel was titled. “Reader music critic Tim McMahan discusses the role of music in writing fiction, criticism, and screenplays.”
The panel included three professional writers. Novelist Carleen Brice, author of “Orange Mint and Honey,” is an Omaha native living in Denver who featured the spirit of Nina Simone in her novel, acting as sort of a guardian angel/guiding light to the main character. Charles Bock, author of “Beautiful Children,” lives in New York, though he was raised in Las Vegas, where his novel takes place. His music connection involved a promotional website with a rock soundtrack that serenades readers as they browse. Finally there was D.E. (Dana) Rasso, the guy behind defunct music blog #1 Hit Song (numberonehitsong.com), or so I thought. The final scheduled panelist was Omaha’s own Nik Fackler, writer/director of the film Lovely Still and frontman for the band The Family Radio. Unfortunately for us (but fortunately for him), Nik’s film was chosen for screening at the Toronto Film Festival, which meant he had to be in Toronto.
Then there was me. I’ve never moderated anything before let alone a panel. While I’ve been known to read books — usually two or three at a time — I have a disability that prevents me from finishing them. If you go into my home office you’ll find hundreds of books with deposit slips, matchbooks, Metro cards, concert tickets, torn bits of toilet paper, anything that can be used as a bookmark, sticking out of them. My problem stems from forcing myself to fruitlessly read the Foundation Trilogy in high school. I promised afterward to never subject myself to finishing a boring novel again. And as for good books, I can’t bear the thought of finishing one knowing that there was nothing left to enjoy. Better to stop a few chapters before the end and keep something for later. As a result, I had to wait for the movie to find out what happened to Frodo and Miles Roby (“Empire Falls”) and James Leer (“Wonder Boys”) and Rob Fleming (“High Fidelity”).
Well, Dana turned out not to be a guy, but a cute, smart, funny lady with an intense love of The Minutemen. Carleen was pleasant and interesting. Charles Bock, on the other hand, was intense and serious, the portrait of a young East Coast novelist with something to say. I found out later that he’s sort of a celebrity in New York. “People recognize him on the street,” Dana told me afterward. It was Bock who also had the most on his mind during the panel.
“Online music criticism in general is just ass. It’s insular and it’s smarmy and everyone has an opinion on something,” he said. “It’s going to make it really difficult to the point of impossible for anything to be heard genuinely or experienced in a genuine way because there’s already a short-handed answer.”
Bock went on to say that an album is meant to be taken at face value. “If you’re bright you can hear overtones of this and that and come up with something,” he said, “but to have a smarmy little fuck tell you in 200 words whatever. And then Entertainment Weekly gives you a grade. Like really? Thumbs up?”
Bock was hitting a little too close to home, especially considering that The Reader just relaunched CD reviews. Each with a 200-word limit. And a 5-star rating.
Afterward, Bock said he was headed back to his hotel room, to write, because “that’s what I do.” I intend to seek out his book and enjoy it, at least up ’til the ending. Hopefully he’s already sold the movie rights so I can find out what happens.
Carleen disappeared to another panel, while Dana and her friend, New York publicist Lauren Cerand, were curious to find out about Omaha outside of The Old Market. So we hopped inside my Mini Cooper, dropped the top, and I gave them a whirlwind tour through midtown, Benson, the faceless West Omaha suburbs, past landmarks like Boy’s Town, the Gold’s Gym that used to be the Kmart where I worked my way through college, and Von Maur, the scene of last year’s tragic shooting and a fine place to buy shoes.
It was the second time in less than a month that I showed a New Yorker around Omaha, and just like the first time, Dana and Lauren seemed genuinely thrilled. Or maybe it was just the fact that, as New Yorkers, they hadn’t ridden in a car in months. I hope they flew back to New York having made a few new fans at Lit Fest, and thinking that Omaha would be as good a place as any to end their next novel.
Tomorrow: The Filter Kings
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