This is the first part of a two part interview
I’m a fan of the musician John Wesley Harding, which is the name Wesley Stace goes by when doing music. You may recognize the name from one of Bob Dylan’s albums. Harding writes clever, witty songs and he is an eloquent lyricist. In recent years Stace has written two books and I asked to interview him. He politely agreed.I could tell you how smart and funny he is but it’s easier to just let him demonstrate that. His new book is about two people named George, one of which is a ventriloquist’s dummy. And this is no ordinary dummy – rather he’s pretty funny.
I got to know Harding when I saws him play live at a college I attended in Southern California and have liked him ever since.
Hi, Mr. Stace. First, I don't know what to call you since I've always known you as John Wesley Harding. I saw you play live while I was in college at Cal Poly Pomona. That would have been about 1990. You opened for two bands who later faded into obscurity: The Ocean Blue and the Mighty Lemon Drops.
Ha! Actually, The Mighty Lemon Drops broke up, but The Ocean Blue were still around last time I looked. I remember the gig well.
First, how did you come to write not one but two novels?
Well, I wrote them one at a time, which made it easier. I guess, like anyone else who makes their living as a professional musician, I found myself with time on my hands, and writing is how I chose to spend it. I'd felt for some time that music wasn't using all of me to its best advantage – and my lyrics were always criticized, or praised, for being 'literate' – and I'd always planned to write novels. I'd put it off for sometime, or failed at it casually, because I felt that I should make music while the sun shone – and any young person who turns up the chance to do that is a fool! But back in my study I was always working on this or that larger project, and Misfortune was the first one to come to fruition.
Were you surprised by the popularity of your first novel, Misfortune?
Yes, I was. I was more surprised, though, by how soon after I'd finished it, and announced its presence – I was rather secretive about it while writing, and six years is quite a long time to be secretive – I was able to get an agent and a deal for the book. I wrote it absolutely for myself and on my own terms. The writer Rick Moody gave me a good piece of advice, ages before I'd finished. He read a little and told me not to give it to anyone until I was absolutely finished, because Misfortune was in its own world, and didn't need to be prodded around by other people. He thought it wasn't like a lot else that was out there and that this was to its advantage, provided no one messed around with it. It was amazing that people wanted to publish it in Israel, Japan etc — and, yes, the whole thing was a great surprise. I'd always assumed it would be a little bit like my music – where record companies looked askance at me, as though if I were trying a little harder, I could make very nice pop music with fewer words that everyone likes.
How would you describe what By George is about?
Well, it's the story of two boys called George Fisher, who are "related". One is a ventriloquist dummy who tells the story of his slow rise to fame in the 1930s, and the other is a schoolboy in the 1970s, who is the grandson of his namesake's owner. It's the story of the Fisher family, set against one hundred years of popular entertainment in Great Britain, through two wars – from Vaudeville and Music Hall, the birth of radio, the dawn of television etc etc. And there are various weightier themes which I hope are easily ignored, and from which the reader's attention is diverted by the excellence of the plot and characterization! (On the other hand, it's nice when reviewers and readers spot what's going on.)
Why did you decide to write this under your real name instead of musical name? Doesn't that spark confusion or are you one of those blokes who like confusion?
It's caused no real confusion, actually. It's simply that I didn't want people to think that because they liked JWH music, they should like this novel. And I also wanted the novel to be considered on its own terms, rather than as the side project, or hobby, of a bored musician. For example, David Thewlis, the actor, just published a novel – but very few reviewers will actually consider that book on its own terms. (Plus a lot of rock musicians have made life difficult by writing bad books.) Misfortune took me a long time and I felt very close to it, and I thought it was time to dust off my real name – John Wesley Harding would have also looked rather silly on the spine of that particular book.
Which is more enjoyable – writing music or writing books? Which is more difficult?
Writing books is more difficult, by far, though ultimately more rewarding. Making music is much more immediate. I could write a song today, and sing it tonight at a gig – and people might well even applaud. With a novel, you'd have got absolutely nowhere in one day or, at the most, made infinitesimal progress. So you do things like readings, just to remind yourself that you're alive. Surprisingly, however, I found being on a book tour more exhausting than a music tour.
Have you always been interested in puppets? Did you have a puppet? What was its name?
My grandfather had a ventriloquist dummy and his name was George. He's still around, comes to the readings with me, and is on the cover of the novel. That's as far as autobiography goes in the book however…
How does this book compare to Misfortune?
It's shorter. It's more straightforward, I think, even though it seems not to be. It doesn't deal with pastiche in quite the same way. Some of the themes are similar. It took a third of the time but was much harder work somehow.
What did you hope to accomplish with this new book?
I'd like to have written a readable book, which doesn't wear its learning on its sleeve; one with themes that don't seem weighty because the reader is caught up in the characters and their story. I'm not sure I write to accomplish anything: it's all a bit more 'art for art's sake' than that. In other words, I write because I really like to write, and hope that people want to read the thing I really like to write. I couldn't even imagine writing a book specifically meant to be a bestseller. As I'm writing, I feel like I can only do things the way I'm doing them.
Thanks to Mr. Harding. Part two will come in about two weeks.