Writing about music isn’t easy. How can mere words convey the excitement of a backbeat, a smoking guitar solo, a throbbing bass rift, or a lead singer throwing his whole body and soul into the high notes? When I set out to write Catherine, the last thing I meant to do was write about rock music. For one thing, I’d just been there and done that.
In my first novel, Jane, a retelling of Jane Eyre, my reluctant heroine falls in love with an international rock star on the brink of his big comeback. In writing that novel, I drew on everything I knew about arena rock, touring, and the lives of celebrity musicians. As a hardcore fan who sees a lot of live music, I’d done a fair amount of imagining what a rock star’s everyday life would be like, and how a celebrity might find himself falling in love with an ordinary young woman. In fact, I’d spent most of my teen years, and, quite a few of my adult years too, musing on this very subject.
When I finished writing Jane, I thought I’d said everything I had to say on the subject of music. But when I set out to write Catherine, I was a little lost. I knew that if I wanted to update Wuthering Heights, I would need a setting that was dramatic and a little dangerous, one that could be as important to the story as its characters would be. At first I envisioned a doomed romance set in the remote and unforgiving climes of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I thought Catherine could be the daughter of a corrupt local politician, and Heathcliff might be at troublemaker from the wrong side of the tracks. But my story just didn’t gel. I couldn’t care about it in that intense way a writer needs to about the worlds she’s trying to build and inhabit.
Then one night about three chapters in I happened to be seeing a show at the Stone Pony, a legendary club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. As I held my little square of the packed floor, straining to see above the heads of the people in front of me, letting the music sweep me along, I felt it again—that old familiar rush I feel when I’m seeing a really good live show. And I realized that feeling was a lot like the exhilaration I had felt while writing Jane. I had missed that passion and I wanted it back.
I knew, suddenly, what I had to do to make Catherine come alive—for myself and for readers. I had to set the story in a world I cared about. I would make it a different slice of the music world this time—a punk rock nightclub on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. And Hence, my Heathcliff character, wouldn’t be a star; he’d be a hungry, striving guitarist who might make it some day—or who might not. As for Catherine, she’d be the daughter of a nightclub owner, a club as big and important as CBGB, one that could make or break the careers of young strivers like Hence. She’d know better than to fall in love with a musician who might be interested in her more for her father’s sake than her own—but just this once she wouldn’t be able to resist.
Catherine fell into place that night. Picking a setting and a scenario that mattered to me made all the difference. As hard as it can be to write about music, to convey its magic with mere words, I seem destined to try over and over again. Not too surprisingly, music plays a key role in Love, Lucy, my third novel due out in January 2015. And these days I’m even blogging about rock music. Here’s a recent post about Jesse Malin, the musician I was seeing that fateful night at the Stone Pony, and whose music kept playing in my head as I wrote Catherine: http://aprillindnerwrites.blogspot.com/2013/10/weve-got-that-pma-night-at-wonder-bar.html