Constance Squires’s new novel Live From Medicine Park is a must-read for music fans. Its protagonist, Ray Wheeler, arrives in Medicine Park, Oklahoma with the intent of filming a documentary about the comeback of Lena Wells, a singer whose promising career got derailed by a bad late-night TV appearance in the 1980s.
Wheeler, we learn, built his career on a philosophy of non-involvement with his subjects. But this time things are different: He hooks up with Wells and begins asking questions about her band mate (and cousin) Cyril, who may or may not be the father of Wells’s son, Gram. All this occurs while Gram and Jettie — Lena’s band mates in the Lighthorsemen —have been offered a spot touring with Los Lobos as another band called the Black Sheep.
Squires’s tale will resonate with anyone who’s spent time in or around a band. This past July, she spoke with me about the Grateful Dead, Black Flag, Don DeLillo, and Medicine Park. She had just returned from her honeymoon in New York, where she and her husband, Brian, visited the building in St. Mark’s Place that’s on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
I was doing some research prior to interviewing you and read your New York Times piece about tornadoes. There was a line in there about being a stupid teenager. What little I know of you, I got the impression that you were a bad kid. Then you said you were a runaway at CBGB’s. So how does music connect to all that?
It’s intricately connected to it. I feel like music saved my life. I was always a real good student, a good girl, all that stuff, but my parents had a bloody divorce when I was fifteen. And at the same moment, my best friend suffered a personal trauma. It was horrible.
My rage level just went through the roof. I was so full of rage I felt like I was going to die. And right about that time, I started hanging out with this guy who was listening to the Minutemen and Black Flag and stuff. That music — it was the only thing I ever found that was intense enough to meet me and allow that rage to flow out of me in a way that was safe. I think if I hadn’t found music I would have been suicidal or something.
In researching you I fell into this little wormhole where I started looking to see if there was any footage of you getting pulled up onstage by Henry Rollins [Black Flag’s lead singer] in 1984. I looked but didn’t find anything.
I can’t imagine. That was some tiny little hole in the wall in Oklahoma City. Did I tell you about that? I guess I did.
No, I read about it.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that was anywhere. Man. Damn, I have to Google myself, see what the hell’s out there.
I was an idiot. I was a junior high kid, and I shouldn’t have even been there. I noticed it was all guys up front, which I took affront at. I was like “fuck that!” and went up front. As soon as the mosh pit started to move I got it. “Oh, that’s why they’re not up here.” I think I was getting crushed. So he very unceremoniously yanked me out and pushed me to the side of the stage. It was nice of him. He didn’t have to do that.
Going back to the idea of you as a bad kid: You read in Minneapolis about seeing Husker Du at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC. And now, knowing about the divorce and the horrible thing that happened to your friend…this all led to your first book, Along The Watchtower, right?
Yeah, there’s a lot of that feeding into that one. I’m not trying consciously to write about that stuff, or not to. You just have the material you have sometimes.
I keep going back to music, and I can never really get away from it in my fiction. It seems like I’m going to be stuck writing about that and restaurants the rest of my life.
I know what you mean. I’m working on a novel that uses the Oklahoma City bombing. It goes back and forth between current time and the time of the bombing. You would think that would have nothing to do with music, but it does.
Do you feel okay with that being the itch you need to scratch with your writing?
Music? Yeah, I think so. The thing I think is bad is when you find yourself being overly crafty with how you want to see yourself, or be seen. I can be really bad about that, and suppress real authentic urges or try and convince myself I feel strongly about stuff that really isn’t for me to write about. I’m real sensitive to that. I just want to be true. The books that really move me are the ones where people are saying whatever’s important to them. It comes through. As long as it’s important to me, I’ll keep writing about it.
Lena, in my latest book, comes from a place of worrying about how a person is seen. You and I were able to grow up in a time where our worst moments weren’t able to go viral. She was on TV, and her failed performance, when she’s on the late night TV show and can’t get it together, that’s one thing. But the book’s set in the present, where everyone has access to that moment. Today, a completely bad moment ruin your life.
I also liked Ray’s level of self-delusion. It’s such a fine line to walk where the character’s deluded, but you don’t want to hit the reader over the head with that. I thought you did a nice job with describing his warped system of justifying his behavior and interfering with people’s lives.
I always like gently unreliable narrators. Not so much the ones we see in Nabakov and Poe, but straight-up psychos. Because everyone’s an unreliable narrator. Everyone has some blind spot where they cannot really see themselves the way people can see them. It’s touching. It’s one of the most interesting things about people. So I love that voice that’s in many ways reliable, in many ways you can trust his assessments, but you can see he’s really clueless and deluded in certain ways, too.
But at the same time, Ray is really perceptive. Like, when he turns his perception to Cyril and Graham, he’s able to suss things out, but he has no meta-cognition of himself. It was a really nice balance.
When you came to the idea of creating Lena Wells and writing a book about her, what kind of process did you go through? Did you have a sense of where things were going right from the beginning, or are you one of those writers who needs to write it to chase down exactly where it goes and how it gets there?
Oh, God. I pray that no book will be as hard to find as this one was. Honestly, I went through so many drafts and they were drastically different. It wasn’t until the last few that Ray became the main character. It really started out as Jettie’s story, and I tried doing it with alternating points of view.
I had this idea of this Ms. Havisham rocker character in Medicine Park. I love Medicine Park. It’s this kind of quirky, strange place. I started it when I was listening to a lot of Dylan — and I had never listened to Dylan. You know how you grow up and you hear all the protest songs on the radio and you’re like “yeah yeah, Dylan”? You know? But he was getting praised all the time and I thought “what is the deal with Dylan?” So I finally started listening to the albums and once I did that I was like “oh, that’s the thing with Dylan.” I became saturated by those atmospheric ballads that he does where you feel like there’s a whole world inside of it.
It was all really vibe-y. I didn’t have a plot. I didn’t realize how little I had. I had a sense of place, and a sense of living inside of a song. It was like I had a gelatinous mass of blood and organs and no spinal column, no bones at all. I tried all kinds of plots. There was a time when Lena died of a drug overdose. And then I took a step back and was like “well, that’s the biggest cliché in the world. That sucks.”
Ray worked. I could tell he worked as a narrator. An outsider coming in, him making a documentary, that was an automatic good narrative voice. He was naturally going to be looking at things in a way that was interesting. But I didn’t have a hook for him until I started watching and reading about tons of documentaries. I saw this one–it’s a show on Showtime, a series, where in each episode they follow a documentary filmmaker around. They follow this guy who was documenting the drug war down in Juarez. He and his crew heard a shooting and they walked a block over and saw this young Hispanic teenager sitting in a car. He’d just been shot and people were gathering around. This guy trained his camera on it and watched him die. Watched him bleed out. He’s crying for help, he’s looking in the eye of the camera, saying “please help me, please help me!” The guy did not turn the fucking camera off! He didn’t call the police!
Afterwards, the guy who’s interviewing the filmmaker is like “so, you didn’t find the need to step out from behind the camera and do what a normal human would do?” The guy was like “no, it’s my code, I have to do this.”
When I saw that, I was like “this is what Ray needs — an ethical blind spot he can’t sustain.”
So, this won’t matter to anyone but me, but the press kit in the middle of the book is meant to be an overt homage to Great Jones Street. It seems like any rock book has to deal with that, how to represent the music on the page. I liked that idea of creating the textuality of it, a press kit that would be presented to Ray. The lyric thing was fun. That was not anything I’d ever done before. I wanted to say “thank you” to Don DeLillo.
Did you ever put those lyrics to music? I remember you were talking about that.
No, I haven’t. Maybe that will happen some day. That would be so cool. I would love it. I’m completely helpless about that because I have zero musical talent. Brian, my husband, is a musician, but he’s mostly classical. He’s never been in a rock band. He wouldn’t be the person to do that. Maybe somebody will be so moved one of these days.
Live From Medicine Park By Constance Squiers
University of Oklahoma Press
Published October 5, 2017
Constance Squires teaches creative writing at the University of Central Oklahoma. Her previous book is Along the Watchtower: A Novel and Wounding Radius and Other Stories. Her writing has also appeared in Guernica, Shenandoah, Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines.
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Author of 'Swing State' & 'Hidden Wheel' (Three Rooms Press) and 'Double Nickels on the Dime' (Bloomsbury's 33 1/3). Editor of Cabildo Quarterly and Zisk. Dead Trend drummer/songwriter. More at michaeltfournier.org and @xfournierx.