I love meeting authors and I was able to meet one through my friend Michael Vaccaro, whom I profiled late last year. Kergan Edwards-Stout has recently published his first novel, "Songs for the New Depression".
To help promote the book, I posted a banner ad on the Erick Davidson story page. I then read the book, loved it and put together this Q&A with Kergan, which he was kind enough to participate in it.
If you've read the book already and love it as much as I do, his answers will make you love it even more. If you haven't read the book yet, I hope this will pique your curiosity enough to buy it and read it. It's good to support the nice guys.
1) Who is Shane Michael Sawick, listed in the acknowledgments as the inspiration for "Songs"?
While I had many boyfriends prior, Shane was my first adult love, a connection of hearts, minds, and souls. We met back in 1993 when I was volunteering at AIDS Project Los Angeles and he was running the AIDS Hotline. We were together for two years before he died.
2) What made you decide to write this book?
The act of being both partner and caregiver to Shane created monumental changes within me. I’d been living that stereotypical L.A. life, acting and waiting tables, focused solely on myself, and the sea change that happened to me as a result of loving Shane was such a pivotal moment, I knew I had to find a way to honor it.
3) In what way did Shane inspire this book?
One day, out of the blue, a line popped into my head. At the time, I didn’t know who was speaking it or where it would take me, but it became clear to me that the voice was Shane’s. Channeling his voice, I kept writing and eventually that turned into this novel.
4) How much of your own experiences find their way into the book?
The story itself is largely fictional, though real elements
find their way in, but there is quite a bit of both my sensibility and Shane’s
in the voice of the lead character.
5) There's a lot of introspection in this book, what purpose did it serve for you as the author?
To me, the most interesting thing about a book, as opposed to other artistic formats, is that the reader gets to journey inside the minds of the characters. And often, what we learn by reading their unfiltered thoughts is more interesting and different from the way they choose to act outwardly. Plus, I tend to be introspective, and that self-reflection just comes naturally to me.
6) Who is your favorite character in this book and why?
Great question! That really changes, depending on my mood. I really identify with Gabriel, the lead character, as I too have wanted to change and improve my life, but didn’t have the tools. I find his journey really heartbreaking. But there is a character named Pastor Sally whom I really love. She’s who I hope to be someday. More evolved, nurturing, loving, with a great sense of humor and positive, upbeat outlook.
7) There are no chapters in this book, just three different parts set in different time periods, told backwards. How did this idea come about?
I knew I wanted to depict three different stages of the character’s life. The book begins with him dying, and works backward. To me, it is like peeling back an onion, digging through the layers to see what is at his core. If I’d told the story chronologically, much of the drama would’ve been gone, with readers just waiting for the character to die, and it could’ve come off as a TV movie “disease of the week” type of story.
8) What is the significance of the three different time periods during which the story unfolds?
The first section takes place in 1995, prior to the HIV drug cocktail, and details Gabe’s final days. He knows he has made mistakes in his life, but doesn’t have a clue as to how to make amends for all that he’s done. Then it jumps back 10 years, where he is leading a fun, hedonistic life in his self-centered twenties, and you see some of the mistakes he makes. And then it jumps back to his coming out in high school. In this section, we see his more innocent side, and the brutal event which strips him of his humanity. It proves to be a hurdle from which it is almost impossible to recover.
9) What would you say this book is ultimately about?
To me, it is a tale of redemption. For Gabe, it comes too late, but for the rest of us, reclaiming our dignity and sense of self is still entirely possible.
10) What do you want people to take away from "Songs for the New Depression"?
First and foremost, I hope that readers feel they’ve been able to spend time in another’s shoes, who may be very different from them, and yet to feel compassion for his tale. While we all have similar hopes and dreams, our journeys are quite different, and by sharing our stories we can discover our commonalities.
11) Based on feedback, what are people generally taking away from "Songs for the New Depression"?
The book seems to touch something deep within its readers, for which I am very grateful. People keep saying things like “it touched my soul”, and I think that is because it speaks to our common desires: to feel love, even if fleeting, and to feel as if our lives here on earth have, even if in some small way, mattered.
12) What is the significance of Paris?While the bulk of the story is set in L.A., key segments take place in Paris. For the character of Gabe, I think Paris holds a mystical appeal. He sees it as a place which fulfills all of his desires, and it becomes his version of what heaven must look like.
13) The ending to Part Two was rather surprising to me, given the era in which it took place. What made you decide to end the second part as you did? What kind of response have you gotten to that?
Without giving too much away, Gabriel makes a choice which isn’t very wise, but ultimately feels right for him. He is about to lose the most important person in his world, whom he has pursued relentlessly, and he makes a shocking decision which alters his entire journey. To me, that decision speaks to his naiveté and ultimately romantic nature, which he tries desperately to repress. He tries to take charge of his destiny, and does so, but the path it sets him on isn’t one which will bring him happiness. Thus far, I’ve gotten great responses from readers. Gabriel is a deeply flawed individual, and I think readers have gotten angry with some of his decisions, as they are really rooting for him to turn his life around.
14) You don't shy away from descriptive sexual content in those instances when it occurs. For those who may find it unnecessary (I don't.), what is the purpose of it in the book?
For me to show Gabriel in his fullness, given that sex is such a focus for him, I felt that needed to be depicted. Gabriel is someone who wants love, but often settles for sex, thinking that will lead to love, and that pursuit is central to his being.
15) The parallels and differences between Gabe/Jon and Gabe/Keith in the different eras are very interesting. Were they intentional or did they just occur as a result of the storytelling?
Jon and Keith are the two men who Gabe fully loved and felt loved by. They’re both archetypes, in a way. They both see Gabe for who he truly is, and love him, regardless of his flaws. They love him in a way that he can’t quite comprehend and therefore doesn’t entirely trust--selflessly and holistically.
16) Describe your writing process.
I tend to work best writing longhand on legal pads, as the words seem to come much more readily that way. If I try to write on my computer, I find myself editing more than actually writing. I don’t work off of an outline or such. I just know in my head where the story is going, and let it lead me. And, of course, while tedious, editing is essential to ensuring you’ve told the best story possible.
17) What are some of the negative criticisms you have received about the book (if any) and how have you addressed them?
Most of the criticism I received prior to the book being published, and I tried to use that constructively to better hone the finished product. Happily, the reviews have been very positive. One person didn’t like that I told the story in three segments, jumping backward, but others have loved that. Everyone responds to work differently, and I respect that some may not like how or why I did certain things, but I feel at ease with my choices.
18) Cast the movie version of "Songs for the New Depression"? Gabe, Keith, Gloria, Jon, Clare, Pastor Sally, Lenny?
Wow--that is a tough one. Pastor Sally is the easiest. I always had a very clear picture that she looked and acted like Kathy Bates. The lead, Gabe, is harder to imagine--it’s a tricky role, to be prickly, smart, funny, and heartbreaking. Good looking, but insecure about himself. It would have to be someone who can convey some depth, so I’ll go with John Cusack--kind of an everyman.
Keith would be Brad Pitt, as he was in Thelma and Louise.
Jon would be someone who exudes warmth onscreen--maybe Luke Wilson.
Clare, Gabe’s friend, would be Laura Linney, as I think we could all see having her as a friend.
For Gabe’s parents, Gloria and Lenny, I’d cast Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, reuniting them as they were in Ordinary People. There are definitely some similar dynamics going on!