Dylan Hicks first made his name in the 1990s as a musician, writing a bushelful of witty, sharply observant songs on his albums Won, Poughkeepsie, and Alive With Pleasure. And although he’s reinvented himself as a fiction writer, the love of music still plays a key role in Hicks’ new debut novel, Boarded Windows. Moving between the 1970s and 1990s, Windows tells the story of an erudite but socially hapless record-store clerk and his conflicted relationship with Wade Salem, his con-artist father figure and one-time bass player for fictional country-music star Bolling Greene. Hicks hosts a party for Boarded Windows at Quimby's Thursday, May 24. He talked to The A.V. Club about writing his novel, returning to songwriting, and crossing the line between truth and fiction.
The A.V. Club: How did you make the shift from musician to fiction writer?
Dylan Hicks: When I was working as a journalist at City Pages [in the early 2000s], I started to get the urge to do something creative again, and moving toward some kind of artistic prose seemed more natural than playing music again. I hadn’t done much of it before, but when I left City Pages I had the idea that I would freelance and also concentrate on fiction. I started working on the novel in late 2007. The seeds of the novel were the hazy-but-evocative childhood memory of being taken to a Waylon Jennings concert when I was a boy, in Minot, North Dakota, in what was probably 1978. A few scenes from that evening seemed especially fertile for creating characters and a story, I guess precisely because there was something resonant about the memory, but also that it was a pretty unreliable memory, being from so long ago when I was a child. I originally wanted to write something about a kind of provincial bohemian, a sort of hippie seen existing past the movement’s prime and quite removed from the epicenter of countercultural activity.
AVC: Did your parents come from that scene?
DH: Yeah, I guess I was a flower child, as they say. I was born in Austin, Texas, and my parents were definitely members of the counterculture. They weren’t heavy activists, but they would take me to demos and that kind of thing. By the time I was forming memories, that was more in the background. My parents divorced, and my mother remarried. But they were all hippies to some degree. My dad did a lot of traveling in East Asia in the late ’60s, in Indonesia. He had a lot of life-changing experiences that transformed him from his suburban upbringing. [Laughs.]
AVC: The narrator of Boarded Windows shares a lot of your own biography—you both worked at a corporate record store on Hennepin Avenue in the early ’90s, for instance. But although there are those resonances, it’s fair to say he’s not you.
DH: The narrator is in some ways an authorial surrogate. In some ways Enswell [the narrator’s home town] is modeled very closely on Minot, where I spent part of my boyhood. We have some of the same geographic and occupational experiences. He’s the same age as I am, which was useful. But none of the core drama of the book is derived from my actual autobiography. The book presents itself as a sort of memoir, but certainly I wouldn’t have the material for such a thing if I were mining my own experiences.
AVC: The book deals in part with the question of what’s true, and there’s a scene set during during the Halloween blizzard of 1991 that’s interesting for mixing real and fictional details. The narrator rents a stack of videos to watch while housebound during the storm, and half are real titles like Strangers In Paradise and Sherman’s March, and the others are made-up ones like the fake Bruno Kirby comedy about the vagrant who’s mistaken for a judge.
DH: Gavel & Leisure? [Laughs.] Yeah, I tried to have this blurring of truth and fiction, truth and fabrication, run through the whole book. Many of the characters are unreliable; their motivations are unclear, and sometimes they may be fabricating things. Some of the pop-cultural items are real, and some are invented. I’ve taken some of my own life and overlaid this story on it. That blurring extends through the whole book, and it’s part of the whole game of it.
AVC: It’s an interesting story to try to unlock in that way, because there are layers to the truth as you present it. Often, Wade seems to be lying or not telling the complete truth, but there are also times when you feel that the narrator is being told the truth, or at least that the truth is staring him in the face, and he just doesn’t understand what he’s seeing.
DH: I don’t see the narrator as being an “unreliable narrator” in the way that term is often used. He is unreliable, but he’s evasive and oblique, but he’s trying to be straightforward. That’s not so different from other unreliable narrators, but I guess the point is that the reader’s challenge is not necessarily to uncover the real truth behind his narration. I didn’t really set it up so there’d be lots of dramatic irony in what he’s telling you, where you read certain lines and realize that’s what’s really happening.
AVC: So you were trying to avoid superficial irony in service of something a little more real?
DH: I know that I tried to take a lot of jokes out. I hope the book is still funny at times. [In earlier drafts] there were more lines whose principal point was to get a laugh, and I got bored with those because I was revising it a lot. They just seemed emptier and emptier as I continued to revise, and to do some violence to the mood I was trying to set. The narrator is sincerely trying to puzzle his origins out to some degree, and to put some of this pain and longing behind him. But he goes about it in these tangential fashions, and he doesn’t think that a confrontation or a reunion—to the degree that such things are possible, he doesn’t imagine that those would be useful.
AVC: Do you agree with him?
DH: Well, not necessarily. I think he has reason to be cautious and defensive. And I think he’s also attracted to the mystery of it. And at least in the past has tried to get some sort of status from his suffering. And at various points, he’s come up with delusional explanations for Wade’s actions, that the whole thing was orchestrated to help the narrator reproduce his own childhood, or make it right. Some of those explanations have been crazy. And the reader is seeing those things.
AVC: The narrator has very complicated feelings about Wade—there’s a simultaneous sense of respect that borders on hero worship, and also, and sometimes in the same moment, a sense of resentment that borders on betrayal. Considering their generational differences, I wondered if you were trying to make a larger point about the legacy of the Baby Boomers.
DH: Well, I think you put it very well in terms of his feelings. I wasn’t looking to make a larger sociocultural point. My own parents were very loving and supportive. Of course, divorce was more common than ever before in the 1970s, so the narrator feels some of that. [And] Wade is selfish and not ethical, so [the narrator] has reason to resent Wade, both for his earlier abandonment, and then for his betrayal and callousness during that visit.
AVC: In trying to imagine what the kind of music that Wade plays as part of Bolling Greene’s 1970s country band sounds like, Kris Kristofferson’s records from that era came to mind. Is that close to your intention?
DH: Well, first of all, [Wade is] not really a musician; he’s just a guy who can play the bass. [Laughs.] But I see Bolling Greene as kind of a second-tier figure from a movement that’s really closely modeled on outlaw country. He was someone who would have played in bars and clubs in Texas in the mid-’60s, and then fell into that country-hippie scene in Austin in the late ’60s, and then got a contract with Epic to make some more commercial records. There’s not a precise analogue for him, but I think of him as being—this doesn’t make it into the book, but—Bolling Greene has presented himself as being kind of a drifter, an odd-jobber, with impoverished roots, but that’s not true; his father was a classics professor at UT-Austin. So, he’s a charlatan in that way, though probably an innocent one. But some of his lyrics have intellectual pretensions, so yes, the Kris Kristofferson thing seems about right. But as far as Wade goes, I was thinking about a guy named Gary Stewart, who made a lot of honky-tonk records in the 1970s and early ’80s—just really hip records, witty and contemporary but rooted in a really hardcore ’50s/’60s honky-tonk style. I thought of that as being something Wade would be particularly simpatico with. But I don’t think of him as being a very devoted or serious musician, more of a hanger-on. His position in Bolling Greene would be a mixture of sideman and kind of a spear-carrier. He’s also the drug dealer for the group. [Laughs.]
AVC: Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene is the first album you’ve done in about 11 years, since Alive With Pleasure. Given that you’d been away from music for so long, what inspired the decision to make a companion album?
DH: I had written a few songs after that last album, but I got disillusioned about playing music. I wasn’t having as much fun playing out, and I felt that the songs were kind of redundant. A few of them were okay, but I couldn’t get too excited about them. I didn’t write many songs after that period. I played the piano at home a little, but that was about it. But I was working on this manuscript, and the Bolling Greene character emerged early, before some of the more substantial stuff, so I had sketched these discographies and biographies, and I had come up some song titles and fragments as part of this messy, drafty manuscript. I was figuring out what to do next, and I was realizing that I had maybe made the wrong choice in how to narrate the book. I started trying turn some of those titles and fragments into playable songs. That was the first time I had written songs for a number of years, so I enjoyed that.
AVC: The original narrator was Wade, right?
DH: Well, it was in third person, but he was the protagonist. Third-person with access to his consciousness. So, the songs felt like there were elements of satire, they were not quite my songs but they were close to what I might do anyway. They didn’t feel entirely satirical. I only had a handful of those. After I finished the book, I thought maybe I could put some more songs together and turn it into an album. So they weren’t conceived together as inseparable pieces or anything like that.
AVC: Only about half the songs are from Bolling Greene’s perspective, while others, like “Outlaw Bandolier,” are about him instead. Do you see that song as coming from the narrator’s perspective?
DH: Yeah, sort of. There are five songs mentioned in the book that I see as loose interpretations of Bolling Greene songs, probably with revised lyrics and some anachronisms. I did have some other Bolling Greene songs that were more solidly country. Not too many, alas—it would have been nice to have a larger pool to draw from. But a few of them didn’t feel like they were quite good enough. I had to choose between conceptual cohesion and what I felt were a stronger group of songs, and I chose the latter. But they all relate to the book in some way. There’s those five Bolling Greene songs, and [“Now You Are A Country Deejay In Berlin”] and “Bandolier” are, as you say, sung by the narrator about Wade and the Bolling Greene character respectively. The other songs are a little more tenuously related to the book, but they at least borrow some phrase or some images. I guess they play with the themes a little bit. Themes like “loneliness.” [Laughs.] That’s pretty broad. ... [And] that blurring I was speaking of between truth and fabrication comes into play here—I kind of turn myself into a character [in the album’s liner notes] by being accused of recklessly or ineptly interpreting the songs by Bolling Greene’s widow.