Tim Kinsella

The musician on his new novel, The Karaoke Singer’s Guide To Self-Defense

After years of his name decorating the city’s windows and street poles in band posters, musician Tim Kinsella is publishing his own words in a novel. Kinsella, of Cap’n Jazz and Joan Of Arc fame, makes this transition with his book, The Karaoke Singer’s Guide To Self-Defense.

Its formal release will be celebrated by Featherproof Books on Tuesday, Oct. 11 at The Hideout with a slew of local writers reading sections of the book “karaoke style.” In anticipation, The A.V. Club wrangled Kinsella for a chat about bars, Chicago literature, and the best places in town sing bad renditions of AC/DC standards.

The A.V. Club: Are you excited about the event coming up?

Tim Kinsella: I’m excited because it’s the last public-event thing I have to do for a while.

AVC: For the book?

TK: No, for anything. No shows with my band, nothing. I’m excited about that. It’s nice to have a ritual to celebrate that this thing happened. If I think about it, I’d be nervous.

AVC: Did you come up with the idea for the karaoke readings? How did that happen?

TK: That was Zach’s [Dodson, of Featherproof Books] idea, since I didn’t want to do a reading. The other readers are all friends of mine.

AVC: A lot of novels have had non-fiction-style titles lately. Just picking this one up off the shelf, it might seem like a sort of guide. How did you come up with the title?

TK: I don’t know where any of it came from. There were a few different titles in my mind. I was well into revising it before this title popped up and stuck. These things sort of emerge. I do a lot of looking at the thing itself closely and not trying to push it too hard.

From there, I diagnose what it needs more of. I have long lists of associative themes that I then sculpt into the right phrase. I still wasn’t very sold on it immediately. My new book, I knew the title all at once. It was very clear.

AVC: What is it?

TK: That Go And Go On And On. It was just right immediately. Sometimes I’ve had that experience with records, too. It’s obvious what the object should be named. It was a very long process of thoughts of suffering, doubting, throwing away, and starting over. It was hard to know what it was.

AVC: The Karaoke Singer’s Guide To Self-Defense begins with the main characters returning home for a funeral. The clumsy weirdness of coming home is palpable. Did you glean anything from your own experiences while creating that mood?

TK: When it came time to start pulling the book all together, my dad died. It was maybe six years ago. We were never able to sell this condo. It’s a crappy little box in the suburbs.

AVC: Which suburb?

TK: North Prospect. There’s no phone, no Internet. When it came time to lock down and do it, I stayed in there for three weeks at a time. I had a desk, a wooden chair and a blanket. That’s where a lot of the book got done. It was a very literal returning home.

I wrote it locked by myself in the room that my dad died in. It sounds so dramatic now when I say it. There was this spot in the carpet where there was this bloodstain. I didn’t grow up right in that area, but near there. I had a sense of immersing myself in that kind of thing. It’s a familiar, clichéd kind of premise, but all the story lines in the book are like that. Even Shakespeare did that; not that I compare myself to Shakespeare.

AVC: The furniture of it isn’t clichéd, though, especially the scene when Nana’s surviving relatives are forced to clean out the accumulated stuff in her old house. You describe a “mass grave of figurines.” I remember cleaning out my grandma’s place.

TK: When someone dies, there’s a real shock. I felt sort of stunned and alert for a while. There’s an element of writing where I try to remain within that stunned state. Everything seems weird. It’s a way of not judging, but just being shocked by details. It meant more to me to capture odd details and to create a sense of realism than to comment on anything. 

AVC: The characters have realism to them. They’re all immersed in sort of seedy situations. Mel is a former exotic dancer. Will is a recovering addict. What attracts you to those types of characters?

TK: I don’t know. There would be no narrative propulsion or drama if there wasn’t conflict. I was never interested in sensational action happening. Conflicted characters are more interesting to me. That’s real. People struggle every day, but there rarely is some sensational event that takes place.

AVC: Real people hang out at bars, and so do your characters in Karaoke. You’ve worked at Rainbo for a while. Did that influence you at all?

TK: My dad was a bartender. When I was a little kid, I used to be in bars a lot. I’ve worked downstairs at Rainbo for about 12 years. I don’t have a regular shift anymore. There was no decision to be made if it was set in a bar; it was a question of where adults interact. Most adults are living cloistered lives in seclusion. They cross paths at bars. When we’re on tour we’re at bars all the time, so that factored in too.

AVC: How is the transition from performing in bars in front of people to the solitary nature of writing? You don’t get the immediate gratification from an audience.

TK: I like it. This will sound stupid coming from someone who’s played in bands as much as I have, but I’m not particularly suited to that lifestyle.

AVC: Why’s that?

TK: I think the closer analogy would be writing a book to writing songs than performing in public.

AVC: I guess there’s no real equivalent to concerts for writers. You can do readings, but half the time you never see your audience. Is that difficult?

TK: I’m not comfortable with readings because I don’t understand them. The book wasn’t written to be read aloud for entertainment. It’s meant to be a thing that one interacts with one-one-one, by themselves. I don’t know why it would be meaningful to read a section of it out loud.

AVC: So you’re not a books-on-tape kind of guy?

TK: That’s different, because you don’t listen to a book on tape at a bar or in a group. I can listen to a book on tape while I’m driving. The process of writing doesn’t feel that different from writing music. It just involves being able to lock myself in a room for long periods of time. I’m concentrating on a specific thing for a long time. That process isn’t different. I won’t miss any public aspect of it.

AVC: Do you think being here in Chicago for so long has influenced how you write or what you write about?

TK: I’m sure it has. I wasn’t aware of placing myself in some tradition of Chicago writers like Nelson Algren or anything.

AVC: The story takes place in Michigan, and it seems very familiar to the Midwest. One character, Kent, is making his way through a variety of toll roads on his way back. It very much reminded me of the Chicago Skyway.

TK: I made a lot of trips to Rockford. I spent a lot of time there looking for details. I had reasons to spend time at points in my life in shitty small towns. Maybe being in Chicago allows me to take for granted a kinetic, exciting environment with urban culture.

I used to have to visit this small town in Oklahoma a lot. I always felt like David Byrne in True Stories, the stunned urbanite looking around. Living in Chicago allowed me the perspective to see small towns from the outside.

AVC: Your book was published by Featherproof Books, a Chicago publisher. Do you feel a connection with the city through publishing the book here?

TK: That was a very simple, practical thing. I knew Zach [Dodson] already, and it was much easier. I didn’t have to go through the whole process of sending it a million places. In practical terms, it’s much easier to work with a friend.

AVC: How do you feel about the Chicago literary world?

TK: I’m not very aware of it. Through Featherproof, I know some things. There are some interesting reading series that happen.

AVC: Do you have any you’re fond of?

TK: I like people who do quickies. I like Danny’s poetry night. I’ve never been in a habit of going to readings. They seem like rock shows without the interesting part.

There definitely is good stuff out there, but it’s not a form I relate to. I feel kinship to those communities to a degree.

AVC: What about karaoke bars in town? Or do you not do the karaoke?

TK: There’s this one place in Avondale, West Irving Park, a Korean place. I can’t think of the name.

AVC: Have you ever been to karaoke at the VFW [in Wicker Park]?

TK: Oh yeah. I went there when I was in the last stages of the book. I spent a long night there just watching how people sing and making notes on their mannerisms. I actually got to go to two or three funerals during putting the book together as well.

That was more awkward because I couldn’t help making notes. I was so buried in the process of putting this together, so I couldn’t stop thinking about this. It seems rude to be scribbling notes on pieces of paper about the men’s room in the funeral parlor.

AVC: What are you going to be working on when all of that is finally done?

TK: I’m working on lots of stuff. I have the first draft of a new novel done. We’ve been touring about three weeks on, three weeks off for most of the last year. Every time I would be in Chicago, it would be with a deadline.

It’s really nice to settle into a routine when I can work on stuff. There are a couple different forms of Joan Of Arc to work with, too.

More Interview