John Pierson's fictionalized history of Screeching Weasel
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Chicago writer John Pierson has spent his adulthood leading a triple life. To some, he’s simply John Pierson, a longtime writer/performer with the Neo-Futurists collective. To others, he’s Ian Pierce, a prodigious playwright. Then, to thousands of fans around the world, he’s Jughead, co-founder of the legendary local punk band Screeching Weasel, which disbanded in 2001 after 14 years. All three identities come together in his debut novel, Weasels In A Box, which lists all of his names on the cover. The book is a meta-fictionalized history of Screeching Weasel, but Pierson gives rock memoirs an artsy reworking by incorporating a surrealist, non-linear structure and a perspective-shifting narrative, and by changing the names of people and events. Just before he left for a European tour with his current band, Even In Blackouts, Pierson spoke to The A.V. Club about his many identities.
The A.V. Club: How long did it take to finish Weasels In A Box?
John Pierson: I say six years. It took a long time, because I wasn’t expecting to write it. I had been working on another novel for 15 years… It made sense that my first novel should have more to do with the stuff I’ve been through. What I realized was, I didn’t want it to just be a regular rock novel, so I think a lot of it was just worrying about how to write it. I like playing with meta-fiction, so I wanted it to be on different levels, like looking through a window. I think non-linearly too, so I wanted to make sure that that’s the way it’s seen, through the eyes of someone who is very chaotic in the way his memory works. So I think all the elements took a long time, and I think what really took a long time is, there are a lot of scenes that are actually true that were really touchy between everyone in the band, and I wanted to be able to write it right and not skirt around the issue—because I didn’t want it to be, like, a pretty picture of the heydays. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you limit yourself with the non-linear writing in places you thought it would be hard to follow?
JP: Yeah, I’ve actually had a few people tell me it’s too hard to follow. [Laughs.] But I really wanted to get it out the way that I thought it. It really was just me trying to interpret the way my memory works. Some people like the surreal elements, and some people are critical of them. It was my way of showing the emotions of things I couldn’t really tell in words. That’s the main reason I wanted to make it fiction, because I wanted to be able to express things in a surreal manner.
AVC: Does that come from all your work with The Neo-Futurists?
JP: It’s good you bring it up, because yeah, my many years as a Neo-Futurist have changed a lot of stuff. I think my mind was sort of heading that way. It would be really hard for me to just write a straight story, because I really like that exposing of the book itself. I had a lot of grammatical errors at the time, and I changed a couple characters’ names by accident. [Laughs.] With The Neo-Futurists, you learn to accept that stuff and embrace it.
AVC: The book really delves into how much the band affected you. Was that something you set out to express, or did you discover it as you wrote?
JP: It was definitely something I set out to do, because when I started to write the book, the band had stopped functioning at all. That’s right when Ben [Foster/Weasel, Screeching Weasel vocalist-guitarist] started writing more stuff. Over the years, it never hurt me that he was seen as the band, but I think in that time period when I started writing, it really sort of affected me that I had been the second man. But the fact that no one really knew that I was involved kind of takes a toll on your mind and your identity, like “How I can let this punk rock affect me so much? In my daily life, no one even knows that I’m in this band.” I think that was definitely something I set out to explore.
AVC: Was it difficult to shed your band persona after so long?
JP: To tell you the truth, nine out of 10 times I’m noticed for The Neo-Futurists. It’s not really much of an issue. When I started going on the road with my own band, people were more sensitive to it than I was. They’d be afraid to ask me questions. I’m always open to talk about it. I think I’ve sort of accepted that I’m Jughead and will be for the rest of my life. I don’t think it really bothers me at all. It’s only bothered me if someone’s really into the band, and they don’t know who I am. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you looking for closure?
JP: I was, actually, and I think I did get some of it. There are things in the book that I never actually said to Ben or to anybody. You never have as much of a catharsis as you think you’re going to. I learned more about novel-writing, I think. [Laughs.] So I’m hoping that’s going to get a little easier.