In the second of our series where we interview new authors, Annabel talks to Frances Vick, author of Chinaski.
Frances: Since I was a child, but I’m one of those people that always wanted to write but never had the confidence to finish anything, or often even begin anything. I have notebooks going back for years with half thought out scenarios, overheard conversations, little ideas, but nothing solid. So I did lots of other things- I taught teenagers in Japan, I was a life model and cook in Italy, I did security and crewing for gigs in Nottingham, I worked with young offenders and refugees in London. And a lot of people told me their stories. So, recasting all that into some sort of narrative, perhaps those years of not writing, but experiencing, listening and noting down were the years of preparation I needed.
A: Was Chinaski inspired by some of your own experiences providing security and crewing for gigs, or did the idea for it spring from somewhere else?
Frances: Yes, plus the fact that I went to a lot of gigs in my teens and twenties, and I knew a lot of people in bands. Some of the bands did quite well, some were dropped by their labels, and some sank without trace. What they all had in common was youth, determination, and a certain amount of naivete. They’re easy meat for record companies.
A: How did you choose the name of your fictional band? Was it from Charles Bukowski’s books?
Frances: Yes, that’s right. There’s a lot of name play in ‘Chinaski’- Chris Harris alters his name, Don calls Carl ‘Carl Howl’ instead of ‘Carl Howell’, Lydia swaps her first name for her second, Peter manages to misspell his own name in an autograph. Henry Chinaski being Charles Bukowski’s fictional alter ego kind of fits with that whole idea of identity being slippery. (Henry Chinaski shows up in 5 Bukowski novels – all of which are brilliant, especially Ham on Rye.)
A: Who are your musical heroes? Nirvana seems the obvious touchstone for your band Chinaski to look up to (you have them nearly getting a support gig), or do you envisage they as more like say, The Smiths? Would you be a fan of Chinaski’s music?
Frances: I like iconoclasts, so Tom Waits is a bit of a hero for me, as are Moondog, the blind , homeless composer, Steve Albini of Big Black and Shellac. Also The Jesus Lizard- who show up in Chinaski- were a great band. I listen to a lot of Hip Hop too- Kool Keith and Prince Paul are brilliant.
I see Chinaski as being very much in that radio friendly grunge mode- they probably had a lot in common with Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden . So no, I doubt I would have liked them!
A: Carl Howell, the band’s charismatic leader who dies in the opening pages, never gets to tell his own story – we only hear about his life from the other characters, principally his fellow band member Peter, on-off girlfriend Lydia, and seedy record company exec Chris. Do any of them get close to understanding the real Carl?
Frances: They see what they want in him and act accordingly. That’s the tragedy of the particularly charismatic really isn’t it? People want to get close to them because of what they represent rather than who they are. And it’s doubly tragic for those who die young- they’ll always be trapped in the amber of their time, never having a chance to change, to grow up. They’ll always be defined through other people’s memories.
A: Set at the height of the British indie music scene in the days before the internet revolutionised it, or spoiled it depending on your point of view, Chinaski is a very gritty portrait of rock’n’roll. There’s a lot hard graft and paying your dues before luck kicks in. Was this lack of rose-tinting intentional, or did it just happen?
Frances: It’s the way it was. If a band wanted national or even global fame in those days, they had to work hard to get a record company interested enough in them to give them a contract. But once they were bound by that contract, the label could do pretty much what they wanted with them- withhold releases, change lineups, drop them completely. Bands who went the indie route and avoided that fate could become gods of their own particular milieu, but never bother the charts or made a decent living.
Pre internet there was no space for a band to put out their own music on their own terms- no Soundcloud or Bandcamp, or (further back) MySpace. So from that point of view things are a little easier now, although maybe today there’s more of an emphasis on Fame for Fame’s sake.
A: Going back to you and the questions we ask everyone, when and where do you like to write?
Frances: Well, I have two small children, so I’m restricted to term time. I drop them off at school, come back home and start hammering away at the laptop. I aim to write 1000/1500 words a day.
A: Which authors have had the biggest influence on you as a reader and writer?
Frances: That’s tough…
As a reader I’d say J.D Salinger, Edward Albee, Zola, Saki, Hunter S Thompson
As a writer, all the above plus Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Egan, Dorothy Parker, Charles Bukowski, Carson McCullers
A: What’s next? Are you planning another novel – I hope so?
Frances: Yes! I’ve nearly finished the first draft. Imagine the exact opposite of Roald Dahl’s Matlida. But for adults. There’s a fire in it too and I’m driving my friend who’s a firefighter crazy with all my questions about accelerants…
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors. Read her review of Chinaski here.
Frances Vick, Chinaski, (Cillian Press, Manchester, 2014) 978-1898776081, paperback original, 250 pages.