Rock n’ Roll Time Travel: An Interview with Mo Daviau

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In Mo Daviau’s debut novel Every Anxious Wave (St. Martin’s Press, February 2016), Chicago bar owner Karl Bender discovers a wormhole in his closet. What he does next is either delightful or dastardly, depending on the individual reader’s penchant for the absurd: Karl uses the wormhole to time travel to rock concerts, sending friends, customers, and even himself to the epic rock shows of days gone by. Missed Elliott Smith play the Empty Bottle? Want to know if Woodstock was as good as you remember? Karl will send you back in time so you can find out.

Trouble starts for Karl and his wormhole exploits when his best friend, Wayne, gets trapped in 980 AD on a mission to stop the assassination of a certain legendary rock star. Karl recruits the salty astrophysisist, Lena, for help, and the pair form a fast friendship and romantic attachment. But as Karl and Lena work together to bring Wayne back to the present, mysterious emails from the future start appearing in Karl’s inbox, warning him of the dangers to come.

Daviau’s recent work has been featured in Nailed Magazine (“Making Pretend Ashes,” June 2015), The Offing (“You Are Not Special,” June 2015), and The Butter (“The Cardigan,” January 2015). She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writer’s Program at the University of Michigan.

I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of the very funny Every Anxious Wave and talking with Daviau about novel-making, rock music, murdered darlings, and what makes a piece of writing funny.

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Let’s warm up—what does your writing process look like? Do you follow a routine or work on multiple projects at once?

I go to my desk. It’s a stand-up desk but with a sit-down option. A junky plastic add-on to a normal desk I ordered from Amazon on impulse because my back hurt. I am often working on both a novel and an essay. Essays come to be in bursts of problem-solving. Novels are meandering conversations that occur in my head and then on the page. I write every day from 10am-2pm and then again after dinner if I don’t have evening plans.

Every Anxious WaveCould you tell us the origin story of Every Anxious Wave?

One night, around 2010, I was sitting around the house feeling sorry for myself. I had this idea that if I cranked up the song “Sally Wants” by Henry’s Dress I could propel myself back to 1995 and make entirely different life choices. That didn’t happen, though I did sit down and write a few paragraphs about a wormhole and a bartender and a fictional indie band called The Axis. I was about to go to Squaw Valley and needed something substantial to put up for workshop there, so I just kept going.

Your book blends elements of fantasy and science fiction with real events from history. How much research goes into your work, and what does that process look like?

The Internet is finest readymade provider of actual show dates. Elliott Smith really did play T.T.’s in Cambridge April of 1997. I tried to line up the time travel dates with actual show dates. I also did some legwork in order to make astrophysics grad student Lena sound like she actually knows what she’s talking about. To that end, I contacted some real-life physicists who sent me articles that would have been what Lena would have referred to after finding out about the wormhole. I will admit, though, Karl as first-person narrator was a huge cheat-out in terms of avoiding use of scientific language.

EAW is a comic novel, one that charges itself on the dark, nihilistic tendencies of Karl and Lena. Would you say you subscribe to Beckett’s maxim that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and in your experience, what makes a piece of writing funny?

My sense of writing humor is intuitive. I swear to you I don’t set out to be funny (okay, in the new novel I’m working on now, I am). I swear to you that in writing EAW I did not set out to be funny. I think there are two buttons to writing humor that I employ that are identifiable: one, speak the blunt truth and two, reach for the unexpected thing. The former will get you laughter of the sort that stems from discomfort. The latter is from how we process the unexpected but ultimately harmless.

You have a background in improv comedy and performative storytelling. Would you say your experience on the stage has influenced your storytelling in the literary sense?

Absolutely! When people ask me how to improve their writing of character and dialogue, I tell them to take an intro improv class. It’ll be fun, and you’ll meet cool people, and most importantly you will hear funny dialogue, out loud, in your head and out of your mouth.

One observation I got from my agent as we were doing edits before putting the novel up for sale was that an earlier draft was dialogue-heavy, almost playlike. Because of my training, I have to consciously remind myself to step back and write interiority.

The protagonists of EAW, Karl and Lena, are such compelling characters with distinct voices. How did you decide on making Karl the book’s narrator, and how did you wield his point-of-view to gain immediacy to (or distance from) the other characters?

I had the goal of writing a feminist novel with a first-person male narrator. Karl is not the most dudely of dudes, of course, but I liked the idea of a man casting a kind eye on someone like Lena, who stopped caring what everyone thought years ago and is just trying to make it through her day without crying. I liked the idea of having the male gaze on a woman most men would ignore or revile, with him actually admiring and loving her for her positive qualities, for who she is and her strength, which goes largely unnoticed in her life.

Karl is a little unreliable as a narrator, though. Sahlil (his weird, greedy landlord) is actually a good guy. Wayne (his best friend who goes missing) is a selfish jerk, but Karl’s sympathy ends up with Wayne and not with Sahlil. Lena loves Sahlil but thinks Wayne’s a douche. I don’t think Karl ever really gets that she sees them that way, though, or why.

Let’s talk about the revision process for EAW. In terms of murdered darlings, what characters, passages, or subplots did you have to cut in order to make EAW work as a whole? (Bonus question: Which of the book’s minor characters would you deem worthy of a spin-off?)

In the zero draft, long before the manuscript was sent off to Michigan, Karl had a young, peppy girlfriend named Paige. I got rid of her. She was causing too much trouble, and I wanted to avoid having Karl dump Paige or vice versa. Paige was actually not someone I’d imagine hanging out at Karl’s bar, and on top of that I would have to write a superfluous dumping just to get Karl with Lena.

There was more about The Axis and their record label, Frederica Records, which was owned by a British woman named Sarah, after British ‘90s indie label Sarah Records.

I cut the customer of the wormhole who was not interested in music but used it to go back in time to see Dorothy Hamill skate at the 1976 Olympics. That got trimmed for the sake of streamlining, but I think Karl would be cool with non-musical use of the wormhole, as long as it was for entertainment purposes.

I think I rewrote the first chapter at least fifty times. Seriously. Maybe more than fifty. As a loosely science fiction novel, there was a lot of mechanics and info dumping that needed to happen at the top, so shaping that took many tries.

You know who I want to have her own spin-off? Glory Park. The teens of the 2030s have lives that are strange and difficult, but popularity has been eliminated, so they have that going for them.

Much of EAW focuses on epic rock groups of the nineties. If you were to put together an accompanying soundtrack for the novel, what songs or albums would make the cut?

There’s an Every Anxious Wave Spotify playlist! Check it out here. Here is the official EAW playlist:

1. “Kath,” Sebadoh, III

2. “Sally Wants,” Henry’s Dress, Henry’s Dress

3. “Sweet & Low,” Fugazi, In on the Kill Taker

4. “I’m the man who loves you,” Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

5. “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Joy Division

6. “Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell

7. “Brilliant Mistake,” Elvis Costello, Best of the First 10 Years

8. “Mary’s Song,” The Aislers Set, Terrible Things Happen

9. “Suki,” Unrest, Imperial f.f.r.r.

10. “St. Ides Heaven,” Elliott Smith, Elliott Smith

11. “Rebel Girl,” Bikini Kill, Pussy Whipped

12. “N-Sub Ulysses,” Nation of Ulysses, Plays Pretty for Baby

13. “We Will Rock You,” Queen, News of the World

14. “Narlus Spectre,” Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Wormed by Leonard

Here’s a very important question. An EAW-like asteroid is speeding toward Earth, and your city will soon be submerged in water. What five novels are you sneaking onto the rescue boat?

How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely

The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Moby Dick (seems appropriate with all the water)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

And not a novel, but: The Collected Stories of Grace Paley

Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

A new novel! A romantic comedy about a widowed clown who goes to an Esalen-type retreat center to take a workshop with his favorite YouTube-based relationship guru, where he meets his match, a New York-based stand-up comedian named Rachel. The relationship guru teaches her students how to build their own nest out of pillows and sticks, and they make bracelets and cry.

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To keep up with Mo Daviau and her upcoming projects (bonus: there are recipes for Karl’s Klassic Kocktails & Karl’s Klassic Kupcakes), visit her website at modaviau.com or follow her on Twitter @modaviau. You can also subscribe to her TinyLetter newsletter.

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