Writer Barry Wightman is a rock and roller at heart. His debut novel, Pepperland deals with the connection between music and technology. After years spent in Chicago, Wightman spoke to Our Town from Milwaukee, his new home base.
Our Town Who are your influences?
Barry Wightman This may sound crazy, maybe a bit pretentious, but a few of my major literary influences are Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace and Jack Kerouac. Also Albert Murray, a venerable jazz journalist and novelist, John LeCarre and Vladimir Nabokov. Pynchon and DFW, both “postmodernists” (whatever that really means) of different generations, gave me permission to try new things, new structures (e.g. Pepperland’s footnotes or other contrary-to-fact devices). Kerouac and Murray’s jazz-inflected writing led directly to Pepperland’s humble attempt at a musical or rock ‘n roll rhythmic prose. Music on the page. Nabokov’s wondrous way with words is something I can only dream of. And LeCarre’s beautifully written tales of betrayal are books that I go back to time and again.
OT What’s your writing process like?
BW Read. Read more sources. Think about it. Think some more. Read. Scribble in notebooks. Write a bit. Try it out. Go back and work on the words, try for great sentences. Fail. Try again. Fail better. Thanks to Samuel Beckett for that. Then work with great readers and editors. I’ve been very lucky to work with real pros. I wish I could write 1,000 words a day or more…writers who can do that have my undying admiration. Another thing—I can’t write while listening to music. Just doesn’t work. I find that I end up thinking too much about the music. Bummer.
OT What’s interesting to you about the connection between rock ‘n roll and technology?
BW The revolutionary times of the ‘60s faded away in the early ‘70s and many were wondering—what’s the next big thing, who will be the next Dylan or Beatles? Where’s the next revolution that will change the world? Turns out that by about 1974, the next revolution was beginning to occur in high technology and it truly would change the world. Like Pepperland’s Sooz says, “high technology is at its best when it’s indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke said that. And many of those early pioneers were longhaired hippie freaks. Pretty cool.
OT You’ve said that Pepperland is, in part, an attempt to put rock ‘n roll on the page. How did you achieve that?
BW Well, I’m not sure that I’ve pulled it off. But I do hope that the novel has a certain rhythmic appeal—short punchy sentences mixed with long crazy ones, then sometimes a kind of noir-ish economy of words contrasted with outlandishly florid, perhaps lyrical passages. Which, to me, sounds a bit like the use of choruses, riffs, vamps and wild solos in music. Think of commas as bass drums, dashes as cymbals. And the Q & A sessions as occasional overdubs. Or the “Three Record Concept Album” towards to end of the novel as homage to the great (sometimes self-indulgent) progressive rock albums back in the day.
OT Why are strong women interesting to you?
BW All my life, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by strong, capable, smart, women. And here they are, still not completely equal, used, abused, even after all these centuries. Ain’t right. That, coupled with my fascination with the outsider and revolutionaries, fuels all this. I think Sooz is fabulous—a little scary, but great. Her being a bit scary—do you think maybe that’s a character flaw of mine?
OT Does your work as a book reviewer influence your writing?
BW You can’t be a good writer without reading great stuff. So, since I read a lot, I’m attuned to what I think works and what doesn’t. But actually, I think it’s the other way around—my writing influences my work as a reviewer. I know how hard it is to write fiction. So I’m pretty sympathetic to the process.
OT What are you working on next?
BW I spent many years running around Asia (and other parts of the world) involved with high-tech. So, once again, we’re dealing with technology, music and the outsider, the revolutionary. Kind of nuts, eh?
Catch Wightman June 19th at The Book Cellar at 7 p.m.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez and Facebook.