Paperback Writer: An Interview With Joe Pernice

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The Pernice Brothers’ leader pens a novel and turns yet another corner in his storied career

By Paula Carino

Already considered a songwriter’s songwriter for his high-lonesome tunesmithery with the Scud Mountain Boys and shimmering power pop with the Pernice Brothers, Joe Pernice has launched a fiction-writing career that promises as much critical acclaim and cultural valence as his music.

Pernice, who has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, surprised unsuspecting fans back in 2003 with his literate, sensitive, but wryly funny coming-of-age novella inspired by the Smiths’ Meat is Murder album–an entry in Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series, and one of the few fictional volumes in the bunch.

One such fan was senior editor Megan Lynch of Riverhead Books/Penguin, who tracked down Pernice and encouraged him to write a longer work.

The result, “It Feels So Good When I Stop,” an observant account of the romantic tribulations of a Cape Cod slacker and part-time musician, was released in the summer of 2009 along with a companion album containing snippets of spoken-word excerpts from the novel and a track list of covers that figure into the narrative, including a nuanced, acoustic rendition of Sebadoh’s “Soul and Fire” and the ‘60s soul classic “I Am Your Puppet.”

Where Pernice’s songs tend toward the neat and economical, his fiction has a relaxed, sprawling quality that captures every detail of a scene, every shade of a character, to satisfying depths. Not big on plot, Pernice’s debut novel nevertheless covers a lot of emotional ground and convincingly portrays a young man shrugging his shoulders at the portal of adulthood.

American Songwriter caught up with the multi-talented Pernice as he was mixing tracks for a new album.

AS: Can you describe your novel-writing process–how did it differ from a typical songwriting session?

JP: When I wrote the novel, I had a very set schedule. I wrote from about 10 – 2 every day. I worked every day and that was the only window I had, because I took care of my son the rest of the day.

I knew from writing that Smiths novella for 33 1/3 that I’m only good for about four hours, and after that it’s not good writing anymore, just banging my head against the wall and writing in circles.

Did you work with an outline?

A very vague outline, four pages of scribbled notes that go in every direction. I had my overall idea in my head but I didn’t know exactly what I was gonna do…You know, how many branches on that tree, and what color the leaves were gonna be, I just went with it. [laughs]

As far as how it differs with songs…I’ve probably never–or at least not in a number of years–spent four straight hours writing songs. Maybe an hour or so, and when I write songs, I work on more than one at a time.

Writing a novel, you’re trying to sustain it, you’re writing about the same people, staying in character, you’re developing characters for months and months–it took me about eight months to do. It’s a lot more focused. It took a great effort for me to stay focused on the characters.

Whereas with songs, I might write one song in a single sit-down, and then it’s over, and I put it out of my mind.

Did you work closely with your editor?

Not all that closely. My editor was great. We talked some about the idea and where I was gonna go with it. And then she just got out of my way. I might have sent her the first half of the book and she had some suggestions, but for the most part she stayed right out of it until it was done. She just let me do my thing, which I was very grateful for, and then at the end she edited it pretty closely and had made suggestions that I thought were spot-on. It was really a good experience!

Lou Barlow and Sub Pop make pivotal appearances in the plot. Did you have to get permission from those guys to use their characters?

The only real Sub Pop person was Lou Barlow…I made up those other people but I did use the name of Sub Pop…I wasn’t sure of the legality, and whether I would have had to get permission…but I wrote and asked him anyway.

Are you guys friends in real life?

No…we were both on Sub Pop at the same time and we even live close to each other but I’ve never met him!

Now you’ll have to.

I imagine so!

Now anytime you want to meet someone, you just have write them into your fiction.

That’s a great idea.

One of the interesting points of your book is that the protagonist doesn’t have a name. Did you plan this from the get-go?

No, at first I tried to give him a name and I just couldn’t get a feel for it. And then I decided about halfway through, “Let’s try not giving him a name, and see if I can get any kind of resonance for him being nameless.” And then it became intentional.

I’m sure you have gotten this question a lot, but how much of this novel is autobiographical?

Some stuff is autobiographical…but distorted. You take something that’s truth and you make fiction out of it. But the more mundane things are right out of my own life.

The relationship between the main character and his two-year-old nephew was portrayed very sweetly; it seems like you must have experienced that in your life.

Mostly having a kid of my own, I certainly borrowed from that. I probably could have imagined it if I hadn’t had a child of my own, but it would have been hard to sustain that emotion if I hadn’t experienced that in real life.

I’d read that you are writing a screenplay of the “Meat is Murder” novella. How’s that coming along?

Yeah, that’s a slow burn. My buddy who’s an actor [Neal Huff, The Wire, Law & Order] and I have been writing it in the spare time in both of our lives. We are still actually doing it, but it’s moved from the back seat into the trunk.

Are there any production plans?

No, not yet but we haven’t given up!

And you’re recording now?

Yeah, and I’m not sure what it’s gonna be yet! It’s definitely not the Pernice Brothers because it’s not that band. It’s myself, and Rick Menck is playing drums, and John Walbourn who has played with me for a while now, and my brother Bob Pernice is recording with us, but I don’t really know what it’s going to be called yet or what it’s gonna be…

I’d read that it was gonna be called Murphy Bed…

Yeah, well you know me, I can’t be tied down to these things…[laughs]


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