Tuesday, October 1, 2013
AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Beem Weeks
Yesterday, I reviewed a unique novel set in the 1920's, Jazz Baby. Now I have the privilege to give you, reader, a look inside the mind of the author, Beem Weeks.
This was a great interview to conduct, and I hope you like it!
1. Your first full-length novel, Jazz Baby, was published in November 2012. What was it like seeing your first book out there for all to enjoy?
It was an incredible rush, that first time I held a copy of Jazz Baby in my hands. I wrote the original manuscript by hand—no computer, no typewriter. I remember the various scenes, the inspiration that breathed life into them, and writing them down in black ink on typing paper. To see the end result—that was one of the proudest moments of my life.
2. You say you love coming-of-age stories, but what aside from that theme was the inspiration for the novel?
A love for the 1920s, really. It’s my favorite decade that I never witnessed. I grew up listening to these great stories as told by my grandparents and others of their generation. My grandfather wrote a memoir of his early teenage years, working on a riverboat, traveling up and down the Mississippi River. This memoir touched on all sorts of issues, like race relations, bootleg whiskey, girls of sketchy reputations. They were no different than any other group of young people from every generation since the world began. It’s just when we get older, wiser, that we tend to distance ourselves from the wild and crazy antics of our youth. We want to put forth a façade, a mask, something that shows us to be good and moral. That’s what grandparents are supposed to be, right? Good and moral? Well, my grandfather would every-so-often drop that façade, let slip one or two tales from his younger, wilder days. He and I were quite a bit alike as younger men. These stories he told, they formed the idea for Jazz Baby—though nothing in the book is actually based on his experiences. His stories gave breath to my ideas.
3. Were the characters based on anyone in real life?
No. Emily Ann is a loose amalgam of several girls I’ve known over the years—though none of these girls could sing jazz or any other style of music, for that matter. The other characters in Jazz Baby, they all come from my own mind.
4. The novel is set in the time when jazz was the most popular music genre. Are you a fan of jazz in real life or did you have to study up on it when you were writing?
Truth be told, I’m a rock and roller. I’m into Metallica, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles. I love all sorts of music, though. My CD collection (yes, I still rock CDs) is quite eclectic. You’ll find metal, jazz, blues, country, folk, and oldies from the 1950s on my shelves. I currently own 400+ CDs. I’ve got stuff from the 1930s through to the present. Yes, I did have to bone up on jazz from the 1920s while writing Jazz Baby. I even played some of those ancient songs while writing the speakeasy scenes where Emily Ann is on stage. I normally need complete silence when writing; but those scratchy old tunes really put me in the mindset, had me feeling like I might be sitting in the Crescent Club, watching this little white girl singing her heart out. An old American History book from the 1980s saw much use while I wrote the story.
5. Why did you choose to set the novel nearly a century ago? Will you continue to write historical fiction or will you change it up and pen more modern tales?
As I said earlier, I just love the 1920s era. But I also chose that time period because so much more could take place than is likely to be allowed in today’s world. For instance, it wouldn’t be a big deal to find a thirteen-year-old girl sipping whiskey in a speakeasy in 1925. Speakeasies were illegal, to begin with; secretive by nature (without a coded knock, the right password, or a familiar face, you just weren’t gaining admission). These were the first drinking establishments to allow women inside to share in the fun. A girl that young, she’s not getting into the clubs in today’s world—at least not in America. Another thing is the marrying-off of girls that were basically children. My grandmother, born and raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, often spoke of this girl or that one she knew who’d been married at the age of twelve or thirteen. Emily couldn’t marry Jobie Pritchett in these modern times. A big part of the fun in writing this book came in doing the research. That era just offered a wealth of inspiration for a story like Jazz Baby. As for writing historical fiction, my second novel will also be in that genre. It’s called The Secret Collector, and is set in 1910 Alabama. I don’t intend to write solely in that arena. Most of my short stories are set in the present or near-present.
6. In Jazz Baby you deal with numerous controversial topics: murder, illegal drugs, sexual promiscuity [for the readers who aren't familiar with early 20th century America, that was a very big deal back then] and rape. Is there a message you wanted to send with the goings-on in Emily Ann's life?
Not really a message. I just meant to illustrate that this girl, for all her certainty of being able to handle herself, proved ill-equipped to traverse the adult world without parental guidance. This is a child pretending to be grown up. The world is full of individuals who are more than willing to exploit a young girl like Emily Ann. Murder, illegal drugs, sexual promiscuity, and rape are common elements in today’s society; they took place in the 1920s and, substituting drunkenness for illegal drugs, you’ll find each these same issues in the Bible. Crime or sin occurs because of selfish desire. It’s our flawed human condition. I wrote Jazz Baby simply to tell a story. I didn’t set out to pen a lesson on morality or to send a message to readers. I’m just a storyteller.
7. You talk a lot about race in the novel, as that was a big factor in social status and even with whom one was friends back then. Since it is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, I have to ask how it felt to have to regress (in your mind) to a time when a white girl couldn't even play in a band with African-Americans?
Race was a huge issue in that era. It’s still an issue in the world today. But the whole Jim Crow south—I mean, separate drinking fountains? How ridiculous is that notion? Yeah, seeing the mindset of the day, that is something I still have a difficult time wrapping my head around. We’ve come a million miles since Dr. King’s speech. But we’re never going to reach Utopia where race is concerned. Humans are just so distrustful of those who are deemed different from self—be it skin color or nationality. As I wrote the story, I found situations that simply couldn’t work. I had to scrap a scene where Emily Ann, Tanyon, and DeShay have dinner in a New Orleans restaurant, because that wouldn’t have taken place in that day.
8. You run a Twitter account @VoiceOfIndie , where you take time to promote other indie artists, from bloggers to musicians to other authors. Why did you decide to do that (and the work you do is appreciated, by the way!)?
Thank you. I’m glad to hear the work is appreciated. I simply believe in the indie movement. There are some amazingly talented individuals out there of whom nobody has heard. That, to me, is a downright shame. I intended to use that account to promote my own work. But that would have gotten old after a while. So I decided to support others while dropping the occasional self-promoting tweet. The way I see it, a strong indie movement is good for all of us who are involved.
9. You said it took you nearly a decade to complete Jazz Baby, including a two-year "abandonment" period. Why was that?
The rewrites really bogged me down. I’d finished the first manuscript, put it up for a couple of months, came back for a fresh read, and found myself making all sorts of changes during the first rewrite. Then I did it again—three more times. During that period I grew frustrated with the work, convinced it would never be interesting to anybody out side of me, so I put it away for two years and started working on some short stories. Indie author Stephen Geez asked to have a look at the manuscript and liked what he saw; he encouraged me to give it one more rewrite, before he submitted it to publisher Fresh Ink Group. They liked it enough to publish it. I’m guessing just over eight years from start to finish. Novel number two won’t take nearly that long—I hope!
10. Emily Ann has a LGBTQA streak in her. Did you want to make a statement about sexual orientation or (in her case) lack thereof?
Not at all. No statement is intended. She’s just a very curious girl. She’s attracted to all sorts of people, be they boy or girl, black or white or Indian. Emily Ann discovers these new appetites and she sees no reason to deny herself the experiences—the consequences be damned. I knew a couple of girls like her in my younger days. Elements of these two young ladies—the sexuality—went into the makeup of Emily Ann. It’s interesting that you refer to her lack of sexual orientation. That sounds so much more interesting than labeling her simply bi-sexual.
11. You have written numerous short stories. Can you tell the readers a little about them and where they can find them to read?
The short stories take place mostly in modern settings—with the exception of Bodies Terrestrial, which is from a moment in 1922. Yearbook, a story seen through the eyes of a boy killed during a school shooting rampage, takes place in the early 1990s. With some of my short stories, I try to take the readers in one direction before jerking them completely the other way. Rave On is the story of a teen girl with a secret hunger. Medal Detector tells of a young man who, using a metal detector, discovers a mystery buried in his back yard. Forget Me (Not Fade Away) chronicles a life of love and loss from the point of view of a grieving mother who has lost everything—including her memories. There are several other stories as well. As an author, I don’t believe it’s necessary to tie up all those loose ends in every story. Real life isn’t like that. We don’t get tidy answers to all of the mysteries. So I sometimes leave it up to the reader to determine what happened. If people want to read my short stories, they can find them at the following link: http://www.readwave.com/beem.weeks/
12. Do you foresee a sequel to Jazz Baby in the future?
I didn’t imagine a sequel when I finally finished the book. I figured I’d let the readers determine what became of the characters. But lately I’m being asked that question often. So I’ve been playing with the notion. I have ideas about where Emily and Jobie end up. I had those ideas while writing Jazz Baby’s final chapter. There are all sorts of possibilities. So, yes, I’m leaning toward a sequel—though nothing is certain just yet.
13. What authors did you enjoy reading when you were young and what authors inspire you today?
When I was a kid, I enjoyed C.S. Lewis, S.E. Hinton, John Steinbeck. I read a lot of biographies on historical figures like Harry Houdini, Sitting Bull, and various sports stars. As an adult, I still enjoy biographies. Everybody has a story to tell, and I’ve always found the real stories of a life lived to be very interesting. My favorite novelists have to be Barbara Kingsolver, Daniel Woodrell, T.C. Boyle, Alice Sebold, and Wally Lamb. Among the indie class I’d count Stephen Geez and Sienna Rose at the top of the list.
14. What made you decide to be a writer and what would you be doing if you hadn't taken the literary route?
The idea that I could create characters, worlds, and situations that would not exist without my pen is such a rush. A good writer can transport his or her readers to faraway places and distance times. I may not be on that level yet, but I’m working hard to achieve it. If I wasn’t a writer, I guess I’d have put more effort into playing guitar. I walked away from playing about 20 years ago—though I recently bought a guitar and amp, with the idea of fooling around on it in my spare time. I just have this need to create.
15. Thank you for participating in the interview! Can you leave the readers with three things that may surprise them about you?
First off, thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about Jazz Baby. As for three things people may be surprised to know about me, well, I used to show ponies in 4H and open-class horse shows back in the 1970s. Another would be that I sang lead vocals in a heavy metal band in 1984. Finally, I guess it would be that I’m a distant cousin to country music legend Eddie Arnold. Younger people probably won’t know who Eddie Arnold is. Just Google him and learn something new today.
Find Beem Weeks online:
Fresh Ink Group