After reading Debbie Harry Sings in French not only was I inspired, but I was compelled to seek out author Meagan Brothers and ask her some burning questions. Graciously, she was willing. All of my burning questions were answered, and for your reading pleasure here’s the first part of my interview with author, Meagan Brothers:
Meagan Brothers (MB): I’m a native Carolinian – grew up mostly in Spartanburg, South Carolina and Ellenboro, North Carolina. I have a degree in screenwriting from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, which is kind of a dust-gatherer of a degree, considering that most of my output has been in poetry and prose. A great experience, nonetheless!
BB: There are a lot of memorable/iconic bands and/or musicians – past and present. Why did you specifically choose Blondie and/or Debbie Harry to be Johnny’s inspiration and, in a lot of way, his support system?
MB: The inspiration from the book was actually an assignment I was given in a short fiction writing class. We were supposed to write an expository story – a story that would have a lot of practical information woven, as seamlessly as possible, into the narrative. While I was trying to come up with some useful information to impart, I read an argument on a music-fan message board stating, rather emphatically, that one simply could not be a fan of both Blondie and Patti Smith. Which I thought was pretty funny, considering that two of the bands I was listening to most at that time were Blondie and Patti Smith. And enjoying them equally, though I realize they’re two completely different vibes. I came up with this story about these two kids, one a Blondie fan, one a Patti Smith fan, each making their case to each other. I like the fact that Debbie Harry and Patti Smith were both getting their respective starts in the same city, at the same time, with many of the same influences, but their sounds and their presentations are so radically different. I thought it would be interesting to have this girl, Maria, be in thrall to the sort of androgynous, devil-may-care, brooding poet vibe of the Patti Smith records, while Johnny, who has just gone through this sort of period of introspection and personal inventory, would be very attracted to someone like Debbie Harry, who, at first blush, might seem petite and vulnerable, but has this powerful voice and image and a certain streetwise toughness to her.
BB: When you were writing this, did any other bands/musicians come to mind that you felt could have worked with the book also? If so, who?
MB: It never did occur to me to use any other musicians. I guess I could have gone back a generation and done Beatles-versus-Stones. Or mods and rockers…wait, that’s “Quadrophenia”…
BB: Music is very important to both Johnny and Maria – as the writer, why is that so important to their lives and to the storyline?
MB: Well, music is important to me, as a person and as a writer. I’ve played various instruments, off and on, throughout my life, and I’ve been a somewhat obsessive music fan since I was very young. For the kids in this book, music is important for the same reasons why it’s important to so many of us as kids – we feel alienated, we feel alone, but we find connection with kindred spirits through music. This disembodied voice reaches out to you over the airwaves, and it’s ghostly, but comforting at the same time. I think that, for both of these characters, they soothe their loneliness with music. Which is what a lot of us do, especially when we’re teenagers and trying to find ourselves, our identities. When you’re young and vulnerable and your body is exploding with all these new hormones, you want to know that you’re not a complete freak, that you belong somewhere. You hear a song, you feel it in your bones, and next thing you know, you’re putting on a leather jacket, or a pair of Doc Martens, or you’re dressing like Madonna, or what have you. It’s the gang mentality, but you can dance to it.
BB: If you had to make up a playlist that represented the relationship between Johnny and Maria, what songs would be on the playlist?
MB: Ah, good question! Back in my day, we used to call em “mixtapes,” but now, I make iPod playlists for all my writing projects. It seems like a frivolous thing to do, on one hand – I mean, did Norman Mailer need a playlist? I think not. But at the same time, it can be very useful, especially when you’re not a full-time writer. It helps to get you back in the mood of the thing you’re writing. I’ve just finished the prequel to Debbie Harry Sings in French, and I ended up with a 90-song playlist for Maria. And I can tell you that her favorite Nirvana song is “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.”
But back to Johnny and Maria – the chapter titles are sort of their playlist, but there were a few songs I had in mind for them that didn’t really fit that conceit. I’d say “Shayla” and “Union City Blue,” two really lovely Blondie songs, fit that romantic vibe. And “Detroit 442,” which is, supposedly, inspired by Iggy Pop. It’s not a love song per se, but I kind of hear it every time I picture them riding around town on Maria’s little moped. One of my favorite Blondie songs is their cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” – I played that song a lot when I was writing this book. And, oddly enough, the Slade song “How Does it Feel,” from the soundtrack to Slade in Flame.I know it’s kind of out of left field, but I can hear Debbie Harry doing a mind-blowing cover of that song.
There would be a few non-Blondie songs on there, too, for Maria’s sake – some cuts from Horses, “These Days,” by Nico. Maybe some more “Johnny” songs. “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television. “Johnny Thunder” by the Kinks. I also remember playing “No Expectations” by the Stones a lot in those early scenes in Florida. As well as the Cure, obviously. Okay, I’d better stop before I end up giving you another ninety!
BB: If you were to classify “Debbie Harry Sings in French” into a specific genre, what genre would you say your book falls into? Why?
MB: Probably Queer Bratty Pop Romance? I never really thought of it as a Young Adult book, but that’s what it turned out to be. At least, that’s how it was marketed. I guess, at 22, writing about 17-year-olds, that didn’t seem like a genre. It was just life. Now I have to be more conscious of it. I have to watch myself, read the dialogue and decide if I’m making the character too savvy for 16 or 17, or too airheaded. And, the older I get, the more I find myself cutting the curse words, even though, when I was in my late teens, my friends and I were all watching Tarantino movies while our parents were at work and trying to see how many f-bombs we could work into casual conversations about algebra homework.
BB: Your book is full of thought-provoking, real characters like Johnny and Maria. Do you see any of yourself within your characters? Are your characters based upon people you know?
MB: The characters aren’t really based on myself, or on anyone specific, though there are bits and pieces of real incidents and people I know in some of them. But nothing’s specific. Sometimes things come up subliminally, like Lucas being this Jamaican guy who ended up in the South – I didn’t realize until after I’d written him that I based his lineage on a neighbor of mine in Georgia. So it’s not really direct. I’m not a memoirist – I’m way to boring in real life for that – but, for the record, I did play Sally Ride in a fifth grade school play.
BB: The biggest change readers see is Johnny’s transformation – especially at the point when he puts on the Debbie Harry-esque dress. Why was that moment so important to Johnny?
MB: I think it’s kind of a big thing, especially in the South, for young guys to flaunt their masculinity. In my hometown, it was all about how big your pickup truck tires were, and how many mudholes you could drive that sucker through. Hunting was an obvious rite of passage. But here’s a very female thing, putting on this dress. Guys down there don’t kid around about that kind of stuff. Except, oddly enough – I just remembered this – at my high school, they used to have this Homecoming ritual where the basketball team dressed up like cheerleaders. They would put on a big display at Assembly and everything, and the students loved it. I remember thinking at the time, this is kind of weird. In real life, these were all the super-hetero, truck-driving good ol’ boys, who would typically be so threatened by anything vaguely homosexual. You could probably do a whole psychological study on this time-honored tradition of macho young men dressing as women and parodying the cheer routines. Is it patent mockery of the queer, the female, and thus an assertion of their maleness? Or the secret, pent-up yearning to express their inner feminine vulnerability?
For Johnny, it’s a big choice – a choice to outwardly express an inner desire that may be frowned upon by his peers, his society. He already feels outside his immediate surroundings, so this is a huge step, to align himself with this inner world that he’s sort of creating as he goes. In rehab, he decided to say no to a lot of things – drugs and alcohol, obviously, but also, he decided to say no to oblivion, to fear, to running from his true feelings. Just to say: I’m going to wear my Chuck Taylors while you guys are wearing your respectable shoes and your macho boots; I’m going to listen to punk records from the 70s instead of the Dave Matthews Band, or whatever. I’m not going to just nod and smile, I’m going to actually have an opinion and make my own choices. Sometimes that’s a huge thing. I don’t think Johnny or Maria are those type of people. Lord knows I’m not. But being a naysayer doesn’t get you invited to a lot of cool beer parties. For Johnny, that moment of putting on the dress is, in some ways, the biggest “no” in the book. And yet, it’s also a big, big “yes.”
BB: Why was it important to have your main character be a transvestite? Do you think people will judge the book solely on that fact?
MB: I didn’t set out to write a transvestite manifesto per se. I just imagined this character and really wanted to explore this time of his life, when he’s being pulled in two seemingly opposite directions. Where he’s doing this sort of gay, queer thing of crossdressing, but he also finds himself strongly attracted to a girl. I know that some people have missed the point of the book entirely – some readers have been angry at me, saying that I’m anti-gay and so-forth because Johnny ends up with a girl. But my point, which hopefully comes across, is that, for some people, the road to finding and defining sexual identity can be a complicated and surprising one. It’s all about patience on the journey. I hope that we’re all allowed those uncertain moments, especially as teenagers. And, really, when it comes right down to how the book is judged, shouldn’t it really be based on my rapier wit and stunning prose? (I’m kidding, of course.)
BB: Johnny’s father isn’t a present character in the book, but his presence definitely looms over. Why was it important to the book as a whole, to the plot, that Johnny discover his father’s glam rock past?
MB: I think anyone who is missing a parent hopes that they grow up to be who the parent would want them to be. And Johnny’s so estranged from his mother – I thought it would be nice to end the book with Johnny discovering that he and his father were on the same wavelength. I wasn’t sure if young readers would understand how important androgyny was to Glam rock in Britain in the early 70s, and how radical it was, with homosexuality only recently decriminalized there. But, hopefully, it comes across emotionally so that you don’t have to know the full history. Closer to home, for Johnny, the discovery of his dad as Glam kid goes back to that idea of saying no. Johnny’s dad made the decision to put away his entire personality for the benefit of his family, or so he thought. But, as I see it, maybe that wasn’t to their benefit at all. And what if he hadn’t? What if he had decided not to put away all those things he loved – maybe he would’ve had an entirely different life, and he would’ve been more present in his son’s. Maybe he’d even be alive, who knows? At any rate, I thought it was nice, if slightly unrealistic, to give Johnny that parental wink of approval, even though it has to come from the Great Beyond.