Wesley State Talks About
Writing Songs and Novels

an interview by Andrew Elias

"A novel takes a couple
of years and a song
may take ten minutes.
It’s like comparing
an ocean liner and
a skateboard."

"Self-Titled is a lot of
fairly personal songs
and it felt like a good
album to release
under my real name."

ENGLISH-BORN WESLEY STACE has been better known as John Wesley Harding since his debut album received rave reviews in 1988. His personal, clever, witty and humorous songwriting, paired with his mixture of folk and pop music traditions, quickly earned him a loyal and substantial following. His new album, Self-Titled, is his 22nd, but first under his real name.

Stace published his first novel, Misfortune, in 2005, under his real name. The novel was nominated for several awards and prizes, and was chosen by Amazon.com as one of the 10 Best Novels of the year as well as one of the Washington Post’s Books of the Year. His second novel, By George, was one of the New York Library’s Book to Remember of 2007. Charles Jessold, his third book, was chosen as one of the Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Books of 2011. Stace has recently published his fourth novel, Wonderkid (Overlook).

Wesley will be appearing at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Sanibel Island Writers Conference, November 6-9. He will be performing songs from his new album and entire catalogue as John Wesley Harding, as well as reading excerpts from Wonderkid. He will also be leading a workshop and participating in a panel discussion on songwriting.

I asked Stace about his writing.

Leonard Cohen recently said that a song on his new album took 20 years to complete, and Keith Richards has said that he’s grateful to be in the room when the song ‘arrives’. Which is closer to your experiences?

WESLEY STACE: The former, though I never took 20 years. I think if you’re receptive, like to write, and practice, a song generally arrives sooner or later. Plus I would almost certainly rather have Leonard Cohen as a role model.

Some writers and artists have a specific work routine they follow while others are sparked by sudden inspiration. Do you have a routine when writing or any tricks for dealing with writer’s block?

I don’t believe in writer’s block, though I understand why it might be thought to be happening, and I don’t really have routines, beyond the fact that novels require me to be at home and at my desk (though I can edit previously written stuff anywhere), whereas songs I often write on the fly, maybe on a train, in a bar, in the notes on my iPhone. I often don’t even sit down to write or finish a song: it just happens in my head and then I record it on my phone and it’s done. I used to carry a notebook, but never cameras or tape recorders — and now I have all those gadgets on a phone.

How does your writing process differ when songwriting or writing your novel?

Well, novel writing just takes much more concentration. A novel takes a couple of years and a song may take ten minutes. It’s like comparing an ocean liner and a skateboard. The writing isn’t similar at all but I do think that they’re ultimately coming from the same place.

How do your songwriting talents help you when writing your novels, and vice versa?

Writing songs taught me to trust in words, literally – to let them do the work some of the time, with rhymes and assonance and so forth. That means I’m not self-conscious about just moving forward when I’m not 100% sure what I want to say: it all sorts itself out in the end. Sometimes you might even find that your subconscious has created something absolutely vital without your knowledge, right under your nose.

Wonderkid is your fourth novel. After years as a songwriter, what inspired you to start writing novels?

The feeling that there were narratives that I couldn’t possibly fit into a song.

Can you tell us about your new book, Wonderkid?

It’s about a new wave band who make a deal with the devil and have to face the consequences. It’s also about entertaining children.

Wonderkid has been called a ‘behind-the-scenes’ expose, as well as a sharp satire of, the music business. How does the music business and the publishing world differ?

Well, I’m not sure but one way is that the publishing world is much more ‘hand-shakey.’ I think you’re more liable to get screwed over in the music business. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen in publishing, but certainly it’s a little more old-fashioned, the whole process. I could give specific examples.

Wonderkid is about rock ‘n’ roll and is a ‘coming-of-age’ story and is a ‘deal-with-the-devil’ parable - but it also is about the relationship between a father and son. What did you bring to the book as a musician, as a man and as a father?

Well, I’ve hung out in a lot of dressing rooms, tour busses, vans and backstages, so that stuff is at least right, or right in my experience! As a father, I have a son; as a son, I have a father — and we’re all in the book some way or other. Most of my books are about families in some way. My wife pointed this out and I hadn’t quite noticed!

How have you improved as a novelist since your first book?

I am more confident. The first book took ages, the second one less time, the third one less than that, etc. Also I don’t fret about things seeming too unlikely. People never complain about the things you’re worried they’d complain about.

After 21 albums over 25 years, your new album is the first released under your real name instead of John Wesley Harding — and is called Self-Titled? Why is it important for it to be by Wesley Stace?

Self-Titled is a lot of fairly personal songs and it felt like a good album to release under my real name. And basically I just wanted to get everything under one roof: it was tiring being introduced as two people! Plus, Wesley Stace was now known to some degree, through the novels, so that made the decision a little easier.

Do you have advice for writers working on perfecting their craft or trying to get published — or for singer/songwriters regarding the music business?

Only ever do what pleases you. That way, when you’re not successful, you’ll still be happy in your art. Plus the thing that is true to you is the best thing you can offer the world any way, because no one else can do it, or be you. •

Wesley Stace will be participating in a Songwriting Panel, Friday afternoon, November 7 and performing that evening in concert at BIG ARTS Center. He will also lead a workshop entitled ‘Songwriting on Demand,’ Saturday morning, November 8 at the Sanibel Public Library.

BIG ARTS Center is located at 900 Dunlop Rd. on Sanibel. The Sanibel Library is located nearby at 770 Dunlop Rd. For information about the FGCU Sanibel Island Writers Conference, please call 590-7421.

November-December 2014