By Daniel Ford
If I had to review W.B. Belcher’s debut novel Lay Down Your Weary Tune simply based on its title and bitchin’ cover, I’d instantly make it a Writer’s Bone favorite (we run a column called “Bob, Bourbon, and Books” after all).
However, critics from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal agree that Belcher’s first literary effort is as memorable and artful as any Dylan lyric.
Belcher recently took time out of his book tour (Lay Down Your Weary Tune lands on shelves Jan. 26) to talk to me about his early influences, his writing shed, and his publishing journey.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
W.B. Belcher: Well, I think the kids I grew up with would say that I had a habit of stretching the truth, but the thought of being a writer didn’t cross my mind until high school. That’s when I fell in love with literature. I remember reading Long Day’s Journey Into Night, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and The Stranger. During my freshman year in college, I took a class with Matthew Zapruder titled “Introduction to Imaginative Writing.” At the same time, I was reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, and I was watching plays by Jean Genet and Arthur Kopit. That’s when the idea of being a writer took hold. Of course, I imagined myself a playwright first and a novelist second, but that order flip-flopped after I moved to Upstate New York.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
WBB: My earliest influences were probably James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the Stephen King library. Later it was The Great Gatsby, On the Road, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And there was always Shakespeare. I spent 1998 just reading as many plays as I could, including work by Sam Shepard, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, August Wilson, and so on. It wasn’t until much later, well after undergrad, that my reading life cracked open, and I discovered a whole new world of writers that would impact my fiction (and my view of the world)—Marilynne Robinson, James Baldwin, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Carson McCullers, and many others. Looking back on my high school and undergrad reading lists, I’m still amazed at the gender imbalance on the big syllabus.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
WBB: When I’m in the thick of it, I wake up early (4:41 a.m.), stumble outside to my little finished shed, and work until about 7:00 a.m. Then I come back inside to make lunches for my kids and get them on the school bus. No music—the shed is silent and Internet-free. After the bus, I head out to my day job, which demands a lot of focus and attention. On occasion, I’ll revise or tinker with language during lunch, but that’s a rare event these days. At night, as I’m drifting off to sleep, I like to imagine the scenes I’ll work on the next morning. I don’t outline at first, but I do go back and create an outline of sorts after the second draft. For me, it’s about getting into the right frame of mind, and the routine helps. After a few days, I have access to the characters, and the writing comes easier. On the other hand, if I skip a week of writing, it takes me several days to get back on track.
DF: What was your MFA experience like and would you recommend MFA programs to aspiring writers?
WBB: I attended the low-residency program at Goddard College. As an undergrad, I was an English and Theatre Arts major. While I had decent dramaturgical skills, I was still reading fiction as if I was a literature student. The MFA helped me begin to read as a writer, to see how the work was done, to observe what succeeded (or what didn’t), and to know how to fix it. At the same time, it forced me to fit writing into my daily life. It was no longer about writing on every other Wednesday and sometimes Saturday; it was about a solid routine that balanced my writing time with everything else, including a 40+ hour/week job and two toddlers. It also mirrored the editor and writer relationship, which was beneficial later on. To put it simply, I’d recommend the low-res process to aspiring writers, but only those who feel they are in a position to commit the time and effort to make it worthwhile. It’s not a backstage pass to the concert; it’s just another way to focus your attention on the show.
DF: I’m a huge Dylan fan, so I’m predisposed to loving your novel based on the title alone. Are you a big music fan or did other factors inspire Lay Down Your Weary Tune?
WBB: I love it—I wrote this book for you! I’m a fan of music of all kinds. At any given time, I could be listening to Phantogram or Robert Johnson, Ray Charles or Jenny Lewis, Bob Dylan, or Beck. Because of my role on the board of Caffe Lena, a historic folk music coffeehouse in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., I’m also listening to a lot of emerging Americana artists, which is cool. Actually, a few musicians are joining me during my book tour, including M.R. Poulopoulos, Dennis Crommett, and Krista Baroni. I’m going to have pry myself away from the music to do the actual readings.
To answer the second part of your question, the novel wasn’t quite inspired by music. Not at first. I began by riffing on the themes of masks, myth-making, and reinvention, but the story was adrift. As soon as it occurred to me to layer in folk music, and to have a folk music icon at the center of the story, the idea started to come to life. After I choose the narrator and point of view, it was clear that the music was going to help me drive the book.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the book? How do you develop your characters in general?
WBB: That’s a tough question. In a way, every action and gesture and detail in the novel stems from some observation I’ve gathered and bookmarked in my head. But to get to the heart of it, none of the characters in the book are based on any one particular person. They stem from a bunch of different details stitched together. Eli Page, folk music icon, is a composite of three dozen different artists, from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger to J.D. Salinger to professors I know to movie personalities. The town of Galesville is built the same way.
As far as how I develop my characters, it’s all sort of a mystery. I need to step into their lives, I need to understand what’s at stake, and I need to know what’s in their way. It might come from my short life as a playwright, but I ask what does the character want, what or who is in the way, and what tactics are employed to remove the obstacle. More than that though, I try to add texture and complexity to their lives and their motives. Nothing’s simple and straightforward in life. Why should it be any different for them?
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
WBB: Not at all. I knew I had something interesting, but I also knew it’d take years of revision. I finished the first and second drafts in 2007/2008. That’s a long time ago. I really didn’t know what I was writing about until I’d written it, if that makes sense. After the second draft, I ripped it into a hundred scenes and summaries. It took me another year and a half to piece it back together with a more coherent structure, an emotional arc, and some narrative propulsion. To use a rusty old cliché, it was really like stripping down an engine to all of its individual pieces and then rebuilding it from scratch, while replacing the bad parts along the way. Eventually, I had something that worked, but it still needed fine-tuning. There are scenes that have only been touched three or four times, and there are scenes that have suffered through 18 drafts. Lastly, I should also point out that after the novel sold, I worked with my editor (Judith Gurewich) and the team at Other Press on another revision, one that subtracted 75 pages.
DF: How long did it take you to land an agent and publish Lay Down Your Weary Tune?
WBB: That’s a good question, but I don’t have a clean answer. Ignoring all advice, I jumped into the agent process too early. Luckily, I only dipped my toes in once or twice a year, reaching out to four or five agents who I thought might be a match. I wanted to get a sense of how it worked, but the manuscript wasn’t ready. After the rejections came in, I went back to revising. Within three years of tiptoeing around, I’d racked up 20 rejections or so. A few agents actually took the time to tell me where they’d lost interest. This generosity helped me polish the manuscript. Meanwhile, I’d been keeping a list of agents to query when the time was right, compiled from articles or posts I’d read. When I felt comfortable that I had the manuscript in good shape, I reached out to that tailored list of 14 agents (Christopher Rhodes was one of them). Once Christopher and I connected and he offered representation, a few of those other agents were suddenly interested. That’s the way it goes. But none of that mattered—Christopher was passionate about the book and its future; I knew it’d be in good hands.
DF: Your debut has already gotten rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist. What’s that experience been like and what’s next for you now that you have a novel under your belt?
WBB: I’ve heard a few authors talk about the run-up to pub day as the quiet before the quiet. It certainly feels like it sometimes, but I’m grateful for those moments that aren’t so quiet—the days when the blurbs come in or when the trade reviews come out or when I get to connect with the fine folks at Writer’s Bone. It’s a funny transition. In many ways, the book is no longer mine. It has a life of its own. When the finished copies arrived, I flipped through the first few sections, and I couldn’t believe how distant it felt. After years of staring and scrutinizing every little detail, I could step back and see the thing as a whole.
What’s next? Well, I’m working on that sophomore outing, and it’s challenging me in new ways. But it’s wonderful to have my head in a different set of characters and to be generating new work.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
WBB: First, read. Read all the time. Read widely. Second, embrace the process. I know it’s easier said than done, but resist the urge to jump into the fray until your manuscript is ready. Find purpose in the work. Try to understand that your process is unique to you. Third, don’t give in to the self-doubt. Find the fire in your belly to keep going, despite the odds and despite the rejection. Return to the work. Make it better.
DF: What is one random fact about yourself?
WBB: I once met Harrison Ford at a salad bar. He was waiting for me to replenish the lettuce.