How to Talk to Rockstars
by Alli Marshall
“How to Talk to Rockstars” — think “Almost Famous” meets “The History of Love” — follows wallflower-turned-journalist Bryn Thompson. She has a dream job: she interviews rock stars. Bryn’s professionalism keeps her on track, but also emotionally removed from the gritty world of back stage, bars and drugs that she writes about. That is, until she meets musician Jude Archer, whose songs haunt her. As an unlikely friendship grows out of Bryn’s obsession with Jude’s album, Bryn begins to rethink all of the carefully-contrived rules that until now have helped her maintain a professional distance.
Today I’m very lucky to be interviewing Alli Marshall, author of “How to Talk to Rockstars.”
Hi Alli, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Would you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
Thanks for having me — I’m excited to be visiting Room With Books. About me: I live in Asheville, N.C. and am the arts and entertainment section editor for Mountain Xpress, an alternative newsweekly. So I’m an arts writer as well as a novelist.
I grew up in rural New York State. The Erie Canal ran through my home town. I think I was always interested in writing, but it became a big part of my life when I was a teenager and my best friend introduced me to journaling.
What were you like at school?
In high school I was into art and music. I studied French, taught myself to sew, was really into post-punk and read every Tom Robbins novel I could get my hands on.
Were you good at English?
I excelled at English classes — anything to do with writing and reading!
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
One thing I’ve learned on this journey so far is that nothing happens without preparation and effort, and very little goes according to plan. I got my MFA at Goddard College, focusing on poetry, and as soon as I graduated I stared writing fiction. So that was a pretty significant twist! I’m lucky that my day job is as a writer. Even though working for a newspaper is not the same as writing fiction, it still informs my creative writing and helps me to grow as an artist. Sure, I’d love to get a book deal, but ultimately I just want to continue to write and find an audience in whatever form that takes.
Which writers inspire you?
There are so many writers who’ve inspired me over the years. To read is to learn how to write. Hervé Le Tellier, Marguerite Duras, Michael Ondaatje, Ian McEwan, Raffaella Barker, Elizabeth Gilbert and Nicole Krauss are some who come quickly to mind.
Can you give us an insight into your main character, Bryn?
The main character of “How to Talk to Rockstars” is Bryn, a music journalist. She’s shy and pretty isolated — no long-term boyfriend, no best friends, and she’s not close to her family. But she finds a sense of connection though music (as so many of us do). Bryn usually keeps to herself, but over the course of the novel she begins to develop a friendship with one of the musicians she interviews, Jude Archer.
What does she do that is so special?
I guess the obvious answer is that Bryn gets to meet and talk to famous musicians. That’s pretty extraordinary. But the really special thing about Bryn is that she lets the reader into her internal world. She’s vulnerable and self-effacing, but also sharp and funny. I think it’s Bryn’s authenticity that readers will connect with — and the fact that she admits all of those squirmy, self-conscious thoughts that we all have.
What are you currently working on?
I have a YA novel completed that I’m currently pitching to agents. It’s set in the 1980s and has a lot of music, too. And I’ve just completed the draft a new project — it’s a work of historical fiction, set in Charleston, S.C.
Which actress would you like to see playing Bryn from “How to Talk to Rockstars”?
I think that Carey Mulligan would make a great Bryn! She has that self-possessed sort of quiet, but she’s also fun and quirky.
What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?
The truth is, I’ve been working on novels for years. I’ve written a number of first drafts and a few second drafts. I’d even sent some projects out to agents and got some helpful feedback. I was trying to write the next “Confessions of a Shopaholic” or “Sushi for Beginners,” and nothing was really working out.
A few years ago, my husband and I took a trip to Concord, Mass. where Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne all lived. Something about seeing the writing desks where all those timeless books were created really inspired me. My husband said to me, “Why don’t you try to write something that’s artistic and true to you, instead of worrying about what will sell?”
That’s when I decided to approach my writing differently. Not long after that, I came up with the idea for “How to Talk to Rockstars.”
Do you have a special time to write or how is your day structured?
During the week I write in the evenings, after work. It’s the only time I have, so I just get it done. Sometimes it’s for an hour, sometimes only 15 minutes. When I’m really involved with a project or have put myself on a deadline, I’ll set aside blocks of time on the weekends. I’ll work for an hour, take a break and then come back to it.
I like to write in coffee shops, sometimes, but if I need to really focus, I’m usually on my couch with my laptop or iPad. Sometimes I stay at work after I clock out, too, because I’m comfortable in my office. After everyone else has left for the day, the building is quiet and I can get a lot done.
Where do your ideas come from?
Sometimes the inspiration is fairly direct. “How to Talk to Rockstars” was inspired by my job, and some of the characters in the book were inspired, at least a little bit, but musicians I’ve interviewed over the years.
The characters in my YA novel were inspired by friends of mine from when I was in high school, and the book is set in a town like the one I grew up in. But the storyline — I’m not sure where it came from. Sometimes ideas pop into my head and seem like good possibilities for a book. I usually just mull them over for a while. If the idea persists and continues to develop, I start to think I might be able to sustain it for the length of a novel.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
I have to just dive in and let the story unfold in its own way. I like the idea of working from an outline because I’m a list maker and I’m a big fan of organization. But it just doesn’t work for me that way. The process really involves a lot of trust and patience (and I don’t always have a lot of either). There are usually tears along the way. Too much information?
What is the hardest thing about writing?
Promotion. That’s absolutely the hardest part. Completing a book is a major accomplishment, but the real challenge comes in getting the book out to an audience. Learning the ropes of promotion, publicity and booking events is a major process, but it’s rewarding, too.
As far as the craft of writing, I think the hard part is having the faith to continue when I get stuck or lose my momentum. Often writing is rewarding — thrilling even. But there are days when the idea seems to lose steam and I’m not sure where the story’s going. To continue to show up, work, and trust that I’ll get where I need to go is difficult.
Do you read much and who are your favorite authors?
I do read a lot. I enjoy reading — I wish I had time to read more. Some of my favorite offers lately have been Ian McEwan, Sara Gruen, Francine Prose and E.M. Delafield.
What book are you reading now?
I’m currently reading “Unfinished Desires” by Gail Godwin
Tell us about the cover and how it came about.
The artwork on “How to Talk to Rockstars” is from a painting called “Glowingg” (yes, with two Gs) by Joshua Spiceland. Josh is an artist I admire a great deal, and there’s something literary about his work. He’s done a series of paintings on the covers of paperback novels
Who designed your book cover?
The cover was designed by Susan Yost.
Do you have a trailer for “How to Talk to Rockstars”?
Do you think that giving books away free works?
I guess the answer depends on what one is trying to accomplish. Giving books away probably helps to reach more readers and generate some excitement and buzz about a book.
How do you relax?
I like to run, swim, read and bake.
What is your favorite quote?
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” ― Flannery O’ Connor,
What is your favorite movie?
“Harold and Maud” is probably my all-time favorite.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
Any final words?
Thanks so much for sharing “How to Talk to Rockstars” with your readers! I’ve enjoyed visiting Room with Books.
Thank you for your time and for taking part in this interview.
Alli Marshall grew up in Western New York and has called the mountains of North Carolina home for more than 20 years. She’s a Warren Wilson College graduate and completed her MFA in creative writing at Goddard College. She’s been named the best arts reporter in Western North Carolina in the annual Best of WNC reader’s poll, 2011-2014. She received awards in editorial reporting from the North Carolina Press Association in 2005 and 2014, and from the International Festivals & Events Association in 2004. She also took home top honors in the Cupcakes for the Cure bake-off (local ingredient category) — but that’s another story. And though Alli doesn’t like to brag or anything, over the course of her career she’s interviewed Yoko Ono, Cyndi Lauper, Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), Aimee Mann, Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), Britt Daniel (Spoon), Michael Franti, Neko Case, Daniel Lanois, Ziggy Marley, Peter Murphy, Grace Potter, Jamie Lidell, Kishi Bashi and many, many others.
Follow Alli on Twitter and Instagram @alli_marshall
Alli will be awarding a $25 Amazon or B&N gift card to one randomly drawn winner via Rafflecopter during the tour.
The day that Bryn bought Jude Archer’s album, Fly By Night, online and downloaded it to the playlist on her work computer — that was an ordinary day. It was three days before her birthday. She was working late. She’d just learned that she would have to work on her birthday, and the project was a dull grind. Her coffee had gone lukewarm in its tall ceramic mug.
The tracks appeared in order, summoned from some distant world. Bryn dropped the headset over her ears and clicked play. The world outside the headphones stood still. Blood beating in her ears, rivulets of rain streaking the picture window, outside a blurred watercolor. Everything and the absence of everything. A ballet of shapes and shapelessness.
Wanting seems so harmless at first, the way it feels like an old familiar ache, comfortable as pajamas. The way it feels good to return to a previous sadness, to sink into the soft gloom.
The way he spoke of love, always losing, always chasing, always wanting.
The songs held her captive from the first. She simply sat and watched the rain and listened. That was all. They were not acquaintances then, Bryn and Jude. They were two people in two separate bubbles. Bryn in her dusk-darkened office, Jude just a voice coming through the headphones. It didn’t occur to her to wonder what he looked like, or his age or where he was from. Usually the back story was at the front of her mind. A journalist’s habit. But Jude was a song first and a man later.
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