The Rumpus Interview with Wesley Stace


Wesley Stace is an award-winning writer of three novels—Misfortune, by George, and now Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, a turn-of-the-20th century historical novel that concerns itself with folk songs, opera, murder, and Britain’s attempts to develop its own musical heritage. Impressively, he is also an entirely different person called John Wesley Harding, a singer-songwriter whose forthcoming 18th album was recorded with Peter Buck, Rosanne Cash, and band members of The Decemberists. Stace emailed me from his Philadelphia home and from the Amtrak train to NYC. I quickly understood that it’s equal parts intelligence, British wit, and a wicked multi-tasking ability that allow Stace to manage his incredible double life.


The Rumpus: By all outward appearances, you move between the world of music and the world of books quite fluidly.  How do you straddle the two worlds? Or are they inseparable for you?

Wesley Stace: The two forms definitely require different skill sets (as do the two worlds, when I think about it) but in the end most of it is just you staring at a computer screen, so it’s easy to say that it’s “one long song.” There are ideas too big for songs, and ideas too silly for novels – so it’s nice to have two forms to work in. Most writers seems to want to be rock stars and most rock stars are desperate to be taken seriously – so, though I’m a music veteran and no household name, it’s nice to have two ways to express myself. And they complement each other nicely – because music making is basically sociable and writing is basically solitary. I’m more confident in the musical role, I think, but it’s generally a more relaxing thing to do. For instance, gigs are more fun than readings: I don’t think I’m giving away any trade secrets here.

Rumpus: Do you admire any other musicians who are also scribes?

Stace: Musicians seem to be best at writing memoirs and short stories: perhaps that’s what the job allows, and what is most appropriate to the job. I liked Rosanne Cash’s memoir a lot – she writes beautiful clean sentences; Kristin Hersh’s too, excellent; Juliana Hatfield’s was really good. But it’s hard to think of musicians who are story-telling novelists – Kinky Friedman? Jimmy Buffett? I’ve read short stories by Rennie Sparks that blew me away. I think I might like Nick Cave’s novels, but I’m a little bored of his music. John Roderick writes beautiful journalism. Colin Meloy has a fine novel in him that I look forward to. Oh, and I just thought of the answer after all that waffling: Josh Ritter – his novel Bright’s Passage, which I was just sent for a blurb, and blurbed joyfully, is really, really great. And he’s a favorite songwriter of mine too: so bingo.

Rumpus: For those that don’t know, The Cabinet of Wonders series is a traveling variety show with writers, comedians, and musicians that you curate. Care to discuss your attraction to the wunderkammer a little bit?

Stace: I like the variety format a lot – the world, with all its iPods on shuffle, seems to be moving in this direction and it suits me. Genre is a bit dull. My taste is catholic but not much more than anybody else’s, so the format of the Cabinet feels good. The Cabinet’s last line-up was The Fiery Furnaces, Patrick McGrath, Eugene Mirman, Ted Leo, Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield, Ben Ottewell from Gomez, Rivka Galchen: that, to me, is a sensational line-up, and the nicest thing about it is it really comes about just from meeting people whose work I like, or them knowing somebody who recently did the show, or whatever. It’s very friendly, a welcoming show, and I think that comes across. I have discovered, in my fifth decade, that I am good at getting people to say “yes” to things.

Originally, in the late 80s in London, when my musical career was just getting going, I did a show called The John Wesley Harding Medicine Show – very much the same kind of thing except that I know much better people now. So, for NYC in the 21st Century, I renamed it The Cabinet of Wonders after those wunderkammers, which are best understood as the original museums: they were the private property of collectors who showed off the weird wonders and oddities of the world – there was less differentiation between the artistic masterpiece and the “mermaid’s tail” kind of freak show exhibit. So there’s both a huckster-ish, snake oil salesman element to the Cabinet, and a genuine pleasure in showing off the wonders of the world.

But I don’t keep the performers in a locked room in my house after the show or anything like that; they’re totally free to come and go as they please. Up to a point.

Rumpus: (At this point in the email exchange, Stace sends me a link to a live stream of Digital Opera Ensemble’s adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. “Just as we go,” he says.)

Rumpus: It must be difficult given your schedule, and how much you travel for your different engagements, to find time to write, especially considering its solitary nature. How do you make room?

Wesley Stace: Well, it’s impossible now, with a novel coming out, because you have to do such a lot of extra writing for purposes of promotion, which means there’s no time to do any actual writing. At times like this, I can’t work out how I ever get any writing done the rest of the time.

But the truth is, music being sociable and writing being solitary, that when I’m home, which is a lot, I get up early with my kids, and after the 4-year-old has gone to school, my wife, Abbey, very kindly lets me get on with it until I can’t get on anymore, and then I cook for everyone and we all hang out until bedtime. In that sense, I’m extremely lucky. I’m not at all muse-driven. I just sit down and do it: it’s not always as easy as other times, but I find that if you practice, the muscle gets stronger and it gets easier. I write and rewrite over and over again. I read things aloud a lot. And I love being interrupted, because I have the kind of brain where that doesn’t put me off my stroke, rather it inspires me and keeps me going. So I love being interrupted by emails and tweets. It reminds me that I’m alive. My email box certainly fills up when I’m in the thick of it: that’s how I know things are going really well.

So, though it’s tricky now to get going on the fourth novel (what with this Sentimental Journey opera I’m trying to listen to, and England playing Denmark, and with the Powell’s blog, and this interview etc.), I know that it’s just not even the right time to try to write. That’ll be later this year when the travelling stops for a bit. Before it starts again when I release the next record.

Rumpus: While we listen to The Sentimental Journey, let’s talk about Laurence Sterne’s appearance in Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.

Stace: Sterne, or rather his work, appears in Jessold because music critic Leslie, the novel’s narrator, owns some Bunbury prints from Tristram Shandy, which Jessold, the composer, likes. So Jessold asks Shepherd to write some lyrics based on them, so he can turn them into a little song-cycle.

The basic reason for this is that, whenever I am writing, what I see on the wall in front of me is this:

Down the right are the four Bunbury Sterne prints, which I originally saw on the wall at Sterne’s Shandy Hall in Coxwold, York, and then collected one by one on eBay until I had the full set. Top left is a print of a painting of Sterne and Maria (I can’t remember who by), and beneath that a Martin Rowson print of Sterne looking at the marbled page in Shandy Hall itself. Beneath that is an actual original Bunbury drawing of Simon Cumberland, and to the left of that, completely unrelated, a small and beautiful Robert Pinsky broadside.

So I was actually looking at those Bunbury prints when I was writing about them – I lived in a different house, to be truthful, but they occupied the same spot in my room. It also seemed to me that this would be an entirely appropriate text for a composer at that time to set. And those are the reasons Sterne pops up: part for my own comfort, and part because it’s entirely right that he should.

Rumpus: It’s intriguing how Shepherd narrates the rise and fall of the composer Charles Jessold, inserts himself into Jessold’s life and work. That’s not the usual role of a critic. It’s also not often that a critic has a narrative voice outside of their reviews.

Stace: I thought it all might be a bit of a dangerous game, narrating as a critic, particularly as a music critic (and I’m no great classical music expert) but I needn’t have worried. The fact is that you only have to lead the reader a bit of the way – and Shepherd isn’t even a very good critic, but he has good seats at the opera, and this is at a time when “musical criticism” hardly existed as a job, so he gets in that way. He’s a gentleman critic keen to serve his paymaster, not some Mencken or Leavis character.

Rumpus: You say you’re not a great classical music expert, but you must have saturated the air with music from the turn of the 20th century when you were writing this book. Did listening to the music help you as much as your archival research? Do you listen to music while you write?

Wesley Stace: While I work, I can’t listen to any music. I can pretty much listen to music only when I’m cooking, driving, dancing with my kids or making it (by which I mean “making music,” in case that isn’t clear.) Or, of course, when I’m actually only listening to music, which is the best time of all, though it doesn’t seem to happen as much as it used to.

I certainly did my research – both about critics and music of the time. Nobody parades their knowledge, unless they’re a bit of a twit, so, in Shepherd’s case, it was important that I didn’t wear my research on my sleeve: handy, because I’m no expert. A lot of his knowledge could go unsaid – the consciousness through which everything else he says is filtered. As everyone knows, a lot of novel-writing is sleight of hand: if you make a little gesture one way, the kind reader wants to meet you halfway. So I think Shepherd appears a bit of an expert, and therefore it seems like I am: he is, I’m not.

But I come from a musical family and heard lots of music as I was growing up. And I love going to the opera – and my experience of going to see Peter Grimes at the Met (among other musical set-pieces) are written down in the novel. I certainly found out about a lot of music that I didn’t know about before – and got to love quite a lot of it: everything from Verklarte Nacht by Schoenberg to A Shropshire Lad by Butterworth.

Rumpus: In the novel, Charles Jessold and Leslie Shepherd collect folk songs from the English countryside to set them down for posterity. They are pitted in a race against other folk song collectors. Did this kind of competition really happen?

Stace: Any milieu that involves collecting is bound to become competitive. I’m not sure there were any races to the death, but there are some great Ralph Vaughan Williams collecting stories in his biography – collectors pretending to fancy the daughter so they could hear the mother sing, tearing off strips of wallpaper for notation to catch the performance while they hid in the bedroom. You couldn’t make that stuff up. You could, but it would seem like you were writing farce.

Rumpus: I see all of these collectors and aficionados of this music as having a need to be close to the authentic. Can you talk about the yearning of authenticity in terms of folk music and the ways folk musicians pay homage to their forebears? You record under the name John Wesley Harding, which is a nod to Bob Dylan. The name of Jessold’s opera Little Musgrave is based on an English folk ballad. You also pay similar homage to writers in your books: Dickens and Sterne particularly.

Stace: With my musical name, I’m named after a Bob Dylan song, which is a misspelled version of the name of a cowboy – there’s nothing too authentic about that. But with the British Folk-Song movement, they wanted authenticity partly because it suited their agenda, which was to find a national melody that was not German. The favorite composers of the day were Wagner and Strauss, and that was tricky when we were just about to go to war with the Germans. So it was time for a National Movement. All the other European nations had required such a movement ages before, but Britain was always a little behind the times.

Rumpus: I woke up wondering if you’ve been following the Spiderman musical’s difficulties … according to many critics the director’s hubris is getting in the way of the production’s potential. Is that what’s going on with Jessold’s Little Musgrave?

Stace: I haven’t been following it, though I know it’s exciting. What is going on with Little Musgrave? Good question. Well, the composer’s an alcoholic, profoundly secretive, and hasn’t delivered the score yet. The director and he hate each other. The stars are all prima donnas. One of the main actors just had to be replaced because she’s pregnant. We never really go very far backstage in the novel – it’s all told at a distance, by someone who wishes he was part of the inner circle – but I’m sure these are all quite usual problems. No one actually gets injured in a flying accident, however.

Rumpus: This is a novel about music. What are some of the themes you explored that you recognize from your own musical life?

Stace: The haphazardness of creation; that necessity is the mother of invention; that inspiration can be found in the strangest places and you can not dictate what will worm its way into your subconscious; that, although I wrote a song called “Window Seat” (about a child who is born, lives, and dies on a plane) and although I had two friends die in separate plane crashes that year, the two things may not necessarily be related at all, because the song was actually written before the plane crashes: that’s the problem with biographical criticism – two and two always equals five. I played around with a lot of clichés of the artist/genius, divine inspiration, etc, only for Jessold to disappoint again and again.

And, of course, generally, the meaning of the folk songs – how they work, what they do. It’s been a life’s project of mine trying to find out, and this novel was another part of that process.

Rumpus: I’m sorry about your friends. I would be forever unable to fly.

Stace: Thanks – that’s sweet of you. Separate crashes – one was on honeymoon, the other in a helicopter on his way back from a football match. Horrible.

Rumpus: I think I understand what you mean by the haphazardness of creation. In the novel, love (or perhaps lust) fuels both the creation of art, but on the other side of the coin it also fuels violent acts and murder.

Stace: That’s true. But I also mean that things are created and come to exist not for grand aesthetic reasons – such as hindsight and a good narrative can supply – but by chance and for all sorts of dull, pragmatic, contractual reasons. Or just because of a single crazy inspiration.

Rumpus: What’s been your craziest inspiration?

Stace: Almost certainly the fact that I could and would write Misfortune and that it would be my gift to dead authors of the 19th century.

Rumpus: While we’re on the topic of inspiration: What’s the last novel you loved? Last album you loved?

Stace: Last novel: Pictures from an Institution by Randell Jarrell. Not the most recent publication obviously, but recently read by me. Album: Remember, live triple album by The Fiery Furnaces.

Rumpus: When you encounter something that bowls you over, how does it impact your creative process?

Wesley Stace: Well, of course it depends. I often love things that are nothing like what I do. For example, prog rock. My music couldn’t be further from that but I listen to it a lot – so rather than any overt influence, I think it just seeps into my consciousness and affects everything. I’m not going to write a book like Pictures, partly because I couldn’t, but sentences that great and witty will have their profound impact. If only on your aspirations. Other things I liked so much I started singing them myself immediately. Music’s easy that way!

Rumpus: Randall Jarrell is better known for his poetry and his children’s books illustrated by Maurice Sendak. How did you come to him?

Stace: In Pictures, there is a fictional composer a la Jessold. I have been reading through all “the competition”! Jarrell’s is fantastic. One of the best. I think it’s the only novel he ever wrote.
Rumpus: Can you give us a clue about the contents of next book?

Stace: Rock music! (Of a sort.) I’m letting my hair down….

Rumpus: A hair-band novel?!

Stace: Not sayin’!

Rumpus: (A final note: Stace’s iphone email signature reads “Sent from my parfumerie.”)


The Rumpus and Flavorpill are throwing a book release party for Wesley Stace in San Francisco on Sunday, February 27th.

A. N. Devers is the founder and editor of Writers’ Houses, an online publication dedicated to literary pilgrimage. Her writing most recently appeared in The Paris Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Tin House, she also edits for Pen America’s journal. She is a fiction writer working on her first book, which is non-fiction, and divides her time between Brooklyn and Asbury Park, NJ. More from this author →