Sean Madigan Hoen‘s Songs Only You Know has garnered praise from writers and critics alike for its brutally honest, and yet tender and introspective, look at a young musician trying to hold himself and his family together in late-1990s Detroit. Hoen deserves comparisons with Nick Flynn or Tobias Wolff for his depiction of a young man growing up in a world of family trouble and showing how we negotiate the ties and hard love that bind us. It also captures (as its dismal yet somehow hopeful backdrop) decaying rustbelt Detroit as well as anything Charlie LeDuff or Jim Daniels have done, which is saying something. I’ll be recommending Songs Only You Know for a long time to come.
The Rumpus: It’s been said about memoir that in the early drafts, you write what you want to write, and in the later drafts, you write what you didn’t want to write. Was your experience with Songs Only You Know anything like this? Or different?
Sean Madigan Hoen: I suppose that was true, not that I held off on writing certain scenes—I put most of them down in the first draft—but it took awhile to bring some of the more difficult moments to life. Revision was an ongoing process of dealing with events I’d already drafted, trying to see them from numerous angles and perspectives, to account for delusions I’d had and truths I’d been blind to. There are some complicated incidents in my book, experiences I might feel differently about on any given day—sadness, anger, nostalgia, guilt, joy. I wanted to imbue the scenes and characters with all of those disparate qualities, a range of impressions and complexities that were, as a whole, in some way true to reality. It took a few years of staring into some of those moments, just waiting for some new detail to shake loose, float into the picture, often very small, yet essential, memories. Most of the “unwanted” aspects had to do with me, my former self: insecurities and fears and machinations of a frail, young ego. It’s not so becoming to expose these things about oneself, but that’s what the material required.
There were moments having to do with my sister and father that I couldn’t dig into until I knew there was an end in sight. While trying to sell the book, I knew there would be a final phase that would demand the toughest emotional work. But I needed to know there was a deadline. I had a sense that I might incur some life damage if I went into the abyss and was then required to endure the process of trying to secure a publisher. I needed to see that finish line in order to wring certain essences from the story. So, in a way, I did wait until the latest stages to confront the most difficult material.
Rumpus: One of the things that really struck me about Songs Only You Know was how accurate and realistic the music material was. From band practices to life on the road. Yet, you give the reader a great sense of this without doing what might be considered too much of it. That is, the relationships—family, band, friend, and lovers—are what the book stays focused on. Did you at all worry about giving the reader who didn’t know about the music world enough information/too much information? Was the balance at all a concern? Or did it all fall into place pretty organically?
Hoen: It’s interesting to hear some of the early reactions to the book. Some readers gravitate toward the family narrative and some gravitate toward the music content; the responses that really move me, though, are from people who’ve experienced the story as a whole and perceive how the two aspects evolve symbiotically throughout. Music was, to my younger self, an obsession that functioned both as a defense mechanism and vehicle for transcendence; it was crucial to how I dealt with my family’s troubles.
The poet Diane Wakoski—an old friend of mine—paid me a nice compliment. She’s a seventy-six-year-old badass, a true outsider. Anyhow, she said something like, “I’ve always found the kind of music you played to be atrocious, utterly repellent. I could never understand why anyone would want to participate in the creation of something so unpleasant, but reading this book clarified that for me.” I wanted to convey the ecstatic experience of performing really destructive music, and to articulate the kind of raw need that drives young people to do so. Those inspired, white-light moments are still so clear to me because I’ve never felt anything like them, and those were probably the easiest bits to write. Whether there’s enough of them or too many will probably be a matter of taste; I did the best I could to give an impression of what it all felt like. Our music was, in the scheme of things, an extremely obscure endeavor, subcultural—isolationist, even, in that it was intended to repel most listeners. I tried to convey the experience to people who’ve never had it, nor desired it. Why would someone be inspired to sweat and writhe and bleed amid the sound of electric guitars? Reviving those sensations was easy, because so much of my creative energy is still generated by similar needs—animal desires, you know?—to express oneself with pure, primitive force. Not to say I’m any good at it, or that’s it’s relatable to everyone. But that’s one of the deepest motives, certainly.
Rumpus: Along with this debut memoir, you’re a fiction writer with numerous publications (and winner of the BOMB Magazine 2011 Fiction Award). How does writing memoir differ from writing fiction for you? Were there any unexpected difference between the forms? Or was narrative prose pretty much the same (except for memoir, obviously, being fact-based)?
Hoen: I’ve yet to write a novel—yet to finish one, I should say—so I’m hesitant to speak of how that process differs from writing a memoir. I’ll admit there were thousands of occasions while writing Songs Only You Know when I wished I could rearrange events and compress time, even impose a more serviceable dramatic structure on the story. There are many details and gestures in the book I’d never have resorted to were they not true to my memory and essential to how things actually happened. I suppose that, initially, I wanted to the book to have a different aesthetic, right down to the prose. I wanted to pull from influences and inspirations—to give the book a specific stylishness—that weren’t true to the heart of the story.
Ultimately the book dictated its own aesthetic, generated its own energies. Fiction does that, too, but this memoir presented many essences that I had no choice but to surrender to; it revealed its own nature. The truth was out my control, in that way. But I arrived at those truths only after failing to draft them in a style that pleased my tastes, after being disturbed by my own distortions and concealments. Of course, I’d have liked to come off cooler or more gallant than I do in the book, but ultimately there was no avoiding the reality of who I’d been. Those were important realizations, not just as a writer but as a human.
Rumpus: What/who are some of you major influences in general? And did you have any specific models for the memoir/books you admired in the form?
Hoen: Mostly, I studied novels—a lot of big, messy ones. I wanted to avoid resorting to analysis or exegesis in the prose; I strove for active scenes, narrative, storytelling. I’m capable of carrying on a philosophical conversation about my past but I wanted the book to thrive on emotional and visceral energies. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army were crucial to my understanding of what autobiography could achieve: his grace and powers of observations; his mediation between the experience of his younger self and the older, wiser writer; his unsentimental-yet-endearing touch when characterizing trauma. My favorite writer as a teenager was Henry Miller, a great teacher when setting out on an artistic life. But, as brutally honest and earnest as Miller could be, so much of his work seems to hyperbolize his past, his yarns extrapolate realism, they’re mythological and mythologizing—you might say that of a lot of the Beats, too. I’ve never believed in the facts of Miller’s narratives the way I do a memoirist like Wolff, or Didion, or Frank Conroy. There’s wild stuff in my book, things I knew would seem ludicrous, even unbelievable, if I didn’t approach them lucidly and truthfully. Whenever I felt I was coming off the rails, I looked straight to Wolff.
Also…so many writers of my generation—males, especially—list Jesus’ Son as an influence, and, of course, I can’t speak honestly about inspiration without mentioning Denis Johnson. His work, by my impression, so often deals in consciousness, the psychic experience—not only that of his characters, but of places and cultures. Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son were often nearby while I wrote. I could ramble on about Johnson’s influence, but I’ll just say that those books feel like home in a way few other works of art do. Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude was also helpful. It whips up so much cultural detritus and creates an atmosphere full of loose threads and reeling associations; it evokes the passage of a young life. And Nick Flynn’s [Another Bullshit Night in] Suck City. I read that and thought, Well, this guy had a screwy life, too, and here is this beautiful result: a living, thriving book.
Rumpus: Desert island—guitar or pen and paper?
Hoen: The guitar is a great tempter—it sits there moaning for attention, and my relationship to it is not yet fully extracted from “the dream.” The fantasies and disappointments of my youth are still present in my experience of the guitar, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t provide also many wonderful things. But my feelings about it are complicated. I can play for hours and lose myself—and to tell the truth, I’m a much better player and singer than I was years ago—but the rewards, the gratifications, do not match those I get from writing. Writing, I’ll be honest, is for me a much less enthralling process. You don’t get the benefit of shaking your pelvis or feeling the sounds emanate from your being, yet the writing practice feels much more expansive and potentially infinite. It feels much more like sustenance, nourishment; it changes me for the better. I’ll take the pen and paper.
Rumpus: And because it gets asked of just about every writer who’s a musician/every musician who’s a writer: how, if in fact it does, do you think being a musician influence your writing?
Hoen: Mostly, I think, I benefitted from having, as a young man, become familiar with the ritual of engaging with right brain activity, working myself into a creative trance. I learned how to get into that state and to prolong and endure it. So, sitting in front of a page and writing for hours without looking up—that comes naturally to me. And I do think it’s a result of having been deeply immersed in music making. Also, I’m a self-taught musician. I never learned other people’s songs; it was always about expressing something of my own, however awful it might have been. Not to mention that I love rhythms, the alliterative qualities of sentences, the beats achieved by syntax, the way words harmonize or tangle in discordance. That, too, might come from all the time I’ve spent with music.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Hoen: Stories and essays. I’m in pretty deep with a novel. You know, I had big thoughts of lightening up a bit after this memoir, taking on something fun, but I’m realizing that what I need to do is to go deeper, to work against irony and hyperbole and satire—those roads aren’t for me right now. I crave weird humor, so that will always arise, but this new project is demanding a wild range of feelings, some of which I’ve never really approached before. I like it. So, yeah, I can’t say much about it, other than that, at this point, there is a chapter tentatively called “The Last Psychotherapist in Detroit,” and that there’s a strong countercultural element that may or may not veer towards cultism and forceful protest. It’s about characters, though, people I’m just staring to get to know.
Featured image of Sean Madigan Hoen © by Nathaniel Shannon.
Image of Sean Madigan Hoen and D. Foy © by Ian MacAllen.