I don’t know if I ever officially met Rich Ferguson. I think it was one of those wonderful writer things where I was a fan of his spoken word and poetry and we just knew each other and said “hi.” Which is one of the many reasons we’re all lucky to be a part of a literary community that’s large in North America, yet seems small at the same time.
As for Ferguson’s debut novel New Jersey Me, I was hooked from page one to page 329. It’s a coming of age story set in Blackwater, New Jersey. Like Ferguson’s other work, it’s full of love, brutality, and utter honesty.
Rare Bird Books is the publisher and it’s a perfect fit—I’m a fan of pretty much every author they release. Tyson Cornell, who runs Rare Bird, likes to include music with book releases, as he did with Steve Abee’s Johnny Future. I still rock out to the sweet seven-inch vinyl that accompanied his book.
Ferguson, along with Tyson Cornell, Butch Norton (drums), Josh Haden (bass), Cameron Stone (cello), and Andrew Bush (producer/engineer) recorded tracks to accompany New Jersey Me. In Ferguson’s words: “I’ve tried to use my love of music, and spoken word performance to create companion pieces for the book.”
The Rumpus: Did you grow up in New Jersey?
Rich Ferguson: I moved there from North Carolina when I was twelve years old. My dad (involved in sales) got transferred to New Jersey, and my entire life was turned upside-down. For a while, at least.
At first, Jersey was a complete culture shock for my family and me. I was continually getting beaten up at school because of my Southern accent. It was actually in Jersey that I first learned the word cunt. One day a kid in my fifth grade class asked if I’d ever heard the Grand Funk Railroad song “T.N.U.C.” When I said I hadn’t, he asked if I knew what that word spelled backwards meant.
He blasted me with: “It’s cunt, you moron!” Then he told me what the word meant.
Those were two of my first big Jersey life lessons—learning what a cunt was, and Grand Funk Railroad. I love that band.
Rumpus: So moving to New Jersey wasn’t a positive experience.
Ferguson: It took a good few years, but I eventually slid into a Jersey groove. My family lived at the Jersey Shore, so I was always going to Seaside Heights during the summer. Loved the smell of salt air, freshly squeezed lemonade, cotton candy, and suntan lotion. I would literally get drunk on those summer smells.
The girls that would hang out on the Seaside Heights boardwalk during the summer were amazing. You’d get a whole array of girls from all parts of Jersey. The North Jersey girls were tough—crazy thick accents that could bowl you over with a simple hello. Thick dark hair. Lots of Puerto Rican girls from Bayonne, Newark, NYC. Also Italian girls. All of them: crazy beautiful and exotic. Big hoop earrings. Fire-engine red lipstick. Tight jeans. Tattoos. Way-too-tiny bikinis.
Then there were the girls from my neck of the woods—South Jersey. Some were a little softer than those North Jersey girls. A little more fair-skinned. Accents weren’t quite as abrasive. Had big doe eyes, and still sported the Farrah Fawcett feathered hairdos, even though it was a bit out of style.
That’s one of the charms about my old South Jersey. We were a good five years behind New York and California when it came to fashion, style, etc.
Rumpus: That sounds fun and painful all at once.
Ferguson: Eventually, I grew to absolutely love Jersey. Still do. Consider it one of my true homes. Love the Garden State Parkway. How the exit numbers can define where you’re from. Love the way the people speak. There are some truly amazing people there. They don’t bullshit you. They speak their minds. And while some folks may find that abrasive, I find it completely refreshing because with Jersey people, I know where I stand. They’re really honest and down to earth.
Rumpus: New Jersey Me seems like it’s packed with experiences that really happened. Why did you choose to fictionalize those experiences, and write a novel?
Ferguson: A lot of what takes place in the novel is fictionalized. What isn’t fictionalized, however, is Mark’s devotion to Blackwater, coupled with his desire to leave his town. I felt the exact same way while living in my ‘Blackwater.’ The nuclear power plant, the crazy gun-wielding Piney locals, all the things Mark fears and loathes were very real in my town, and very much a part of my motivation for leaving.
There were good things, too. I lived in an area called the Pine Barrens. Places like ‘The Dump’ allowed us to drive around for days, and party, party, party, with little fear of getting caught by the cops. Also those evening summer sounds of crickets and bullfrogs. Like Mark, I was intoxicated by those sounds. I also lived close to the Barnegat Bay. So there was always that faint smell of salt air that was always so intoxicating. And Seaside Heights was only a stone’s throw away. Loved those summers on the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
Another thing that wasn’t really fictionalized about the novel is all the Jersey lore about ghosts, etc. Jersey, especially South Jersey, is a very witchy place. For inspiration and reference, I used a wonderful book called Weird New Jersey. From there I pulled certain real-life lore like the Jersey Devil (which was very big when I lived there). Also things I wasn’t aware of until I researched, like the Ghost on Annie’s Road and the Legend of Dempsey House. Out of all those mysteries sprang my fictionalized Blackwater beast—Satan’s Tree.
The reason I chose to fictionalize Mark’s actions was because I wanted to create a wild and wooly story, an atomic storm swirling around that nucleus of those true emotions of love and hate. I found that the more fun I could have with the story, while staying true and respectful to those emotions, that’s what helped me to propel the story forward. That said, there were many drafts of the novel where the story would get away from me. Certain plots or characters would get too ridiculous within that fictionalized world. That’s when I’d discover that my world of fiction had limits, morals, and ethics that had to abide by a respect and sensitivity for the town of Blackwater and its inhabitants—no matter how Mark felt about them. Those residents—no matter how much Mark loved or hated them—had their own lives, and their own shit that they were dealing with. That couldn’t be trivialized or disrespected.
I also felt that fictionalizing the story helped to give me some distance from my own tangle of emotions, which allowed me to continually push Mark’s story forward to its conclusion.
Rumpus: What years of Mark’s life are covered in the book?
Ferguson: Mark was born in 1970. The story goes from Mark’s birth up until about 1991.
Rumpus: I’m a fan of stories told from different eras that can feel foreign to people who didn’t grow up in certain areas at certain times. Was it important to pay homage to the timeline covered in the book? There seems like danger as well as innocence growing up as latchkey kids before the dot-com era and the safe parenting we have today.
Ferguson: You raise a really good point with this question. At first, I’m not sure how conscious I was of wanting to “pay homage” to such different times. But the more I researched, the more I remembered my own experiences back in those days, the more wistful I felt, and the more and more I began to feel that, in certain ways, those really were different times.
For example, I love how Mark would have to take a bus to the Toms River Branch of the Ocean County Library to research nuclear power articles. Now, he could just look all that up on his computer, or his phone, or order a book on Amazon. Also, Mark and Jimmy were able to get involved in so many innocent and risky antics—everything from playing with a Ouija board in Jimmy’s basement room to kidnapping a chimp from the local circus and continually getting wasted. I really loved writing about their relationship. That’s one of the things that really tapped me into that danger and innocence you discuss, and that idea of how today is such a different world. Mark and Jimmy really had so much unsupervised time on their hands where they could do what they wanted. These days, everyone’s being watched in so many different ways. Also, now there’s so much technology available, so many things are accessible to us with a click here or a click there, that sitting in one’s basement room playing records backwards, searching out hidden messages really does seem like such an antiquated idea. But that’s one of the things I did when I was Mark’s age, and it was so much fun. So much a part of my reality.
Rumpus: When did you start writing or when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was your first medium poetry?
Ferguson: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in third grade, or thereabouts. I was already writing creative stories by that point, and could even create some on the spot (this would generally happen whenever the teacher noticed I wasn’t writing fast enough, and would have me read my work aloud to the class. I’d simply hold my nearly blank paper up to my face, and make up stories to share with the class—usually tales about polar bears, haunted houses, killer fire hydrants, that sort of stuff).
From there, and all through high school, I began writing poetry. Song lyrics, too, even though I wasn’t playing music at that point (that wouldn’t happen until after I graduated college). While in college, I took a fiction writing class that featured a week’s worth of poetry at the end of the semester. After the class ended, the teacher informed me that I was a better poet than fiction writer, so that deflated my fiction-writing aspirations to some degree. For the time being, at least.
From there, I headed out to California (San Francisco) where I began getting deep into the poetry scene, also playing and writing music. Eventually, after moving to LA, my writing shifted. This was because I began meeting people that were screenwriters and novelists, which tapped me back into that early love of telling stories. So instead of just writing poetry, I began writing poetic prose. Which eventually led me back to testing the waters of fiction, which ultimately led to the novel.
Rumpus: Did you always plan to write a novel?
Ferguson: Very good question. New Jersey Me originally grew out of a performance poem I’d written called “Terry, Candy, Baby, and Me.” I loved that “Me” voice (Mark McDaniel) so much that I continued writing from his perspective, to see what other tales he might have to share. From there, I began writing New Jersey Me as a novel-in-stories. I worked that angle for quite a few years. Some stories I’d spend months writing, only to eventually throw them out when I realized they weren’t fitting the overall scheme.
Eventually, I got the novel into the hands of Tyson Cornell at Rare Bird Books. He took a chance with the novel and with me, and paired me with one of his editors, Seth Fischer. At that point, the novel was still in its “stories” form. Tyson must’ve seen something there, but he wanted to see what might happen if Seth and I worked on it together. All I can say is thank goodness for that collaboration. Seth basically had me gut the book and rewrite it in chapter form. At first, the idea scared the hell out of me, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. The task just seemed so incredibly daunting. Then I thought, Well, what’s the worse that can happen? It won’t get published. At that point, the novel had gone through so many rewrites, had sat in my drawer for a couple years, the idea of not getting it published didn’t seem so daunting after all. So I figured, What the hell. I can do this! From there, it basically took me another year to rewrite the book with Seth’s suggestions. And I must say, it turned out to be a much better book because of that process. I also created a new character or two, and was able to go much deeper with the story in certain places because of that process, too. Also, I couldn’t have figured out that particular way of constructing the book without Seth’s assistance. I really owe a lot to Seth. And to Tyson, too, for believing in me. Without them, I’m not sure New Jersey Me would’ve ever seen the light of day.
Rumpus: Is this the first novel you wrote or were there earlier attempts at cracking a novel?
Ferguson: There was a novel I’d attempted to write before that called Mercury Rex (loosely based on my times living in San Francisco, and playing in a band Blue Movie). That novel, too, went through various rewrites over quite a few years. I recall taking this one fiction writing class at UCLA where I workshopped the first fifty or so pages of the book. Here I’d thought I’d constructed a really wonderful book, and the teacher told me that my story basically began on page fifty, and that I should throw out everything prior, or figure out a way to weave only the most important information back into the story, and keep the action moving forward. Wow. That was a really humbling experience. A real eye-opener. Made me realize there are so many aspects involved with telling a story. I truly admire good fiction and memoir writers. There are so many pieces involved with creating a compelling story. Perhaps I’ll pull Mercury Rex out of the drawer again some day. Or not.
Rumpus: Your spoken word performances are incredible. Did you work up from reading on the page, then moving to more of a performance, or was that always the way?
Ferguson: Thanks for the compliment. When I was in San Francisco, I first began reading from the page when I’d perform at readings. But then I began getting so physically involved in my performances (sometimes I think of myself as the Joe Cocker of poetry, the way I can get all body spazzy and so physically involved on stage) that holding papers in my hand really became a nuisance. So I began memorizing my work. Since I was playing in a band at the time (stand-up drumming and singing), that memorization process was a little easier for me.
Rumpus: What band were you in? Does music have an influence on your writing?
Ferguson: I’ve been in a few bands. There was Blue Movie back in the mid to late 80s in San Francisco. Then I was in a band called Pet Clarke here in LA for a short time in the very early 90s. Then I went on to form a band called Bloom. We were together for quite a few years. Did the record company dance for a while, and got really close to getting various deals, but nothing panned out. With the death of my friend Jett Soto (lap steel player in Bloom), and the stress of doing all those record label showcases, only to have them fall through, I believe that took a toll on the band, and we eventually went our separate ways. No animosity, though. I still keep in touch with those guys. Pretty much most of the people I’ve ever played with I still keep in touch with. It’s always good to be friends with musicians. Music is in my blood, and will always be there.
As for the influence on my writing, yes, music has definitely influenced how I write. That idea of cadence, repetition, all those elements appear throughout my writing. Drumming has definitely had a huge influence on the way I write, too. Has definitely tuned my ear to rhythm. After I’ve written something, I’ll go through it repeatedly, carefully listening to the construction of the words, seeing/hearing how they flow. If something sounds clunky to my ear, I’ll either throw it out, or edit the shit out of it until those words sing on the page.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Is there another novel in the future?
Ferguson: So much of my life up until now has either been spent fine-tuning New Jersey Me for publication, or helping to promote it, that my time has been limited in regard to creating new work. Lately, though, I’ve been in the studio with a great group of musicians creating musical tracks to accompany the novel: Butch Norton (Lucinda Williams) on drums; Josh Haden (Spain) on bass; Cameron Stone (Game of Thrones) on cello; and Tyson Cornell on guitar. We’ve been working at Andrew Bush’s studio, Grandma’s Warehouse, located in Echo Park.
In regard to writing, I’ve mainly been fine-tuning a new poetry collection, Everything Is Radiant Between the Hates. It’ll be released at some point next year, maybe spring, just in time for National Poetry Month. Though I’m in no hurry. First and foremost, I want to make the collection as good as it can be.
My wife and I also recently adopted a newborn daughter, Evelyn. So that’s keeping us quite busy, and sleepless. Who knows what kind of art and life revelations will come from being a father. I’m finally at a point in my life where I’m open and ready for those kinds of joys and challenges.
As for another novel, perhaps I’ll revisit Mercury Rex and see if I can make sense of that beast. Or maybe I’ll begin something brand new. The idea of writing a new novel seems a bit daunting, as New Jersey Me was so many years in the making. That said, I’d love to write another one. I love telling stories in long form; stretching out the descriptions and characterizations. Creating a living, breathing world for characters, letting them roam around in that world, fuck up their lives, then try to put the pieces back together.
Author photograph © Cat Gwynn.