Lay Down Your Weary Tune, W.B. Belcher’s debut novel just out January 2016 from Other Press, intrigued me from the title, both as a music lover and huge fan of Bob Dylan. Who doesn’t love this song?
There book is chockful of nuggets for folk rock fans. Belcher tells the story of Jack Wyeth, a ghostwriter of the memoir of Eli Page, a fictional reclusive folk music icon—“part Woody Guthrie, part Bob Dylan.” Woven into other storylines and elements, the result is a novel that Publisher’s Weekly calls “richly textured.”
Belcher, who lives along the Battenkill River in upstate New York with his wife and two kids, works as Director of External Affairs for The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY. I spoke with Belcher about Lay Down Your Weary Tune, his playwriting background, Shakespeare’s lost years, and, of course, music.
Congrats on your debut novel!
Thanks, and thanks for reaching out. It is an exciting time, but after years of writing and rewriting with nobody watching, it’s strange to have the novel out there (or soon to be out there) for everyone to read. The response has been wonderful. So, I’m thrilled, and very grateful. But it’s strange nonetheless.
As someone who also studied playwriting, what was the writing process like for you in writing the novel?
Some novelists have drawers of failed novels and stories, I have piles of failed plays. But those plays were my training ground—along with a few abandoned stories, they were the 100,000 words I had to get out of the way. The truth is that sitting alone, pre-dawn, in my office, tinkering away at language suits me better than the process of developing a play through staged readings.
Don’t get me wrong—I admire that process, and I wish I had the space, time, and community to workshop a play the way it needs to be done, but it just doesn’t fit right now. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to it some day. As far as how it influences my writing, well, I do think I approach dialogue and visualize a scene like a playwright and would-be director. I like to move characters around the set, put them in conflict, and build physical obstacles.
On the flip side, on tough days, when I’m struggling to get into a scene, my writing tends to devolve into stage directions and business. That’s a bad habit. It’s easy to play house. It’s much harder to invest all actions with some meaning or relevance.
Music is such a strong theme in this novel and the driving passion for the lead characters. How much of this love is based in your own life?
We all love music, right? I’m not saying anything new here, but among other things, it has the ability to motivate, to inspire, to infuriate, to dredge up old memories. And it has the ability to connect people. I think that much of what makes the novel work is the fact that readers can relate to how Jack interprets the world through music, and his personal relationship to music. Me? Well, I not just a just a folk/Americana fan—I like a wide range of music. Depending on my mood, you can catch me listening to Bob Dylan, The National, Ray Charles, Radiohead, Nina Simone, Jenny Lewis, Leonard Cohen, Robert Johnson, and on and on. I was never one of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity characters (although I did work at Strawberries Records & Tapes as a teenager), but I used to have strong feelings about “good” music versus “bad” music—that’s all mellowed with time. Now, I’m interested in how music connects. For Lay Down Your Weary Tune, I was particularly interested in the storytelling, myth-making, and community-building in the folk music tradition.
You mention Caffè Lena several times, and the significance it has had on the folk music scene. You’re a member on the board of directors. Can you talk about how important it was for you to use Caffè Lena in the work and shine some light on its impact and support of folk music?
Great question. I do have this personal connection with Caffè Lena, but it was the novel that prompted me to become involved in the Caffè, and not the other way around. During the first draft, I set a few scenes at Lena’s. A lot of that material didn’t make the final cut, but I think writing about the Caffè was an entrance for me into Eli’s world, and Jack’s. At the same time, in my professional life, I began to think about giving back to non-profit organizations that I valued. So, long story short, I got involved with the Caffè as more than a fan. If I hadn’t written this particular novel at this time, I don’t know if I would’ve jumped right in, but it’s been a rewarding experience.
It’s funny—creating a novel requires the writer’s prolonged attention, and sometimes the lines between writing/thinking and life begin to blur, and the writing process begins to exert its influence on non-writing decisions. But back to the original question. Besides its history and the roster of names that have climbed its stairs, Caffè Lena is still a vital piece of the local community and the larger music scene—it continues to prop up established musicians and support emerging artists. For me, it’s the listening room’s intimacy and the connection between artist and audience that makes the experience unique. If I go there 100 times, I’ll walk away with 100 incredible performances and 500 stories—as a music fan and writer, what more can you ask for?
The story takes place in Galesville, a small town somewhere in New York, near the border of Vermont. As an upstater yourself, how much of Galesville is based on the small upstate town mentality?
Galesville is a fictional town along the Battenkill, which is a beautiful trout fishing river than comes down from Dorset, Vermont. Both the river and the authenticity of the town were important to me, but it was too limiting to use one specific, identifiable Washington County town as the main setting. So, Galesville is a composite of details, images, and observations from a number of towns, including those in southern Washington County and other places like Arlington, Vermont; Guildford, Connecticut; or Dalton, Massachusetts.
Now, as far as “the small upstate town mentality,” I’m not so sure. Towns like Galesville are on the border between old and new, past and present, right and left. Like many villages and towns, they’re in flux, trying to find a way to stay healthy without the mills or the farms that they were built around. In the novel, tensions and conflict arise when differing opinions, mindsets, and approaches to that problem are on display, but what drives all of the characters, despite these differences, is their connection to the town and their desire to keep it alive. It was fitting that Eli Page would find himself in an upstate town like Galesville, with one foot in the past and one foot in the present.
There are a lot of hints and strings that might cause a reader to link Eli Page, the musician of the novel, to Bob Dylan, or Pete Seeger, or a Guthrie-like character. His disappearance into the small upstate town reminded me a lot of the late ‘60s, when Dylan withdrew from the public to recover from a motorcycle accident. In these eight years of not producing music and being a recluse a lot of legends, myths, and lies were created about where he is, or how he was. Did you use any historical events, like this, as an inspiration or set up for your character?
Sure. Dylan’s the big one, and his hiatus, like his “going electric” moment, is part of the myth, right? There’s no getting around that. Eli Page is all of the musicians you mentioned and none of them. I drew inspiration from stories about Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Levon Helm, Utah Phillips, Phil Ochs, Leonard Cohen, and so many other artists. Eli Page is a contemporary of these musicians, but like my notes about Galesville, his character is a composite of dozens, if not hundreds, of pieces of information. What interested me more than any specific incident was how stepping out of the spotlight served to further myth, strengthen persona, or help reinvention. You’re right about Dylan, but think about Leonard Cohen at Mt. Baldy, or JD Salinger, or Thomas Pynchon, or even Shakespeare’s lost years. It’s an intriguing tradition to examine, knowing all along that there are no answers, just more questions.
Do you have any projects you are working on?
I’m working on a few. I’m far down the road with another novel, and I’ve actually drafted a few scenes from a third, which I began months ago, before it was interrupted by my current work in progress. I’m not quite at the sharing stage yet, but I’m excited to be back in the generative side of the process. I love revision, but the first and second drafts are always an adventure. I’m one of those writers who believes that you don’t know what you’re writing until you’ve written it. Or, since it’s a Yogi Berra year, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” Sometimes, the someplace else is the goal.
Jacqueline Kirkpatrick’s work has been published in Creative Nonfiction, Thought Catalog, and Nailed, and is forthcoming in The Rumpus. She is a student in the M.F.A. creative writing program at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Follow her on Twitter at @thebeatenpoet.