The “one night of glory” model has a really strong tradition in stories about teenagers. I thought about movies like Dazed and Confused and Can’t Hardly Wait and Detroit Rock City, where the narrowed scope of the narrative reflects the compressed horizon and pressurized emotion of the characters. As a 15-year-old—and, okay, as a 20-something, and beyond—I often couldn’t see past my immediate circumstances, and the structure of the story reflects that blinkered outlook. There’s an urgency when you’re a teenager, experiencing things for the first time, that you can’t really get back, and I wanted to capture that.
Gebremedhin: Right, this is a coming-of-age story. Paul, the narrator, describes his efforts to “have the best night of my life, to do whatever thing would change me forever.” He understands that he is standing at the brink of some great shift, from which there will be no return. How does punk music inform this theme?
Martin: Punk can be about a lot of things, and the bands in the story—ranging in approach from Clash-inspired political agitprop to the romantic angst of emo to the nihilism of New York hardcore—reflect a small segment of what the music can represent. But they all share a common goal of catharsis, of moving the listener to transcend his or her malaise, anger, whatever through movement and action. Like most teenagers, Paul doesn’t really know what he wants to change into; he just knows that he wants to change. Punk provides a kind of perfect buffet of opportunities to imagine yourself different than you really are—more engaged, more angry, more heartbroken. And it also gives you this sort of vision of utopia, where violence can be channeled into community in this unexpected way.
Gebremedhin: Are there any inherent challenges when writing about music? For instance, what’s it like to try to describe a song? Who are the great practitioners of fiction when it comes to music writing?
Martin: I do think it’s hard to convey what a song—or a painting, or a film—is like without having any direct experience of it. But I think what fiction or criticism can do is create an alternative version of the thing being described, one that is filtered through the sensibility of the writer to become something else. The story name-checks the critic Greil Marcus, whose books introduced me to a lot of the music I loved in high school. (I realize this makes me sound like I’m 100 years old, or from another planet, but it’s true!) There’s an incredible description Marcus wrote of “Every Picture Tells a Story,” by Rod Stewart, that made me a huge Stewart fan (I mean, of his stuff up until, like, 1973). I think if you can make a punk-obsessed teen in 2001 love Rod Stewart, you’re doing something pretty impressive.
As far as fiction writers go, Proust is probably the world champion in describing musical performances (and paintings, and sexual jealousy, and …). David Gates is no slouch, either. You haven’t really heard “Straight Outta Compton” until you’ve heard it through the ears of his character Willis in Preston Falls, blazing down the road in his truck toward another terrible decision.