A conversation with Meagan Brothers about Debbie Harry Sings in French
You must be a Blondie fan. Right? Canyou describe to us what you like about the band and/or Debbie Harry and how they/she inspired you to write this book?
Yes, I’m definitely a Blondie fan! To me, they’re one of those bands that puts a big silly grin on my face every time I listen to them, like the B-52s or the Ramones. They touch on a lot of different genres musically—reggae, rap, disco, pop, punk—but they always have great energy and melody and attitude. I love their sound, and Debbie Harry is one of my favorite lead singers of all time. Her voice, her sense of humor, her presence and style—I love how she personified these different aspects of New York City at that time, the uptown glamour and the downtown toughness. You look at her and see her influences—the trashy-chic Warhol scene, the old-Hollywood Marilyn Monroe mystique, the streetwise cool of Ronnie Spector. I didn’t really set out to write a book about Blondie, though. During my junior year of college, I was taking a class in short fiction, and our assignment one week was to write an expository story, one that would weave some instruction or practical knowledge into the narrative. I didn’t know how to cook a turkey or fix a carburetor, but I was constantly listening to music, and, at that time, I was mostly listening to Blondie and to Patti Smith. This idea for a dialogue between these two kids, one a Blondie fan and one a Patti Smith fan, playing records for each other and teaching each other about music, became that week’s short story. And, over the next few years, the short story became the novel.
How did you research for this book—did you attend drag competitions? Haunt your local indie record store and Goodwill?
I did all of those things, but I didn’t realize it was research! My friends in college, both gay and straight, and I went to the gay bars because they were the only places for us to go. I went to school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The gay bars in the area had a policy, 18 to dance, 21 to drink. So we called it our exercise program—after a long week at school, we went to the gay clubs and danced all night. As far as indie record stores and Goodwill, we were frequent customers there because we were broke! Twenty dollars slipped into a greeting card from my mom meant a visit to the $2 record bins at Record Exchange and a trip to Goodwill or Hello Betty, the vintage clothing store in town, for something dirt cheap and fantastic to wear on a Saturday night!
Johnny is such a vivid character that it’s easy to feel like you know him by the time you’re finished reading. Is he based on a real-life person?
No, he’s not based on a real person, though I’m glad he comes across so well! He’s probably got some elements of guys I knew from the community theater, or guys who were dance students at school, who had a great sense of style. There’s also a lot of myself in him, in his sort of wide-eyed excitement about music. But, no, he’s not based on any one person.
What’s on your turntable (in your cd player?) right now?
Right now Wild Gift, the second album by X, is on the turntable, and the first album from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, a great soul band from Brooklyn, is in the CD player. I’ve also been listening to the Charms’ new CD, Strange Magic. They’re a Boston band with a garage-punk style that recalls those early Blondie records, and Ellie, their lead singer, is definitely from the Debbie Harry school of cool!
Tell us about your writing process. Where do you write? When? What do you eat/drink while crafting a story?
I’m disastrously old fashioned—I write everything longhand, in spiral notebooks. Then, once I have a finished handwritten draft, I put it into the computer, revising as I go. Music is a really important tool—I’ll make mixtapes or lists on my iPod of songs that I think might be playing in a particular setting, or a character’s favorite songs, to get me in the mood. I’m a night owl, but I’m trying to be more regimented, get up at a decent hour and go to the library, rather than scratching away until three in the morning. I like to write at home, alone, rather than in coffee shops—too distracting—but libraries are second best. You can take breaks to read and stay as long as you like without having to buy anything! I tend not to eat or drink anything while I’m working, but I do like to start the morning off with a few cups of green tea to get the old brain in gear.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished Anything for Billy, Larry McMurtry’s version of the Billy the Kid legend, and I’ve just started Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.
What was your favorite book as a child?
How can I pick just one? As a very young child, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day probably held the top spot, next to Harold and the Purple Crayon. Then it was Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, the Little House on the Prairie series, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books, Cynthia Voight’s Tillerman saga, Gordon Korman’s Don’t Care High, everything and anything Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine in particular. The inspirations for this book came from books I read as a teenager, specifically Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, and an oft-overlooked book by Bruce Brooks, Midnight Hour Encores. See, impossible to just pick one!