Q&A with Florida Literature Class

by Conrad on March 18, 2013

Conrad on Mt. Si Conrad summits Little Mt. Si with son Kit and expert guide Django (the “D” is silent).


Dear Readers,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Q&A. This one comes from students at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida. The students—juniors in Stephanie Cardillo’s American Literature Honors class—recently read and discussed Adios, Nirvana. Stephanie forwarded me a batch of their questions. With her permission, I’m sharing them here, along with my answers.

Q: How did you come up with a character like Jonathan?

A: Jonathan started as a dim shadow–or distant voice–in my mind and grew fuller and clearer as I rewrote. The best writing happens when you rewrite (and rewrite).

Q: How much money did David leave Jonathan in his will?

A: I’ve never put a financial figure to it, but let’s say he left Jonathan at least $10,000–and possibly much more.

Q: Are you a musician? Are you passionate about music?

A: Yes, I’m very passionate about music. I’ve always messed around on guitar, but I don’t read music. (Jonathan was a much better guitar player than I am.) I’ve just returned from Hawai’i, where I tried my hand at the ukulele–a joyous instrument. Playing music makes me a better writer, and writing makes me a better musician. Each graciously opens the door for the other.

Q: How did you learn about Rick and Larrivee guitars?

A: The Rickenbacker was a favorite of guitarists like George Harrison, Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Pete Townshend (The Who), Jeff Buckley–on and on. They chose the Rick for its clear, ringing sound. I thought Jonathan would embrace that sound—and that it would work well in the context of communicating with his dead brother. As for Larrivee guitars, I’ve known several musicians who swear by them, and I’ve always liked their sweet tone. Larrivee is a Canadian company, and Jonathan liked to refer to his guitar, Ruby, as being from “up-country Saskatchewan.” In fact, Larrivees are made in Vancouver, BC. Jonathan would have known this, but he enjoyed taking poetic liberties. Just fyi, NASA purchased a Larrivee guitar for use by astronauts aboard the Space Station. That guitar has already made more than 50,000 orbits around Earth. (Jonathan’s playlist can be found here: http://adiosnirvana.com/?p=140.)

Q: What exactly does Agnes mean by “free the swimmers in the dark”?

A: Agnes suffered from dementia; however, she was somehow able to connect with David Cosgrove and his experience of being trapped under water after his ship sank. (Literally, David was a swimmer in the dark–and so were his fellow sailors, though most did not try to swim to freedom.) I wanted to make the point that we are all, in a figurative sense, struggling to free ourselves from the dark. I believe that each of us possesses, deep within, the courage and power to triumph over whatever threatens to engulf us. As Jonathan wrote in a final poem, ” . . . So I open the cage/unlocked all this time/and push off . . ..” The key phrase is “unlocked all this time.”

Q: Is Mr. Tillmann (the jazz band leader in the story) an actual person who played with the famous musicians mentioned in the book?

A: No, he’s not an actual person. However, his character was inspired by Quincy Jones, who in the late 1940s attended Garfield High School in Seattle—the same school my kids recently graduated from. I heard Quincy Jones speak at Garfield about the time I was finishing the novel. As I recall, I went home after that talk and added a few brushstrokes to the character of Mr. Tillmann.

Q: Did you have a group of friends similar to Jonathan’s “Thicks”?

A: I had friends who helped me over hurdles when I was a teenager but never a group like “The Thicks”–no one quite that intense, crazy, or supportive.

Q: How did you manage to write from a depressed teenager’s point of view so realistically?

A: Hmm, a tough one. I didn’t think of Jonathan as being depressed so much as struck down with grief. However, depression and grief may be cut from the same bolt of cloth; they may be universals within us–if not directly, then indirectly. So, yes, Jonathan was depressed–but also disoriented, angry, manic, despairing–lots of emotions. At various times in my life, I’ve felt all of these, so I was able to identify with him. However, more than depression the themes that truly drew me were hope and healing. Life can be hard and seem hopeless, so as a writer I try send out a ripple of hope on the chance that it may be heard or felt, and so make a difference.

Q: What inspired you to write this book? (Longer answer, maybe, than listening to your son and his friends in your kitchen.)

A: Okay, here’s the longer answer. First, I stumbled upon a quote in a newspaper that really hooked me. This is the quote: “In darkness, it slowly came to me that what happens to a man isn’t nearly as important as how he meets it.” The author of the quote was Victor Riesel, a labor journalist who was blinded when a mobster flung sulphuric acid in his face. I jotted his words in my journal, then added, spur of the moment: “(Consider writing a) story about a young man who writes the biography of a blind man, and in so doing (frees) his own demons.” About this time, my son began to bring home a pack of friends after school who would eat everything in the fridge and then rush into the living room and jam on guitars and piano. It didn’t matter that they were out of tune. What mattered was the energy. Just being around their combined humor, appetite, and music was an important part of the creative process for me. Also at this time, my father was hospitalized in the final months of his life. He’d spent a long time coping with multiple illnesses, but nonetheless was funny and wise. He became the inspiration for David, and his experiences as a Navy lieutenant during World War II became the template for David’s war experiences. To make things even more interesting, a friend’s mother was slipping into Alzheimer’s. We’d greet her with “Hello,” and she’d respond in the most bizarre way, but just close enough to some mark to make you wonder, “Hey, does she know something I don’t?” So my friend’s mother became the inspiration for Agnes, the Oracle at the Delphi. Eventually, all of these ideas and characters began to criss-cross and merge. That’s the long answer.

Q: Do Jonathan and Katie get together in the end?

A: I was deliberately vague about this, because I wanted the reader to decide. If you think so, then the answer is yes.

Q: Are we supposed to think that Katie’s disease is terminal? Because I don’t want to.

A: Again, I was deliberately vague. But since you asked, here’s what I really think–that Katie is a survivor and that she and Jonathan are still hanging out, in all the best ways. I like to think that if I were to stroll down to Alki Beach in West Seattle on a sunny afternoon, I’d see them sitting there–guitar and/or lute close at hand–and that I might catch a fragment of Walt Whitman as I passed by.

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