IndieView with Robert Dunn, author of Savage Joy

Those two parts – the literary world of The New Yorker magazine and the downtown punk scene – meshed and conflicted in very interesting ways.

Robert Dunn – 9 September 2017

The Back Flap

In 1976, Savage Joy author Robert Dunn (Meet the Annas, Stations of the Cross) moved to New York City, scored a $90-a-month East Village apartment, and got hired at The New Yorker Magazine. All life-changing good fortune, and the foundation of this novel, Dunn’s most autobiographical yet.

Cole Whitman, straddles his uptown literary world and the budding Lower Manhattan punk scene. When an apartment in his building at 340 East 11th Street opens up, musician Slater Martin moves in, sweeping Cole along into his CBGBs world. Also moving into 340 is Cole’s elegant and mysterious literary editor pal Emily Prosser, whom Cole desires unrequitedly.

Cole needs a girlfriend, Slater needs a new band, Emily needs a new life. Together the three of them, along with a fiery female drummer called Sailor and a dweeby bassist, Wendell Walter, get a new punk group going, named, by Cole, Savage Joy.

What follows among the five of them is both joyful and savage, a feast of love, music, sex, violence, blood, and madness.

About the book

What is the book about?

Good question. In 1976, I moved to New York City, scored a $90-a-month East Village apartment, and got hired at The New Yorker magazine. I know – it still blows my mind that that actually happened to me.

And that history has formed the background for my novel here, Savage Joy.

In the book, I’ve created a narrator named Cole Whitman. He straddles his uptown literary world and the budding Lower Manhattan punk scene. When an apartment in his building at 340 East 11th Street opens up (the same apartment I lived in), this tatted-up punk musician, Slater Martin, moves in, and he sweeps Cole along into his CBGBs world.

How about a love interest? Also moving into 340 is Cole’s elegant and mysterious literary editor pal Emily Prosser, whom Cole desires unrequitedly.

Botton line: Cole needs a girlfriend, Slater needs a new band, Emily needs a new life. Together the three of them, along with a fiery female drummer called Sailor and a dweeby bassist, Wendell Walter, get a new punk group going, named, by Cole, Savage Joy.

What follows among the five of them is both joyful and savage, a feast of love, music, sex, violence, blood, and madness.

When did you start writing the book?

Hmnn, about four years ago.

How long did it take you to write it?

Probably a couple years. I always do at least three drafts of a book. First to figure out what it’s about, second to make it what it’s supposed to be, and the third to fix and polish up anything left. (I learned that from Bernard Malamud; see below.) Some books take more than three drafts, but with Savage Joy that’s all I needed.

Where did you get the idea from?

All my novels are set in musical worlds, and though I’ve written about early Memphis rock, girl groups, Chicago blues, I hadn’t touched punk music. That was the first idea: Write about that nascent punk scene in NYC in the ‘70s. And since I was there, I thought I could work my own experiences into it. Those two parts – the literary world of The New Yorker magazine and the downtown punk scene – meshed and conflicted in very interesting ways.

Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?

I’ve been writing novels for a long time. It’s like my daily job, and most days I simply get up and do it – so, with Savage Joy, no huge struggles beyond the eternally perplexing struggle in writing anything that matters.

What came easily?

The autobiographical parts. Pretty much everything in the novel dealing with Cole’s experiences working at The New Yorker magazine are simply my experiences there. He even gets a poem published in the magazine, validating him as a writer. That’s my poem, and it came out in The New Yorker on my 28th birthday. My girlfriend and I celebrated at the Algonquin Hotel’s tea room.

Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?

In Savage Joy, Cole is a lot like me, some actual people I knew at the New Yorker turn up under their actual names (my sainted boss, Harriet Walden, for instance), but the rest of the characters are pretty much inventions, meaning that they might have qualities from people I know but are there to live fully as themselves in the novel.

We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?

Boy, when I decided to be a novelist, all I did was read. Particularly meaningful writers to me? Hmnnn. I’d say Herman Melville, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Pynchon, William Faulkner. I was a big fan of Bernard Malamud’s fiction when I was in college; years later I became his personal assistant, so he influenced me a lot.

Do you have a target reader?

Not really. I think Savage Joy would particularly interest anyone curious about New York publishing, The New Yorker magazine, the early days of punk rock, New York City in the dire 1970s – all that, but I hope also people who like good writing, too.

About Writing

Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?

Best thing to do, as I mentioned above, is treat writing like a job. John Irving told me once that he had to do something every day to “redeem the day.” Writing well did that; if writing didn’t come well that day, cooking a good meal would also make the day worthwhile. But if you’re writing because you have to, because that’s the only thing that at the end of the day will justify your existence, well, that’s what you do.

Specifically, though, I only write in the mornings. Drink green tea. Listen to classical music. Type away….

Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?

I don’t outline, I do make notes. I can only write a scene well when I know what’s going on in it, but I don’t always know what’s going on in the book that much further ahead – at least not in detail. I want to be open to inspiration, solving problems as they arise.

Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?

I’m always editing, if by editing you mean changing sentences around, adding lines, cutting, etc. But I also know which draft I’m writing – it’s it’s the first draft, I kind of figure it’s good enough for now – and a clear eye on the second draft or third will fix things.

Did you hire a professional editor?

I make sure my publisher has a good copyeditor.

Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?

As I mentioned above, yes, a classical music radio station. Although I write about rock and other raucous musical forms, that’s all too jarring to write to. But I do like the room to be filled up with something other than my rampant thoughts.

About Publishing

Did you submit your work to Agents?

I’ve had impressive agents in the past.

What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?

More control. Closer to the ground, in effect.

Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?

Always work with a professional designer. The designer on Savage Joy is the art director for Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine – a nice stretch for her to do my cover.

Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?

I do have a marketing plan, and assistants who help with social media, setting up events, helping get books into stores, etc.

Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?

Take a deep breath and learn everything you can about the book biz. IBPA is very helpful.

About You

Where did you grow up?

Like Cole in my novel, I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles – San Fernando Valley to be exact.

Where do you live now?

And, like Cole, I moved to New York City in the mid-‘70s, where I still live.

What would you like readers to know about you?

Besides writing novels, I’m a longtime fiction professor at The New School University in New York City. I’m also a serious photographer with a number of photobooks in bookstores and museums around the world.

What are you working on now?

I’m a day away from the first draft of a novel called Pandora’s Box. It’s centered around a famous teen riot on the Sunset Strip in 1966, the one Stephen Stills wrote “For What It’s Worth” about “Something happening here….”). It’s a first-person tale told by a seventeen-year-old woman named Linda, a very coming-of-age novel, in a time when coming of age could be a life-and-death adventure.

End of Interview:

Get your copy of Savage Joy from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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