Other Press: Lay Down Your Weary Tune is your debut novel. Could you tell us a bit about your journey in writing it? How did you discover Jack’s voice, and how did you know this was the story he would to tell? How did the novel take shape?
W.B. Belcher: “Journey” is the right word. I began sketching out this novel almost nine years ago. At the time, I was writing both plays and short stories, and I was exploring how various forms of storytelling overlap. Mask-making, reinvention, role-playing were common themes in my work, particularly in my playwriting. I began to explore these themes in the larger playground of a novel, but I discovered early on that the characters would drive the process. Eli Page, the mercurial folk music icon, sequestered in a foothills of the Adirondacks, came first. He was followed by Jack Wyeth, a wannabe music journalist and blogger in need of direction. The novel began to take shape once I realized that its root structure was a late coming-of-age/toppling of childhood idols story on one hand, and a novel about reinvention and the folk process on the other.
Jack’s a restless person, adrift, rudderless, except for his fascination with Eli Page, which seems to center him. Jack’s interests and personal history are tangled up in the myth of Eli Page. Folk music is Jack’s frame of reference—it’s how he sees and interprets the world, and since the novel is narrated from his first-person perspective, I knew that the language, the tropes, the archetypes, the imagery would all have to stem from folk songs and that folk Americana aesthetic. It was a long journey from point A to point B, but that decision to infuse Jack’s perspective with the music and symbols found throughout folk songs was the key to finding Jack’s voice.
OP: Were you nervous about alluding to such luminaries as Bob Dylan? How did you approach depicting the beloved and renowned Caffè Lena?
W. B. B.: When I first started, I didn’t know if the story had legs. It didn’t occur to me to be nervous about those references until I was well into the process. Many readers have asked if I was really writing about Dylan or Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie (a few have even mentioned Phil Ochs); I like to say that Eli Page is all of these musicians and he’s none of them. In the end, I hope I’ve created a convincing contemporary of Dylan, although Eli Page was not nearly as famous (or elusive).
Before I began writing Lay Down Your Weary Tune, I’d only been to Caffè Lena a few times, but those experiences were somehow memorable enough to inspire two scenes in the early drafts. And it was actually those draft scenes that prompted me to get more involved at the Caffè. To put it another way, writing the novel led me to Caffè Lena; not the other way around. In the context of the story, I was interested in folk music outside of the traditional hot spots (certainly outside Greenwich Village), and Caffè Lena was my real-life example. Jack believes that it’s one of the reasons Eli relocated so far upstate. As far as my approach—I wanted to make sure the listening room seemed authentic and the readers had a sense of the atmosphere. Despite the drama that happens during those scenes in the Caffè, I think I captured the Lena’s that we know and love.
OP: You take such care in illustrating Galesville, the town in your novel. It’s almost a character of its own. Was it important to you to create a concrete sense of place? Why?
W. B. B.: Galesville is an outsized character in the novel. Early on in the Intro, Jack uses “we” when he refers to his fellow Galesville residents—he includes himself as part of the town. Even though it’s rough going at times, he still considers himself part of the community. More important than concrete, I wanted to create a small town that was complex. Galesville’s not a funky little town that embraces everyone’s quirks, and it’s not a narrow-minded town that fears change—as with most towns, it’s both of those things and a thousand others. It’s a town in transition, caught between the old and the new, the past and present, the left and right, and it’s a town in the middle of reinventing itself from a farming community to an artisan community. I wanted it to feel familiar, but I had to remember that the descriptions of the town are subjective (filtered through Jack’s perspective), unreliable, tainted by Jack’s fear of being an outsider. Lastly, the details he chooses to show the reader—the river, the trestle, the hardware store, the depot, the graveyard, and so on—are bits and pieces that could’ve been lifted from the lyrics of a folk song. In many ways, he’s constructing his own myth as he writes, and Galesville is an actor in that myth.
OP: What do you think of the state of folk music today, both in terms of the music that’s made and how it’s received? Do you think it can ever occupy the same space in the American popular conscience that it once did?
W. B. B.: That’s a heavy question. Usually, I’d lean on some friends to help me answer with authority, but I think it’s fair to say that “folk” music (whether we’re referring to the traditional music or the American folk music revival) won’t ever occupy the same space that it did prior to 1970. That said, I think it’s doing just fine, and it has demonstrated an extraordinary staying power (and influence) over the years. It also dips in and out of popular culture, from Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013 to No Direction Home in 2005 and Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One in 2004. More recently, there’s been a resurgence of all things Americana. Venues like Caffè Lena, Club Passim, The Living Room, and many others have seen an uptick in interest and attendance; house concerts are alive and well; and the festival business is thriving. Folk music’s influence extends far beyond banjos and fiddles to much of the music that is popular today. That’s my take. I’ll leave the rest to folklorists and musicologists.
OP: Are there any musicians who have influenced your life as Eli influenced Jack’s life? What do you think of the relationship between fans and their idols, especially with how much closer fans seem to be able to get to their favorite artists today?
W. B. B.: I’ve been known to obsess about different bands and musicians (for short periods of time), but I can’t say that any one artist influenced my life the way that Eli Page influences Jack’s. I don’t tend to think of my favorite writers, musicians, or artists as idols, even if I love their work. I’m more of an admirer than an obsessive fan. That said, I think the relationship between fans and their idols is an interesting dynamic to observe. Beyond the marketing, promotion, branding aspect, I think there is something human in the fan/idol relationship. We’re all looking for a connection, right? We’re searching for people who “get” us, who understand us, who share our view of the world. But those idols can’t possibly live up to the fans’ expectations. It’s not just true of musicians, writers, artists, of course; it’s true of sports heroes and politicians and so on. They’re human, after all. As Jack notes in the book, they’re “flawed, hurting, grasping for answers” just like the rest of us.