Writers on Music: An Interview with Robin Benway

Robin Benway

Robin Benway attended UCLA and NYU, where she won the Seth Barkas Prize for fiction. She is the author of the young adult novel Audrey, Wait! recently published on Razorbill. The book’s title character is an average teenage girl until her ex writes a song about her that becomes an international hit. She has to accustom herself to paparazzi, gossip, stalkers, and drastic changes in her social and school life as she becomes a sudden and unwitting celebrity.

Robin and I attended the same schools growing up in Laguna Hills, CA, swapping mix tapes and attending sleepover parties where we lip-synched competitively to True Blue. I have a vivid memory of Robin driving me and about eight other girls in her parents’ van to Magic Mountain for a field trip in our junior year of high school. The albums in rotation on that drive were the Reality Bites soundtrack and Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion.

Pop music is a presence throughout your novel… bands like AFI and The Smiths (music that is relatable to teens) are not only quoted but are also mentioned as favorite bands of the characters. Does Audrey’s musical taste reflect your own?

Absolutely. I don’t think that I could have mentioned a band in the book without being a fan of them! The hard part was trying to figure out how to mention bands that were current, but that could still be memorable for people who read Audrey in several years. There are so many bands that I listen to right now, but I wasn’t sure if they would "date" the book in five years, so it was a challenge to include bands that had the potential to be relevant in ten years. Or, if not relevant, then at least recognizable!

What music did you grow up listening to? How have your tastes changed since high school? How have they stayed the same?

In high school, it was all about Nine Inch Nails and R.E.M., with Tori Amos and 10,000 Maniacs tying for second place. High school, especially junior and senior year, was really difficult for me, and those bands’ music carried me through. I used to wake up super-early before school, and [go] downstairs to watch videos of R.E.M. on Unplugged & NIN performing at Woodstock in 1994. It almost felt like an infusion of strength where I would think, "Okay, you can do this, you’ve got this music, let it get you out the door and through the day." And then I saw the video for "Silent All These Years" by Tori Amos, and I remember standing there, completely dumbstruck at the lyric: "Got the Antichrist in the kitchen yellin’ at me again…" Music is still one of the biggest enjoyments of my life, but back when I was sixteen years old, it was vital.

And luckily, I’m still a fan of all those bands. I’m going to see R.E.M. in concert in a few weeks and I just downloaded the latest NIN album, so it’s lovely to not only be a fan, but to love bands that are still relevant and still make interesting music.

I am curious about the order of operations regarding the quoted song lyrics that serve as the titles of chapters. Were some of these songs already in your mind when you were writing the book (perhaps shaping some of the action), or were fitting quotations selected after the book or chapters were complete?

A lot of those lyrics were from songs that I was listening to while writing the book, and when my publisher (Razorbill) asked for chapter titles, I suggested lyrics instead, since I wanted to have a place to put all of them. In some cases, songs did shape the path of the book, such as LL Cool J’s "Mama Said Knock You Out." When that song came up on my iPod shuffle, I immediately thought about where the book was going and realized that Audrey needed to DJ a party. Hence, the backstage scene after the Lolitas concert…

How do you feel about lyrics in music? Are they the focal point?

They can be, for sure. I have a document on my computer with pages and pages of lyrics that I want to remember. I think Leonard Cohen is one of the most brilliant lyricists ever. His songs make me cry, I think they’re so beautifully written. And as a writer, I get jealous of his abilities. 🙂

As good as lyrics can be, though, if they don’t have a great foundation of music to back them up, then the song won’t be one of my favorites. It’s the combination of words and melody that does it for me.

Do you listen to music while you write? What music inspires you?

I can’t not listen to music when I write. I’ve tried to several times (mostly because I’ve forgotten my headphones at home) and it just doesn’t work. I need some sort of beat happening, some sort of melancholy sound to play in the background while I write a sad scene, for example.

When I was writing Audrey, I listened a lot of younger, "poppier" bands because there’s an energy in their music that I don’t find in older, more established bands. For Audrey, I wanted there to be a lot of vibrancy and passion, and I think younger bands aren’t yet burned out on touring, or haven’t had their second album flop, or haven’t realized that their label doesn’t want to support them, or whatever hundreds of things can happen to a band over the years. For a band that’s just starting out, it’s still fun and exciting and very Kerouacian to be in a van and touring the country. That’s the spirit I wanted for Audrey, and listening to that music definitely helped to infuse the book.

That sounds like a really accurate summary of the arc that happens to a lot of bands. Did the sort of disillusionment with the industry that The Do Gooders experience in your book come from stories you’ve heard first-hand from bands?

That’s exactly what happened. I think by being a fan of music, I’ve read a lot about the industry and it seems that, especially today, there’s a rush to make a lot of money fast, even if it means sacrificing the very band that’s making money. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of long-term planning or career-building, and if a band wants to make it, they can’t rely on a label to do that for them, hence the rise of MySpace bands and such. I think all of that can create huge amounts of pressure and disillusionment within a band and lead to a real loss of creativity, which is unfortunate.

What recent albums or artists are you enjoying?

New Raconteurs! Jack White is a freaking genius, and I love that they just dropped the new CD without any warning. That was brilliant. I’m also listening to the White Stripes–surprise, surprise–and a bootleg copy of their 2002 Reading Festival performance. I can’t get enough of it and I will totally upload it for you, if you want it.

What else? New R.E.M., Charlie Parker’s Bird at St. Nick’s (it makes me think of Rear Window, which is one of my all-time favorite movies), new Panic at the Disco, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, and Bjork’s "Army of Me" just because I really need to hear the lyric: "And if you complain once more, you’ll meet an army of me."

How do you feel about the shift in musical technology? Are you fully integrated into the iPod and mp3 wave, or do you still collect albums?

I love the new musical technology. I know it’s led to a lot of file-sharing and stealing of music, but I get so frustrated with the record labels that start suing their customer base. I just feel that all of that money spent on legal fees could be going towards ways to work with the new media, rather than trying to stop it. Technology doesn’t go backwards. I mean, you’ve got 10,000 kids who will download the new Fall Out Boy CD without even thinking about it, so rather than try to cut them off, figure out a way to get it into their hands! Don’t start suing them!

As for me, I have all of my music on iTunes and I shop on iTunes, eMusic, and in record stores, so yeah, I’m down with the mp3s. I always pay for music, though. For bands that I truly love, like NIN or The White Stripes, I always buy the actual CD because I like to read the lyrics and thank-yous and see the album art. If I just want a catchy summer song, I go to iTunes.

I do own records, too, and I have a little record player for them, but I don’t agree with the Vinyl Purists, as I call them. I don’t think mp3s are ruining music or making it disposable. I think mp3 technology is making music more accessible and now people have to dig a little more to separate the wheat from the chaff. And honestly, I don’t think it matters how a song is heard, just as long as someone hears it. A good song is a good song and will sound beautiful on an album, a CD, or on iTunes. The heart of the matter is the music, not the medium.

What are three things that you love?

1) The smell of a fireplace on gray, cold, windy days.
2) A letter my grandpa sent to me when I was at sixth-grade camp because he heard that I was homesick.
3) Ennio Morricone’s film score for The Mission.

What makes you unhappy?

When I doubt myself. I’m trying hard to trust my instincts, follow my gut, etc. But sometimes I start to think, "What if I’m wrong?" And all that self-doubt makes me frustrated and upset, which only creates more self-doubt, and the vicious cycle begins. I don’t like that.

You are already working on a second novel–is this a sequel, or does this work incorporate the same characters in any way? Will music still play a primary role?

I’m pretty emphatic that there won’t be a sequel for Audrey. I think the book stands well on its own two feet and I think that if there were to be a sequel, it would kill some of the spirit of the first book.

I can’t say too much about Book 2, but music doesn’t have as strong a role. It’s there, though–I don’t know how to write a book without music!

Visit Robin Benway’s website: http://www.robinbenway.com

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