Peter Bognanni’s debut novel, The House of Tomorrow, centers on Sebastian, an awkward teen living in a dome in the middle of Iowa. His life is forever changed when he meets Jared, a punk-loving teen with a heart transplant, he is transformed in no small part by the power of punk rock. It seems only fitting that Bognanni should do an InDialogue with an artist as sprawling, and with as diverse of interests as Franz Nicolay. Nicolay is a Brooklyn-based musician who has played with a number of bands including The Hold Steady and World Inferno Friendship Society (not to mention his 2009 solo release Major General). Nicolay is also a writer (he has two stories in this issue of InDigest), and is no stranger to the transformative power of punk rock.
Bognanni and Nicolay sat down for an InDialogue chat a couple months back to discuss the release of The House of Tomorrow, geodesic domes, banjos, the Bushwick Book Club, and more. –Dustin Luke Nelson
Peter Bognanni: Franz?
Franz Nicolay: Hey there.
PB: Yes, technological success!
FN: It works!
PB: I never really use this? Are you a “chatter?”
FN: Nope. Sometimes as a supplement to Skype if a connection is bad…
PB: Okay, good. So we’ll both be equally awkward and stilted.
My folks were back-to-nature artists in the late 70s, and a couple who were there friends lived in a dome in seacoast New Hampshire.
PB: No kidding. One of the things I’ve been most surprised about when telling people about the book is how many have told me something like that. They either were or knew dome-dwellers at some point.
But your parents never built one, huh?
FN: Not a dome specifically. But my dad experimented with different building techniques – he went to a program in Maine that was intended to teach non-architects how to design and build their own homes, and built three structures on our property – a 2-story saltbox cabin, a larger house farther up the mountain, and a funny little building on cement stilts based on a “starplate” connector – six-sided metal connecters that made the whole thing look like an oversized Dungeons and Dragons die.
PB: That sounds amazing. I have to admit that I didn’t grow up in a translucent geodesic dome like my protagonist. But I did attend a high school dance in one. The Des Moines botanical gardens are housed in a giant geo-dome. So, in the end, I probably experienced as much humiliation as Sebastian in one of those structures. Also, I just toured a series of domes in Northern Minnesota. This guy I met has about six on his property. Including a dome horse barn. I believe he’s also built a dome for Ricky Martin.
FN: Part of a larger utopian sensibility at the time, I guess. The “Whole Earth Catalog” mindset. Was Buckminster Fuller a particular interest of yours or was it more of an idealist foil for the teenage punks? Or both?
PB: I think it was a convergence of interests really. I’ve always been interested in oddball historical figures, but I didn’t really become aware of Bucky until shortly before writing the book. Jared was the character who came first actually, and some of the material about starting a band and the obsessive interest in punk is a little closer to my young adulthood. It all came together when I was at a party and my wife met someone who told her he had grown up in a geodesic dome with his grandmother. She told me on the car ride home and something clicked. I started writing in that voice the next day, and I knew the Jared sections would make a good contrast. So thinking of them as foils is a good way to describe it.
I think I read in an interview that you came to punk a little later. What kind of music were you interested in as a teenager?
FN: I was pretty culturally isolated – we didn’t have a television until I was in 8th grade or so, and never had cable or MTV, so what I had access to was pretty mainstream, what was in Rolling Stone and what they carried in the CD store a few towns over, Pearl Jam and all that. My friend Ken and I tried to go to shows when we could and search out music, but the closest concerts were in Massachusetts and Portland, so our sense of what was incredibly obscure was stuff like Mercury Rev and Mark Lanegan solo records.
I didn’t start going to proper club shows and punk shows until I got to New York for college. But then there was a lot of catch-up work to do, which suited my obsessiveness.
PB: I grew up in Iowa, so I can completely relate. I was lucky enough to have some really cool friends, who took roadtrips to Chicago just to buy records. And they came back with catalogues. I think my taste went from Metallica to Nirvana to the Pixies to Pavement in something like six months. And New York punk was always hanging around the fringes.
I really love the diversity of musical styles on Major General. Where do you think your interest in playing so many instruments and coming at songwriting in so many ways came from?
FN: My first college roommate was a New Jersey punk, so he got me started with Misfits and Dead Milkmen records, and taking me to ska shows at the Wetlands. He played drums in a jokey ska-punk band called Hëft, with an umlaut over the e, and had a buddy named Aphid with a little pink mohawk who used to come by a lot.
Anyway, part of it is I get bored easily, and part of it is a way of tricking myself. Every time I pick up a new instrument that I don’t play very well, I write a bunch of songs as part of the learning process. And I can rediscover simple chord progressions, like, I would never let myself write a song that goes G-C on a piano, but I can easily stumble upon that if I’m teaching myself to play banjo.
PB: That actually sounds similar to the way a lot of writers I know try to make their work fresh. A new perspective, a new element of technique can make you rethink a story entirely, or even what you want to say as a writer. For instance, I think I said things about the world through Sebastian’s voice that I would never say as “myself.” Yet, a lot of what he thinks about/talks about in the book ended up being pretty close to the way I often see the world. Who knows if I would have gotten to those observations without the formal element of figuring out his voice. Also, I think boredom might be the great motivating force in art. Too grand a statement?
FN: There’s all kinds of mundane ways that art gets made, and reasons it gets made. I mean, another reason for being ok at a bunch of different instruments, and a handful of genres, rather than really good at just one, is so that I could take more gigs. And the more I can do myself in the studio, the less people I have to hire.
Maybe restlessness is a better term than boredom in that context.
I mean, if you’re a full-time musician, or writer, you’ve got all day. And days are damn long, eventually you gotta do SOMETHING, even if Inspiration’s not striking. There’s only so much on the internet.
PB: Could be. That restlessness is actually one of the hardest things about writing a novel. I started off writing mostly short stories (as I know you do too). When you’re working on short fiction, you may spend months on a story, but eventually you can move on and satisfy your curiosity in a new way. With a novel, you’re in it for the long haul. But that’s also what makes a novel so exciting to work on. You have to find ways to keep fresh and vital as you move forward.
Ah, and as far as the internet goes, I think I have looked at everything on it in between working on writing.
FN: It’s a challenge. I’ve never stayed in a band for more than five years, for more or less that reason, which I’m not sure is a positive. It means I’ve rarely had to be involved in music I didn’t feel strongly about, but it also means that in each case I was only there for one, shall we say, bend of the creative arc of the group, and maybe they would have developed in unpredictable ways. But it’s a different case working with other people with strong opinions of their own. Have you ever tried writing collaboratively? Can that ever work?
PB: I think it would be pretty impossible for fiction, which is just so internal and personal. But I have worked with a director friend on some screenplays. And that process can be really challenging in a good way. Rarely are we actually writing in the same room, but there’s a sort of back and forth about what’s generally working and what’s not that’s really honest and respectful (most of the time). I imagine that kind of process is similar to writing a song with a band. Do you usually write most of the music before you bring it to a group of musicians (I’m thinking of your solo work here) or does it develop with the musicians in practice?
FN: Well, if it’s coming out under my name, by definition I’m ultimately responsible for having the content ready in advance, if only not to waste peoples’ time. But I’ve made a point of playing with people who I know are the kind of musicians who are incapable of just shutting up and playing, that will tell me if they think a section isn’t as strong as it needs to be and take it upon themselves to fix it to their satisfaction. I like to think I’m that kind of player on other peoples’ projects too, though not everyone wants that kind of input, which is fine. In a general way, though, I don’t think my, or most peoples’ visions are so absolute that they don’t benefit from some sort of third-party input. In World/Inferno Friendship Society, we had at least seven people (out of a nine-piece band) who were songwriters, and opinionated songwriters at that, so it was like running a gauntlet to bring in material. Every song had to pass each person’s “this sucks” filter. Which meant it was a slow process, but that at the end we had a really polished thing.
The counter-example to that, though, is that you can end up with a lowest-common-denominator thing where no-one objects to a song, or that there’s only one kind of song that you can agree on and you end up writing variations on that.
PB: I’m curious about songwriting as it relates to prose writing. I know you’re working on some collections of short stories. A lot of the songs on Major General were very narrative. Do a lot of them begin as “stories” at least in your head, before you chisel them down to songs?
FN: Definitely they began as stories, and they still are stories – especially “World/Inferno Vs. The End Of The Evening,” and a few others are stories that I may still explore at greater length on the page. The first section of “His Dad’s Balls” from the story collection actually began life as a song, which itself began as a response to a story for the Bushwick Book Club (which is a songwriter collective I’ve been doing this year where every month we all read the same book and write songs about it). I mean, I’ve got a limited number, ultimately, of good stories, right? And I want to tell them the right way, and so sometimes I have to try it both ways. Now, that said, it’s really freeing for me to write prose, since I can be more indulgent verbally and descriptively in a way that just doesn’t work as song lyrics, for reasons of rhythm but also of the aesthetics of songwriting, which (Dylan notwithstanding) don’t really reward waves and waves of adjectives and metaphors. Maybe prose doesn’t either, but as a kind of amateur writer I feel more comfortable indulging myself in that kind of florid writing.
I’d be curious, for example, to see how John Darnielle would write his songs as prose.
At what point could you tell that House of Tomorrow was going to be a longer-form piece? Or was it always conceived that way?
PB: I think I always knew with House that it was going to be a novel. But that decision is not dissimilar to what you were just saying about finding the right way or best way to bring a story to life. I still wonder when I’m beginning something if it would work best as a short story, a humor piece, or if it, perhaps, has enough depth to go the distance as something longer. I’ve read some devastating book reviews where the critic says something like “Well, that book would have been better as a short story.” Whenever I read that, I think “Ouch, that’s like a three year project you just said could have been distilled into something that would have taken a couple months.” But sometimes they’re right. So, you have to think about that. I’m sure we’ve both read short stories that we would have followed for another 400 pages, or novels that we felt like could have been amazing novellas, say. How to tell a story length-wise, form-wise, etc, is kind of paralyzing. Ultimately you just have to jump in and trust the process. Or weep. Or quit, I guess.
FN: Yup, if failure is an option, best not to try!
I think there’s a Homer Simpson quote to that effect.
PB: My mom is a librarian and she always said I’d make a good one. So, I always have that to fall back on. At least I’d be around books all day.
FN: Man, that has always been my alternate-universe dream job. I had a job for a few years that included administering a library of old manuscript scores at Lincoln Center, and it was just so peaceful, down in the stacks. Sounds like being an actual librarian is a lot more hectic than that, though. Oh well.
PB: Yeah, a lot of my writer friends are going for their MLS so they won’t have to teach comp anymore. They’d rather hang out in the stacks and have no papers to grade.
FN: As long as there are stacks to hang out in. My impression of library sciences programs are that they’re intensely focused on digital management.
PB: So hey, I actually have to meet with a student here in second. Can I ask a parting question? Is there a song out there that you wish was a novel?
The reverse might be interesting too.
FN: I know I already mentioned John Darnielle, but there are any number of Mountain Goats songs that would make great stories or novels. What about you?
PB: Yes, I hear you on the Mountain Goats. In fact, The Best Death Metal band in Denton was an inspiration for my book. But I’ll go the other way. I’d love to hear Frankenstein as a power ballad.
FN: Totally. Manowar could knock that one out of the park.
As far as the reverse, it’s tough to imagine a lot of novels in song form. Stories a little easier – I’ve been reading that Lydia Davis collection that just came out, and I can picture a few of those as great little snapshot songs.
PB: There are some gothic novels out there just waiting to rock stadiums.
Sorry I have to run.
FN: Good talking to you.
PB: Yeah, this was fun. Be sure to shoot me a line if you come through the Twin Cities on tour.
FN: Will do.
PB: Cool. Enjoy the rest of your day.