Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, made the New York Times’ list of the “Top 10 Books of 2011.” Madonna and Simon & Garfunkel turned her on to music when she was growing up in Florida in the 1980s. As a teenager in the 1990s, she became passionate about grunge and alternative music – an interest that continues to this day. She teaches at Ithaca College.
RCM: What do you love about rock and roll?
Eleanor Henderson: A good rock song makes me feel connected to other human beings, alive in the face of death. A good rock song makes me want to both stand up and dance and sit down and write, because there’s only so much time left to make art.
RCM: What are the first rock songs and/or albums that changed your life and got you hooked on music?
EH: My first cassette was Madonna’s True Blue, which I got for Christmas in 1985, along with a pink radio to play it on. But not much later I became infatuated with my parents’ old folk and rock records from the ’60s – especially Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends and Sounds of Silence. I learned to value the poetry of songwriting by studying Simon & Garfunkel’s lyrics.
Like my main character Jude and his little sister in my novel, I could proudly recite 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Even though Jude and his crew produce music that couldn’t be more different from Sounds of Silence - for him, that’s the point – the music of our parents’ era had an indelible impact on him, and the same is true for me and for many others.
RCM: What are some of your favorite bands and/or artists, and what do you love most about them?
EH: I was a grunge girl in high school. I grew up in palatial, air-conditioned concert halls seeing The Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Stone Temple Pilots. Later, my husband Aaron’s more mature tastes gave me an appreciation for the ’80s bands I’d seen as opening acts -Sonic Youth, Red Kross, Meat Puppets – all of whom had influenced the ’90s alternative wave in the first place. Today, I still listen to all of them, as well as Wilco and the White Stripes – the two bands in whom I hear the most echoes of the ’60s. They’re bold, they’re emotional, they’re playful, they’re surprising, and their lyrics are as thoughtful as their music is soulful.
RCM: What’s your own favorite rock and roll novel?
EH: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. She’s said that she wanted to write a book about time, and that nothing cuts across time like music. This idea is beautifully illustrated in her book, which really does require the kind of obsessive concentration and emotional implication that a concept album does.
RCM: What goes into the writing of a great rock and roll novel?
EH: I think a good rock novel does cut through time: it’s not just a snapshot of a particular band or style or period, but a moving picture of a generation’s connection to the past and the future.
RCM: What inspired you to write about rock and roll?
EH: I didn’t set out to write a rock novel. I wanted to write about the straight-edge scene, and in the late 80s, the music was the scene. Virtually everyone involved in straight-edge was in a band.
I wanted to capture the dizziness of the movement and the unbelievable pace of the music, harder and faster than anything before or after.
RCM: Ten Thousand Saints features a band – the Green Mountain Boys – that comes from the straight edge scene in New York in the late 1980s. Why did you choose to write about this scene and this period?
EH: My husband was involved in the scene in New York at that time, going to shows at clubs like CBGB and the Ritz. In my mind, the late ’80s youth crew era was a certain kind of heyday for straight edge. Aaron’s stories of that period – the intensity, the violence, the community, the fun – always intrigued me. And the fact that these kids slamming their bodies around a thousand miles an hour were singing about things like brotherhood and justice – well, that paradox was a story in itself.
It wasn’t until I was well into the novel that I became interested in the idea that the choices these kids were making about sex, drugs, and rock and roll had everything to do with the flower child generation they were rebelling against.
RCM: What bands inspired the Green Mountain Boys?
EH: The Green Mountain Boys model themselves after Youth of Today – particularly Johnny, who follows the path to Krishnacore, as Youth of Today frontman Ray Cappo did. I listened to plenty of Youth of Today and Minor Threat while writing the novel, though I don’t recommend it as a practice. The muse is much more likely to visit when Sounds of Silence is playing.
RCM: Why do you think that rock writing – and, more specifically, the rock novel – has traditionally been the domain of male writers?
EH: I’m interested in this question myself, but I don’t know the answer. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that rock and rock has traditionally been the domain of male musicians. Why is joining a band as common a rite of male passage as playing a sport?
RCM: Do you feel like you, Dana Spiotta, and Jennifer Egan have broken new ground as women authors writing about rock and roll?
EH: I’m honored to be included in the same sentence with these two, and to enjoy the rock novel’s mini renaissance with them. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it does seem curious that all of us are writing about male musicians and the women who surround them.
I wrote Ten Thousand Saints from the position of a groupie – a girl who grew up with crushes on guys who played guitar. I guess we all wanted to finally say, “I’m with the band.”
Eleanor Henderson’s novel Ten Thousand Saints, which made the New York Times’ list of the “Top 10 Books of 2011,” is available from Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Amazon.com, and Powell’s. Signed copies are also available. For ordering information go to Eleanor Henderson’s website HERE.
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