Today it is my pleasure to welcome to my blog best-selling crime author, Neil White to talk about his new novel Lost in Nashville which will be published by Manatee on November 9th. I found this novel to be a fascinating read and listened to quite a lot of the songs mentioned whilst reading.
About the Book
James Gray is a lawyer and his life is a success. Or at least, he thinks it is, but something is missing – a bond with his father, Bruce.
Bruce Gray is old, retired and estranged from his family. He spends his time drinking and drifting in the small seaside town in England that James once called home.
James decides to take Bruce on a road trip, to try and connect with his father through the one thing that has always united them: a love for Johnny Cash and his music. Together they travel through Johnny Cash’s life; where he grew up, the places he sang about – a journey of discovery about Johnny, the South and each other.
Always fascinating, an evocative and emotional road trip, Lost In Nashville will captivate you, inform you and along the way may even break your heart.
Lost In Nashville Q & A
1) I’m aware that you usually write crime fiction. Was this novel something you always wanted to do or did the death of Johnny Cash give you the inspiration? Or was there another influence?
It was the book I always wanted to write, because it was very personal.
My father was a Johnny Cash obsessive and, as I grew up, that was the music I heard. It was very much the soundtrack to my childhood and made me a fan. I got to the point where I thought that I needed to get on and write or I’ll never get round to it. It wasn’t inspired by Johnny’s death, but perhaps it gave the book a little more poignancy.
As a book, it took various forms as it evolved. My initial intention was to write as a Bill Bryson sort of book, a road trip, all factual, but as I tried to write I realised that my skills were not in that field.
I decided to fictionalise it, but then make it autobiographical, write it as if I’d taken my own father on the road trip. I finished that version and decided that there was too much of me in it, as the book was never meant to be about me. I fictionalised it even more, although elements of all its incarnations make it into the finished book.
2) Was the road-trip as emotional as it appeared at times in the novel?
Not really, I’m afraid to say, as I didn’t take my father with me, he was too infirm for that. Instead, I took a drinking buddy with me, someone I used to visit the States with before I had children. I told him that it was my trip, my route, so I would provide the hotels and car. All he needed was his air fare and some beer money.
He was fine with that, and I devised the route so that we’d be at wherever we were staying by around seven so that we could head to a bar.
The emotion I felt doing the trip was one of awe and wonder, because I was visiting places I’d only heard about in songs. To be a lifelong fan and to suddenly find yourself in Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, or staying in his motel room in Starkville, Mississippi, was amazing.
3) Did you write the books around the songs featured or was it the other way around?
Around the songs.
The book came about really because I was looking at a map to find Dyess, Arkansas, the town Johnny grew up in, out of idle curiosity. As I looked, I saw how close Memphis was, and then Starkville, where he based a song after spending a night in the drunk tank, and it occurred to me that I could travel his life by tracking his songs. The more I researched, the more song locations I found, and I realised I could do it in chronological order. Johnny Cash, cradle to grave told through his songs.
That’s how I came up with the idea of having each chapter based around a song, because I was visiting some places purely because of the song. Like Starkville, Mississippi. Or Canton, Mississippi, where Casey Jones died. Or Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the setting for Boy Named Sue. I just needed to wrap a story around it, and I tried to match the personal relationship between the characters in the book to the state of Johnny’s life at the time.
4) How difficult was it to choose the songs that you mention, and were there any that you felt that you couldn’t use?
Geography picked some, because it was a road trip. There were others where I had to be a little more creative. For instance, the characters pass through Selma, Alabama, on their way to Montgomery, the site of the Hank Williams Museum and the beginning of Hank’s last journey. Those places are more famous for the civil rights movement, but Johnny Cash didn’t write or sing any songs that were overtly in support of the movement. One of my favourite songs however, Orange Blossom Special, was released at the same time as Martin Luther King was trying to lead the marches from Selma to Montgomery, in February 1965. In those chapters, the characters talk and wonder why he didn’t outwardly support the civil rights marches, and they talk about the civil rights movement.
I would have loved to have extended the trip to include Washington DC, so I could have talked about Mr Garfield, Johnny’s song about the assassination of President Garfield, which seems to be very much a forgotten assassination. The site of the shooting is now part of a shopping mall. In the end, the distance was too great, because I wanted to end the trip in Nashville and at Johnny’s grave.
5) If you had to recommend one song to somebody who didn’t know his music which would it be?
Orange Blossom Special, for the songs he recorded in his heyday. It has the railroad rhythms that was the backbone to many of his songs and just flows along. And everyone knows Ring of Fire.
6) Did doing the road- trip make you think differently about Johnny? e.g. did you find out anything that you never knew before you went?
I didn’t find anything new because I had done a lot of the research in advance and the trip was really about visiting the places.
What I got out of it was just seeing the places he’d sung about. That was what I wanted from it, and I loved it.
What I realised too was how hugely popular he was, and how huge country music is. Every bar we were in when visiting Nashville played a Johnny Cash song at some point. The Johnny Cash Museum was the only one we queued for. The bars in Nashville got very busy, a band in every one, and they were singing cover songs and everyone knew the words and I knew I’d never heard them before. I understood how there is a huge scene that just isn’t seen over here.
7) Would you do a road-trip again for a different artist or author or do you feel that this was something you could only do once?
I couldn’t imagine doing a road trip for another artist but perhaps for a genre.
One part of the trip that I loved researching was the history behind the music, both the blues and the traditional country music, Johnny’s music being a mix of the two in some ways. My buddy and I had a great day roaming all the places of old blues legend in the Mississippi Delta, like Dockery Farms, or Greasy Street in Ruleville, or Tutwiler, or Robert Johnson’s grave. Much of it was run down but there was no denying it was atmospheric. Once we headed east, we toured the area around Clinch Mountain, where the original country artists lived and who gave us the “big bang” of country music in the legendary Bristol Sessions.
I’d love to do a book exploring the roots of country music, again as a road trip, or possibly the blues.
8) How exciting is it to be one of the first authors to be published by a new publisher?
Incredibly exciting. I knew the book would always be a difficult sell to mainstream publishers because there is too much Johnny Cash for the fiction publishers, and too much fiction for the music publishers. From the outset, Lisa Hall and Liz Wilkins from Manatee have been supportive of the book and wanted to publish it. They approached me, I didn’t approach them. I hope their faith is repaid.
For me, I just loved writing the book. As much as I enjoy writing crime fiction, and I want to keep on doing that, this book is very much a labour of love. I hope this comes across.
Many thanks to Neil for taking the time to answer my questions.
You can buy the book at amazon