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Words, Music, and More Words 

John Wesley Harding, handsome singer-songwriter and now, annoyingly, big-time novelist

Thursday, Nov 6 2003
Photo by Brendan Bernhard

When John Wesley Harding wrote a song back in 1997 called “Miss Fortune,” he couldn’t have imagined just how much fortune it would bring him. No, it didn’t win the British singer-songwriter a Grammy or become a hit single; instead, it became a novel. A long novel, and by all accounts a strikingly good one. As yet, though, few people have read it. That will change in the fall of next year when Little, Brown publishes Misfortune under Harding’s real name, Wesley Stace.

The day I meet him in New York, Stace, a slender, animated 38-year-old with prematurely gray hair, has just put the full stop on what he calls the novel’s “first post–Little, Brown contract edit” — which is to say, the first he’s done in conjunction with his editor, Judy Clain. It’s also the first time he’s had the whole book in one file on his computer. No wonder he wants to have a beer. And the Brooklyn Inn, a favorite haunt of New York writers such as David Gates, Jonathan Lethem and Gilbert Sorrentino, would seem to be the perfect place to do it.

So what’s the novel about? I ask as we sit down in a corner of the dark, almost empty bar late on a warm September afternoon. To answer that question, Stace leads me back to the song, an almost cheerfully wistful, characteristically melodic number whose opening lines contain the novel in miniature:

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I was born with a coathanger in my mouth, Oh yeah, and I was dumped down south. I was found by the richest man in the world, Oh yeah, who brought me up as a girl. . .

“A lot of people reacted to that first line,” Stace says. “It was such a kick in the teeth. And I felt very close to the character in the song, this little baby boy thrown into the world, put in girls’ clothes and given to the richest man in the world. It was this weird sort of Dickensian scenario, and I just felt that I had unfinished business.”

Even further back than the song, though, lay a childhood memory. One day when Stace was 8 years old, he went with his father to buy eggs from an old married couple who ran a farm. It did not escape the young boy’s notice that both members of the couple were men, one of whom was dressed in women’s clothes. The image, he says, never left him. Another early memory, of seeing a tramp on the street wearing a man’s shoe on one foot and a woman’s on the other, also stayed with him. From such seemingly inconsequential seeds a 33-line song and then a 200,000-word novel were born.

Most of Misfortune takes place between 1820 and 1839. Clain describes it as a kind of “Gothic soap opera, but clever,” one that uses the conventions of 19th-century fiction and gives them a modern twist. The abandoned baby is found by a Lord Lovehall, who names him Rose in the belief or hope that he can serve as a replacement for his dead sister. It’s not until he’s 10 that Rose realizes he’s really a boy, and he is ultimately banished from the house, not only for being the wrong sex but for being an outsider to the family and therefore unable to inherit. Or so it seems — the book has a big, complicated plot.

“What’s wonderful about the book,” says Clain, who likens it to A.S. Byatt’s Possession, “is that it heightens the normal adolescent feeling of thinking you’re someone you aren’t to a very strange degree. It’s a quest to figure out who you are, with all these amazing twists and turns, and it’s brilliant on the historical details of food and clothing and class. With a lot of historical fiction I can never understand why someone would write about a period in such a dry way. I’d rather be reading Dickens. But this has a fantastic voice and all these fanciful moments that are completely unexpected. You’re reading along and suddenly it switches viewpoint and turns into something totally different.”

Stace himself says he was inspired by novelists like Dickens and Trollope, and likens the book to such recent period gender-benders as Tipping the Velvet and The Crimson Petal and the White. “It’s like hardcore Masterpiece Theatre,” he jokes. “A lot of bodices get ripped, and it’s the guy wearing them!”

To research the book, he studied such disparate topics as transvestite clubs in 19th-century London, 18th-century printing techniques, the myths of Ovid, visionary poets like William Blake, country houses, and the way old ballads were written and printed. He did a lot of the reading while on the road touring, when he was unable to write.

“The one lesson in all this is use your spare time wisely,” he says. “I could have been taking drugs!”

 

By most people’s standards, Stace has had a pretty successful career as a singer-songwriter. He has put out 10 albums, tours frequently and never plays to an empty room. If he hasn’t had a bona fide hit (though his song “I’m Wrong About Everything” was featured on the soundtrack of the movie High Fidelity), he nonetheless enjoys a fiercely loyal fan base and plenty of critical plaudits. Not a bad way to make a living, in other words. But when his accountant saw the two-book deal that Little, Brown had offered him, he advised his client to start thinking of music as his hobby and writing as his day job. Given that one of Stace’s own idols, Leonard Cohen, decided to write songs because he’d gone broke writing novels, that’s quite a compliment.

For Stace himself, conducting business with publishers rather than record companies has been pure pleasure. He showed his novel to three different agents simultaneously, all three wanted to represent it, and he sold it in two weeks. Jennifer Walsh, the William Morris agent who ended up snagging him, wouldn’t say what the novel sold for but described the deal as “huge.” “When you meet with the music companies,” he says, “they haven’t looked at your demo, they don’t care, and they think you’re going to heist them. When you meet with the publishers, not only have they read it, but they’ve already put a bid on the table. It’s a completely positive experience!”

It’s also indicative of a publishing world which places a great deal of importance on image and performance. When even pathologically shy authors are wheeled out before the public, an author who’s toured with the likes of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen makes for an exciting commercial package.

“It’s a huge bonus having someone like Wes who knows how to get up in front of a crowd, who’s been in the world and knows how to promote something,” says Clain. “That was part of what excited me about him.” Since one of the book’s themes is balladry (Stace has long had a scholarly interest in the subject, nurtured through years of prowling secondhand book stores), there’s even a chance that he may bring his guitar along to the readings. He’s done gigs at Borders in the past, so why not?

Although word is finally getting out, until recently very few people knew that Stace had written a book. Not telling people that he was writing a novel was a deliberate policy on his part. “I didn’t want to be the person who was just endlessly writing a novel,” he explains. “I just wanted to be a person who could say, ‘You know what? I’ve written a novel and it’s coming out.’ So people were quite shocked by it. A lot of my closest friends didn’t know about it, hadn’t read it, and now they’re reading it.”

So is this for keeps? I ask. Should we expect to see a lot more novels from Wesley Stace? Absolutely, he replies, though he concedes that writing the first one stretched him “to the very limits” of his capability. He’s already got fairly detailed plans for a couple more. One was inspired by a Werner Herzog documentary about Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian composer from the Renaissance, and the other will have something to do with his grandfather, who was a conjurer, and his grandmother, who was his assistant. Anyway, he adds, “You don’t just write one novel — particularly if your publisher’s bought two!”

 

John Wesley Harding performs at All Tomorrow’s Parties on November 8. See Concerts for details.

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