Editor’s Note: David Arnold is the NYT bestselling author of Mosquitoland (which was one of Paste’s favorite Young Adult books of 2015) and Kids of Appetite. He has also written a short story inspired by Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” for a new YA anthology. Titled Behind the Song, the anthology features 14 stories and essays celebrating music. In honor of Behind the Song’s release today, we asked Arnold to write about his journey from an aspiring musician to a professional novelist.
When I was 14, I traded two CDs for my first guitar: Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. (Silverchair and Nirvana held firm their spot atop my CD tower, but Hootie and Alanis had been hovering near the bottom; it was time to pull the trigger.) The guitar was one of those half-pint deals, a few frets short of a full neck, crafted for kids with near-mythical ambitions of claiming a seat at the right hand of the rock gods. I had long hair and a t-shirt that read, “I am a nerd,” so my hands were tied. And so began my epic journey (two words that cause me great anguish when combined, so you know I must really mean both “epic” and “journey”) from the listless streets of my suburban childhood to streets paved with gold records and unmitigated, glistening rockstardom.
That was the plan, anyway.
Even in the early days, I thought of the guitar as a means to some almighty end. Friends of mine (‘90s rock kids with unwashed hair and Teen Spirit galore) spoke of shredding and Page solos and jam sessions. My rebellious secret: I didn’t care about shredding. I thought Page was great, but not because of his solos, and when the jam sesh was in full swing, when that circle of guitars looked to me, I rode out a few bars with the appropriately pained look on my face—something between a soulful smile and an indication of intestinal discomfort—and pretended I was into it.
I wasn’t. At all.
Eventually, with the guitar as my means, I figured out what that almighty end was: the song. After school, I would shut myself in my room and fill up my notebooks until dinner. My guitar became more of a tool than a musical instrument, and just as a doctor wouldn’t name their stethoscope, or a contractor wouldn’t tuck in their drill at night, I did not personify my tool. It was a machine, one I would take care of so long as it took care of me.
That machine got me through high school and college, and when the day came to set out and seek my fortune, I knew exactly which road to take. (I mean it was paved in gold records, kind of hard to miss.) I packed up my tool and my near-mythical ambitions, and I moved to Nashville with a band and the assurance that we would succeed where so many had failed. We would claim our seat at the right hand of the rock gods.
That was the plan, anyway.
We broke up six months later. I stayed, kept my head down, kept my tool close, kept filling up my notebooks until dinner. I was in a number of bands, but the last was also the best. We were called The Champion and His Burning Flame, and we had a good run. When the run ended, I told my wife, “I guess that’s it.” And she said, “No, I don’t think it is.” So I shifted into film composition, and things went well for a while. And then, when we discovered we were going to have a baby, I shrugged, looked at my wife, and said, “Okay, well, now that’s it.” And she said, “Nope, I’m afraid not.” So I said, “Hmm,” and she said, “Yeah,” and that’s how I became the ultimate cliché: a stay-at-home dad who, because he could not record music over the cries of an infant, and because his wife would not let him quit writing on some level, decided it was time to write that novel.
Pretty early on, it became clear I’d gotten it wrong: the almighty end wasn’t the song. It was the writing.
I write novels now. (A sentence I still can’t believe, but there it is, in all its preposterous truth.) And while I still record the occasional song, music is very much a passenger on this EPIC JOURNEY OF LIFE (grimace). Even so, it’s a persistent passenger. In my first novel, Mosquitoland, I thank the late Elliott Smith for teaching me that an honest voice is more compelling than a pretty one. Arcade Fire’s reckless abandon very much informed my second book, Kids of Appetite. And the main character in my third book, The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik (out May 2018), is obsessed with David Bowie. So when I was invited to contribute to an anthology of short stories based on songs (Behind the Song), it was an obvious yes. Music, it seems, is determined not to be relegated to the proverbial bottom shelf of the CD tower, and in that way, it has become something like a pleasant gnat buzzing around my head, the only one of its kind to successfully transition from annoying pest to loving pet.
I never got that gold record, and—to anyone other than my five-year-old son (and this will soon come to a grinding halt, I know)—I am not an unmitigated, glistening rockstar. Instead, I get to create characters, tell stories, live in other worlds, travel around meeting book people. People who understand the redeeming power of fiction, who know that the cultivation of empathy is the first and most important step toward solving the problems of our own world, and who understand the intersection of fiction and empathy. In this way, I have come to the conclusion that no matter how many novels I write, and no matter what my contribution may be to literature, I can never give books what books have given me.
So thanks, Hootie and Alanis—for the tunes, the croons, the questionable definitions. But mostly, thanks for understanding your role at the bottom of my CD tower, for answering the call of duty when I stumbled across a garbage guitar, and for being the first domino in what I hope is a very long career in creating, and being shaped, by words.
That’s the plan, anyway.