This month the long-awaited first novel from Asheville arts writer Alli Marshall will be celebrated with a rockin’ good launch at Malaprop’s.
How to Talk to Rockstars is not an autobiographic tale, but it does uncover the soul of someone, like Alli, who passionately loves music. “In my personal life music plays a lot of different roles,” she says, “motivation, inspiration, mood enhancer. I have different play lists for whatever I’m doing.” She sees her novel as “a love letter to music and the power of music. In some ways, it’s my ‘thank you’ to all the musicians I’ve met over the years.”
Rockstars is a “quiet” novel, meaning there’s not much action, no murders or kidnappings, in fact, no one even falls off stage. It is, however, an exciting, can’t-put-down read, thanks to its raw look at the inner workings of a creative person. Bryn is a rare heroine, a female music writer in an industry populated mostly by men.
With no friends, female or male, Bryn spends most of her days, and nights, very much alone. Why did Alli make Bryn so solitary? “The really wonderful thing about music and why so many of us gravitate to it,” says Alli, “is because it creates community. Going to a show, even just listening to music, you’re with other people. I wanted Bryn to be alone to underscore the role of music.”
Born in western New York, Alli came to Asheville to attend Woodrow Wilson College, where she received a B.A. in Human Studies. Then off to Goddard College in Vermont for her MFA in Creative Writing in 2000. Back in Asheville, she was a barista at Malaprop’s when one of her essays was found by Melanie McGee-Bianchi, then the arts editor at Mountain Xpress. Alli was invited to join the newspaper’s arts team and she’s been there ever since. Now she is the arts editor, still writing, but also giving assignments to other writers.
In Rockstar, Bryn fills her time with intense conversations she imagines having with people she barely talks to. This internal dialogue is so emotional it makes the novel seem crowded. I identify with Bryn because I do the same thing. And so does Alli. As a child, when she told her father she was always talking to people in her head, he said, “Well, seems like you’re meant to be a writer.”
“I wondered if people would relate to Bryn and how internal much of her life is,” says Alli. “Her voice kept speaking to me through all the months of writing.” The book began as a novella and went through four drafts before taking final form. “Bryn was telling me it was a story that needed to be told — it was like she was sending me letters about what happened to the people she interviewed.”
In real life, being interviewed by Alli Marshall is an absolute must for any musician who wants to make an impact in Asheville. Alli usually interviews by phone, for a half hour. But even after doing almost 500 (!) interviews, Alli doesn’t find it easy. “It still causes me a lot of anxiety,” she admits. “Sometimes I’m hyperventilating right before an interview.”
When I asked Alli for her definition of a rockstar, she gave me such an extraordinary answer that it changed my whole conception of what music means to people “A rockstar is an archetype,” she says, “a persona and image, a kind of performance art created to remind audiences of our own inner wildness, the life of the soul that is greater than day-to-day mundaneness.” To follow that idea even farther, she adds, “I’d say a rockstar is almost shamanic, connecting to the creative source and channeling that energy to the audience…there is a sense of ritual around concerts and festivals. These are the places we go to escape our ordinary lives and participate in a dream of something more magnificent. It’s where we recharge, find community, feel free. And rockstars are the conductors of those ceremonies.”
Her favorite rockstars of all time? Mark Bolan (1947-1977), the front man of English glam rock group T. Rex, was “the ultimate rock star,” a singer-songwriter, a guitarist and a brilliant poet. “Then there’s Alabama-born blues legend Wille Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926-1984),” who made “Hound Dog” a hit in 1953, three years before Elvis Presley came out with his version. “And, of course, Janis Joplin,” (1943-1970), the American singer-songwriter “Queen of Psychedelic Soul.”
Her favorite current rockstars? “Britt Daniel of Spoon, out of Austin, Texas, is really incredible,” Alli says. “And Joseph Arthur (from Akron, Ohio) who performed here in the fall, is the most underrated musician currently, so talented, but never became famous and deserves more acclaim.”
Local rock stars? “Oh, Seth Kauffman of Floating Action in Black Mountain. His whole persona, how he appreciates creativity and the type of music he puts out — he’s just terrific. I’m a big fan.”
Who do you want to interview but haven’t yet? “That would be Beck,” she says the American singer-songwriter, musician, and producer. “Our careers have taken similar turns — he started music when I started writing. And he doesn’t do a lot of interviews. We’d have a great conversation!”
How to Talk to Rockstars, written by Alli Marshall, Logosophia Books (2015), soft cover, 201 pp. Visit www.alli-marshall.com
How to Talk to Rockstars with author Alli Marshall. Friday, May 15, 2015 at 7 p.m. Malaprop’s Café and Books, 55 Haywood Street, downtown Asheville. Call (828) 254-6734, or visit www.Malaprops.com