The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: With the importance of music in your story, what is your personal connection to music, and what did you want your readers to feel from the musical journey they were taken on in your story?
David Nelson: Music has been a big force in my family ever since my dad took a music appreciation class before I was even born. I grew up listening to my dad’s radio stations – so basically classical, jazz, and oldies. Being from the Detroit area, there was a lot of Motown and some Bob Seger in there. It didn’t always grow on me or my brother (he’s a music teacher), but it really gave us a great foundation to sort of explore. In particular, for me, music has really been a device to bond with my family and my friends. A lot of my favorite memories have some kind of soundtrack. Lately, I’m really trying to get my 2-year-old niece to appreciate other kinds of music besides Disney songs. It’s a slow process.
For Tusk, I really wanted my readers to experience the ups and downs of a regular relationship, but filtered through the Fleetwood Mac album, Rumours. That was one of the albums my dad probably played when I was a kid. I remember discovering it on my own years later and saying, “I know these songs!” Everyone knows them. But if you listen to the album, and know a bit of the album’s backstory and lore, it’s a really tempestuous album. One song is upbeat and optimistic, and the next is about cheating on someone. There’s an undercurrent of insecurity in each song that seemed to reflect a lot of relationships I know (or have been in). I wanted readers to feel everything they feel in a relationship. And at the end, I wanted them to feel a bit of regret that it was all over.
RR: If you were to create a playlist for when you’re writing, what would make the cut?
DN: I can’t say there’s a single playlist for when I sit down and write. Honestly, it’s a matter of the story’s setting and place in time, and how serious or light-hearted the scene I’m writing is. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1970s. So a lot of my writing is accompanied by Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Talking Heads, Isaac Hayes, again depending on the scene and the mood, and depending on how concentrated I am, because lyrics can really get in the way sometimes. But when I’m writing a really serious scene and I really need to get into the mindset of a particular set of emotions, I use instrumental music. I listen to a lot of soundtracks, anything by Thomas Newman or Alexander Desplat. There’s an Estonian composer named Arvo Pärt who writes some very moody and reflective music that gets me pretty depressed when I need to be. A lot of times, silence is my best friend.
RR: Throughout the story, there is only an “I” and a “you” to act as the focal characters. What made you choose to present the story this way rather than using character names?
DN: Honestly, it came very naturally to me. I think I read a similar style story somewhere, and it sort of stuck in my brain. For Tusk, I really wanted a sense of intimacy. I wanted it to feel like you were reading the lyrics to a Fleetwood Mac song. I also felt that not giving the characters names gave them a certain universality.
RR: Could you tell us about the most memorable concert you’ve been to?
DN: Well, since Fleetwood Mac plays such an integral role in this story, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Fleetwood Mac. I went to their concert in Auburn Hills last year – it’s really where I got the idea for Tusk – and it was brilliant. I’m very sad I wasn’t alive to see Fleetwood Mac during their cocaine-fueled days of the ’70s/’80s, when Stevie basically had an exorcism during some of her songs onstage, but they can still rock. They’re all in their sixties and seventies, but they’re so full of energy and love for the music still. But I’d also have to say Paul McCartney. I saw him in Chicago at Lollapalooza, because how can you say no to a living Beatle? Even when you have to slog through the July heat and thousands of teenagers just to see him. There’s really no beating Paul McCartney singing “Hey, Jude” and thousands of people singing along with him and waving their arms. I’m getting chills just thinking about it again. And apart from that, it was a beautiful night with a full moon and the light from the city skyline. A few songs had pyrotechnics and fireworks, so that just added to the whole atmosphere. I’ll never forget it.
RR: What was the best advice you ever received concerning writing? Is there any
advice you would like to impart to our readers?
DN: The best advice I received was really specific to me and my writing, not just writing in general. Between high school and college, I wrote a lot of melodramatic fiction. I was a kid, so there were a lot of serial killers and kidnappings. I wrote a short story about a kid dating the daughter of a serial killer. Not a detective, cat-and-mouse thriller, but still a little over the top. I had a really great creative fiction professor named Danit Brown (her book “Ask for Convertible” is awesome, by the way!) who basically suggested I focus on real everyday issues, or as we called it in her class “breakfast table moments.” She told me that once I tried my hand at focusing on these relatable problems, really honing my skills on personal dynamics and relationships, I could probably find a broader range of topics I enjoyed writing about, while some day revisiting serial killers and kidnappings (I’m still waiting to do that) from a new perspective. The advice really created a shift in my writing and my outlook in general. So I think that might be my advice to pass along to readers of Rappahannock. Look for drama and tension down all sorts of avenues, even if the topics or characters you choose go against what you think your readers want to read about.