Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we talked to Bill See, a mainstay on the Los Angeles music and writing community since the mid-80s, about his writing and his upcoming novel Everything That Came Before Grace: A Father-Daughter Story (read the review here).
Bill See has been a mainstay on the Los Angeles music and writing community since the mid-80s. He was the founder and front man of seminal indie rock band Divine Weeks releasing four critically acclaimed records and touring extensively. Based on journals he kept on Divine Weeks’ first national tour in 1987, Bill released his debut on the road, coming of age docu-novel, “33 Days: Touring in a Van, Sleeping on Floors, Chasing a Dream” in 2011. His new novel, “Everything That Came Before Grace: A Father-Daughter Story” comes out December 1, 2020.
Audiobook Podcast: https://anchor.fm/etcbg
Tell us about your new book.
It’s about a guy called Benjamin who’s this music-obsessed, wannabe writer and single father who’s desperately trying to keep his mental illness under control while raising his daughter. He’s also just found out the only girl he ever loved is getting married to his ex-best friend who he lost her to a decade earlier. He can’t let go of this idea that they were meant to be together and that poses the question whether it’s love or fatherhood that could save him.
Tell us a little about how this story first came to be. Did it start with an image, a voice, a concept, a dilemma or something else?
A few years ago, I bumped into this stranger I’d met on 9/11. We’d both brought our young kids to a park to escape the horrible news of that morning. It was just the two of us sitting on a bench. We got to talking and shared our fears, our hopes and dreams. I’d been going through a hard time in the early days of fatherhood, and I told him I thought I was starting to lose it. He told me to go all in on fatherhood and cast every distraction aside and that I could hold on to sanity by being the dad I never had. I’ll never forget that. Anyway, I ran into him years later, and we were both like, “Hey, it’s you, isn’t it?” When I dropped that character into the story everything started to come together.
Your first book, “33 Days,” was a true story of your band Divine Weeks’ first tour in the late 80s. Why the break of almost a decade between that book and this new one?
Well, they say everyone has one book in them. The question is do you have two? What happened was the healing that came from writing “33 Days” was the catalyst for my band Divine Weeks’ reunion, so that tied me up for a few years. After the last ever Divine Weeks show in February 2019, I was desperate to jump into the next big thing. I’d been walking around with this idea about a single father who’s trying to stave off madness by turning to music and going all in on fatherhood. Pretty much obsessed over it for the next two years and here we are.
There’s a heavy emphasis on the struggle parents go through. The difficultly of pre-empty nest syndrome. The struggle to see your kid for who they really are in real time.
I loved that movie Eighth Grade. It was the first movie that depicted parenting in a way that made me cringe – in the best of ways. It was so spot on. That got me thinking about the internal struggle for a lot of parents. This dual existence: one that exists outside that you share with your kid that and try to keep the lid on all your craziness. And the other where your dreams and desires exist. And how we reconcile those two worlds is Benjamin’s central struggle at the heart of his journey. Can he keep it together long enough to get his daughter Sophia safely off to college? Can he protect her from the demons that run through his bloodline? Can he get her into the lifeboat? And all the while he asks himself how much is he entitled to enjoy? Can he give himself a chance to love again? Can he give himself permission to chase his dreams?
Without giving away too much, we find though Benjamin’s sessions with his therapist Cassandra that a lot of his issues and obsessions might be illusions.
Yes. In fact, he knows very well his thinking may be flawed; that all his sacrifices may not be sound. But he doesn’t know any other way, and he’s too scared to take his foot off the accelerator. And I think one of the things I was really trying to get across to the reader was, hey, you have a greater moral compass and stability to see what’s right and wrong than the guy who’s telling the story. Which presented certain challenges for a first person narrative. I had to create ways for the other characters to express themselves. Like in emails and texts and diary entries.
It’s very much an L.A. story, isn’t it? The people that enjoyed “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” because of all the classic L.A. landmarks in the film will probably enjoy how you take the reader along Sunset Boulevard past the Roxy and the Whiskey and then into the industrial parts of downtown L.A. looking for old watering holes like Cole’s, Al’s Bar and the King Eddy. Or, all those drives up the coast, or to the iconic restaurants.
I think all writers should write about things they love to read. I’ve always loved movies and books that cast a city as another character in the story. In “33 Days,” the van was kind of its own character. In this book, Benjamin drives around a lot listening to music lost in thought. His car is like an isolation chamber with a soundtrack playing while he looks out at the people in his city moving on with their lives, and he increasingly realizes how much he’s been missing.
Speaking of music. You name-check 137 songs throughout the book. Some are very well-known older songs like “God Only Knows” or “Waterloo Sunset.” Others are more obscure indie-rock gems like Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best” and Guided by Voices’ “I Am A Scientist.”
Well, a lot of my friends will recognize parts of Benjamin as myself. I mean, he is a music obsessed wannabe writer. Hello? The way he makes mixtapes all the time, and finds comfort in music. I mean, turning to music as a kind of sanctuary is pretty much my life. But beyond that, I think it’s cool to try and drop music into a book the same way a movie does. You just have to use your imagination a little more.
So, while you call it a novel, how much is from real life experience?
Quite a bit is drawn from real life events. Most of the characters are based on real people, but it’s not a linear or literal retelling of story. It’s just a jumping off point. I mean, people will wonder if it’s a sequel to “33 Days,” but it’s more like I dropped the characters in this book into that moment “33 Days” ends and ran with it. Mostly, I wanted to write about the father-daughter journey that’s become so much a part of me. The real question is have I found a way to take my little story and make it universal and relatable so it doesn’t come off like, please read my dairy?
The book is subtitled A Father-Daughter Story, but there, as you say, there is very much a parallel running love story going on. What do you hope readers will take away from this story?
Well, is it love or fatherhood that will save Benjamin? That appears to be the question, but it’s not that simple. I’d like to think this book will resonate with really dedicated, down in the trenches parents who struggle to be the best they can be for their kids while trying to honor that intrinsic need to nourish their own dreams and desires. At the same time, I hope this book strikes a chord with those of us trying to reconcile certain serendipitous moments in our lives that altered our fate. And yes, that usually has to do with the girl or guy that got away. And finally, I think it’ll connect with folks that turn to music or movies or the arts for comfort.