Hardcore Fiction: Tyler McMahon on “How The Mistakes Were Made”

Posted by Josh Spilker

I read Tyler McMahon’s How The Mistakes Were Made (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) with some anticipation: I’m a sucker for (most) rock music-related fiction. The world of bands in fiction always seems under-served to me and you would think there would be more natural overlap with how many music critics there are. How The Mistakes Were Made steps in quite nicely thank you, with a rise-from-obscurity 90s Seattle tale and a congruent one set in grittier 80s hardcore. The character that holds those two threads together is Laura Loss, a guitarist turned drummer who takes a chance on a couple of kids that turns her art upside-down.

Tyler teaches fiction at Hawaii Pacific University and can be found on the web here.

The rise of The Mistakes seems like complete fantasy, but you always hear of bands that take unbelievable, circuitous leaps. As a writer, do you think of bands/actors/celebrities as some sort of modern day fairy tales?

It’s funny that you mention that. When I started working on this novel, I was trying to learn about narrative structure and the heroic tradition and that sort of stuff. I was interested in creating an adventure-type story that wasn’t particularly violent. (It’s not some ideological stance, just something I wanted to move away from at the time.) It did occur to me that rock stardom had an enduring mythology that was unique—especially for America—in that it celebrated art and not bloodshed.

The nuts and bolts of the Mistakes’ rise were hard to deal with. The funny thing is, the novel is restrained in a lot of ways. Anecdotes from those real-life bands on the road, especially about breaking instruments or onstage stunts—they just weren’t believable in fiction, and came off as over-the-top or cartoonish. But the speed with which the Mistakes achieve fame certainly is exaggerated. (In the editorial process, there was a lot of pressure to compress the timeline even further.) Mainly, that’s to keep the story moving. But I think there’s an extent to which it echoes just how abrupt and startling it can be for artists to suddenly find themselves in the spotlight.

Originally, I envisioned the book spanning more years, the band touring small venues for a longer time, and making many albums. But it’s one of those things that didn’t work on the page. It still gives me pause, as I don’t want to trivialize the hard path most musicians must travel.

This story is set in 90s Seattle–were you personally familiar with that scene or did you do a lot of research?

I wasn’t around Seattle in the early nineties. I grew up in the suburbs outside DC, and was only fourteen or fifteen when Soundgarden and Nirvana started putting out records. The Sub-Pop bands from that era were extremely important to me. It was the first contemporary music I ever got excited about, the first thing I seriously listened to beyond Classic Rock. Probably many kids from my generation had a similar experience: we discovered “grunge” before any other form of punk rock. The fact that it came from a strange, far-off city on the other side of the country made it even more fascinating.

Later, I lived in Montana and Idaho for many years. There, I thought of Seattle as the Capital of the Northwest. It had a sort of gravitational pull on my friends and relatives in those smaller towns. It was a place where people went for school or work, where you’d go to get serious about your life. I wanted to capture that in Sean and Nathan’s story.

But the short answer is that I did do a lot of research. Studying the real story of Sub-Pop and other Seattle bands—as well as the eighties hardcore scene—and finding out the truth behind all my younger assumptions, it was like solving an old mystery. I owe a huge debt to all the incredible nonfiction books and documentaries about those periods in music history. I couldn’t have written my novel without them.

By the end of the book, Laura becomes a lot more complex than I gave her credit for at the beginning. How she handles success changes — especially with how she deals with fans, granting that she becomes very close with Sean and Nathan, but then completely freaked out (and rightly so) by another fan later on…

At the beginning of the book, she’s very hostile towards the public and the music industry and so on. The book is meant to be a sort of “fake memoir” in which she defends herself against the official account. But as it goes on, she discovers that it’s not so black and white. She realizes that she does love music—and playing before an audience. More importantly, she learns to accept some of the accusations made against her. It’s not so much about disproving them as it is coming to terms with them—and understanding her reasons for doing what she did.

Did you have any particular bands in mind while writing this?

Certainly, SCC is directly inspired by Minor Threat—though I subbed in the violence issues that Fugazi dealt with later on, mainly because it I found it interesting.

The Mistakes’ meteoric rise to stardom borrows heavily from Nirvana, but in my head I’ve always pictured their sound as being akin to Mudhoney. I was actually thinking a lot about the Minutemen when I created Sean and Nathan—or at least of the friendship between D. Boon and Mike Watt.

The minor bands in the novel borrow from many of the other Seattle acts from that era: TAD, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam, etc. But I don’t mean for any of my fictional groups to be direct stand-ins or satires of those real bands.

Why the back story of Laura’s brother, Anthony, who played in an 80s hardcore band? And how (or why) did you decide to format it with in alternating chapters instead of in one section, for instance?

I was very influenced by Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, and the line that he drew between eighties hardcore and the Seattle phenomenon in the nineties. From the start, I wanted to write a novel that would make that connection personal, contained within one character–which ended up being Laura.

As far as Anthony’s story goes, I wanted to unpack the strange audience/performer dynamics that went on in hardcore, as well as the ideological tensions and the legacy of violence. Also, Laura’s voice came out as jaded and cynical right from the start. It seemed important that there be some pain in her history that justified that.

Formatting that part of the story was difficult. I started off thinking that the book would have alternating full chapters–one in nineties Seattle and then another in eighties DC. It didn’t take me long to realize that wouldn’t work, that the two stories would compete for the reader’s attention, and seem a bit redundant. I thought briefly about one long section, but it felt like a kind of intermission, something that would take the reader out of the story.

I got the idea for the current form from another novel that touches on hardcore punk: Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden. It has a similar structure–one page interludes from a different point in time–though I believe they jump into the future, rather than the past. That was a breakthrough for me. Those short, imagistic flashbacks helped give some pause and allowed me to manipulate time more easily in the full chapters.

In your ying-yang characters of Sean and Nathan, there’s real friction between hard work and inspired genius. Do you think artists can ever get a hold on that?

It’s definitely a fictional conceit that those two things are so polarized within those two characters. In real life, I think it’s more like a tension that all artists have to balance internally. I’ve always liked character foils, especially when it shows competing human impulses, like Don Quixote and Sancho.

In terms of the nineties Seattle music thing, I was interested in the fact that the public impression—or at least my impression as 15-year-old fan—involved a kind of accidental stardom, the notion that these artists just stumbled upon their success. The public tends to see only the genius/talent side. In truth, I think most of those Seattle bands worked incredibly hard for their recognition. And it was doubly challenging, as they were finding new and innovative ways to reach their audience.

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