My guest today is author D.R. Haney. I know him as Duke and was fortunate to meet him through Goodreads. He’s a fascinating guy. I could talk to Duke for hours about his background, writing, books and music. I recently read his novel Banned for Life, which, like Duke, is many things wrapped up in one package. The book can’t be defined by one genre. Set against the backdrop of rock music and the pursuit or stardom, we also have romance, lust, friendship, mystery, suspense, deceit and a man finding his way through it all.
Duke is hanging out with us today to talk about his life and his writing. I’ve managed to keep my questions to a minimum, though that was a challenge! Before we go any further, I need to introduce my guest:
D. R. Haney was born in Virginia, where he spent much of his childhood on a farm in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In his teens, he moved to New York City to study acting, making his screen debut shortly afterward. A subsequent film role brought Haney to Los Angeles and the attention of legendary producer Roger Corman, who launched Haney’s side career as a screenwriter. While acting in a film in the former Yugoslavia, Haney began work on “Banned for Life,” a novel about the American underground music scene of the 1980s and 90s, which would take him nine years to complete. “Banned for Life” was published in 2009 by Vancouver’s And/Or Press, followed in 2010 by “Subversia,” a collection of Haney’s essays released by TNB Books, the print arm of The Nervous Breakdown, an online cultural magazine with Haney among its most popular contributors.
Here is a look at the book we’ll be discussing:
For almost two decades, rumors have swirled around Jim Cassady, the quasi-legendary punk-rock frontman who disappeared without a trace after his girlfriend’s apparent suicide. Though largely written off as dead, some claim to have had brushes with Cassady, now said to be homeless and bumming change on the streets of his native Los Angeles. Intrigued, Jason Maddox, a would-be filmmaker and Cassady fan, decides to investigate. But the man he eventually finds and befriends is damaged in ways he could never have imagined, and Jason’s own life begins to unravel as he tries to save the hapless Jim Cassady from himself.
Now on to the questions, where you’ll see for yourself why I call Duke – D.R. Haney – a fascinating guy.
You wrote “Banned for Life” in first person and I had to keep reminding myself that you were not Jason. The main character/narrator is incredibly well developed and your method of storytelling made me feel like you were sitting beside me, telling me your life story. Is this book a complete fabrication or do you sometimes blur the lines between fact and fiction?
I’ve been asked this question before, and it’s tricky to answer. If I say “Banned,” or any fiction I write, is a complete fabrication, I might disappoint those readers who want to believe it’s autobiographical, but if I say it’s autobiographical, it’s like admitting to a lack of imagination. I’m reminded, in the latter case, of actors criticized for playing themselves, but, having worked professionally as an actor, I don’t think anyone ever truly plays himself. Every performance is a version of the self, a character, even when there doesn’t seem to be much transformation. I personally don’t care about transformation. I just want to see that spark of life, and that’s how I appraise books and music and everything else. Not everyone does. If a work appears artless, meaning there’s not enough skill or craft on display, some people dismiss it.
I definitely have a lot in common with Jason, but we’re not identical. Even when I tried to conform, I could never pull it off, but Jason has an all-American quality that allows him to blend with bourgeois types. Then he finds himself in a subculture that’s usually hostile to small-town jocks like him, and I didn’t want to write about that subculture from the perspective of someone like his friend Peewee, who’s a natural fit. Jason, on the other hand, is almost akin to one of those half-breed characters in old Westerns: will he end up with the whites or the Indians? That’s a driving force throughout the book, that question, even though it’s never fully articulated, and if I’d made Jason a deliberate rebel, like Peewee, instead of the rebel by default he is, the answer would’ve been a foregone conclusion.
Thanks for what you say about feeling that the narrator was sitting beside you and telling you his life story. That’s exactly how I wanted the reader to feel, although I tried to arrive at a style that wasn’t overly colloquial, as per Holden Caulfield. That’s been done to death, I think, particularly in books that deal with youth, like mine.
The punk rock scene plays a big part in this story. Was it also a big part of your own life?
Definitely, although it happened later for me than it did for Jason. I knew practically nothing about punk when I was in high school. I would read mentions of it in magazines, but it wasn’t played on the radio, and there were no kids in my hometown who could mentor me in punk, as Peewee did for Jason. I think my first exposure to the hardcore scene was when I saw the band Fear on “Saturday Night Life”—a notorious performance that was cut short by NBC, and to this day I don’t think it’s ever been shown in syndication. But there were all these kids from the New York and D.C. hardcore scenes who were moshing by the stage—in fact, the term “moshing” hadn’t been coined yet—and I remember thinking, “Man, they’re scary,” which is funny, now that I’ve met a number of those kids. I’m good friends with one of them.
But I think I had the punk attitude long before I was familiar with the music, and I had a grasp of punk philosophy just from reading writers like Rimbaud, who was hugely influential for early punks like Richard Hell and Patti Smith. Also, the do-it-yourself idea that’s associated with punk—that was practiced all over New York when I moved there to study acting, and not just by bands; fringe theater companies would stage plays wherever they could, in bars and lofts and so on, and promote them with fliers. That kind of thing had been going on for years before punk came along. You can even see it in those Mickey Rooney musicals from the thirties and forties: “Let’s put on a show! Freddie has a barn, and Teddy can build the sets, and Betty can make the costumes!” To me, that’s punk: circumventing the authorities, and taking matters into your own hands, and making use of whatever’s available.
So I didn’t need the punk movement to introduce me to punk ideas. What was missing in my case was the music, and it took me a while to discover it, I was so busy being an actor. I lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and later in Williamsburg, and I had roommates who were musicians, and when they saw my record collection, they’d say, “Jesus Christ, man. Bruce Springsteen?” I’d say, “What do you mean? There’s nothing wrong with Bruce Springsteen.” Musically, I was a square, but at some point I transferred to cool school. I’m not really sure what led to it. It wasn’t peer pressure. I just suddenly wanted to hear everything, and I went four or five nights a week to see bands. I became kind of a face in the scene, and I felt a sense of belonging that I’d never felt with movie or theater people. I miss that time. It was very exciting.
You have some song lyrics included at various points in the book. Did you write these lyrics specifically for the book? Have you written music to go with them?
I wrote all of the lyrics specifically for the book, yes, and I wrote music for one of the songs. I considered collaborating on a CD to accompany the book. I know a lot of musicians, but it’s hard to get them to commit to a cheeseburger, let alone a CD, so that idea never advanced past the “What if?” stage.
I don’t have an easy time with lyrics. Almost all rock & roll lyrics are puerile, and the ones in “Banned” were allegedly written by brainiacs, so it took a lot of work to make them read even halfway intelligent. I can only hope I succeeded. I reached a point where I was like, “Fuck it. If they’re dumb, they’re dumb. I can’t take it anymore.”
You succeeded and they are far from dumb! I wish you’d been able to make the CD. I’d love to hear the soundtrack for the book!
What is your all-time favorite band or individual artist?
Well, I’m that rare person who thinks Sonic Youth never released a bad album, so I’ll go with them, recording-wise. In terms of live bands, I’d say my friends Die Princess Die. No matter how much I liked a band, there usually came a point when I lost interest in seeing them, but Die Princess Die was always compelling, even when they were bad. They were bad fairly often, in fact, but you couldn’t stop watching them. You never knew what would happen at a Die Princess Die show. People would end up at the hospital. But they weren’t just compelling because of all the havoc they wreaked; they were very charismatic, and they wrote great songs. Unfortunately, they were also lazy, which is one of the reasons they never broke out. Plus, people were afraid of them, with good cause.
I enjoyed the references to various literary work and Beat writers. Have you read all those authors you referenced? If so, which is your favorite?
If it’s in the book, I’ve read it, and for the most part, Jason’s taste can stand for my own.
Kerouac is the only Beat writer I truly love. I realize he’s sloppy, and he can be terribly sentimental, but there’s a sense of adventure I get from reading Kerouac that I’ve never gotten from another writer, a sense of being young and hitting the town and talking about ideas till the sun comes up. I don’t know that I would ever have become a writer if I hadn’t read “On the Road.” Of course, I was a kid when I read it; I don’t think so highly of it now. My favorite books by Kerouac are “The Subterraneans,” “Tristessa,” “Desolation Angels,” and “Big Sur.”
There’s also mention of Norman Mailer in “Banned,” and I’m a big Mailer fan. He may have been the last Romantic with a capital “R,” with his interest in the uncanny, in those areas that can’t entirely be explained rationally. He never gets credit for that. Where he’s now known at all, it’s for stabbing one of his wives, and of course that makes him persona non grata. When he died, every obituary I read, I think, referred to him as a misogynist, which I don’t think he was. On the contrary, there are many sympathetic portraits of women in Mailer’s work, which none of his detractors seem to have read.
You’ve got a lot of fascinating stuff in your background. I read that you had a run with fame with a movie you made in Belgrade. Tell us a little about that movie and the experience.
I actually made two movies in Belgrade. The first was a horrible experience. The director was a lunatic, and dealing with him turned me into a basket case. Then, years later, I was offered another movie in Belgrade, and I decided to do it as exposure therapy—you know, like getting back on the horse that throws you. Plus, a lot had happened in Belgrade since I’d been there—the Yugoslav civil wars and the NATO bombing and so on—and I was curious about all that. Even apart from the war, most Americans would never travel to Serbia, and for me that’s one of the best things about being an actor, that you’re sent to places you’d never think to go.
Anyway, I went, and I had a completely different experience that time, beginning with the day I arrived. I had to fly into Budapest, since NATO sanctions had made air travel to Belgrade impossible, and I was driven from Budapest to the Yugoslav border, where the car broke down. The engine cut maybe fifty feet from the border, and it refused to start again, so I had to help push the car over the border. Then the production company arranged for a tow to a nearby garage, and the garage was owned by the Serbian mafia, so all these gangsters showed up, and when they learned I was an American actor, they insisted on taking me out to a bar, and they called their gangster friends and invited them to join us. Finally, hours late, I made it to my hotel in Belgrade, where Arkan, the most notorious Serbian gangster of all, had recently been assassinated, and the next day I was interviewed on television. I was interviewed on television constantly during that movie. At one point I did a press conference at a McDonald’s, of all places, and I was literally mobbed by hordes of teenagers who’d seen an announcement on TV that I was doing this press conference, and they all came rushing in, tearing up place mats and shoving them at me, asking me to sign them. I realized then that celebrity has absolutely nothing to do with who you really are, which seems obvious, but it’s kind of abstract until you’ve had the experience. I find it baffling that anyone would seek celebrity. It’s gratifying to hear that your work has meant something to people, but that’s different.
Still, I had a great time in Belgrade on that second movie, so much so that I moved there after production wrapped. That’s where I wrote the first draft of “Banned,” and I returned to the States reluctantly, so I guess the exposure therapy worked. It took me a long time to readjust. It was as if part of my soul had been amputated, and even now I don’t know that I’ve fully, psychologically repatriated.
Wow. There’s a book, fictionalized or not, in that experience.
You’ve also worked as a screenwriter. Would we be familiar with anything you’ve worked on?
Unfortunately, you probably would be, but I hope you won’t mind if I don’t name the movie. I’ve had more than twenty feature-length screenplays turned into movies, but almost all of them were awful. I take no pride in my so-called film career. I tried to keep it hidden when “Banned” was published, but eventually I copped. These days, many novelists boast in their bios about their MFAs and teaching jobs and contributions to McSweeney’s. My background couldn’t be more dissimilar, so, you know, vive la difference.
Okay, now I’m even more intrigued!
Which do you find most personally satisfying – acting, screenwriting, nonfiction writing or fiction writing?
Well, I’d say I’m temperamentally more a performer than a writer, but I’m not interested in the kind of fantasy movies being made these days—I have the misfortune of possessing an adult mind—and I was never a fan of TV, so I no longer do much acting. I think I have more to contribute as a writer anyway, even though it’s torture for me to spend long stretches at a keyboard.
Screenwriting is superficial, compared to the other writing I do. There’s too much input from others, who are often concerned with whether the material is sufficiently commercial, and that translates into a lowest-common-denominator mentality—not an optimum situation for a writer who really cares about writing.
With fiction, I’m reminded of what I most like about acting: probing the psyches of characters and surprising myself with the discoveries. At the same time, writing fiction is, creatively, the most maddening experience I’ve ever had. I’ve been trying to make a proper start of my next novel for two years now, and it won’t come. I can’t find the form, which means there’s probably a problem with the content, since content and form are one. I wish I could identify the problem, but it’s elusive, and that’s what makes writing fiction so maddening.
With essays, I’m at least familiar with the content before I ever sit to write, but I’m working on a smaller canvas than I am with my novels, so the achievement doesn’t feel as significant. I definitely take the most pride in myself as a novelist, but are pride and satisfaction the same? I don’t know. I just like the act of creation, of firing on all cylinders and sharing the result with others, regardless of the medium.
Do you have a favorite book? Favorite movie?
I’ll go with Celine’s “Journey to the End of Night” as my favorite novel, and my favorite movie may be Tarkovsky’s “Solaris.” I have so many favorites, and I don’t list them in order as I used to do. There are things I love about one favorite that I can’t get from another, so I just kind of love them all equally.
What are you working on these days?
As I mentioned above, I’m trying to make a proper start of my next novel. I hope I eventually succeed. Otherwise, I’m just trying to survive, which is a full-time job these days. I’ve never had it as rough as I have since the economy went to hell two years ago. It’s been like clinging to a clothesline in the middle of a tornado. Well, my left hand has been clinging to a clothesline. My right hand has been writing.
Insane, huh? But that’s a writer’s lot. Yes, I’m afraid you have to check your sanity at the door when you determine to become a writer.
Intrigued? If all that makes you want to know more about Duke, you can find him in the following places:
Banned for Life on Facebook: www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=68734422628
Duke’s archive at The Nervous Breakdown: www.thenervousbreakdown.com/drhaney
Podcast interview on Fear and Loathing (includes reading from Subversia): www.alterati.com/blog/2010/10/fear-and-loathing-d-r-haney
Here’s a look at Duke’s books on Amazon:
I hope you’ll take the time to experience Duke’s writing. In the meantime, we’d both love to hear from you. We welcome your comments and questions here.
Thanks for reading.