The Pen Is Mightier Than the Guitar: An Interview with Lori Carson

Critics' darling Lori Carson has been offering her small and devoted fanbase quiet bliss with her emotionally-textured and intimate songs over the last two decades. But just recently, Carson turned to her other love of literature. With her first novel, she delves even further into a strange and still familiar world -- one that her haunting music has often explored.

Lori Carson spent the last three decades immersed in the life of song, sketching out the details of her most personal explorations in a series of chord progressions, overdubs, and musical meters. Her music introduced the world to a highly introspective and sensitive woman who seemed to be communicating a life’s worth of trouble and joy by way of the guitar. Carson’s first effort, 1990’s Shelter, was a shy entrance into a world dominated by excessive noise; hair bands were dying out, hip-hop was just cresting in the mainstream, and British dance music had started to expand beyond the borders of the UK. Shelter was brave, in that it forced Carson into a lone confessional space with only her guitar. At the time, female singer-songwriters brandishing guitars were far and few between, and the industry hadn’t much time for young women making big confessions in very small ways. Carson’s music defied those misconceptions. Her musings may have been secretly intimate and, therefore, easily ignored, but her no-nonsense storytelling approach and convincing sway with melody and inflection ushered those who did listen into her small, private world.

Anton Fier, founder of the Golden Palominos, took notice and invited the singer to appear on two of the band’s most inventive and forward-thinking albums, This is How it Feels and Pure. Both albums explored electronic textures in a rock-band set-up, with Carson’s breathy cooing and warm acoustic guitar giving a sensual shading to each of the seductive numbers she appeared on. Following her stint with the Palominos, Carson would return to recording solo, turning out quietly devastating works, like 1997’s Everything I Touch Runs Wild, recorded mostly in the calm privacy of her apartment. Wild, the album in which the artist was finally received with some attention outside of her cultishly small fanbase, borrowed some of the influences heard on her collaborations with the Palominos, along with some of their guest session players (most notably Bill Laswell). A string of albums would follow, exploring various reaches of folk, pop, and electronica, and Carson remained musically active whilst still keeping a low profile and on the margins of commercial success.

A few years back, the singer decided to put down the guitar and pick up the pen, turning her attention to another love – writing. Having studied creative writing during her college years and having worked a brief stint as a journalist prior to her career as a music artist, Carson channeled the stories she normally reserved for three-minute pop songs into a novel’s worth of personal history. The Original 1982, her first book, is the story of young woman’s initiation into the music industry and, thus, her adulthood. A story of possibilities never granted, The Original 1982 explores a “what if” scenario of another life, namely, motherhood for the protagonist, Lisa. In her trials and tribulations of parenting, Lisa finds herself caught in the revolving door of her precarious love life as men come and go -- including the father of her child, an elusive, charming, and successful musician of wavering loyalty who becomes the single entity of which the lives of she and her child are hinged upon. Ultimately, it is a story of opportunities gained in lieu of those lost, and Carson, as a new novelist, exhibits some impressive strengths, namely her ability to convincingly sketch out situational dramas that unfold in the ensuing action of any given scene.

Recently, Carson expressed her desires to pursue novel-writing full-time, forcing her beloved profession of music a place on the back-burner. This may be a disappointment to those who have loyally followed the artist’s development in music these last two decades. But Carson hasn’t abandoned music completely; all the musicality of nuanced emotion can be found in the distilled beauty of her delicate prose. The music world may be losing a voice of quietly impassioned grace, but the literary world has easily and fortunately gained one.

* * *

You had been pretty busy writing a book and recording an album (Another Year). I imagine the processes are different in that recording a song captures a moment of emotion in time, whereas writing a novel is about writing (or rewriting) someone’s history over the span of a story arc. Can you describe your process of writing the book -- what was the germinating seed for the idea for your story? And after more than 20 years as a music artist, why had you decided now would be the time to turn to writing fiction?

I wouldn't say writing the songs for Another Year kept me busy, exactly. Some of the songs on the record were written a few years prior to its release, and other songs (and the instrumental pieces) were written for various short film projects -- commercial films made by a company called Spring Creative (a production and branding company). This is the work that has been paying the bills. I write about five pieces/songs before one is accepted by spring, so I had all this music recorded that I quite liked and wanted to release.

I was already feeling, though, that after about 35 years of writing songs, it had gotten pretty stale for me. I wasn't interested in performing anymore. I'm sure that had something to do with it. But also it was just time for a change. Midlife crisis? I needed to feel challenged and inspired again.

I've always been a writer. I wrote stories as a girl. I'd studied creative writing and poetry in college. I worked briefly as a journalist for a local paper when I lived on the North Fork. In recent years, I'd taken a couple of fiction writing workshops. And of course I was keeping the blog.

One day it occurred to me that the reason I hadn't written anything long-form was because I didn't believe I could. I was telling myself that my expertise was in telling a story in three verses and a chorus, and it was holding me back. Once I realized it, I decided to write every day for a year and see what came of it. I started my novel in May of 2009 and exactly one year later I had the first draft of The Original 1982. Writing it gave me the same thrill that writing songs once had.

I don't think the two are so different. Songs have melody and that gives them a magical aspect. It's like the music is the method by which the content is ingested. With prose, there's no melody, obviously, but as for the words, they have rhythm, flow, a beginning middle, and end. Of course, it's different to have a story unfold over a couple of hundred pages, but it wasn't so different for me in terms of process. I just did it a lot more, and continuously, with the goal of writing something worthwhile every day that was connected to what I had written the day before. I didn't work with an outline, and wasn't sure where the story would go.

Reading the novel and listening to the album, it’s somewhat apparent that the themes overlap; one medium informs the other. Your personal history is invested in both of these projects…You’re a new novelist. What could you express through the written word that you could not express through music? And in what ways did music have the upper hand on personal expression?

Well, emotionally and intellectually, I think it all comes from the same place. The songs have a more self-soothing aspect, I suppose. Songs are immediate mood changers. I don't think writing them is that different from listening to them -- I heard somebody say that recently, and it struck me as true.

Writing fiction is more like going on a journey (as is reading it). You make a greater investment in terms of time and belief, and the rewards are pretty deep. I feel the potential for discovery is wide open. Maybe it's because I'm at the beginning of the process of learning, but the potential feels huge.

Your music throughout your career has been a bit of a balancing act. On one hand, you’ve been pretty guarded about your private life. On the other hand, you’ve admirably laid bare your battles with depression that have been honest and, moreover, believable. Even when writing through characters in your music and writing at one remove, you’ve expressed certain thoughts and feelings many people keep fiercely private and hidden (“Train”, “Whole Heart”, “Twisting My Words”, “Spinning World”). They are not disguised or dressed up with metaphor. You simply find poignancy in expressing what is matter-of-fact. If I may be so personal, can you talk about your experiences with depression and the creative modes of expression when dealing with those issues in your music?

I suppose writing about emotional difficulty is a way of controlling it. And at the same time healing it, because music is so healing. I've struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember, which is one reason why performing has always been uncomfortable. I think by putting my work out there in the world I'm seeking understanding and connection with others. Also writing makes the feelings manageable. The pain is released through the work.

The Original 1982 is a novel that deals with the ideas of possibility, processing and reprocessing pain until it becomes something else. For the character of Lisa, the possibility of her daughter Minnow existing means an opportunity to validate a choice she never made or couldn’t make. Minnow appears to be a projection of Lisa’s internalized scale, equally balanced by guilt and pride. I understand much of your personal history went into The Original 1982. Writing this book, in what ways did it make you evaluate the possibilities in your present-day life?

I think the book is about regret and acceptance, aging, love, the beauty of life. We all wonder about the ways our lives might have gone given different choices made. I wanted to write about the pain of disappointment and loss. That was my driving force. I know people will assume that I regret my own childlessness, but I don't really.

What-if's are universal. I chose to write this story for reasons that didn't have much to do with my not having children -- my father got sick and died, I was lonely, single for the first time in years, I'd relocated back to New York and felt disoriented. These were the specifics that had me in the right place, emotionally, to write the book.

You were involved in a writing group, I believe, when you began writing and preparing for this novel. What was the act of sharing your material with others during the developmental stages of your work like?

Hearing other writers talk about their process was the most helpful thing. I soaked up all the experience in that room. I received a lot of support and encouragement as I wrote at a snail's pace. Every week I came in moaning about the fact that I could write only a paragraph a day. But it adds up provided you keep writing.

In addition to writing the book and recording Another Year, you were also busy with a reunion show for the Golden Palominos, whom you recorded with nearly a decade back. What was the experience like reuniting and playing those songs once again onstage?

The experience reminded me that going back is often disappointing. It's like in The Original 1982, when Lisa reunites with her old boyfriend and realizes that it's not the same. Nostalgia is confusing. It makes you think that you can walk back into the past.

I have so much love and respect for Anton Fier and the work we did together. But I felt out of place fronting a rock band, singing songs from 15 years ago. Musically, my songs have gotten quieter and more atmospheric over the years, which suits my voice better.

I probably should have said no to the offer, but I felt like maybe Anton and I wouldn't have that many chances to work together again. We won't be alive forever -- another theme of my novel.

On your blog, you stated that you felt you were done with performing (onstage). Do you see yourself abandoning music completely in the future in order to devote your full-time to writing?

I'm writing full-time now, at work on a second novel. I've been a singer and songwriter since I was a kid and will never stop doing it -- at least for myself. But performing has never been comfortable, and I was never crazy about the touring life. I'm happy to let those things go.

I'm a homebody. I like living in New York, being here. Going to the park, museums, seeing friends, spending time with my animals, and doing my work. Never say never, but I believe my career in music is in the past, for the most part, while my work as a writer of fiction is just getting started.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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