"Behind the Tracks": Grasty Spills His Guts to Dylan fanzine, Isis
The following are excerpts of the author’s interview with Taylor Pinson of Streetlight Films, which appeared in the January 2008 edition of ISIS, the foremost UK Dylan fanzine.
LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING. WHEN DID YOU START WRITING THIS NOVEL?I'd have to check my notes, but I think it was around June of 2004. So that's what— three and a half years?
IMPRESSIVE, BUT YOU DO REALIZE THAT YOU JUST BOILED THREE AND A HALF YEARS OF YOUR LIFE INTO A SINGLE SENTENCE?I left a lot out.THIS ISN’T YOUR TYPICAL MURDER-MYSTERY. THE BOOK TOTALLY TURNS THE GENRE ON ITS EAR. WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION?Christ’s entry into Brussels.YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO EXPLAIN THAT—I was driving from Los Angeles down to Fullerton, and I was listening to a Bob Dylan album—a live concert. The 1966 Manchester show, I believe. I’ve always been struck by Dylan’s ability to tell a story. But there was this one song, “Desolation Row,” that I just couldn’t get out of my head. In a few short minutes, Dylan creates a place, a time, a universe all its own. About a week after my little freeway epiphany, I came across a book that took the lyrics to “Desolation Row” and paired them against a series of images from a James Ensor painting called Christ’s Entry Into Brussels. It’s one of Ensor’s more bizarre canvases, to say the least. It’s completely filled with surrealistic images of death, destruction, chaos. Dylan and Ensor… Who’d have thought? But in that moment, I realized I had just stumbled upon a great idea for a story. Steinbeck’s Cannery Row on acid, with a twist—AND THE TWIST WAS?There would be a murder. I even had the first line— “Bob’s dead. Turned up down at the rail yard this morning. Blood all over the tracks.”SOUNDS LIKE YOU HAD YOUR TITLE, TOO?Yeah, it works on a couple levels. For example, when the Commissioner reaches into Bob’s vest and removes the list of songs Dorian was planning on playing at the show, what’s initially a reference to the rail yard where they found Dorian’s lifeless body…… IS NOW A REFERENCE TO THE BLOODSTAINED SET LIST THE COMMISSIONER IS HOLDING IN HIS HANDS.I’m glad you picked up on that.SPEAKING OF REFERENCES—THERE LOTS OF REFERENCES IN THE NOVEL. MANY OF THEM POINT BACK TO YOUR INITIAL INSPIRATION. HOW IMPORTANT WAS BOB DYLAN IN WRITING THIS BOOK?From the beginning, people have been trying to figure Dylan out. And since they can’t seem to crack him, they turn to the next best thing—his songs. Ironically, those early songs are filled with such vitriol and venom that even when it’s obvious who a song was modeled on, the person vehemently denies it. And I started thinking: what if the world’s most elusive rock star sucks the life out of all the people around him, uses them as fodder for his songs, then leaves them behind when fame and fortune come calling? Now, after 40 years of nursing some pretty nasty grudges it’s their turn to take a shot at him.I’M ASSUMING THAT PUN WAS INTENDED.Grasty smiles. But at the end of the day, the novel is really more about the effects of fame on the artist in general than it is about any one artist in particular. But clearly, Dylan fans will see his imprint throughout.MISTER JOHNS IS A CASE-IN-POINT—NOT TO MENTION A GREAT CHARACTER. I LOVE THE FACT HE’S AN OBITUARY WRITER WHO WORKS DOWN ON RUE MORGUE AVENUE. WAS JOHNS BASED ON ANYONE IN PARTICULAR?Like so much of what happens in this book, it’s open to interpretation. Honestly, I can’t really tell you who Mister Johns is based on. If he’s based on anyone at all, that is. He’s just a great character—quirky, offbeat, extremely off-putting. All the characters are. Commissioner Tiresias, Dr. Reich, Mr. Tremolo, Minnesota Slim, Elijah Blue, Husk the Siberian: those names alone should keep the reader looking for clues.DON’T FORGET JUDAS…Every story needs a good villain. But I think you hit the nail on the head earlier. Not only are all the characters suspects; they all have very suspicious backgrounds. Readers are definitely going to try to pin more than a murder rap on them.WHAT DO YOU MEAN?Well, originally the idea was to literally populate the story with characters from Dylan songs. Johanna, Mr. Tambourine, Maggie all made appearances. Along with a few others.SO WHERE ARE THEY NOW?They’re still in there. But you have to look a little closer now if you want to find them. That’s what I meant when I said the reader is going to look to them for clues as to not only who killed Bob but who they are, too.THERE’S NO QUESTION THE STORY IS PACKED WITH PLENTY OF ‘HIDDEN TREASURES’ FOR THE TRUE DYLAN AFICIONADOS.Well, it is a widely known fact that once someone takes up residence on Elysian Row they rarely leave. Of course, every now and then, however, a few do find their way out. As a responsible writer, however, I went to great lengths to protect their true identities. But, yeah, anyone who keeps their eyes in their pocket and nose on the ground will figure them out.LET’S GO BACK TO ELYSIAN ROW FOR A MINUTE. TELL ME ABOUT THIS PLACE?It comes from Greek mythology. Elysian Fields was the final resting place for the souls deemed by the Gods to be virtuous or heroic. More recently, the term has been associated with the Christian idea of heaven.THAT DOESN’T SOUND SO BAD.Except for one small fact: The people relegated to Elysian Fields can’t leave.SO ELYSIAN ROW IS MORE LIKE A HELL ON EARTH THAN IT IS A PARADISEFame comes with a price, especially when you never wanted to be famous in the first place.BUT BOB DORIAN WANTED TO BE FAMOUS, DIDN’T HE?He did for a while. But at some point that camera was turned back on him. In many ways, Dorian is trapped in the same hellish existence as the characters he left behind. Of course, now the tables have turned. After 40 years of nursing some pretty nasty grudges, it’s their turn to take a shot at him.I’M ASSUMING THAT PUN WAS INTENDED.Absolutely.CLEARLY, THE ‘BOB’ IS A NOD TO DYLAN? SO WHERE’D DORIAN COME FROM?Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. And trust me, Bob Dorian and Dorian Gray share more than a name. These two guys are cut from the same cloth.IN WHAT WAY?The way people see you has a lot to do with the way you see yourself. And when Bob Dorian stands in front of the mirror and takes a good look, he doesn’t like what he sees one bit.IT SEEMS THAT NO ONE IN THIS BOOK REALLY LIKES WHAT THEY SEE WHEN THEY LOOK BACK ON THEIR LIFE WITH BOB.I hope that’s what gives the novel its texture. You’re trying to figure out how everything pieces together, trying to figure out all these characters’ motivations, trying to understand why on earth Dorian would have ever come back. But in the end, the mystery isn’t really who pulled the trigger. The mystery is who is Bob Dorian in the first place?SO AT THE END OF THE DAY, WHEN IT’S ALL SAID AND DONE IT BOILS DOWN TO A MURDER-MYSTERY, PURE AND SIMPLE?And it should. The novel must work if the reader knows nothing about rock n’ roll, not to mention all the books, people and places alluded to throughout. Kafka, Casanova, Kerouac, the Canguro Verde, not to mention all the allusions to the ‘60s, Dylan and the seedy world of ‘sex, drugs and rock n’ roll’: all have a place in this book. In fact, many of those references are actually clues—carefully inserted to help the reader figure out who put that bullet in Bob Dorian’s chest. But at the end of the day, they’re just icing on the cake. If the book doesn’t work as a mystery, it doesn’t work.ALL OF THIS LEADS UP TO THE INEVITABLE QUESTION…Who killed Bob Dorian?WHO DID KILL BOB DORIAN?Silence.YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TELL US, ARE YOU?I could give you a name—but, in the immortal words of Bob, “How would you know if I was telling you the truth?”To subscribe to ISIS, visit them at http://www.bobdylanisis.com/.
For a more complete list of cultural references that turn up in the novel, click here.
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