As an aging rockstar on perpetual tour, who is cocooned by renown that verges on mythos, wends his way through Justin Tussing’s new novel, Vexation Lullaby, he brings to the fore questions of how much we can ever really know about those we admire–and how little we often understand ourselves.
Tussing’s novel is both masculine and lyrical, a dance between the stories of a doctor who never quite feels like he’s enough–until he’s tapped to look after one of the world’s biggest stars; the star himself, who resists intimacy, even as he reaches toward a lost moment from his past; and the journalist Arthur Pennyman, who follows both with near obsession, always yearning to understand his idol better. This new offering from Catapult Press, whose titles push boundaries generally, reverberates with interesting turns and unexpected implications, just like the musical catalog of its enigmatic (second string) star. We asked Tussing a few questions about his latest work, as well as about his turn toward publishing with an independent press.
What, if anything, do being a rocker and being a novelist have in common?
Besides a predisposition for substance abuse? Hmm. The genesis for both is the desire to communicate with an audience. Success (and I’m speaking of personal success–reaching a goal–rather than the more capricious financial success) requires a triumph of the will over reason.
Can you tell us about the experience of working with Catapult to bring Vexation Lullaby to press?
I feel very fortunate that circumstances led me to Catapult. Pat Strachan edited many of my favorite books [including] Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and John McPhee’s Coming into the Country…and I was honored to work with her.
You direct an MFA program in Maine. Are you noticing any writing trends there that leave you excited for literature’s near future?
I think writing programs, like Stonecoast, continue to make progress in identifying and supporting writers from diverse backgrounds and experiences. If, like me, you’re a person who looks to books to help you understand the world we live in, that’s a reason for celebration.
If you could have Arthur Pennyman level insight into the lives and careers of any fellow artists, who would you choose?
Hypothetically, it’s a toss up between Virginia Woolf and Saul Bellow. In reality, I’d be afraid of learning something that could reverse the polarity of what attracted me to them in the first place.
What prompted you to write a novel involving a doctor, a journalist, and a rock god?
The characters’ voices spoke to me before I knew much about them. That’s always been the way I work.
What projects are you working on next?
Like so many writers, I cut my teeth on the short story. I’m in the process of revisiting that form. It feels unnatural, which I find pretty encouraging.
Michelle Anne Schingler