A Conversation with Jenny Manzer, author of SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN
I loved Jenny Manzer’s SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN. I found it incredibly ballsy –taking one of the most iconic figures of the 90’s, and a dead one at that, and using him as a central(ish) figure in a novel that poses the question: What if you discovered that Kurt Cobain was not only alive, but might be your real father? Plus, Manzer uses Nirvana songs for all of the chapter titles, and “Sliver”, one of my favorites of theirs, plays a big role in the novel. What’s not to love? Go read this book NOW. Oh, and we share an agent, the amazing Kerry Sparks of LGR, so that’s pretty cool, too. I talked with Manzer in a series of emails. That conversation is below.
Me: So let’s start with the basics, who in the heck are you? You get 50 words…go!
Jenny: I am a writer, journalist, runner, and reader. I live in Victoria on the west coast of Canada with my family. I am a fan of whales, birds, dogs, hiking, sarcasm, travel, basketball, and indy music. Recently, I’ve been getting into amateur baseball—something I never saw coming.
Me: Wait, I know this is already off topic, but amateur baseball? Explain.
Jenny: Well, I mean that I used to dislike baseball. I grew up in Toronto, and went to Blue Jays games, and found them boring—even though I come from a sports-loving family. But then last year my son started playing ball, and it turns out he is pretty good. I learned more about the sport as I cheered him on, and my daughter started playing softball. Now I take my kids to local games, like the Victoria HarbourCats, which is a West Coast collegiate league. This week I learned what a balk is! Seriously, I think I only mentioned it because it is so out of character. But you know what? Baseball is stories. I think that’s what I like about it—and the characters at the games.
Me: So you’re sort of the Susan Sarandon ala Bull Durham of Canada. Got it.
Jenny: Um, let me clarify that my baseball movie would be G-rated and involve a montage of doing laundry and preparing Rice Krispie treats. Didn’t want to give the wrong impression there.
Me: Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, we need to start with the question you’re not supposed to ask writers, and I try to never ask, but in your case, I have to. Where in the hell did the idea for this story come from? Did it grow from Kurt Cobain on out, or start with Nico and then you added Cobain later? I ask because I think it’s a ballsy novel to write for various reasons–more on this later–but am totally curious not only how you came up with the idea, but how you developed it. So, spill it.
Jenny: The idea for SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN started germinating after I read an article about a club in Victoria, Harpo’s Cabaret—a place I frequented in university, sometimes to do interviews for the campus newspaper. This article on the club noted that although Harpo’s had landed a lot of great bands, they’d missed out on booking the biggest one, Nirvana, right before the band went galactic. Nirvana ended up playing this ridiculous bar, The Forge, in March of 1991. This “one that got away” story got me thinking about the band’s early days, and also all the crazy stories that follow celebrities. Then I started imagining this lonely girl, Nico, and how much a teenage girl can want to believe something. (There are photos of the Victoria gig at The Forge on my website here: http://www.jennymanzer.com/2015/05/nirvana-in-victoria-the-show-almost-no-one-saw/if anyone is interested.) Then, I became pretty consumed in reading about Kurt Cobain and listening to Nirvana. I would say I became more of a fan rather than starting as a huge fan. My appreciation grew.
Me: Well, and that’s what I meant earlier when I mentioned it’s a ballsy novel to attempt. You’ve chosen one of the most notorious and beloved pop culture figures of the last twenty-five years, a guy who’s death inspired suicides, and who was labeled the spokesperson of his generation. Was there any reluctance to using Kurt Cobain as the figure of Nico’s obsession and quest?
Jenny: I knew what I was taking on—but there was no real reluctance. The story is about Nicola Cavan, age 15, a lonely girl in Victoria whose mother disappeared when she was four. The plot hinges on this March 1991 Nirvana concert in Victoria, and the healing power of music, and the Pacific Northwest, and so many other things. In short—it had to be Kurt Cobain. I couldn’t tell the story I wanted to otherwise.
Even though it is fiction, I definitely took the fact that I writing about a real person, whose loved ones are still living, very seriously. I think because I knew my own intentions, which was to tell the story of a girl using music and a desire to believe to fight her way out of a dark place—that helped me overcome those fears and keep writing.
In the end, most readers seem to feel the book is a real tribute to the complicated character of Kurt Cobain—with his quirks, and humor, and warmth, and demons—and his incredible musical legacy. I hope that is the case, but I am prepared for the fact that, as you suggest, some people may be annoyed that I wrote about him.
Me: I think you’re right, this is a novel about Nico, not Cobain. In fact, when I finished the novel I thought that you could’ve substituted any other dead iconic figure for Cobain and the book, while different, would still have been Nico dealing with her pain. Although Save Me, John Belushi wouldn’t have the same appeal to YA readers, most likely.
Speaking of Nico, what I found astounding was just how far in her head you went. I can’t think of the last novel I read where I really felt like I fully understood the character this well. How did you create Nico, and, as a sort of follow-up, did you struggle with her behavior and choices? Because, I’ll be honest, if she was my kid, it’s possible she’d be grounded until she was 80.
Jenny: I am so happy you felt you understood Nico. I guess I started with the defining moment in her life, which was her mother promising to return—and then never coming back. I knew Nico had to resemble Cobain physically, and she also shares some of his other traits, such as a talent for visual art. She had to love music, and obviously she’d be self-reliant, having spent many nights alone while the man she calls her father, the loving but stoic Verne, worked nights as a security guard. Nico definitely needed to have a sense of humor (as did the real Kurt Cobain, I might add). Oh yes, she also had to like Strawberry Quik. That was a given.
There are few creatures more determined than a 15-year-old girl on a mission, so I felt her choices made sense given her drive to find out what happened to her mother and get answers from “Cobain”—and she feels betrayed by Verne. It’s true that she puts herself in harm’s way—but these actions all stem back to a decision to take her life in her own hands rather than just “acting out.” I regard Nico as basically a good kid, actually, staying away from the typical drinking or drugging or whatnot—but she couldn’t continue without knowing the truth. Would I want my daughter to make some of Nico’s choices? Well, no, but Nico had a tough childhood and faced a lot of uncertainty.
Me: One of the things I found really fun in the novel was how you titled all of the chapters after Nirvana songs. Was that difficult to do? What was the process of figuring out what chapter went with what song? Did you find yourself having to alter chapters or the story at all to fit the songs? Because that’s exactly what I would see happening if I attempted something like this.
Jenny: The suggestion to use the songs was a fun idea by Zsuzsi Gartner, a Vancouver-based short story writer, who provided a manuscript consult on an early draft. I have to say, it took an entire day to decide which songs to match to which chapters—and later I had to keep tweaking them as breaks changed. Nirvana has such an incredible repertoire of songs for a band that did not endure that long, so this made my job easier. I basically read through each chapter and considered my Nirvana options. It was sort of fun and tedious at the same time. I had to think about the intent of the song, too, or at least if the vibe matched. I didn’t actually change any chapters to fit the songs, though. And some Nirvana songs I left alone, such as “Mexican Seafood.”
Me: So since you had to listen to lots of Nirvana, I’ll ask the obvious question – What’s your favorite Nirvana song and why? And no cheating…you get one.
Jenny: Well played, Kurt—you anticipate my every move. It IS difficult to choose, but I will say I especially love the opening to “Dive,” and the punk energy and playful-sad sentiment in “Sliver,” but if I am forced to choose one—I’ll go with “All Apologies.” A masterpiece.
Kurt: Yeah, “Sliver” (see below) and “All Apologies” are definitely two of my favorites. Good picks!
Okay, so to wrap this up, we’ll have the speed round. I’m going to ask you five questions, of which you must answer without an explanation. Readers who want more details can contact you. Here we go:
Since you’re a self-described indie music fan, who should more people be listening to?
Me: Who would you like to discover is not, as everyone believes, dead, but is actually holed up in a cabin in the woods?
Jenny: Going with someone famous (at least in Canada): Terry Fox.
Me: Here’s $1000 to spend irresponsibly in two hours. What’s your plan?
Jenny: Plane tickets to New York.
Me: In one hour, all electronics are about to be shut off forever, but you can see one episode of one TV show before the big darkout? What are you going to watch?
Jenny: Flight of the Conchords.
Me: You can invite one rocker, one writer, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person to your party. Assuming all of your friends are going to be there, and knowing that yes, your invitees have to currently be alive, who are you inviting?
Jenny: Steve Earle, Jenny Offill, Tina Fey, and Tim Winton.
Me: Thanks for all of this, Jenny. I’m hoping SAVE ME, KURT COBAIN is a great success. Now, I’ll give you the last word.
Jenny: Thank you, Kurt. This has been really fun and I appreciate your thought-provoking questions. I would definitely invite you along to my theoretical party! You can sit next to Steve Earle.