Q. What made you decide to write your new novel, Basket Case, in the first bio?
I'd always wanted to try that narrative form, but I was worried that I would feel too restricted, being locked inside one character's head.
But since Jack Tagger, the protagonist of Basket Case, is a middle-aged journalist with a mountain of peculiar anxieties, it seemed to make sense to tell the story strictly from his point of view. We have a few things in common, Jack and I.
Q. In the novel, he's an obituary writer for a medium-sized newspaper that's seen better days. In real life, you're a columnist for a big-city newspaper with a national reputation.
It's true that I've never covered the obituary beat, but I've written obituaries and can easily imagine the morbid outlook that would set in, if I had to do it every day. Death is something none of us want to think about it, but what if it was your whole job? Jack's obsessions -- for instance, his habit of memorizing the ages at which famous bios have died -- are perfectly understandable to me. He's looking for just a shred of logic or reason, a pattern to the mortal spiral of our species. None exists, of course. It's all a crap shoot.
Q. This time around, the target of your satire is the newspaper business. Are you trying to get yourself fired?
I've been fortunate to have spent the last 25 years working for a big aggressive newspaper, The Miami Herald. Most journalists aren't so lucky, because most papers in this country aren't very good, and they're getting worse.
The large chains that have been gobbling up so many dailies have profit margins that would make your average crack dealer blush. But they're still not making quite enough money, apparently, so they slash costs by spending less and less on the actual gathering of news.
Readers are being ripped off, communities are being deprived of a vigilant and thorough free press -- but stockholders are happy about the bottom line. There isn't a newspaper in this country -- including The Herald -- that hasn't been seriously hurt by the corporate axe.
Q. Do you think anybody cares enough about journalism these days to read a vicious satire set in that culture?
The whole point of satire is to expose enough of the folly to make people care -- ideally while they're laughing.
But what do I know? Hell, I wrote a whole novel about sex, murder and corruption on the professional bass-fishing circuit. Something tells me that Don Delilo and Richard Ford aren't exactly quaking in their boots.
Q. In Basket Case, the mystery revolves around the "accidental" death of a rock star. Were you inspired by anybody in particular?
Actually, I was inspired by all dead rock stars, from Jimi Hendrix to Keith Moon to Duane Allman. In that business, dying young and senselessly is a grand tradition, unfortunately. In the novel, my fictitious rocker is named Jimmy Stoma. He survived the excesses of the Eighties, got straight and retired to Florida where lives in peaceful anonymity.
Until he unexpectedly croaks, of course, and that's when Jack Tagger shows up to do the obituary honors.
Q. How did you come up with the name of the band?
Jimmy and the Slut Puppies -- it's a dandy name, which I more or less stole from my wife. "Slut puppies" is her term for guys who are indiscriminate in their dating habits, to put it politely.
Q. How do you make readers connect with a rock group that never existed?
Through the music -- or, since I'm limited to the printed word, the lyrics.
Lines from Jimmy Stoma's songs are sprinkled throughout the book, because Jack Tagger is listening to his old Slut Puppies CDs for inspiration, and for clues.
Q. And you wrote the words yourself?
It wasn't that hard to come up with a decent phrase or two, or even a couple of verses in one instance. But then the whole gimmick sort of backfired.
Q. What happened?
The title "Basket Case" -- which could apply to a number of characters in the book -- was also the name of a hit single recorded by Jimmy and the Slut Puppies.
There are only two lines in the novel -- "My baby is a basket case, a bipolar mama in leather and lace" -- but the folks at Knopf, my publisher, decided it would be nifty if there was a whole song they could use for promotion.
Q. They wanted a complete set of lyrics?
Not just lyrics but the music, too. They wanted an actual record!
So, because I have no shame, I imposed upon my good friend, Warren Zevon, who knows plenty about songwriting. A few years ago, he'd let me contribute a few tawdry sentiments to two cuts on his "Mutineer" album.
Still, I was astounded when he agreed to help with "Basket Case."" We spent a few weeks faxing lyrics back and forth, and then one day a CD arrives in the mail -- Warren's first stab at some riffs to go with the words.
As soon as I put it in the CD-Rom, I nearly fell off my chair. The lead guitar was a gas, smoking hot, and Warren's voice sounded fantastic. I immediately called him up and said, "Man, this is way too good for Jimmy and the Slut Puppies." And Warren said, "I've never done a title cut for a novel before."
Q. Is the song done?
Not only is it done, it's going to be on his new album.
Q. Will Jimmy Stoma receive any of the royalties?
His fictitious estate might get a fictitious check, but I wouldn't hold my breath. The music business is cruel to the dead and living alike.
Q. How can you write a novel about rock n' roll and get Elvis Presley's age wrong?
It's not easy, but I did it. Those who believe that Elvis is really dead tend to accept the official report that he was 42 years old when he passed away. However, Jack Tagger, the protoganist of Basket Case, thinks that Elvis was 46. That's probably because he used the same cheap almanac that I did, which had it wrong, and was too lazy to doublecheck. By the time I caught my mistake it was too late to change it in the novel, so now it becomes Jack's screwup, another of his morbid fixations. Such are the fringe benefits of writing fiction.