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Not many novelists reviewed in the New York Times are writing about Bad Brains shows in Washington, D.C., circa 1979. But Jennifer Gilmore, with her new novel Something Red, has somehow written a popular work of fiction in which H.R. is a minor player. We asked Gilmore, who’s in town this week for several readings, about basement shows, radicalism, and Washington’s memorable foliage.
Are you from D.C.?
Yes. I grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and went to BCC most of my life.
So, you’ve got a lot in common with Vanessa. [Vanessa, Something Red’s adolescent protagonist, behaves badly in and around D.C.’s nascent hardcore scene.]
Not really. This book takes place in 1979. That’s before my time. I was super young then. The music is different, and the time is different.
Why did you decide to ficitionalize this era?
I started the book because I wanted to write about how radicalism has declined over the generations, and wanted to look at that phenomenon through Jewish history. I’m very interested in the way history plays out in families.
During that time, there was so much going on with music. There was disco, there was the Dead, and there was punk…Music is the way people express dissent. I wanted [Vanessa] for the first time to experience what it’s like to to go a Bad Brains show. I never saw them—-they had left for New York by the time I would have been old enough—-but they were literally from D.C., and I liked writing about someone who was at the edges of punk rock…and [Vanessa’s brother] Benjamin is a jock in high school, but heir to his grandfather, who is a Lower East Side socialist…[Benjamin] finds that radicalism in the Grateful Dead at Brandeis.
Do you think it’s strange to be a Jew in D.C.? [The author, whose grandfather is Jewish, isn’t Jewish himself, but is still one of the most Jewish people he knows in this WASP-y town.]
When I was growing up, I remember going to a lot of Bar Mitzvahs—-high-end Bar Mitzvahs with senators’ kids. But I didn’t grow up particularly religious. We went to the high holidays. We went to Temple Sinai. I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah…It wasn’t until I went to Brandeis, where there were all these people from New York City and Long Island, that I was surrounded by Jews. These Jews were different.
In what way?
They grew up in really Jewish community. People I knew from Teaneck, N.J., did not not have friends that weren’t Jewish. I came to realize a lot later that experience—-having a diverse group of friends—-is unique to Washington.
You’re writing about a music scene that’s not well-documented, at least in the mainstream media. How did you research that world?
I don’t write a lot about the facts of it. I’ve been to punk shows and my experience seeing Dag Nasty or Minor Threat is similar to what Vanessa experiences. The experience of being in a basement—-that experience I understood. There’s a book called Punk Love with pictures by Susie Horgan, who I met later in Miami. You can get oral histories in some ways. I’m in no way trying to write about that scene or claim to know anything about that scene. It was about a character getting her feet wet in something, and for her, that feels natural.
Do you have anything to say about the scene now?
I don’t really know it. I don’t want to claim to be someone I’m not. I went to shows sometimes and was overwhelmed by them—-the energy of it, what it was like. You always have that sense in any scene, whether you’re following the Grateful Dead or Dag Nasty. I was always on the outside, always kind of watching.
What was the identity that stuck for you?
I don’t feel like I had a particular identity. It’s hard growing up, but now it’s incredibly useful, to be a person who’s not only one kind of person…I feel the other you get, the more specialized you become. On the inside, we’re all teenagers. I’m a writer. A lot of my friends are writers, so I’m not conversant in that. I teach, so I have this unique experience of having college students in my life. My sister is a visual artist. I’m married to a painter. My life is the cultural life of New York.
Do you miss Washington?
I grew up there, so all of my complicated memories of childhood are associated with that town. I grew up in the Reagan/Bush years. It’s the kind of town that’s informed by who’s in office. I mean, there were jelly bean stores when Reagan was in office. I’m not not interested in politics, but I’m not a political person. Honestly, it’s such a beautiful town—-my memories are of driving by the Watergate, of all the trees…I don’t have that experience being connected to the visuals of a place now. I miss that—-feeling so close to the mechanisms of government…Of course, we were as far away from that as anyone else. But that proximity was interesting. That’s what I’ve chosen to write about.
Do you feel like stakes are lower than they were in the 1980s?
At college at Brandeis, I had a feeling that I had missed the ’60s. That I’d missed this amazing time…but looking at Obama and the way people rallied, knocking on doors in ghettos of Philadelphia…I’ve been really revitalized by that. But that was fleeting. I’m not sure if that’s related to our time or technology… everything feels purposeful and completely purposeless. You get attached to something online, and it’s gone in 10 minutes.
You need people for a revolution. So many people are online, I don’t know how they get together. I really wanted to deal with the decline of radicalism. I wanted to say that what radicalism means for each generation is really different. I think that there are people who, very much, think they are radicals in some ways. 1960s radicals might not agree, but it is what it is.
Gilmore reads tonight at 7 p.m. Politics & Prose. She also reads Thursday at 11 a.m. at Chevy Chase library and Sunday 2 p.m. at Borders in Bailey’s Crossroads.