Mikel Jollett: Writing About the Contradictions

(photo: Dove Shore)

Mikel Jollett is the frontman of the indie band The Airborne Toxic Event. Prior to forming the band, Jollett graduated with honors from Stanford University. He was an on-air columnist for NPR's All Things Considered, an editor-at-large for Men's Health and an editor at Filter magazine. His fiction has been published in McSweeney's. His memoir, Hollywood Park, will be published by Celadon Books on May 5, 2020.

One of your observations on the AA campouts you attended with your family while growing up in Oregon is how powerful the stories were. What kind of impact did this informal education, as well as your formal education, have on your concept of storytelling?

I remember so vividly sitting around campfires, or at the SOS club in Salem, Oregon, at, say, eight years old listening to recovering alcoholics talk about run-ins with the law and abandoned children and wild nights. They were amazing storytellers and always found a way to make the tragic seem funny. There's an old line that goes something like, "He's funny. So you know he's serious." These folks had a kind street-performer approach to the craft of storytelling because they did it almost every night and they knew how to get a laugh or draw a tear. Of course, it affected our understanding of the world, as well our understanding of storytelling.

As for formal education, I came to books rather late. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. So when I finally got serious, at 25 years old, I drove to the Santa Monica Public Library and checked out 25 books I thought I might like. I found my way to Roth and Kafka, Nabokov and then Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo. Since I never studied these books, I often wondered if I loved them for the wrong reasons. But the truth of it, there probably aren't wrong reasons. You love books because you love books. And as for the basics of narrative, voice and story, I'm sure some AA storytellers could give some Nobel laureates a run for their money.

Your relationship with your mother evolves throughout Hollywood Park, especially as you grow to better understand her mental illness. You share a memorable anecdote about your mom raising rabbits for meat when a mama bunny kills a baby from her litter; your mom's partner Paul explains, "It's nothing they do on purpose. They just can't help it." Is there something of an allegory there?

I worried that one might be too on the nose. Yes, absolutely. I think I use metaphors to simplify the complex ideas around forgiveness and abuse since its easier to understand it from that distance.

The mama bunnies who kill their babies on accident are large and cumbersome and the cages were small and the babies very fragile, and I'm sure they were sad they hurt their babies and the whole idea of blame is called into question when you consider what that mama bunny was dealing with. And still, despite that, the baby is bloodied and suffering in the cage and has every reason in the world to be angry (because he's dying) and probably isn't going to think about all the generational ways the mama bunny may not be fully to blame. But since we are human we get to use metaphors and understand each other through stories, so that's what I tried to do even if sometimes I feel like the bunny and other times I feel like the person trying to write about the bunny.

Your father looms large in these pages; your fierce admiration and love for him are palpable. After his funeral, you write, "I can't help but think that more often than not the people we admire publicly are rarely the ones we privately love the most."

We celebrate people who accomplish amazing things, whether they're artists or entrepreneurs or political leaders. These people have endless luncheons and awards and dinners and accolades, and I think despite this public admiration, we all privately admire and love people who don't put their energy into accomplishing impressive things; they put it into concern for their family, their friends, their neighbors. They put it into humor and love and empathy and we love them for it. And these people don't generally get luncheons or awards, but if given the choice, we'd spend our last day on Earth with them because they made us feel at peace and at home. I think every good family has someone like this at the center of it, a person you would die for who has never done a single impressive thing except love with all their heart.

As a music journalist, you took notes while interviewing David Bowie: "Chaos is good. Structure is bad," and left with the takeaway, "Write about the contradiction." Do these principles still guide how you write music? How you write prose?

Yes. There's a note written on the wall next to my desk where I write. It says, "Search for truth and you'll be rewarded with originality." I think the imaginative truth, the truth as you understand it, in all its weirdness and complexity, its seeming contradictions, is the heart of a good story. It's the thing we read stories for, to know another's mind. The gift of books is the communication between minds, and the thing I love most about books is the windswept plain of page 200, the moment when I feel I'm reading an author's words and it seems like they've never said these words to another soul. It's just the two minds meeting in this sort of intellectual purgatory. Movies don't do it, quite. Neither do songs. This is the province of books. And I think when writing mine I thought a lot about trying to meet other minds on that windswept plain. To simply get to the heart of the matter: "Here was my world. Is that how it was for you?" --Katie Weed

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