Outside the Gates of Eden: An Interview with Author Lewis Shiner

I’ve been a fan of Lewis Shiner ever since I read his novel Glimpses about 25 years ago. Its protagonist, an obsessive rock fan, travelsback in time through his dreams, where he tries with mixed success to help the Beatles, Brian Wilson, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix complete their unfinished masterpieces. Part of what makes this work is that Shiner really does know a lot about these legendary aborted records, and a lot about rock in general. He also knows a lot, or went to the trouble of learning, about how the artists actually spoke and acted.

Glimpses is more or less science fiction, though Shiner’s also gone into the rock world with his non-fantasy novel Say Goodbye and several short stories. He’s also written novels in which rock plays barely a part, like Black & White, where buried secrets between North Carolina generations come to a head, and Dark Tangos, which takes on yet more disturbing, difficult secrets and culture clashes in South America.

At first his latest and by far most ambitious book, Outside the Gates of Eden, seems to set the stage for another story set in the rock world. Hero (and sometimes anti-hero) Cole works his way up through Texas teen garage bands to the Fillmore and the verge of rock stardom before seeming to throw it all away. The journey takes him through the college frat circuit, the San Francisco psychedelic scene, and Woodstock before it goes off course.

But Outside the Gates of Eden is much more than a tale—albeit much more convincing and realistic than almost any other—of a fictional rock almost-star. Its 870 pages take in many other characters and many other milieus of Cole’s generation. These journey from back-to-the-land communes and the snobbish New York art world to abusive police, broken families, and a struggle for integrity and justice that leads Cole and his best buddy into dangerous crime-ridden Mexican climes. And it somehow culminates fifty years after its mid-’60s launch with a high-stakes poker game in Mexico, where the stakes are higher than mere money, or even a mere life or two.

Cole’s struggle to regain a foothold in the music business might be the strongest thread of the book’s latter sections, but it’s hardly the only one. There are also struggles between the political and lifestyle philosophies of different generations, especially with Cole and his estranged father. There’s a delicate balance of family and romantic relationships, always threatening to fall off a high-wire as the characters change, sometimes radically, and at different rates. There are insider takes, unfortunately pretty accurate as far as this music journalist can tell, of the ruthlessness of the music industry.

Not least, although saved mostly for the last, there are the main characters’ quests—as they grow from middle age into senior citizens—to help do their part for environmental and social sustainability in the time they have left. It’s not only an urgent attempt to hang on to the idealism they’d first cultivated in the ‘60s; by the time of the book’s conclusion near 2016, it’s become an absolute necessity. It’s not just the story of a generation, but of an uncertain future, even as it gets ready for the final phase of its life.

Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, both in scale and sheer length. It’s a tribute to Shiner’s strength as a writer, however, that it’s a riveting read that never sags. Besides taking on very big questions, from the value of capitalism to the sacrifices one makes both for art and the planet, it’s just plain entertaining. And if you are a rock fan, this might stand out, as it does to me, as one of the few works of fiction with strong rock elements that ring, as I wrote in a back cover blurb, “with journalistic authenticity and painstakingly accurate detail.”

Which leads into a disclaimer: I did write one of the back cover blurbs for Outside the Gates of Eden. I’m also prominently thanked in the Author’s Note, as I helped show Shiner around San Francisco (particularly Haight-Ashbury) one weekend as he researched some of that painstaking detail. I also read a draft and gave him some general notes/feedback, including clarifications about the kind of rock history details he wants to make sure are right, whether it’s when something happened at the Jefferson Airplane house, or who exactly was in the Yardbirds at a certain San Francisco show.

But whether or not I’d become friends with Lewis, I would have wanted to ask him about Outside the Gates of Eden. He answered my questions shortly after the book was published in spring 2019.

Outside the Gates of Eden covers some thematic ground that’s also found in your other books. There’s rock music and rock history, which is a big part of Glimpsesand Say Goodbye. It follows characters through volatile periods of social change with repercussions that last decades, as it does in some ways in Black & White. There are some dark and sometimes violent confrontations with authorities and between cultures, elements in Dark Tangos. There are conflicts between different generations, which came into play in different ways in Black and White and Glimpses.

Yet Outside the Gates of Eden is clearly different from your previous books. There’s the sheer size and scope, certainly. But I first want to ask, what kind of similar territory do you see the book exploring to what you have in previous work?

First of all, I’m relieved to hear you say that Eden is “clearly different.” I was a little nervous at the outset because Cole’s story arc seemed a little too similar to Say Goodbye, where a musician moves to California, gets some traction in the music business, but ultimately fails to become a star. Obviously the scope in Eden is much larger, and there are many other story arcs beside Cole’s, but does a larger scope imply a qualitative difference? In the end, I never felt like I was repeating myself in the particulars, so I hope my readers will agree.

One of the other themes you mentioned was generational conflicts, specifically father-son relationships. I had to revisit that territory in Eden for a number of reasons, maybe the biggest of which is thematic. The struggle between the counterculture and the establishment was in many ways that same father-son conflict, writ large. Also, I wanted to let the father have a voice, which is something I hadn’t done before. I think it’s important to get it out there that the World War II generation felt betrayed in many ways when their kids rebelled. Look at all I gave you, they said.

What are some of the other ways in which you set out to nonetheless make Outside the Gates of Eden markedly different from any of your previous books?

Really I think it comes back to the scope thing, which meant getting into more diverse viewpoints. I made some effort, I guess, in Black & White and Dark Tangos to get into the heads of the white supremacists and the right-wing terrorists, but I never really narrated from their point of view. So maybe that’s something that’s been evolving in my work over the years, but it definitely took a huge jump here. Not only do we see through the eyes of Cole’s father, we get viewpoints from Dave, a record producer, and Johnny Hornet, a DJ. Now both of those concepts—the record producer and the DJ—were pretty much brand new in the early-to-mid ‘60s. They were inventing those job descriptions as they went along. So it was very important to me to cover those bases, and to have Madelyn there for the art revolution in SoHo in the 1970s, and Cole there in Austin for the outlaw country music later in the decade, and so on.  So maybe one big difference is that I was trying for a kind of completeness in Eden where my other books stuck closer to the classical unities.

Something I think can be said of Outside the Gates of Eden’s themes is that it looks at how a generation changes, sometimes unpredictably, both in how it affects its times and how the times affect it. Is that a fair assessment?

Definitely.  Starting in the late ‘50s and going into the early ‘70s, young people brought about some really sweeping changes—Civil Rights, ending the draft and the Vietnam War, legalizing abortion, not to mention big cultural changes. Then the times began to change us. The assassinations of Malcom X, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King. The murders of students at Kent State and Jackson State. Those were all incredibly demoralizing. And the circumstances that had made the sixties possible—a prosperous white middle class, a booming economy, affordable college education—that all started to change, too. The gas crisis of 1973 was a big turning point, the first time that this young generation had to face real shortages. It was a wake-up call, saying “there’s not enough to go around anymore.” And a lot of people reacted to that by saying, “OK, then, I’m going to make sure I get my share.” That was the beginning of the end in many ways.

What were the challenges of taking on such a big area?

Number one, research. Starting with reading general histories of the times, then burrowing down into memoirs of people who were there, or were characters in my book. Conducting interviews myself, visiting San Francisco (where you generously showed me around) and the Woodstock site. All the way down to the incredible wealth of detail that’s available on the Internet. Set lists from concerts that I describe in the book. Complete schedules of who was playing at the Fillmore on any given day. Photos of Haight Street or the performer’s pavilion at Woodstock. So that’s one challenge.

The next is, one, making sure I didn’t overlook some event that absolutely needed to be in the book. Like, I went back and forth and back and forth on whether I should talk about 9/11, and, grudgingly, I decided I had to at least mention it.  Two, deciding what to leave out. I mean, you can’t talk about everything. One of my big decisions was not to go in depth on the actual experience of being in Vietnam. I wasn’t there, almost nobody I knew was there, and those that were mostly didn’t want to talk about it.  I didn’t feel like I could bring anything fresh to that discussion.

It’s interesting—after I had the book pretty well mapped out in my head and was well along into writing it, one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley, published something called The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, really a single novel divided into three volumes. She covers a single family from 1920 to 2019, and it’s a wonderful story, and it’s as different from Eden as it could be. There’s very little music in it, she spends a lot more time in Vietnam, and she has about the same amount of material for each year. I was fascinated, because I knew the problems she had to solve, and I admired the way she solved them in a completely different way than I did.

As a general observation, Eden’s a just plain big book, with 870 pages. That’s about two to three times (and more often than not three times) as long as most novels. It’s long even by so-called “epic” standards. Did you have such an epic in mind when you first conceived the book?

I knew it immediately. My first estimate was that it would be a thousand pages in manuscript, and I was close—the final draft was a bit over 1200. 

How do you think such a long work (whether by you or others) is justified, when the great majority of other novels are shorter, and usually much shorter?

That’s easy. I like long books. MiddlemarchWar and PeaceOur Mutual FriendAnna Karenina. More recently, City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s such a comfort to start a book and really like it, and know it’s not going to be over anytime soon. And I get excited when I feel like an author is going to be raising big issues.

Obviously not everyone agrees. I have a friend who is reluctant to pick up a book of more than 400 pages. My concession to those readers was to work really hard on tightening the prose, trying to cut out every word that I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.

I have a few questions specifically about the rock music element of the story, especially as I’m mostly known as a music history writer. As we’ve discussed on a number of occasions, many fiction books using rock music as a major or minor element don’t bother to get historical contexts right. Sometimes it’s almost as if the author doesn’t think they’re important, or just doesn’t mind that it seems careless and phony. Your books, especially this one and Glimpses, have very authentic rock historical detail not only in getting the facts right, but also in getting the feel of the musicians (whether real ones like Hendrix or fictional ones like Cole) authentic. Why do you obviously think it’s important to get the context right?

When I’m reading a historical novel, one of my criteria is whether the writer can surprise me with unexpected details. Sarah Waters, for example, is fantastic at this. You don’t have to be an expert on Victorian history to read her novel Fingersmith and know that she did an incredible amount of research, because she’s constantly coming up with stuff that startles or even shocks you. Conversely, when somebody is just making stuff up or relying on things they’ve seen on TV, the writing seems flat. 

Also, I am terrible at making stuff up. The more I know about the realities of a place and time, the easier it is for me to write about it.

As one example of how you get into rock culture in the book with some detail, you don’t just go through one character’s dalliance with rock stardom at big venues and festivals, but also his rise through garage bands putting out scarce singles and playing gross frat parties with violence and sexual assault. Is there any autobiographical element to that part, whether as a fan or a musician growing up during that period?

Oh yeah. I was in lots of garage bands. Played lots of frat houses, both in the ‘60s and later on. The frat party I describe Cole playing at actually happened in the early ‘80s, and I was in fact in the band, and one of the kids did actually smash up a chair and try to light it on fire. I didn’t see anything there that was inconsistent with what I’d seen in the sixties at the frat houses I played at Vanderbilt.

It isn’t just the music and musicians that are depicted with naturalistic detail, but also the music business, and how harsh it is. Record deals blow up over petty details, and without giving much away, even when the main musician character gets some success late in his career, it turns out not to be as much of an unqualified victory as he thought it was at first. Is that something you feel important to do, to illustrate how tough and sometimes harsh the business can be, despite its often romantic image?

I think it’s much more common knowledge now that big label record companies can grind you into paste and wash you down the drain. Back in the sixties, a big label contract was the Holy Grail, and nobody knew about stuff like recouping recording costs and gross vs. net earnings. It was important to deal with that in Eden because the book does talk so much about art vs. commerce—as embodied in Alex [Cole’s best friend and, in his early days, bandmate], but also played out in SoHo or in the university system.

I’ve said elsewhere that the book was an all-out attack on capitalism, but that’s not really correct. It’s more of an all-out attack on unrestrained capitalism. That tension, between making art and making a living, between finding happiness and being responsible, is at the heart of the book. I mean, Woodstock is this symbol of peace and love, but somebody ended up paying the bill. The backers lost millions (initially, anyway), the National Guard had to fly in food and medicine, local farmers were handing out sandwiches—I mean, it’s great to be idealistic, but you have to also function in the real world, where things have price tags.

You actually research some of these rock history details, as you did with me when we walked around Haight-Ashbury, but as you’ve also done with real-life characters like producer Erik Jacobsen, and just by your thorough pre-existing knowledge, as comes through with the description of legendary unreleased music by the Beatles/Doors/Beach Boys/Hendrix in Glimpses. Why, I ask because it’s a positive, is it so important for you to get both the facts and the feel right in the rock elements of your books?

It probably won’t surprise anybody who reads Eden for me to say that I’m an idealist. I regard fiction as a calling. When it’s done right, I believe it can reveal truths about the human condition that non-fiction has to work much harder to achieve. If you’re after higher truth, you have to get the “lower” truth—a.k.a., the facts—right first.

You’ve already answered this question in a previous conversation, but I’ll ask it here as it’ll now go in print, and in case your answer’s changed at all. Lots of works of fiction use rock as part of the book, whether as the dominant part or just one part. Most of those books are bad or at least seriously flawed, in part because most of them don’t get the facts or feel right. Why do you think this is generally done so poorly, and done well so infrequently?

It takes a particular skill set to write good fiction about music. Note here that I’m not claiming that I do—this is just me talking as a reader. Obviously you need to write well. You need to really love music and be transported by it. And the really tough one, you have to know how the music is put together. You should be able to play at least one instrument, you should know some music theory, you should know what a Leslie speaker is and how that changes the sound of a Hammond B3. The reason is, if you don’t have a grounding in the reality of the physical instruments, your descriptions can get so metaphorical they read like bad sex scenes—throbbing waves pounding the yielding sands and so on.

Are there any other fiction books besides yours that you think have done this well?

I’ve read a few books where the music details were quite convincing—like Howard Massey’s Roadie, for example—but I had some quibbles with the writing style or the story. So George RR Martin’s Armageddon Rag remains my favorite rock novel. And I gave George some technical assistance on that one. Interestingly, my favorite novel about music is Longing, by J. D. Landis, which is about the classical composer Robert Schumann. Landis gets everything right—gorgeous writing, completely convincing musical stuff, some of it very technical, but never dry. And an absolutely heartbreaking story. Susan Hardin [Tim Hardin’s widow] turned me onto that book, for which I’m eternally grateful.

Have you tried any that have done so notably poorly?

I don’t mind picking on P. F. Kluge because he can laugh all the way to the bank. Eddie and the Cruisers is the poster child for a rock novel by somebody who doesn’t know how bands work. In the novel, the band has four (count ‘em, four) guitar players, a sax player, a drummer, and no bass. This, obviously, was one of many things they changed for the movie. And it’s not just the instrumentation that rings false, it’s the whole chemistry and day-to-day business of the band.

I don’t want to give away anything to those who haven’t read the book, but something that impressed me about it was that there weren’t pat and predictable resolutions to some deep conflicts between some of the characters. Some such conflicts are often resolved with a big tearful scene near the end, in both novels and films. Well, it doesn’t always happen that way in real life, and that’s seldom reflected in books and films. Do you think that’s a fair observation, and is that something you want to make a part of your plots and characters?

Again, this is something I’m glad to hear. I don’t know that I set out to overturn the idea of pat resolutions, but I did base almost everything in the book on either my personal experience or the experiences of my friends. I combined and split off characters and condensed or expanded timelines, but for some definition, most of the book aspires to “truth”—in that higher sense I was talking about earlier. As I’ve gotten older and seen the way events play out—deaths of parents, ends of marriages, people having kids and grandkids—it is increasingly clear that a lot of stuff never does get resolved. So that’s the truth I’m striving to be faithful to.

Also—you hear this a lot and I’m sure many will scoff, but more in Eden than anything else I’ve written, the characters took hold of their own destinies. I’m sure this reflects some kind of subconscious process that I’m just not in touch with, but it felt like they were controlling the plot. There were a number of benchmarks in the story that I had in mind from the beginning—a suicide, an extramarital affair, to name two examples—that it became clear the characters would not cooperate for.

I will say that I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings—I want the reader to have a feeling that it’s done. But “done” is not always the same as “resolved.”

Some casual readers, and maybe (though I hope not) some reviewers, will view or maybe even dismiss Eden as “another ‘60s book” in a tired arena that should be put to bed. But of course, while the ‘60s play a big part in launching the epic, if you do read the whole thing, it goes right up to the present, and addresses very contemporary issues like global warming, sustainability, and community among baby boomers who are now senior citizens. How important was this for you to make a part of the story?

Well, first off, I don’t think I’ve read that many ‘60s books. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that way. But my initial concept of the book was, “what happened to the idealism of the ‘60s, and how did we end up with a culture of greed?” That necessitates bringing the story at the very least into the ‘80s. To me, you don’t have a story yet when you say, “this kind of great thing happened for a while in the ‘60s, but it ended.”  When you say, “this kind of great thing happened, and it was mocked and reviled and stamped out by the forces of repression, but it held on and now it’s coming back”—now you’ve got a story. 

I liked one character’s line “I think the election of Reagan was a kind of cultural Iron Curtain, cutting off the ‘60s from the history of the future.” But not just because there was that one specific line — I think that thread is there throughout much of the book, especially the latter parts. Of how conservative/reactionary forces roll back cultural/humanitarian advances, or pretend they didn’t happen, or twist them into something else. I note, if subtly, in my books and courses that learning about music of the past isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, but also relevant to what happens today or in any subsequent era. I think the book shows how the past is connected to the present, and how learning about the past can help us understand the present and move into the future. If that is indeed something you have in mind, do you want to comment on that?

It’s not just conservative forces, it’s the capitalist system. When it’s unrestrained—as it has been increasingly since the ‘80s, as we get further and further from the Great Depression that was caused by unrestrained capitalism—the rich just want to get richer and there’s nothing to stop them.  Obviously history has a lot to teach us—not just about the Gilded Age and the Depression, which are so similar to what we’re seeing now—but about some possible solutions.

As far as music goes, there’s a lot to learn from that, too. I had an interviewer ask me for some of my favorite political songs from the ‘60s. I fumbled the question and kind of said, well, not that many songs were overtly political. But when I thought about it later, I decided that was wrong. So many songs were political, just not in obvious ways. When the Rascals sang, “A Beautiful Morning,” or the Kinks sang “Something Better Beginning,” or the Beach Boys sang “Good Vibrations,” those were like coded messages to the teenagers listening to the radio, saying, “It’s a new day, it’s time to rethink the world, we are at the very start of something wonderful and profound.” Those songs inspired us to believe in ourselves, to be idealistic, to challenge the existing order.

Although your sympathy definitely seems to be with left-wing and artistically progressive movements, unlike many epic novels with strong historical elements, you also note the flaws of some of these movements and organizations. The early-’70s communes in Eden have deep problems, for instance. Is that something you find interesting to explore, and do you get any flak, even these days, from veterans of those movements feeling like you’re betraying the cause or something similar by being critical?

One of the former commune members I interviewed actually told me my characters were too committed. Where was the fun? Fortunately he read an early draft and I was able to make things a little more relaxed. He had other criticisms, too, but not every commune was alike, and I followed my instincts.  Again, as we’ve been talking about, you can try for the truth or you can try for what you wish was the truth. The second option doesn’t really help you deal with the future.

A related question: late ‘60s rock music, which plays a big part in the lives of the characters in the early part of the book, is often written about with rosy nostalgia. But Eden also goes into the seamier parts of the experience. Not just the business hassles and the frat parties that I’ve cited, but also when the two most prominent characters visit Haight-Ashbury at the peak of the summer of love, and it’s a bummer. Or when Woodstock turns out not to be a glorious dawn in the life of one, but kind of an ending of a big part of his life. Again: do veterans of the rock scene feel like you’re laying down a bummer trip by being critical of some parts of it?

The SF writer William Gibson was at Woodstock, and he told me back in the ‘80s how miserable it was there, and how many people walked away saying, “Thank god that’s over.” Only to have these incredibly rosy memories afterward, when the festival became kind of this sacred event. Of the Woodstock veterans I talked to, most were in the middle—glad to have it on their resume, so to speak, but not downplaying the discomforts of it. I haven’t caught any flak over my portrayal of Woodstock, which I tried to make pretty even-handed, but I haven’t heard from any Woodstock vets yet either.

Something else I think the book conveys, which might make even progressives uncomfortable, is that for a better future, a lot of sacrifice is involved. It will involve much more than voting for the best candidate or recycling your newspapers; it will involve big changes in lifestyle that not everyone might find easy to adapt to, certainly at first. Is that important for you to convey, and do you have a feeling that readers are picking up on that?

I would hope that the book inspires readers to make some sacrifices, but that kind of thing is hard to predict. I think one of the most controversial things in the book is the idea that idealists can’t save the world by themselves. No matter how much they hate the idea, they are going to have to get at least a certain number of rich people on their side. As I said earlier in the interview, somebody has to pay the bills. We need to have compassionate, idealistic rich people on board, or we’re doomed.

The book just came out, but how’s the reaction been so far? Not just among people who are familiar with your work (I imagine it’s been very enthusiastic among those), but among any who might be reading you for the first time?

The reaction has been remarkably good. I don’t know how many first-time Shiner readers I’ve been getting, but the thing that really surprises and pleases me is that people seem to be actually reading the book and not just putting it on the coffee table and admiring it. For a book this size, that’s really gratifying. Because it’s a limited edition from a small publisher, that tends to self-select for my existing fans. It’ll have a more general readership when it’s released in the UK in August, and we’ll know more then.

Info on Outside the Gates of Eden on the website of Subterranean Press. Other info on his work on Lewis Shiner’s website.

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