By Vish KhannaA noted musician from Massachusetts who now calls Toronto home, Joe Pernice has been the central voice in acclaimed indie rock bands like the Scud Mountain Boys, the Pernice Brothers, and Chappaquiddick Skyline among others. While he's released many records since the mid-'90s, he's also written a book of poetry called Two Blind Pigeons and a novella-turned-screenplay for the 33-1/3 series called Meat is Murder, which is inspired by the Smiths album of the same name. Riverhead Books recently published his first novel, a compelling story about love, confusion, and commitment called It Feels So Good When I Stop and Pernice took some time to tell us all about it.
Joe, you've created a nameless protagonist here who seems rather conflicted and lost during a formative time in his life. Can you tell me more about the main character in It Feels So Good When I Stop, and what inspired his story? Well, I think that you hit it right on the head. Usually, in books, I see characters that have these great epiphanies where they find themselves at the end, and I kinda wanted to show a character who was a bit of a screw-up or very clueless who, maybe isn't necessarily finding himself but just becomes aware of the fact that he's lost. That's kinda the character I was shooting for. I was visiting my parents back in Massachusetts one Christmas a couple of years ago. I was pushing my infant son around the neighbourhood in a stroller, and a dog, a rottweiler or something like that, kinda went at us, but he was chained up so he couldn't reach us. It freaked me out a little. I remember thinking, "If that dog gets free, I'm gonna have to kill him with my bare hands or he'll eat my kid." That's where the book started, right at that moment.
Right, there's a scene in the book that mirrors that experience. Yeah, except I ran with it in the book; the dog gets loose and they actually get into some kind of battle. But that's really where it started. From there, I was just walking around the block a million times because it was the only way my kid would sleep. And I just started to think, "Who is this guy who's walking the kid? What's he doing where he is?" And then I just ran with it.
It's a very relatable story for anyone who's been in a relationship and been unsure of it. Does any of it stem from experiences in your own life? Oh sure. There's some of that in there. I might've taken some things that were real and just blew them up into more interesting stories than they actually were.
Music means a lot to this character and it's kind of a touchstone he uses to communicate with others and maybe even to make sense of life generally. Why was it important for you to convey that feeling of playing and appreciating music in this guy's life? I think because of the time. It's set in the early to mid-'90s and I was that age right around then too, when music was so important to people. Just like you said ― it's a touchstone and a meeting place where people can relate to each other without actually having to have anything to say, y'know what I mean? So I was using it like that. My character's not exactly the most emotional or healthy when it comes to relating in a good way. But music does a lot of talking for him.
There was more of an orthodoxy about music in the '90s it seemed. You could be defined by the music you listened to and that really comes across in the book. The characters aren't snobby necessarily, but at the same time they're very protective of the music they love. Does that feeling still exist today or was it a particular part of the '90s that you wanted to convey? I don't really know but I'd have to say yes. I don't think there was anything really unique about that time. Kids today are probably as protective. People always think their time was different but they're all the same.
I distinctly remember that feeling of being on one team or another but today, those musical lines seem to be gone. Maybe they're gone for you! But I betcha, to younger people, there's still this camp and that camp.
Right, okay. At one point Lou Barlow becomes a character in your book. This interests me to no end. Why do this and why Lou exactly? I wanted to have a famous character, someone who was famous at that time. He fits the sweet spot of the kind of music that my character is into and he also lived near by. Lou lived close to where the book is set. It was either him or Mascis. I needed somebody who was local but had become kinda famous too.