Published Sep 23, 2011When Victoria, BC-based author Robert J. Wiersema was approached by Greystone Books to write a book about Bruce Springsteen, he was happy as can be, being a huge Springsteen fan. He was also struck with creative paralysis: as any Springsteen fan knows, there have been a lot of books written about the man and his music. The concept Wiersema came up with for Walk Like a Man -- the book is a memoir in the form of liner notes to a mixtape of Bruce's music that Wiersema assembled, every song telling a different story in the author's life -- is an original one, but it didn't come easy.
"It took me about four months to actually come up with the mixtape liner notes concept," Wiersema tells Exclaim! in a recent interview. "Everything's been done. Springsteen's been so well covered -- he's in the holy trinity of rock stars who have been written about the most, with Bob Dylan and the Beatles."
The publisher had approached Wiersema, who has previously penned the novels Before I Wake and Bedtime Story, after hearing him weave a Springsteen-related tale while introducing author/journalist Ian Brown at an awards luncheon, so Wiersema realized that if it was that personal connection to Springsteen's music that first caught the publisher's attention, that's what he should roll with for the book.
"I was getting increasingly frustrated, because there was this publisher who wanted to write about Springsteen and I didn't know what I was going to say," Wiersema says. "So I thought, what had inspired this offer was my own personal connection, my passion, so maybe it should go back to that. And the mixtape thing just suggested itself."
So initial conceptual roadblock aside, Wiersema then had to deal with the actual writing. And for a guy who has lived and breathed Bruce as much as he has, you'd think it would be easy. But writing the book -- which explores Wiersema's coming of age and becoming an adult with a family through the lens of Springsteen's work -- didn't flow out easily until Wiersema wrote the chapter that talked about the birth of his son, Xander.
"It was fairly difficult until I had sort of the arc of the book," he says. "There are so many songs that have memories for me and resonances and touch on my life. When I was writing about 'Living Proof' and the story of Xander's birth, that gave me a sense of the arc and how personal it was going to be and how significant the resonances had to be. From there it was pretty straightforward."
While the book is a touching and intimate look into one man's life, it also brings up bigger questions of fandom, of the public façade of celebrity, of the difference between art and artist. All reasons why Wiersema admits that he's a bit hesitant about ever meeting or interviewing Springsteen.
"There's something to be said for never meeting your heroes," he says. "I have my impression of his life and of who he is, and I'd hate to be told I'm wrong, which I may very well be. One of the things that struck me while writing the book is the line between honest and true. You have things that are verifiably not true, but they feel true. And the hallmark of great art is you make truth out of fiction. We as outsiders never know just how much of even the most disclosive art -- like Springsteen's Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, for example -- how much of that is actually honest and how much of that is just another mask."
Even if it is just another mask, what matters most is how people resonate with the end result -- Springsteen's music, anyone's music. As Walk Like a Man proves, people can resonate pretty powerfully with things even if they are unclear on how authentic the words being sung are.
"There's a tremendous sense of intimacy with the man and his work that I don't think you have with too many other performers," says Wiersema. "I think there's integrity there."
For Wiersema, who's already hard at work on his next novel and a short story collection, Springsteen's music has impacted him so much that he can't even imagine what a life without his music would be like.
"I honestly have no idea," he says. "He's been with me for so long that I can't really imagine it any other way."
Walk Like a Man hits shelves on Saturday (September 24) via Greystone Books.