An interview with Rick Bass, whose Nashville Chrome will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Can you explain the combination of a novel that features real people—and who are these people?
The Browns were born in the heart of the Great Depression, grew up hardscrabble poor in backwoods Arkansas, and somehow, amazingly, became the biggest thing in country music in the mid- to late 1950s. They were pioneers—for better or worse—of the crossover business model in music, the first group to have #1 hits on both the country and pop charts. They gave up everything for fame, including a tightly-knit family life, traveled all night on raggedy roads in old cars, trailblazers and pioneers in establishing an international market that today is worth billions. The secret to their success lay in their haunting family harmony, a tempered harmony that many tried to emulate but could not; only their family members could match it. They were famous, then vanished, became forgotten.
A novel that features real people is complicated, but in the end, that extra challenge is all for the good. I think a novelist must be more tender with living or “real” people. The moral imperative of having been entrusted with their story looms before you every day, in every sentence. On the other side of the equation, you don’t want to write hagiography. As a person, you want to present them as the best they can be, but as a writer, you have to then be willing to sacrifice their goodness—not to tear it all the way down, but to set it back a bit—and then build them back up. If the story wasn’t so amazing and so in need of dramatizing, I would never have taken on that challenge, and responsibility.
What drew you to the Browns' story?
It sounds like hyperbole or cliché, but the magnificence of it—the immensity of the story—the Browns were bigger than Elvis, back in the old days—and then, more alluring still to a novelist, the secrecy of it, the invisibility: they were forgotten so quickly. It’s not that everyone died and that the Browns outlived history, as sometimes happens; they were just forgotten. In some strange way, I love that this is possible, while at the same time they were the nexus of greatness in country music, once upon a time. Greatness was drawn to them, back then—they were—briefly, but powerfully—the center. The Beatles called them their favorite American group. Legendary producer Chet Atkins said they were his favorite group to record. Johnny Cash was drawn to them, and, most famously, they nurtured and sustained Elvis before he was Elvis: gave him what he needed and sent him on his way into the ether of such explosive (and, unlike the Browns) enduring fame.
You're coming off two works of nonfiction, how did you switch gears to write Nashville Chrome?
It was a welcome return. Fiction is harder for me than nonfiction—more gratifying, as a result, when it succeeds—and it was nice not knowing what the end of the story, or, indeed, any one scene, would be, but to instead be able to focus only on trying to write pretty scenes, images, passages. To try to find the beauty that surely existed in their lives, even in the hard times of the fame they sought so diligently, and which—briefly—they reached.
You're known as an environmentalist. How do you see Nashville Chrome in relation to your books about the natural world?
The natural world is the only one we have. To try to not see the natural world—to put on blinders and avoid seeing it—would for me seem like a form of madness. I’m also interested in the way landscape shapes individuals and populations, and from that, cultures.
There is also a contemporary angle to the story--why did you decide to write about Maxine Brown in the past as well as the present?
I’m simply amazed by how much burning the human body—and soul—can withstand. Maxine has had over 20y major operations, has been forgotten for 60 years, and still flames incandescent in her hope and hunger for the return of fame. Without meaning to judge it, I think it’s a phenomenal thing to observe, and to be awed by, while perceiving also the costs.