Don Silver’s new novel explores childhood issues manifesting in adulthood

MOONAGE DAYDREAM: Don Silver's new novel is part coming-of-age story, part thriller and infused with the novelist's love of music. Author photo by Atelier Unforgettable

Can a person truly outrun their past?

That’s the question at the heart of Asheville-based writer Don Silver’s new novel, Scorched, which was published May 7. The narrative centers on Jonas Shore, whose deadly, split-second decision as a teenager has lasting effects into adulthood when an old acquaintance attempts to exploit Jonas’ remorse via blackmail.

Silver says much of the story is pure fiction but adds that parts of the narrative’s potent mix of coming-of-age and thriller traditions were informed by his personal history — particularly sections set in the 1970s and the numerous music references from that period.

A native of Philadelphia, Silver was a guitar player and singer-songwriter in high school but soon discovered he was better at managing his band. Once he got to college in Boston, he represented other musical acts and met with record labels in New York City and Los Angeles.

After seeing the heart of the industry up close in the late 1970s, he interviewed with Arista Records and was hired by the legendary Clive Davis as a talent scout, based out of New York.

“I’ve always loved music, so learning from Clive Davis how to hear every element of a song — lyric, melody, instrumentation — and to be able to develop my ear that way would be a highlight,” he says in discussing that chapter of his life. “And also learning to first edit and then produce music. So eventually, I moved from Arista to independent record production, and that was superfun.”

In 1999, Silver was in his 40s and working a corporate job back in Philadelphia, when he decided to pursue his lifelong passion for writing and applied to a low-residency MFA program at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt. Though he earned his degree in poetry, he quickly shifted to prose, and his debut novel, Backward-Facing Man, was published in 2004. But he never expected it would take 20 years before his next work of fiction was out in the world.

Light my fire

Silver’s follow-up novel proved to be a long, difficult endeavor. And though he eventually finished it, he says the work “happily is never going to be coming out.”

Instead, inspiration for his latest book struck thanks to someone from his past. Over the years, Silver has stayed close with a childhood friend who’s prone to suggesting ideas for books — “One worse than the next,” Silver says with a laugh. But one day, the friend unexpectedly provided him with the seed for what would become Scorched.

Though Silver’s editor wound up persuading him to significantly change the premise during the revision process, his friend’s suggestion nevertheless helped Silver dream up 15-year-old protagonist Jonas, the 1970s setting and the high points of a plot that kicks off when the teen’s father unexpectedly dies of a heart attack.

“The first half of the book was basically introducing [Jonas] to a harsh version of adulthood,” Silver says. “And then midway through the book, I decided it would be really interesting to find out what happens to him as an adult, so I moved forward 20 years. There’s some events at the end of the first half — there’s a murder and a sort of a thrilling aspect to it, and I picked up the second half more as a thriller than a coming-of-age story.”

Silver says he didn’t turn to specific coming-of-age tales for inspiration while writing Scorched but is quick to note that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye made a profound impact on him as a teen.

“Now, as I look at coming-of-age novels, I’m way more interested in how [childhood] issues manifest in adulthood,” he says. “At a certain point, I realized that I had met a guy who lost his dad when he was 13 or 14. I met him when we were in our 40s, and it had a profound effect on his life going forward. So, I carried that memory of that guy and wrote a little bit to that.”

While the 1997- and 2000-set portions of the novel were easier to draw from, Silver dipped into his own past to make the ’70s sections feel authentic. He describes himself as a keen observer of various cliques in his high school parking lot, and though he was “very much on the periphery,” he picked up their language and behaviors.

“I would write characters, and it would call for memories of people that I knew back then. And the setting — I think it’s natural to be nostalgic for one’s past, and I have nostalgia for the ’70s. Even though, at the time, I didn’t much care for it,” Silver says. “I would drop things in — like, I realized Muhammad Ali was in the height of his career, and I realized that his personality in the ring would be fascinating to my main character. So, I dropped that in, and it felt more believable to me.”

Silver also tapped into his love of music and inserted references to recording artists whenever possible as well as having his characters frequently listen to iconic albums. In choosing which tunes to feature, he put himself in the shoes of the character at hand and asked what that person would select.

“[Would] it be Allman Brothers [Band], or is this a Led Zeppelin kind of guy, or is this a Southern rock kind of guy? Is this a Deadhead or a singer-songwriter person?” he recalls. “That was fun and kind of easy, just based on my own musical taste.”

Getting better all the time

In the nearly 20 years between novels, Silver also wrote the short literary memoir Clive: Working with the Man in the Age of Vinyl about his time in the music industry. During that stretch, he says he became more economical in his writing process and gained additional skills.

“I learned to write with interruption, which is something I didn’t know how to do [while writing] the first book,” he says. “I was a single dad and I was raising a boy from 7 to 14 when I was writing [Scorched]. So I was able to make him lunch, get him set, go back, write for a few minutes, get him set up with some Legos, come back. And I have to say that skill was much better than needing total quiet for five hours in a row. It’s really hard to arrange one’s adult life to do that.”

Though the film and TV rights for Scorched have yet to be sold, Silver says he could see the “very visual” story doing well on the screen. But he won’t be the one adapting the novel.

“I’ve tried a screenplay or two and I have a lot of respect for people who can do that,” he says. “It’s a different skill set and one that I don’t have yet.”

Silver is also keeping up with his musicianship, playing guitar with friends a few times at Asheville Guitar Bar and honing some additional abilities.

“Right now, I’m learning sax and I’m woodshedding, so it would not be kind of me to take my sax out and play with others yet,” he says with a laugh. “But I hope to go to Little Jumbo in a couple of years and play out a little bit.”

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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