Like Grant — the touring musician-turned-stay-at-home dad protagonist of Robert Burke Warren’s debut novel, Perfectly Broken — the writer got his start in bands. He played bass in Wee Wee Pole, fronted by a young RuPaul, and later joined The Fleshtones. Like Grant, Warren lost his New York City apartment after Sept. 11, and moved upstate to rethink his career.
Unlike ambivalent and troubled Grant, Warren — who will present his novel at Malaprop’s on Thursday, June 16 — has found interesting and creative ways to move forward as a writer and musician. At press time, the author was working on an article about birding in the Catskills. He combined a teaching job with songwriting, performing with his son and releasing a number of children’s albums under the moniker “Uncle Rock.” And, inspired initially by stories he told his own child, penned two young adult novels (as yet unpublished).
“The YA books helped me learn to write,” Warren says. He knew he could sustain a narrative and wanted to create “a book I’d read myself. I wanted to write a book that spoke to people I’d seen go through a lot of heavy emotional stuff.” There are tribulations in Perfectly Broken, from infidelity and drug dependency to existential crisis and death. But, Warren is quick to point out, there’s also beauty.
“You look around a think, I’m healthy, I’m alive, I’m in the moment,” Warren says, both of his own mindset and that of his characters. “If only I could find ways to appreciate that without getting caught up in regret and remorse.” One way to do that, he notes, is through good literature and art.
For his own book, Warren borrowed scenarios and details from his life and people he knows. “I started to see at age 40 there’s a lot of drama playing out,” he says. Set in 2003, Perfectly Broken follows Grant, his wife Beth and their four-year-old son as they move to a small town where wealthy friends — once close — put them up in a rental. Dealing with troubled marriages and disappointments over lost dreams (Grant wanted to be a professional musician, his buddy-turned-landlord Trip wanted to be an author, their friend Paul has become a rock star but can’t have a child — the one thing he longs for), bad feelings come to a head when a devastating storm sweeps through their neighborhood.
“The people in my book have a lot of problems and they behave badly,” Warren says. But he has affinity for them. “They’re human and they’re in the throes of animal impulses. And because I wanted an interesting book, they often succumb.”
Because the fictional storyline parallels his own to an extent, “I had to sit my son down and say, ‘It’s not you,”” Warren says. “The dad in this book is much more ambivalent, he worries a lot more than I ever did about if he’s fit to do the job.” His son, now 18 and a writer himself, read the novel and went so far as to review it on GoodReads.
Warren is now at work on a memoir: “It’s sort of about my coming of age in the age of MTV, in the 80s in Atlanta,” he says. Maybe RuPaul will make an appearance in that book, which is likely to recount the author’s early music inspirations in the city where he grew up.
Perfectly Broken, it’s worth mentioning, does incorporate Warren’s rock career in more ways than mere character inspiration. “Three songs are plot points in the narrative,” he says. “I recorded them, and a couple others, and made them available for free download on my site.” He’ll also perform them at his Malaprop’s event.
WHAT: Robert Burke Warren presents Perfectly Broken
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Thursday, June 16, at 7 p.m. Free