From record releases and concerts to theatrical performances, literary events to stand-up comedy, Xpress arts and entertainment editor Alli Marshall has eagerly documented the stories of Asheville creatives for years. Now, with her debut novel How to Talk to Rockstars published by Logosophia Books, Marshall has her own tale to tell.
“I love being able to have a voice in Xpress every week,” she says, “but it’s cool to put my artistic self out there too.”
How to Talk to Rockstars follows main character and music journalist Bryn Thompson as she attempts to navigate the rocker-writer symbiosis (or antibiosis at times). Under most circumstances, her strict, self-imposed professional guidelines help the admiring writer to see her role in the world of art as one of narrator, not actress. “But she’s really intrigued by this album that the character Jude Archer puts out, and she feels this real bond with him,” Marshall says. “So she starts to question her own rules about not getting close.”
The book draws heavily on Marshall’s lengthy music-writing career, specifically her own tricky relationship with the interview process. “Interviewing is actually something that I have a lot of anxiety around, because I’m a pretty shy person and it requires me putting myself out there,” says Marshall, noting that the best interviews do cultivate an “intensely personal” space for a brief time. “It’s [also] the part of my job that I take home with me. I actually go back through interviews and spin the questions out into the future.”
Fictionalization provided a venue for the writer to explore how some of these self-generated what-ifs might play out. And although a few of the hypotheticals see Bryn contemplating romantic possibilities, the story is “really about that relationship we have with art,” Marshall says.
“A big part of the book is about feeling lonely and how music is this great force of connection, and how even when you feel really isolated, you can listen to an album or go to a show, and you’re in this community of other people who love the thing that you love,” she says. But “sifting through those feelings was sometimes not that much fun.”
Don’t expect big action like car chases or alien invasions, Marshall warns of her novel. In fact, the reader spends the most time poking around Bryn’s head. Her ongoing inner monologues — sometimes innovative and thought-provoking, other times comically familiar glimpses of self-doubt — reveal the character’s quirks in the most endearing light.
Marshall’s wit and background in poetry are apparent throughout, imparting phrases with dense imagery but delivering each with a graceful buoyancy. Tones of self-deprecation add honesty to the pages, often manifesting through Bryn’s amusing impatience with herself: “Wipe your sweaty palms on your thighs, and order a glass of water,” she silently scolds herself during an in-person interview over wine.
Even the leading lady’s self-assurances come with a sharp realism bordering on cynicism — “He won’t even see you,” she tells herself at an early acquaintance’s concert. “And if he does, he won’t remember you. And if he does remember you, he’ll pretend he doesn’t” — making Bryn’s maniacally methodical thought process a dynamic, entertaining and infinitely relatable contribution to the story.
With roles reversed, the new novelist reports feeling an even greater understanding of independent artists’ plight, particularly when it comes to promoting a creative work. “It blows my mind … how hard all of these independent musicians are working,” she says. “My hat is off to anybody who undertakes that.”
WHO: Alli Marshall, with music by Vickie Burick of Warm the Bell
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, malaprops.com
WHEN: Friday, May 15, 7 p.m. Free