The story that I wanted to tell in The Risk of Being Ridiculous (Hellgate, Oct. 2010) could not be told by a man moving through his 50s, which I happened to be as I was writing it. It’s a young man’s story set in a young people’s time, the end of the 1960s. I feared the middle-age writer would bring distance and judgment, try to make things make sense to him, now. I wanted this story not to be about that time, but to be of that time, to live completely in it. I had to try to get back into my 19-year-old brain.
The Risk of Being Ridiculous is told from the point of view of Ben Tucker, a young man caught up in radical fervor and madly in love— a lot like I was then. Getting his voice right was critical to the success of the story. I was inspired by novels written in young men’s voices, like Ricochet River by Robin Cody and, of course, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. But the era I was writing about has been so trivialized and reduced to stereotypical caricature that I knew that the line was thin between authenticity and the clichés that have come to cloud most portrayals of that time.
Music helped. It was such a constant, defining presence in our lives then that hearing the right tunes now evoke the gritty textures of the psychic space we lived in—not that fuzzy nostalgia of AM “golden oldies.” The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Allman Brothers, Thunderclap Newman, whose one album hit at precisely the right time to leave an indelible mark. I would blast rock and roll as I wrote, something Ben Tucker would always do but something I haven’t been able to do for years in my “regular” writing. In a perfect world, this book would play songs as you turned the pages. The first final draft quoted lyrics from 71 songs. Then I started dealing with reprint rights and that number was significantly reduced. But music still runs through the book.
And I am hoarder of paper artifacts. I have drawers and boxes of letters to and from me and my girlfriend, my parents, and others; polemics I wrote for student newspapers and magazines; leaflets, journals, student papers; lots of bad old poetry; and newspaper clippings and articles from those days. I spent many evenings just immersing myself in those stacks of paper before starting to write the next chunk—remembering how to think in that language, re-inhabiting that state of mind, feeling again all that anger and joy and pain and love. A lot of nights, the best nights, I was there and it was sometimes really hard to come back. Some mornings, I’d go into my day job as a university magazine editor, good and serious work, and end up in meetings where we talked about “branding” and “messages” or tried to unravel some obtuse bureaucratic process—and that 19-year-old would be screaming in my head, ”How the hell did you get here?”
Frankly, it was a rush (I did not take any drugs in the making of this book—used my quota of them long ago) to be that boy again. Painful, sometimes, for sure, maddening, embarrassing, even shameful, but thrilling, too. I have to confess, after all these years, I still like that kid.
On the page, thanks to a gazillion revisions and sharp voice policing (not a word Ben would like) from my writing group, I think I captured the language and sensibility of 19-year-old Ben and his friends pretty well. It remains to be seen if I can pull it off in person at readings or when I meet booksellers at the PNBA show on Oct. 8. Pay no attention to the 60-year-old editor at the microphone.
Guy Maynard was lead singer in a teen rock and roll band, was active in the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, lived on a commune in southern Oregon, worked as a carpenter, and was a member of a worker-owned construction company. He has been editor of Oregon Quarterly, the University of Oregon magazine, since 1995 and was co-editor of the 2003 collection, Best Essays NW. Maynard lives with his wife, Shelley, in a 1930s-vintage house in the middle of Eugene, Oregon. This is his first novel.