JUSTIN TUSSING'S cinematic, Almost Famous-esque second novel, Vexation Lullaby, offers a split narrative revolving around Jimmy Cross, an aging iconoclast and "statue begging to be toppled." Trailing Cross for the last 20 years is Arthur Pennyman, creator of the Jimmy Cross Compendium website. With monk-like clarity and devotion, Pennyman decodes Cross' tour city selections, song choices, and vital signs, while turning over the events of his own life, like willingly sacrificing his daughter and wife for his obsession. Pennyman's counterpart, lovelorn homebody Dr. Peter Silver, ends up Cross' reluctant touring physician, and gradually learns of his mother's murky past with the musician. A charismatic and engrossing read, Tussing's novel examines the ways in which we try to define and escape ourselves and our choices.
Formerly of Lewis & Clark College and currently an associate professor of English at the University of Southern Maine and director of the Stonecoast Writers' Conference, Tussing discussed his writing process and his memories of the Portland music scene.
MERCURY: I love how the vibrant language of the road/roadies adds to the bewildering sense of another world. Did you invent some of these terms, or were they discovered through research?
JUSTIN TUSSING: I try to learn enough about a subject that I don't make a fool of myself, but it's hard for me to remember what's a fact and what's made up. At one point Pennyman says that a "rented dress" is the roadie's name for a backup singer. That was invention.
Was the novel always split between Pennyman's perspective and Peter's experience, or at some point did one character's story/voice appear to be of equal weight?
I discovered Pennyman's voice first, but he was never going to get me backstage and, like any fan, I wanted to get backstage.
Do you have any experiences/memories of the Portland music scene?
The Doug Fir, Roseland, the Crystal Ballroom... I miss having so many options. It's such a great city. I've been reading [the Decemberists'] Colin Meloy's Wildwood Chronicles with my son—he was born in Portland, but he hasn't been back yet.
by Justin Tussing