Lavinia Ludlow is a musician and writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut novel, alt.punk (2011), explored the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. Her short works have been published in Pear Noir!, Curbside Splendor Semi-Annual Journal, and Nailed Magazine, and her indie lit reviews have appeared in Small Press Reviews, The Rumpus, The Collagist, The Nervous Breakdown, Entropy Magazine, and American Book Review.
Lavinia Ludlow is a breath of fresh air. Her writing often mirrors the punk rock she likes so much; rough around the edges, frustrated, fully human, and full of heart, speaking to the experience of people who have every reason to give up on themselves—poverty, drugs, toxic relationships, uncaring parents—and yet never do. Her second novel, Single Stroke Seven, came out in April 2016, and follows a literally-starving artist/musician named Lilith (or Lil) as she tries to make music and a living as a low-income resident of the notoriously expensive Bay Area.
Lilith plays drums for a couple of different bands, none of whom are terribly functional, and her relationships with her mother, her various bandmates, and her sort-of-boyfriend Duncan are acrimonious at best. Her job isn’t much better, offering crappy wages and an abusive atmosphere that leaves her with no respite from her other problems, nor the energy to do much about them.
Lavinia’s writing isn’t as clean or poetic as a lot of contemporary small press work, and the language is a great deal more exaggerated, but that’s what I like about it; it’s messy and weird and fun, cathartic in its own way, and never loses momentum or the reader’s attention. Single Stroke Seven, like much of Lavinia’s work, is a welcome antidote to the modern cult-of-the-perfect-sentence style that, for all its precision, can be kind of bloodless sometimes.
Plus, Joan’s Town (a riot grrl band that Lilith plays drums for) is an awesome band name and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone steals it.
I had a chance to chat with Lavinia via email about her book and its complimentary relationship to her first novel, alt.punk, and she is as smart and generous with her answers as ever.
Dave K.: The economy is one of this book’s main characters, and is as present in the story as Lilith and her bandmates. What led you to make this choice? What impact do you want it to have on the reader?
Lavinia Ludlow: The Bay Area is notably booming with tech-fueled affluence, but such glory is within reach of a select few. The rest of us are losing the battle against the escalating cost of living, rampant gentrification, and mass evictions. Throw in lack of access to basic necessities such as healthy food and medical care, and the masses are left treading water against a brutal economic current.
Over the decades, I’ve personally experienced, and witnessed my friends, family, and local community fight to survive in this financial climate. Setting Single Stroke Seven in the heart of the Silicon Valley, there was no way to prevent this economic backdrop from taking center stage. I used the resulting challenges as a literary tool, to deepen the notion of the “starving musician,” while simultaneously presenting the reader with a realistic image of the San Francisco tech scene. I hope this makes people question where their smart phone, social media application, or other notable tech gadget was designed and engineered, and what the industry’s hyper growth is doing to Northern California’s local economy, culture, and people.
DK: How should modern fiction, literary or otherwise, consider poverty?
LL: The stress, adversity, and humiliation associated with living (behind) paycheck-to-paycheck, teetering on the the cusp of eviction because one can’t make rent, on the brink of termination because of obligations outside of work, or on the edge of emergency hospitalization because one can’t afford a doctor irreparably fucks with a person. Consistently snared in “survival mode” should shape character personality, outlook, and interactions with the world.
Contemporary fiction should also view the problem as existing beyond just an adjective, beyond the petty and superficial examples such as, “maybe we can’t take that tropical vacation” or “this restaurant is expensive, next time let’s Yelp a 2-dollar sign business.” There’s also the greater issue of diversity in literature, where voices of the working class aren’t as prevalent for one reason or another, which warrants a larger discussion…
DK: The book’s observations of Lil’s local music scene (and the politics/conflicting personalities therein) are very specific – were they informed by research, personal experience, or a mix of both?
LL: Personal experience. For years, I vividly recall being in bands with multiple alpha personalities and their inflated egos. We spent more time arguing over style, image, to the equipment we should be using than we did rehearsing. I remember being a part of a scene that was also very indie-elitist, and everyone was so focused on calling each other out for not being hardcore enough, not suffering enough, not listening to the right avant-garde band. It was a senseless, hypocritical rodeo, and no one ever won, not even in their own game. I wanted to highlight this conflict in a humorous and ironic manner because it is often a plague in an artistic scene.
DK: The dialogue in this book is a mix of the hyperspeed pop culture references you’d hear in Kevin Smith films and the drunken, boasting witticism of Withnail & I. My take is that it reflects their economic circumstances; for all their education and bluster, there’s no clear path for any of them to establish themselves, and that poverty can happen to anyone, even people who grew up being told they deserved better. Would you say that’s accurate?
LL: None of the main characters grew up being told that they deserved better, but they exhibit signs of Generation Y’s raging sense of entitlement, and they were also raised middle class and college-bound, so there’s that unspoken pressure (especially in the Silicon Valley), to amount to something great. Like many millennials, come graduation day, they found it difficult if not impossible to find meaningful work, and if they did, they couldn’t hang onto their jobs in the throes of the economic collapse and recession (yes, it hit the Valley too).
For the last decade, these characters haven’t had the bandwidth to worry about anything other than keeping themselves fed, housed, and healthy, and as late twenty-somethings, early thirty-somethings, they can’t help but wonder where it is they’ve gone wrong. At the end of a brutal day at the factory, in food or janitorial servicing, they come home with displaced rage that they direct at each other. When there’s no energy or patience left to work out a smarter or more thoughtful solution to the issues at hand, the default is to bitch and moan, and blame each other.
DK: In both this book and alt.punk, the protagonists have cruel, emotionally distant mothers. Was this by design? What aspect of mother/daughter relationships is being explored here? And, to paraphrase a question posed by John Waters, can bad parents produce exceptional/resilient children?
LL: Thematically, I wrote alt.punk and Single Stroke Seven as polar opposite tales meant to complement each other. Here are two different protagonists beginning their journeys on opposite ends of the spectrum: Hazel starving to break free of her mundane job and life to pursue her art, and Lilith killing herself in her job and life to support her art. Their upbringings were very similar, both raised by ice queens in the Bay Area’s middle class suburbs, and they end their journeys somewhere in the middle, realizing that the feat of living life and pursuing art should never be an “all or nothing” quest.
Neither protagonists in these books are exceptional citizens or model examples of emotional intelligence, but both are independent, bold, and resilient women who play the hands they were dealt with the best of their abilities, always seeking to contribute positively to society and culture versus any decay.
DK: Your fiction spares no unpleasant details, in the sense that there’s a lot of blood, snot, and other bodily fluids/functions in it. In that sense, your characters are often seen at their most human. What draws you as a writer to these details, and what do you want them to reveal about your characters?
LL: As readers, we have only our eyeballs to interact with a book, but as humans, we experience the world with four other senses. I seek to liven characters and scenes with details many other writers gloss over, and to ultimately create a stronger reading experience.
Life is messy. The human body is disgusting. The world is crawling with organic matter and microorganisms that “go bump” in the night (or under microscope). I craft characters and scenes to align with the reality of our everyday world. Too often, contemporary writing, especially fiction, is effortlessly and unrealistically clean. We are not androids floating through a stainless steel vacuum. We ooze, sweat, bleed, and the world throws it back at us with equal prejudice.
Single Stroke Seven features Lilith, a tough-as-nails female drummer, who grew up with an all-male cast, and she turned out unapologetically tougher and more badass than her counterparts (my intent was to write her opposite of alt.punk’s germ-fearing Hazel, again, as a complement). Lilith is going to eat off the ground (or out of the dumpster), she is going to let wounds bleed, and she won’t let grit and grime deter her from getting the (or any) job done so long as it supports her end goal of musical success. Whether she succeeds or not, her glory and notoriety shine through in her perseverance, her ability to not take any crap, and if she does, she never allows it to deter or distract from her vision of becoming a rock star.
Many thanks to Lavinia for her time, her insights, and her great work. Keep up with her (if you can) via her website, and pick up a copy of Single Stroke Seven directly from the publisher, Casperian Books.