Saturday, February 19, 2011



Fiction • Paperback • 204 pages
ISBN 978-1-934081-29-7 • List Price: $15.00

We Need a Cleanup on Aisle Five

Hazel is a middle-class hypochondriac doing (over)time as a manager at Safeway, the only place that would hire her with an MBA from a state school. She hates her boyfriend, her family, and her life.

Otis is a guiltless weirdo who still has action figures in his bed; a postindustrial Peter Pan who wakes up in the middle of the night crying from nightmares he can't remember. A punk rock void, he describes the world with the creative imagination of a child. Together, they are a disaster.

In alt.punk, Lavinia Ludlow explores the ragged edge of art, society, and sanity, viciously skewering the politics of rebellion. With a savage eye for detail, she unveils the layers of mythmaking that underlie class and ideology in the twenty-first century.

A review of alt.punk from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Based on its title and cover, it'd be natural to assume that Lavinia Ludlow's literary debut alt.punk is going to be a sort-of tell-all novel about the music industry, especially given the author's past as a drummer for various bands herself. But this instead turns out to be a more interesting and charming thing, a confessional-style tale (i.e. it feels like you're sneakily reading someone's blog) about our sympathetic but undeniably trainwrecky narrator, as she stumbles in and out of a series of nightmare relationships with barely functioning grimy musicians in the San Francisco/Sacramento area of northern California, while constantly fending off comments about her weight and career from her dysfunctional family, accepting pent-up abuse from retail flunkies in her job as a pharmacy manager, and OCD-obsessing over germs and cleanliness so incessantly that it makes Woody Allen seem well-adjusted. As such, then, alt.punk is surprisingly funny while still being utterly relentless in its abuse, both self- and outer- in nature, an extremely true-feeling tale that nonetheless veers into cartoonish exaggeration at points (oy vey, all those descriptions of her boyfriend's "Grey Gardens" style nightmare apartment). Fascinating like a car crash, this was one of the rare books I found myself literally unable to put down until I had finished it (thankfully only later that night, in that this 200-page novel is quite breezy), another winner from the regularly reviewed Casperian Books that is well worth your time and money. It comes highly recommended to my fellow artsy slackers.

Lavinia Ludlow was born and raised in Northern California. A percussionist since childhood, she has played with different ensembles in California and Hawaii and immerses herself in music when not writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Pear Noir!, Is Greater Than, Dogzplot, and MonkeyBicycle. alt.punk is her first novel.


BG : For me, ALT.PUNK is a tale of brutally honest, fatalistic, twenty-first century American Naturalism. I can’t help but feel that Hazel’s entire existence is preordained, that her germophobic, socially inept personality and her narrow, semi-elitist world view were shaped well before she was conceived, and a job at Safeway and her frustrating habit of returning again and again to the same deadbeat boyfriends are all part of her inescapable destiny. Tell me why this is or is not a good assessment?

LL: You couldn’t have assessed the protagonist in a more anal, undignified, and dysfunctional manner. It was dead-on.

I’ve always wanted to write a story about a bitter and jaded suburbanite putting down the unproductive complaining and taking action. My intent was to instill melodramatic teenage angst into a character that was well into adulthood, and put her in the middle of a dark-humored fast-paced entertaining novel.

In this story, Hazel tucked balls into her big girl panties and got the hell out of her dead end lifestyle. Naturally, without meticulous planning, everything blew chunks in her face.

BG: In Hazel, we find a woman who sees salmonella poisoning in every bite of food, AIDS in every mosquito bite, and makes any potential sex partner show her lab results for STD tests before sexual contact, so I think it’s fair to call her a bit of a hypochondriac. As I was reading I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Hazel’s personality comes from Lavinia. Are you a germ freak? Have you ever gotten the shit kicked out of you by any punks? Is your mother sadistic? Do you have bad taste in men? Do you make them show you STD tests? Give me the inside dope. And what about Hazel’s ex-boyfriends in ALT.PUNK, are they inspired by Lavinia’s ex-boyfriends?

LL: This is a work of fiction. How dare you believe I’m a tight-ass with bad taste in men. I mean, all my last boyfriend did was sell and use drugs, get drunk and violent, brag about prison, and borrow money from me to squander on Vegas whores. Come on, bad taste in men?

All jokes aside, I knew I needed to construct a powerful voice that fit the needs of the novel. Hazel was a tragically comical anal-retentive product of suburbia. I put a lot of research into her personality disorder, so in no way am I a germaphobic freak. But after all that research I am more aware than ever of STDs and microbes. I mean, is two minutes of sloppy drunk unsatisfying sex worth a lifetime of herpes or HIV?

Maybe ignorance is bliss.

BG: It seems that Hazel was fed up with her day to day life and her mundane job at Safeway for quite awhile before she finally quit and went on the punk rock tour with her boyfriend Otis. So what was the catalyst for making her quit when she did? What was her breaking point? It seems she had access to crazy men, drugs, and the punk lifestyle anytime she wanted through other Safeway employees and her best friend Avaline, so why did she make the change when she did?

LL: For some, turning thirty is huge. I know I’ll have some sort of episode when I round that corner. I might shave my head. Live off the grid. Or maybe I’ll write another novel.

For Hazel, it was a combination of turning thirty, believing the next conventional step would be to get married, crap out some kids, and live with an unremitting retail headache. Though she was angst-ridden and hypocritical, deep down, she knew there was something wrong with her life choices. Ultimately, she snaps.

BG: When Hazel leaves her job and goes on tour with her boyfriend Otis, a suicidal, drug addicted front man for a punk band, where does her interest, and ultimately intense devotion to Otis come from? There is nothing in Hazel’s personality that would indicate that she has the character to deal with someone like Otis. He is helpless, needy, and yeah, the drugs and suicide, so what is it? What makes her stick around? Is it just a “fuck you to the family,” boredom, an escape from her longtime, unemployed, unmotivated boyfriend Kree?

Hazel wanted to prove that she wasn’t a naïve suburbanite that chose wrong. And in a way, I think she likes him. I mean, who wouldn’t like someone as adorable as Otis with all his helplessness and addictions and weird sex? I get hard just thinking about it.

BG: I can’t help but feel that there is some sort of underlying New Testament messages of judge not lest ye be judged and that which you do returning upon your own head and that which judgment ye meet, ye also will be met, I know my paraphrasing is bad and I’m too lazy to get my Bible out, but I think you know what I mean. Can you elaborate on this at all, and were you conscious of it as you were writing, of the karmic quality to your story and to the characters; lives, relationships, actions and consequences?

LL: I purposely wrote irony into certain aspects of ALT.PUNK. Irony that the punks who were supposed to be so liberal were the most damning. Irony that Otis was a punk but a total pussy. Irony that Hazel was a tight-ass, but of all characters, she introduced the most change into her life.

In terms of consequences, the story took off on its own and became more intense than I intended. And I never realized how much I’d pay later. It’s easy to draft up something dark and extreme, but to have to revise all that darkness a hundred times over is incredibly disturbing. Some days, it would physically hurt me to have to deal with so much addiction, depression, and negativity. I never want to relive what I went through to get this to print.

That being said, I wouldn’t take it back. Not to mooch off Ben Tanzer, but publishing this novel changed my life. I was at the rock bottom of rock bottom when Casperian Books accepted the manuscript. I was unemployed, crashing on a couch, chronically inebriated, lost in a mental standstill. Preparing this novel for publication forced me to get my shit together. I had to find a source of income. I had to clean up. I had to get sober.

When I was paired up with Nathan Holic, the editor behind ALT.PUNK, I was working seventy hours a week, on the road for fifteen, completing community college online classes, and editing the hell out of the broken manuscript. Thinking back, if I could rise above, multitask all of the above, and come out well adjusted then there is no excuse for me to entertain the thought of rock bottom again.

I don’t think I answered your question but ALT.PUNK was a wild ride that truly saved my life.

BG: You know, it’s absolutely inevitable that if Hazel ever has children she will be just as cruel and viscous to them as her mother was to her; that her children will end up with all the same psychological hang-ups and social inadequacies as she has. Am I being too hard on Hazel? Is there hope? Convince me.

Hazel on a cocktail of downers and booze is pretty badass. There’s a closet raunch in her somewhere. In terms of children, let us leave the novel where it ends. Like many dysfunctional people (and one that I am), she shouldn’t entertain the idea of kids just yet.

1 comment:

C.M. Harris said...

Fascinating interview. I wonder how many novels have saved the writer's life. It seems to be the case quite often. Looking forward to this.