Wipe the sweat and blood off your face and welcome Jim Scheers to the mosh pit. Jim’s debut novel, THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT, THIS IS WHAT YOU GET, is about the New Jersey punk scene in the 1980’s. As someone who knows little about punk, this book opened my eyes to the heart of the scene and the exhilaration of the music. As a writer, he catches the small details most of us would gloss over. It’s a rough beauty of a story. Jim grew up in New Jersey and currently lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a technical writer.
Dancing About Architecture
Music is a lifeline in my novel, THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT, THIS IS WHAT YOU GET. The punk songs the characters hear on college radio are like rescue signals, letting them know they’re not alone in feeling, as the band Minor Threat sang, “out of step with the world.”
That’s what punk music was—and still is—for me, and when I set out to write this novel, I knew if I couldn’t make the reader “hear” the music, the story wasn’t going to work.
On my commutes to and from Philadelphia, I sat pressed shoulder to shoulder with my fellow office workers, ear buds in, cycling through all the punk and hardcore songs on my MP3 player, steno pad in my lap, scribbling down the lyrics I could quote in my story. And I tried to describe what I was hearing—as if I were talking to someone who’d never heard it before—but it was like grasping at smoke.
I paged through music reviews, and the few (very few!) novels I could find that dealt with punk music, and made a list of every evocative noun, verb and adjective. I had a bunch of variations on “the singer screamed” and fifteen different descriptions of how a guitar sounded, but still, something was missing.
In the evenings I paced my apartment, my drafts and notes spread out on my desk. Maybe this was beyond me. I felt haunted by this quote (attributed to everyone from Laurie Anderson to Frank Zappa): “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
You wanna be the way I am. But you could never understand.
It’s not just in my head. It’s in my heart.
And if I can give a f— you better start . . .
Even divorced from the music, the rhythm was there. And the emotion too. It was more direct than poetry, more stripped-down than prose. Blunt, abrupt, in your face (that’s also the name of the song). Scornful, but also idealistic.
Everything I had been struggling to capture was already there, in the lyrics.
My mistake had been trying to describe the experience of the late 80’s punk scene. Instead, I needed to recreate it. So I made each chapter read like a punk song. No long passages of exposition (no guitar solos). Quick starts and abrupt endings. Narrow intense focus. Limited metaphors. Only concrete things: shouts, fists, guitars, combat boots.
Instead of telling the reader what to feel or how the songs sounded, I let them join in, which was the whole point of the scene anyway:
Do you have something to say about writing and want to spin the Guest DJ turntable? Contact me here.