Conrad Wesselhoeft: Adios, Nirvana Q&A

I’m really excited today to share with you our exclusive interview with Adios, Nirvana author Conrad Wesselhoeft. I first met Conrad at Wordstock Festival back in October, as he was one of the YA authors I’d booked for the festival. I had great fun hearing Conrad talk about his perspective on writing YA on the “YA Gets Real” panel, and later during his individual presentation.

And I absolutely adored Adios, Nirvana — which is one of those quintessential coming of age stories that I am keenly drawn towards. I loved the characters, the setting, the story, the small details that make this book so unique. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend you check out Adios, Nirvana. And if you need more convincing, just keep reading:

Music is a big part of Adios, Nirvana — both for the characters and for the setting, as Seattle is famously known as the birthplace of grunge. What bands, in particular, were most influential when writing the book? What did you listen to?

Eddie Vedder, Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and various blues groups.  The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” was Telly’s trademark tune. He’d mastered the guitar part—the combined pickin’ and strummin’—and that’s not easy. Jonathan, on the other hand, played the song—which he retitled “Here Comes the S-O-N”—in a simpler, bluesier way. He had less technical flash than Telly, but was able to bend real feeling into it. Although they were twins, Telly was basically a sunny, hopeful person, while Jonathan was darker and more complex. As Jonathan said, “He was the front man. I’m the shadow man.”

One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Jonathan and Telly end up jamming with Eddie Vedder at his house. What’s the story behind that scene?

Eddie Vedder used to live near us in West Seattle. One Halloween, I took my kids trick or treating at his house. Needless to say, Eddie wasn’t home. Anyway, that got me thinking—“What if . . .” So that’s how I got the idea for the scene, which takes place on Halloween night. I’ve never met Eddie Vedder. I do know, however, that he’s a big believer in the power of music to inspire children. I’d always planned to change his name to something fictional, but left it in, as a kind of tribute.

I love the combination of the past and the present in this book, as Jonathan listens to David’s stories from WWII. What part of the book came to you first — the past or the present? How do the two elements of the story shape and influence each other?

The present came first. I began writing the book during a rare Seattle snowstorm, and the storm became the opening scene. (“In this city of eternal rain—snow!”) My son and his friends inspired many of the “present” scenes. The past—David’s story—was inspired by my father, who at the time was hospitalized and in the final months of his life. Like David, my father was a U.S. Navy lieutenant during World War II. His experiences in the South Pacific became the template for David’s. Fortunately, his ship didn’t sink, while David’s did. Though separated in age by 71 years, Jonathan and David are bonded by grief: Jonathan for his lost brother; and David for the shipmates he could not save.

Seattle is such a strong presence in the book; the city really becomes almost another character. How would the story have been different if it took place somewhere else?

My hope was to capture the look and feel of Seattle—a place of rich greens and layered grays (and occasionally dazzling blues). I chose West Seattle, in particular, because I live here, and because West Seattle has a wonderful look and feel about it. Puget Sound has a lot to do with this. You glimpse it many times a day—in its various guises, including those that inspire and those that depress. Those views sink into you. If I’d set the novel in New York or Boston, for example, I couldn’t have poured as much feeling into it. I don’t know those places as well.

Is there a story behind the Velcro Kong—the huge King Kong-like prop that Jonathan stands on during his blazing guitar performance?

One day, I asked my friend, West Seattle writer Charles Martin, to help me sort out a few plot issues. Charlie is a master of technique and plotting—and a wonderful writer. I said something like, “If only I could do what the ancient Greek playwrights did—trot out a “Deus ex machina.” A “Deus” was a god-like character who showed up near the end of a story to announce solutions to seemingly unsolvable plot problems. (“You will be crowned king. You two will get married.” “You will jump off a cliff,” etc.) “I wish I could have one of those,” I told Charlie. Then I thought “Why not?” And so the Velcro Kong was born.

You’ve mentioned before that your own kids helped influence Adios, Nirvana. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

While the book was brewing in my mind, my son Kit was bringing over a pack of buddies with gigantic appetites for microwavable burritos, heavy on the ketchup. They’d hang out in the kitchen and “talk trash,” which is to say, talk with all the brashness, confidence, and hilarity typical of teenage boys. Then they’d rush into the living room and jam on piano and guitars. All this energy inspired “The Thicks”—Jonathan’s circle of buddies who stand by him “through thick and thin.”

Speaking of your kids — they also appear in the book trailer for Adios, Nirvana. Was that your idea or theirs?

My idea. They were reluctant at first, but eventually came around. Plus, they had fun hanging out with their friends and being “movie stars” for a day. Most of the credit for the video goes to the director, Sam Lachow, an incredibly talented young filmmaker, writer, and performance artist. He used lots of up-close, hand-held shots to capture Jonathan’s restless energy. I’m very fond of the video. I’ve watched it many times.

If you met someone in a bookstore, and they were thinking about buying your book, what would you say to convince them?

If you buy my book, I will name a star in your honor, which after all is the most treasured gift in the universe.

What question do you always wish someone would ask you during an interview?

May I offer you $2 million for the film rights?

If you could trade places with one person for a single day, who would it be & why?

Eric Clapton. (Enough said.)

What was the last movie you saw?

“Gran Torino” (on DVD). Loved it.

Biggest TV addiction?

As a kid, “The Fugitive.” Recently: “Lost.”

Guilty pleasure?

Snickerdoodles. (Costco’s are best.) Peanut Butter cookies. (Trader Joe’s are best.)

Fruits or veggies?

I’m vegetarian and love all fruits and vegetables. A good veggie casserole can’t be beat.

Karaoke song?

“You Belong to Me” (from “Shrek”)

Favorite childhood toy?

My toy soldier collection. I got all the combat out of my system early, and later joined the Peace Corps. My toy soldier collection helped to kindle a lifelong interest in the Civil War and American West.

Many thanks, once again, to Conrad for answering all our questions. You can watch the trailer for Adios, Nirvana featuring his kids below:

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