Interview: Beem Weeks

We sat down with Beem Weeks, who's book Jazz Baby we've also recently reviewed, to find out a bit more about him...

Beem welcome to the Koobug inaugural interview: 

Thank you so very much for this amazing honour. I am truly humbled by the reception I've received from Koobug and from readers in the U.K.

You've enjoyed considerable critical acclaim for Jazz Baby, but can we begin with a saunter through your biography? 

Born and bred in Michigan's Capitol city Lansing, so a Yankee boy then?

A lifelong Yankee—though I did spend a few years in the Deep South. Those are two different worlds, the North and the South. Lansing was a wonderful place to grow up. This is where the Oldsmobile was created and manufactured. The automobile industry built Lansing. Unfortunately, that industry has all but abandoned the city. We still build some Cadillac models here, but most of the factories have been demolished. There are a lot of empty fields where giant buildings once stood.

You're one of four, how much of an influence has third out of four been?

Not the oldest (the trailblazer) and not the youngest (the darling): Being that third of four children is so completely un-special. Each of my siblings holds a unique position within the family structure: one is the oldest, another is the youngest; my sister is the only girl. Me? I'm third. I guess I'm sort of like your Prince Andrew: I'm part of the family, sure, but I'm never going to wear the crown.

Sadly your parents divorced when you were seven. Did that introduce a sense of insecurity that prompted you to seek for it in your imagination as a child?

Most definitely. My parents' divorce influenced so much of my life in ways I didn't fully realise until I reached my mid-30s. There's that insecurity and a fear of loss. The idea that people can come and go through our lives is a scary notion for a child of seven. But that's life. There are many people we know for a time, then circumstances arise and those relationships fade. I don't have the same best friend I did when I was, say, eight years old. I haven't seen that guy in more than thirty years. But family—parents in particular—you expect them to be there, in the home, for the duration. When that doesn't happen, it's quite crushing. Expecting a seven- or ten- or twelve-year-old child to cope with this loss is a very selfish act. What writing and reading did for me is it let me block out reality and create worlds where I'm in control, where nothing happens without my consent. Reading did as much, allowing me the opportunity to escape the day, step into the world of, say, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, and just absorb the characters and situations.

You first discovered the urge to write when in elementary (primary) school. Who was your first character? Was he/she, just as your first love, never forgotten?

That first character was a cowboy, I believe. I don't recall the name I'd given him, but he could jump out of a second-floor window and land perfectly on his horse. There wasn't a faster gun in the west. Sort of a super-cowboy. I can't say it was like my first love, though. I remember so little about the story he inhabited. I'm guessing I was eight years old when this character came into being. Two years later I co-wrote a play about which I remember much more.

At High (Secondary) School you flirted with journalism, critiques on music and sporting reviews followed, are you a Sports Fan? 

I am a sports fanatic. I follow all of the Detroit professional teams (Tigers-baseball; Lions-American football; Pistons-basketball; Red Wings-hockey) and I also follow Michigan State sports since the University is right in my back yard. I'm a diehard fan—even when these teams are awful. I went to my first Detroit Tigers baseball game when I was five years old. I've been hooked ever since. Soccer—or, as the rest of the world calls it, football—just isn't a big deal here in the States. I did play it when in eighth and ninth grades. But truthfully, I would be way more excited to see the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl than for the U.S. to win the World Cup. Sorry. 

Why do Americans have World Series for sports no-one else plays? 

That's a good question. Maybe we're just an arrogant lot. We Yanks tend to think of the States as the centre of the universe. But in all fairness, baseball is a sport gaining popularity around the world. There are professional leagues in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Cuba, Mexico, and in several South and Central American nations. It's just not truly the world—yet.

Anyone who reads your blogs on Koobug will know you are a music fan. Are you musical? 

I try to be. I played guitar back in the 1980s. I also sang lead vocals in a heavy metal band for a while. I recently purchased an electric guitar and amp, though it's just for fun.

You are granted one wish: would it be to be a best-selling author, or member of a best-selling heavy metal band? 

I'm 46 years old now. Twenty years ago, I'm choosing rock star. Today? I'll gladly be that best-selling author. I just can't envision jumping around on stages across the world. My knees wouldn't be able to handle the action.

Where would you live? 

I'd live on a tropical island where I could continue to write while lying about on the beach.

What automobile (car) would you drive? 

A classic American muscle car; probably a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass or a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. I like the new Chevrolet Camaro as well.

You wanted to be a journalist, why? 

Journalists are writers who deal in the truth—in theory. I wanted to inform people of the goings-on in the world around them, to hold politicians accountable to their constituents. I wanted to make a difference.  

Do you admire journalists? Your Koobug blogs demonstrate a healthy cynicism and despair for the media in the USA. Why? 

I no longer admire journalists. Corporate media entities focus on profits over truth. In the States, the media elites are in bed with the politicians. When this happens, we the people get lies, spin, and half-truths. Politicians are no longer statesmen and stateswomen; they are parasites serving special interests and self. Journalists today choose to lie down with this mess. There is a complete absence of integrity. 

Do you believe whistle-blowers should be imprisoned or applauded? 

Definitely applauded. If the whistle being blown is one of truth, then blow it loud and clear! Jesus said that what is done in darkness will be brought to the light. This is what happens when somebody with a conscience steps forward and risks life and liberty to make sure the world knows the truth. Governments fear the truth more than they fear God. Now, I don't advocate giving away nuclear secrets and things of that nature. Those who do so are guilty of treason and should be dealt with as such.

You are a fan of fellow Koobug blogger cloudsgrey. When empathising with her you told her of the dark places you had inhabited. How have they contributed to Beem Weeks the writer? 

Cloudsgrey is such an amazingly talented poet. She reminds me of Sylvia Plath—but with her own unique style. Those dark places in which I once dwelled have had a huge impact on my life and the way I write. Darkness exists in our world. It's reality. I try to write from a place based in reality. Unicorns and gumdrop trees don't exist. But if I write about them, you can be sure that unicorn will have a serious heroin habit and violent streak toward anybody attempting to steal gumdrops from his tree. We write what we know. I've had drug and alcohol issues (though I've been sober for 17 years this September 19th) and those issues bring along their own baggage. I have no problem introducing these pieces of luggage into any of my stories. 

You have suffered real loss over the last few years, how does grief inform the author? 

I lost my younger brother on 4 November 2010 (bacterial infection that attacked his heart). I lost my father on 30 May 2012 (massive heart attack). What it showed me is that we're all temporary. Nobody lives forever. Anything can happen to anybody at any given time. I spoke to my brother on Monday. He was feeling fine, was in an upbeat mood, said he'd talk to me again in a few days, and then I get a call from my mother on the following Thursday morning telling me my brother is gone. That tore a hole in me that will never heal. And those sorts of wounds aren't meant to heal. They scar over, but they're always with us. If a person means a lot to you, if they are important to you, you'll never get over that loss when they are no longer with you. If the Universe is billions of years old, and each man and woman is given the potential to occupy planet Earth for between 70 and 100 years, that's just a sliver of time. Taking that into consideration, I want to be sure to write the very best work I can. Because while I won't live forever, the work that I do will certainly outlive me. The better the work is, the longer it will live. Shakespeare is still here. Hemingway is still here. Dickens lives because his work remains relevant. The average person will be forgotten a generation or two after they've died—unless they leave something worth remembering. Death is inevitable. But we can outlive our lives—if the work is good.

There is a palpable sense of darkness in your writing, is this the legacy of your past? 

I suspect a great deal of it is. But there are also situations that pop up in the news today, like mass shootings in schools (see my short story called Yearbook), illustrating the general darkness of the human heart. We live in a very dark and violent world. This isn't a new condition. The Bible is rife with violence and rape and murder. Betrayal is another big one. Man betrays man, man betrays God. Wars and the atrocities they bring litter the pages of our history books. I enjoy writing a nice feel-good story, sure, but eventually somebody is going to die—regardless of happily-ever-after. That's just simple reality.  

There have been a number of reviews of Jazz Baby. May I quote from some eloquent examples gleaned from Koobug reader Graham Hill

"Scrupulous in research". What is your approach to research and what were your sources for Jazz Baby? 

Strong research will set the tone for a story. It builds mood and atmosphere. Without research, a story is likely to fall flat. I see research as choosing the right canvas for what will hopefully become a beautiful painting. Research puts me in that moment, that era. I was able to drift back in time to 1925 through the various resources I tapped into during the research portion of writing Jazz Baby. I relied upon an older American History book for the bulk of the general details. It contained a well-written section on the Roaring Twenties. I also availed myself of a few fantastic documentaries—including the Ken Burns series on prohibition. But I also have a head filled with great stories my grandfather shared with me when I was a young boy. He came of age in the 1920s. He lived it.

"Meticulous in his narrative", does this description please you? How do you explain your obsession with detail? 

This description pleases me to no end! The obsession with detail is what gives the story its authenticity. It's a thing that can make or break a story. I can't really explain my obsession with detail other than to say I just want to get the story right. Maybe that's the journalist in me still trying to have a say. Would somebody who lived through that era recognize it on those pages?  If so, then I've done my job.

"Years of agonising to produce the final draft" is this a sign of commitment or indecision? 

Definitely commitment. There wasn't a drop of indecision that went into Jazz Baby. Once I settled on the general idea, I knew where it had to go and how to get there. There were just paragraphs or scenes that I'd read and I'd tell myself, I can write that part a whole lot better. And nine out of ten times I'd do just that. If I grow bored with a single line during one of my many proofreads, I'll change whatever it is that bores me.

Your central character in Jazz Baby is Emily a Mississippi ingénue, and from your exclusive preview of your next novel we meet Violet Glass from Alabama. Why does a Yankee boy write about Rebel girls? 

Because those were the girls I knew in my youth. I was certainly rebellious myself, wearing my hair long, smoking cigarettes and marijuana, drinking alcohol and fighting. I attracted rebellious girls. Birds of a feather, as they say. Those sorts of girls are just fun to write. They are young and foolishly ignorant to the ways of the world. Danger is a drug to them. But beneath their bravado you'll usually find vulnerability coursing through their veins. That breeds internal conflict. Internal conflict can make a character very real.

How did you visualise yourself as a 14 year old in 1925?

There were the stories of my grandfather. He wrote a memoir documenting his early teen years spent working on a riverboat going up and down the Mississippi River. This is a fascinating read. It's a bird's-eye view of a teenager's life in the Deep South during the mid-1920s. He told of loading and unloading cargo from these boats; that his best friend was a "colored boy" he came to view as a brother; how, once the boys reached the age of 16, it was no longer acceptable for them to be seen as friends. My grandfather wrote of drinking bootleg liquor (moonshine), of chasing after young girls who didn't normally attend church, of doing business with real gangsters. (He had some great stories concerning a shootout with some of Al Capone's men.) So I guess I didn't really visualise myself in the story as much as I did my grandfather.

Did you adopt a "method" approach to dialogue? What inspiration and techniques did you exploit? 

I actually can hear those voices as I'm writing them. I just came to know these characters during the earliest construction of the outline. "Method" is a good way of putting it. A method actor becomes the character. While I don't become those characters, inside my head I feel them, know them, hear them. They become real during their creation period.

You could have set Jazz Baby in nearby Detroit, why didn't you ? Detroit would have been fun to write about. But Detroit in the 1920s had a very different feel than Mississippi and New Orleans had during that same era. Besides, I heard Emily as a very southern girl. Maybe Detroit will show up in a future novel.

You are one of Koobugs most prolific and successful contributors, what excites you about Koobug? 

The interaction is just tremendous. Everybody contributes to the conversation at hand. If I post something on the site, it's a pretty good bet I'll receive feedback. I don't always find that on other sites. I love the fact that Koobug is actually growing. It's such a wonderful discovery to log on each day to find a posting from a new member telling us about a book they've written, or to read posted advice from long-time member. It's truly the spirit of community on Koobug. And everybody is always so welcoming.

What does the future hold for Beem Weeks? 

More books, hopefully. I'm working on a couple of short stories and my second novel at the moment. I've got a dozen Post-It notes with story ideas stuck to my desk. I'm eventually going to have to get these whipped up into story shape. I'm a writer; that's what I do.

Beem, in the UK we have a radio institution called Desert Island Discs. The guest interviewee is marooned on a Desert Island. The final choices each week are:

Just one book, what would it be? 

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Just one album, what would it be? 

Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin.

Just one luxury, what would it be? 

A laptop with Microsoft Word on it.

Koobug's final question.

What do you want inscribed on your tombstone (gravestone)? 

He wasn't as bad as we originally thought.

Thank you Beem. 

Thank you. This was such a pleasure and a joy. Intelligent questions tailor made for the author is definitely the right way to do this. Thank you at Koobug for putting the time and effort into this interview.

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