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Author QandA Dance Prone - David Coventry

QandA with David Coventry

READ CLOSE: Dance Prone is your second novel and is concerned with friendship, trauma, and music. Tell us about your musical tastes and how this novel connects and intersects with other art forms?

DAVID COVENTRY: My music tastes run all over the show, but lean towards those termed as punk, post-punk, hardcore, post-hardcore, post-rock, on and on. But then again they don’t. I love all the music that appears in this book. But there’s a lot of music outside of the novel love too. I also adore some terrible, dreadful bands, just because they tickle me.

But to name some, my life feels in debt to bands and musicians like Big Star, The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, The Gordons, Nico, Wire, John Cale, The Stooges, PJ Harvey, Nick Drake, Blondie, Steve Reich, Joy Division, Lou Reed, NEU!, Slint, Judy Still, Codeine, Galaxie 500, New Order, Television, Minor Threat, Cate Le Bon, The Replacements, Swans, Suicide, Can, Talking Heads, Hüsker Dü, NWA, Brian Eno, Jim O’Rourke, Cat Power, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Dirty Three, The Fall, The Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth, Public Enemy, The Enemy. All the music that was boiling up in NZ when I was a teenager. So many bands, the Flying Nun explosion that was an almost un-trackable phenomena of greatness during the 1980s. Tanker by Bailter Space is an album still does my head in. I heard it the week it came out and I still remember the moment sitting in my flat with my friends going: How? What? What is that sound? It was so heavy but so pretty and strange. I still ask these questions. Things like that were life-changing. But near to every weekend from the age of 18 to near 40 I was in some stinking bar listening to bands – so to name any falls short of the gamut of acts I have loved for a night and never seen again but felt changed by. 

Then there’s Bowie. Then there’s lots of folk music. Then there’s Neil Young, the Beach Boys and the Jesus Lizard. Then there’s masses of experimental stuff, electronic stuff. Then there’s Dylan and Led Zeppelin, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, the Skeptics, and, um, Supertramp. Big Black, Siege, Stevie Nicks and Nina Simone, Mayhem and the Staple Singers. It doesn’t stop, not really. But as an art form, I desire music, and I guess we’re talking rock music here, to aggressively challenge itself to maintain the hard simplicity of what was shaped into rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s, but also not kowtow any perceived rubric of what rock ‘n’ roll is. I like the sound of guitar feeding back. Especially if it is out of tune. That has always been more rock ‘n’ roll to me than any rock hero guitar solo.

How this relates to art in the novel is this: writing about music in a fiction setting, the conceptual, emotional and intellectual yield of the form, is near impossible. Hence, I wanted to construct several mirrors of the punk rock scene. So, Paloma and Joan George-Warren. In the novel, Joan is constructing a society that attempts to deliberately mimic the culture of religious institutions, and she does this, she claims, as an act of art. It’s an attempt to understand in a secular setting the effects of the sacred and – let us say – tribal religiosity, its rituals and affects. Which is a kind of narcissistic reflection of what’s occurring as the band travel through the U.S. Punk and hardcore, they kind of operate as a wider art form than what is just on stage, the culture that forms around it might be considered the real art form, a mechanism of societal change and enlightenment. Hence, Joan comes into the text to mirror this and show this idea. And Paloma, she is trying to rectify the historical revisionism occurring in archaeological sites and so on. Which is kinda what punk, in my mind, should also be trying to do if it ever finds itself imitating previous versions of itself. I want punk to be taken seriously as an art form in the novel, hence the multiple mirrors of form. Though, you create mirrors and who knows what people are going to see in them.

Your novel moves about in time – 1985 and then post-millennium, 2002, 2004, 2019. We’d love to hear about how you believe time, especially two decades, shifts a person’s dreams, their fears, and their beliefs about themselves.

Hmm. Time shouldn’t do anything to your dreams, not really. Just fine-tune them. Myself, I have the same drive to make art as I did when I was a young twit with absolutely zero right to be dabbling in any form. In fact, the drive is much stronger now than ever. I don’t feel hindered in any way at all expect by health problems and so on. But fears, yes, that’s something else. They grow stronger as the body weakens, I think.

But certainly, the focus of the intent to make art has shifted. I remember when I was a 16 I told my girlfriend I was going to be a writer. Which is hilarious to me now as I didn’t even read books! I didn’t know the first thing about anything to do with writing except for this belief that I would be one, which is nuts. I didn’t even write, but I was going to be a writer! I decided, too, I’d also be a musician, despite having zero ability until I was about 22 or 23 when I actually began to be able to play the guitar. The drive is a very strange and mysterious thing, but vital. Without it and the crazy belief that goes on alongside it, I wouldn’t have ever done anything. I still have a ridiculous urge to play music, despite having a long career as a failed musician! Only time and energy hold that back.

If Dance Prone were to be a film, would you have any ideas about who should be cast or direct?

This is the silliest, silliest question, but, yes, fun to play. Firstly, the thing about writing a book in first person is that only the author ends up knowing what the main character looks like. The narrator hones in on the looks of the other characters but leaves himself out of it.

However, I was re-watching Twin Peaks: The Return a few weeks ago and there’s the nutso scene with Sam and Tracey in New York, in a room, with a glass box. I was looking at Sam (Benjamin Rosenfield) and I thought: Oh, oh, that’s Conrad. Rosenfield seemed to have the correct disposition of detached forcefulness to play Conrad Welles. 

To direct, I think maybe someone like Kelly Reichardt or Andrea Arnold. Definitely a woman. I find myself very tired of men after writing this book! Maybe Crystal Moselle who created and directed the brilliant HBO series Betty. I freaking loved that series.

Let’s say Dance Prone was sitting on my bookshelf, tell me what two or three other books you’d like to see beside it?

The Names Don DeLillo.

Stone Arabia Danna Spiotta

Airships Barry Hannah

The United States of America is a character in its own right in this novel the book is about road trips through college towns and wandering walks through small towns and sprawling urban cities. We’d love to know more about your own relationship with the USA and your experience of writing about it from Wellington.

I wouldn’t say it’s specifically about any of these things as such. Rather, I’d say these are settings for the book that goes searching for answers to questions of memory, art, trauma, ritual and a very specific moment in punk rock history and how it has echoed through decades. But yes, the USA and Morocco are very powerful settings. And they are the only settings I could think of for the novel. I tried setting it in NZ, but that didn’t work. I thought about the UK, but that didn’t feel right. I needed a much larger geographical and cultural space for these outcasts to move about in. I needed the possibility of heated deserts and whiteout snow.

But yes, I spent a couple of months driving around the USA about 15 years ago. It was great, magnificent and appalling. An immense country full of stupid and great things. It’s always an honour to travel through other people’s lands and you have to pay that back in some way. The thing you learn, obviously, is that it’s very hard to know things about the country. It’s so divisive and diverse in its physicality, in peoples, in dialects, in modes of thought, in sensations of self, tribalism, religiosity, of ideology. I found that the language there of my – if I can say (and maybe I can’t) ­– peers to be vastly different to how I, or the people I know here in NZ, would approach difficult topics. It puts you on the outside, which is a place of comfort in some ways. I guess it’s the not knowing that draws me to a place. Of always being an outsider. It feels dangerous and danger is always the best trigger to start writing.

Could you let us know the writers and books that have had the most influence on your life and your writing career?

I have a dear friend, now rightly a lecturer in the US, who one day, close to 30 years ago, turned up at my flat in Mount Vic and handed over two books and said: Read these. Tell me what you think. Those two books were Vineland by Thomas Pynchon, and White Noise by Don DeLillo. While I loved the former, it was the latter that changed my life. I was 22 and didn’t really know how to read, as in really read, and it was that book and then Libra by the same author and several others that taught me what literary works were all about. So, yes, Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah. That was the initial burst that launched my reading and all, each of those writers had a huge influence, but DeLillo most of all. Then another wave during my thirties. Another in my forties. These day folk like Dana Spiotta, Elif Batuman, Rachel Cusk, Sally Rooney, Jamie Quatro are having life-altering effects on me. Miranda July’s first novel got me in a weird place. 

What are you reading now? What is next to be read?

For the last several years I haven’t been very well (I have ME/CFS, really messes with basic cognitive stiff) and I haven’t been able to read except in very occasional and small doses. That changed a couple of weeks ago with a surprise reduction of symptoms. I woke up and discovered I could read. I picked up the first book on the nightstand. It was Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. It has been a magnificent experience. Literally, I have been discovering reading again, and it’s like being a kid and seeing your first movie. What a joyful thing. The sudden and beautiful explosions of intellect you didn’t know you had the capacity to grasp. So I’m in the last pages of that and it’s been wonderful. Next up I’m going to read Nothing to See, by Pip Adam. It sounds like a blast and Pip is an excellent, excellent person and I have been looking forward to reading her for the longest time but haven’t been well enough to do so. Then, maybe Sado, by Mikaela Nyman. The release of her novel came at the moment of the lockdown and got lost; it deserves some love. I read an early draft of it two years ago and really look forward to seeing how the book completed itself because it was all there, just waiting.

I would assume Dance Prone would have a playlist – what songs would be on it? Is there somewhere readers can listen to your ideal playlist?

Yes, there is indeed a playlist…..It has near every song or band that is mentioned in the book, plus a few more who the band might’ve been listening to over the decades. Hence, it is really, really long!

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Book Reviews Dance Prone - David Coventry

Book Review: Dance Prone by David Coventry

Early in Dance Prone, the new novel from David Coventry, two members of the post-hardcore band Neues Bauen, Conrad Wells and Tony Seburg, both experience trauma – on the same night, at the same time. Different trauma, although Conrad circles around and around the idea that these events are connected, and the rest of his life is weighed down by the burden of finding peace. Healing is a step too far, for the boys in this band, for the women they abuse and neglect, no matter the depth of their artistic desires and their philosophical interior lives. Dance Prone is a novel that interrogates music and it’s capacity for producing societal change, the bonds of friendship and family, and the manner in which we avoid confronting ourselves with the truth.

Conrad is the guitar player and the driver of the band’s dirty, run-down van, navigating them through snowstorms to each new venue on their 1985 tour. Concerts are described in brutal language, and this vicious vocabulary creates a vivid and clear sensation of a post-punk concert. In these scenes, and everywhere else the music or the songwriting talents of the characters are described, Coventry’s energetic and multi-layered skill with words rises to the occasion. His disjointed and disordered style perfectly suits the themes of destruction and reconstruction explored by the musicians in the book – the breaking down of art’s ideas and meanings. Paloma, the Moroccan artist who moves on the periphery of the novel, when she meets the band at one of the artist colonies run by the academic enigma Joan George-Warren, says they make the ‘music after music after music.’ Dance Prone isn’t a clear cut narrative, either – it’s an attempt to create the novel in it’s essence: looking for the new, resisting the obvious, denying the familiar.

This ambitious desire to resist familiar forms and structures makes for a challenging read at times. Glorious detail (young women in the street: ‘Kiss-me mouths and boots, black lipstick and a kind of low-core goth’; the mention of a goat in the audience at a concert lifted to bleat into the microphone) sit beside sentences that sometimes drift into semantics, deep dives into the meaning of things sometimes as meaningless as cars changing lanes on the LA expressway. A long conversation between Conrad and a minor character named Blair should slow the pace later in the novel but instead becomes the glue to piece the puzzle together – who was raped, by whom? Can one experience be compared to another? Why do we remember and why do we forget? – and I found my concentration was held during these slower, opaque sections because of Coventry’s unflagging dedication to language and literary risk. When a cryptic sentence looms, deliberately vague and elusive, avoiding clarity the way Conrad avoids his feelings and his memories, I had a sense that if I could unlock this one sentence, then I might discover the meaning of the whole novel, or perhaps the meaning of life. So I continued to read, following the words to the next page.

David Coventry’s first novel, The Invisible Mile won the Hubert Church Award for Best First Book at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. His author biography explains that this book was described as ‘one of the most gruelling novels about sport ever written’. Dance Prone is also gruelling. Violence, loneliness, blood and sex fill the pages, and between the two novels, it’s clear that Coventry is committed to writing fiction that’s gritty and raw and true. The back of the book is packed with quotes from Carl Shuker and Kiran Dass and Alan McMonagle, all testament to the esteem in which Coventry is held.

Like the band members of Neues Bauen, the novel resists the easy option. It resists an easy read. The structure and language create a story that sits inside itself like a Matryoshka doll; only the dolls are cracked and reordered into a nest that takes time to stack. For those who persist, the novel splits open to show friendships decaying from deception in multiple locations, a haunting read that leaves you feeling desiccated and hollow.

The idea that punk, and many other art movements, is not about destruction, but reconstruction, weaves through Dance Prone. These men (and this book is about men, really, with the women supporting the action from the shadows) believe they can change their world with their music. Only it doesn’t. Conrad is the witness to the devastation, and the beauty, in the attempt.