Antony John on rock and roll & Five Flavors of Dumb

Antony John’s latest, Five Flavors of Dumb, is the story of Piper, a teenage girl who takes on the challenge of managing her high school’s hottest band (never mind that she’s deaf), only to find that a little rock and roll is exactly what she needs.

Byrt: First off, congratulations on winning the Schneider Family Book Award – but I have to admit, when I was reading Five Flavors of Dumb I never once thought of it as a story about the disability experience, because Piper’s deafness doesn’t define her. And so I’m curious about the evolution of your story – did this book start out as a band story, and Piper’s deafness evolved along the way? Or was the idea of a deaf band manager the spark that started it all? In your mind, is this a story about the disability experience?

AJ: Thanks so much for having me along today, Katie. And hi to all your readers!

I’d always wanted to write a book about rock music, but there are lots of rock music novels out there—many of them are very good, too—and so I knew I needed to explore new ground. Then my wife said, “Why don’t you write about music from the perspective of a deaf teen?” and I knew that was the novel I had to write. But Five Flavors of Dumb was never an “issue” book for me, and I agree that Piper’s deafness is not what defines her at all. (I think that’s one of the things the Schneider Award committee liked about it.)

To me, the book is about Piper’s inability/unwillingness to communicate, and the same goes for all the other characters too. Communication is the key to the novel, and that’s what I was most interested in exploring. Piper was the perfect narrator in that sense, because she makes us immediately aware of the complexities of communicating.

Byrt: How much did you know about deaf culture going in, and how much did you learn along the way? Do you have friends or family who are deaf? Do you know how to sign?

AJ: I knew very little about Deaf culture when I started working on Five Flavors of Dumb, and I had no friends or relatives who are deaf. So I spent the first few months researching deafness: I read books and watched documentaries about Deaf culture; I spoke to audiologists about cochlear implants and hearing aid technology; I sat in on an ASL class (but no, I don’t sign . . . sadly); and I enlisted the help of deaf readers. It really gave me a sense of where Piper is coming from, but I’m certainly not an expert. Deafness is extremely complicated, both physiologically and socio-culturally, and I was petrified of getting it wrong, or misrepresenting the experience of deafness. Thankfully, a lot of deaf readers have written emails telling me that I did a good job, and that means the world to me.

Byrt: I absolutely loved how Piper’s deafness brought up questions of her ability and the real world relevance of her musical pursuits – even though they were issues raised by Piper’s mother about Piper’s deafness, they also seemed to echo any parent’s concerns about a kid with musical ambitions. Was that an intentional parallel, or did it just happen organically within the story?

AJ: It was completely organic, although you’re right: most parents probably feel ambivalent when their kids insist on following music as a course of study or career. I had fantastically supportive parents, but I know they must have been concerned about where my obsession with music would lead me. As it turns out, it led me to YA novels. Naturally.

Byrt: You come from a musical background yourself – a PHD in composition, and years of studying classical music – which begs the question, are all classical musicians rock and rollers at heart? How much did the Seattle grunge scene play into your own musical education? And were you ever part of a teen rock band?

AJ: I think classical musicians must be rockers at heart, although they hide it to some extent. When I was an undergraduate, several of my peers said they didn’t see much value in rock music. When I was a graduate student, only a few said that. In the short time I spent as a faculty member, I didn’t know a single person who didn’t like rock music. Professors may dedicate their careers to studying the minutiae of music history, but they’re generally the most open-minded folks I’ve met when it comes to enjoying a variety of musical genres.

I was already in my last year of undergrad at Oxford when “Nevermind” came out, so I can’t claim that the Seattle grunge scene played much of a role in my musical education. But when I heard it . . . whoa! That album blew me away. I’ve been a Nirvana fan ever since.

Alas, I was never part of a teen rock band, although I wish I had been. Such a wasted opportunity! If I joined a rock band now, everyone would think I was having a mid-life crisis.

Byrt: I love how Piper’s story really arrows in on the importance of music, and how Piper is the ultimate example of how everyone hears music differently. Was this story your sneaky way of advocating for the important of music? And what do you think about music programs being cut from schools nationwide?

AJ: Absolutely, this book stresses the importance of music, but I didn’t think it was sneaky – I’m just not that clever or subtle. Actually, I thought the message was written in bright neon lights throughout the book, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Also, I don’t think Piper is the ultimate example that everyone hears differently. Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony (and much else) when he was deaf. Arguably the world’s foremost percussion virtuoso, Evelyn Glennie, is deaf. And Sean Forbes, a deaf rapper from Detroit, attracts thousands of fans every time he performs. Piper simply reminds us that bring deaf does not mean you can’t enjoy or participate in musical performance.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that I’m not in favor of cutting music programs. But I won’t get on my soapbox here, because I know that lots of programs are being cut, and all of them have something to offer.

Byrt: Much of the rock history Piper discovers over the course of this book is about rockers who died too young. Do you think pain is a necessary ingredient for great rock?

AJ: Not pain necessarily, although I think that some kind of struggle often lies at the heart of rock music. It can be a cultural or political struggle, or a struggle to assert identity, but angst always seems to be a key ingredient in great rock. I suspect that’s why people have such a visceral reaction to it.

Byrt: Top ten rock songs or albums it’s a crime not to know?

AJ: Oh, boy! I could spend an hour narrowing it down to ten, so I’m just going to list the last five songs that I’ve been listening to while answering these questions. As it happens, all of them are brilliant, and if my children grow up not knowing them, I’ll have failed as a parent:

Paint it Black” – The Rolling Stones

The House of the Rising Sun” – The Animals

Where Did You Sleep Last Night” – Nirvana

Sympathy for the Devil” – The Rolling Stones

Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana

If you (didn’t) know any of these, just pop along to iTunes and thank me later. (It’s okay, I’ll totally wait for you.)

Byrt: Your greatest musical influences, growing up?

AJ: Pop/rock-wise, I was a complete sucker for the Beatles. They’re that rare band whose style truly evolved over time, and whose fans were willing to stick with them as the sound changed. It’s incredible what can happen when you allow a band to grow artistically, but I have a suspicion that many contemporary bands aren’t given that chance. Anyway, the Beatles broke all sorts of boundaries lyrically, melodically, instrumentally, and harmonically, and as a composer, I couldn’t get enough of them.

As for classical music, it was Bach all the way. (I’ve discovered that almost all composers give the same answer, by the way, so I guess we’re kind of predictable.) I could write several pages on why Bach is my hero, but I’m afraid everyone will fall asleep somewhere on page 3, so I won’t.

Byrt: And in terms of rebellion and counter culture – who do you see as carrying on the true rock and roll tradition today?

AJ: Talking specifically about teens, I don’t see anyone, which is really depressing. I’m not trying to knock Disney pop, but I really think that if we’re going to have the Miley Cyrus / Selena Gomez / Jonas Brothers brand of pop, we also need to have the anti-Disney pop. I want to see the next Pink or Avril Lavigne, but I guess the record labels have decided that they’d rather not promote that right now.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that I think there aren’t teen rock bands out there. At the launch for Five Flavors of Dumb, a local band, The Slots, performed an incredible set, including some Nirvana songs (yes, “Smells like teen spirit” was one of them). I figure there must be hundreds of other talented rock bands in the USA, too. We just need to get them heard.

Byrt: And lastly, what’s coming up next for you? Any books on the horizon?

AJ: Absolutely. My next YA, entitled The Hallelujah Book Tour, will be coming out spring 2012, also from Dial Books. It’s the story of a 16-year-old boy who writes a spiritual self-help book that becomes a bestseller. When he’s sent on a promotional tour along Route 66 things don’t exactly go as planned, particularly when a former crush hitches a ride.

After that, in fall 2012, the first book in my Elemental trilogy will be released (again with Dial; can you tell I like my editor!). It’s set in a dystopian colony of the United States where everyone is born with powers of the elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—except for one boy who is powerless . . . or is he? I’m really psyched about it.

Byrt: Can’t wait – and thank you again, Antony for stopping by the Bookyurt!

AJ: Thanks so much for having me along today, Katie!

For more on Antony, check out his website and Facebook page.

(And our rave review of Five Flavors of Dumb is here.)