Retelling an American Legend: Jeanne Thornton Interviewed by Ryan Spencer

An epistolary novel about music, trans identity, and counterculture.

Summer Fun7

“I am writing a teenage symphony to God,” Brian Wilson told a group of dinner guests in 1966, referring to SMiLE, a record he was working on that would be the follow-up to Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. It would become a tortured, legendary record that was discussed far more than it was actually heard; bootlegs were shared, rumors were spread, and it became the greatest rock ‘n’ roll record never made. Without the release of an actual album, the legend became a decades-long repository for imagination, which is where Summer Fun (Soho Press) comes in. This incandescent new novel by Jeanne Thornton is about B—, the musical genius behind the 1960s surf-pop group The Get Happies, who reached a profound level of success and is toiling away on the unfinished opus, Summer Fun. The novel unfolds in a series of letters written to B— in 2009 by Gala, a young trans woman and super-fan living in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and working at a hostel with hot springs.

—Ryan Spencer

 

Ryan Spencer In her opening letter of the book, Gala writes:

All I know is that I woke up alone, the mechanical sunburst of my alarm clock telling me it was just before dawn—and I spent an hour wondering whether or not I should kill myself—and then I started this letter to you. Because I am proactive in response to despair. Because we all have to be. Don’t back down from that wave.

She has left behind her former life and moved to a remote location that has, we will later learn, significance to B— and the band The Get Happies; she is trying to commune with the energy of place and take inspiration, in some way, from B—‘s artistic perseverance. Can you describe an artist, or a place, that had a talismanic importance to you as you worked on this novel?

Jeanne Thornton Sure: Truth or Consequences! The initial concept of this book back in 2009 was to take three disparate subjects—being trans, Truth or Consequences, and a very isolated musician—put them in the same narrative frame, and find what these three subjects had to say to one another. Everything else in the book grew out of that choice of associations and the faith that there was some connection between them.  

I first came to Truth or Consequences in 2002 on a car trip to California. At the time, there was a network of youth hostels across the United States called Hostel International; it still exists in Europe, but most of the ones I stayed in that year are gone. The hostel that inspired the Dream-Catcher in the book is called Riverbend Hot Springs, which in 2002 was half motel, half rural compound, all baths and mystic signs painted on shed walls. I loved it. You could just roll up, offer to work, and go stain a staircase or clean a pool for three hours in exchange for food and housing for a couple of nights. It felt like something from a Balzac novel, a pre-capitalist enclave within a bigger system: work toward maintaining and cultivating a space and its people. As of 2021, it’s become a fancy resort and spa, very different from the place where I was a nineteen-year-old closeted kid reading Anaïs Nin diaries while soaking with art punks and old spiritual men. The summer I did that was very important to me; it was a model for something, and I wanted to honor it in the book.

RS The actual past in which Brian Wilson worked on SMiLE and the fictional past in the novel where B— is working on Summer Fun sort of twist around each other like a double helix, parallel but linked by certain commonalities. For instance, the opening track on B—‘s Summer Fun is a cover of “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster. The opening scene of the 2004 documentary film Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE features Wilson singing the opening bars of that song, then commenting, “Beautiful dreamer wake. B.D.W. Brian Douglas Wilson. That’s me!” Although there are clearly differences in your version of 1966, which has things like hover cars, and our timeline, SMiLE and Summer Fun are both optimistic titles for that time in America, with no mention of the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement, for instance. How important is it for a reader to know the history of The Beach Boys or of that time in American history at large to fully appreciate Summer Fun? In what other ways did you create the alternate reality of the novel?

JT Honestly, I don’t think the book has all that much to say about the 1960s! Take Mona, whose sexuality would be treated a lot less casually in the real 1960s. Or take the trans discourse: actual trans feminine discourse of 1960 was about demarcating transvestite and transsexual, whether you wanted to code switch genders or whether you were a full-time “girl inside” (which was considered at best pitiable, at worst pathological, a shameful step outside of morality). This entire discourse doesn’t exist in the book. I feel like the trans characters in Summer Fun are basically twenty-first century transsexuals transported backward in time, yet living in isolation similar to the isolation I felt in Texas 2011–2014 when I was writing this part of the book: wishing I lived close to a community of trans women that was no doubt thriving elsewhere. At the time, I developed this eagerness to find it, celebrate it, create it, serve it, but without any direct experience of “it.” This is kind of the situation the character Diane faces in the book, and fidelity to that very lonely feeling was more important to me than doing a fully rendered 1960s. I feel like that decade works here as a scenery flat (as the hover cars maybe acknowledge).

As far as SMiLE goes: I wanted to retell a big American legend, like Paul Bunyan and his ox, by rebuilding it with materials that evoke the legend but don’t exactly reference the history. The goal was to do something with the same emotional arc, but that passed through as few of the same specific events as possible: think the relationship between Buddhism and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. So there are resonances that you will maybe enjoy if you’re a super fan of the Beach Boys, as I am: Ricky Fataar makes a cameo, for one. But there is very real variance, especially with B—, whose withdrawn evasiveness is to my mind very distinct from the agency, ego, and good will of the IRL analogue. 

Basically, I don’t want people to have to download bootlegs of the 1981 Cocaine Sessions between Brian and Dennis or anything to read this book. But you can!

White-presenting woman with long brown hair, a necklace, grass background.

Photo of Jeanne Thornton by Leslie Weems.

RS As the book unfolds in the 1960s, it also takes place in 2009, with Gala, her best friend Ronda, and Caroline—a young filmmaker who finds herself in Truth or Consequences and begins a relationship with Gala. This thread of the story finds Gala wrestling with many of the same issues as her hero B—: the dualities of madness and creativity, fragility and endurance, and identity; of being trans in a world that remains most comfortable entrenched in the binary status quo. How does this reflect your own experience of that year, and what has changed since then?

JT The big thing that’s changed since then is probably the “Tipping Point”: for the unfamiliar, a magazine cover featuring Laverne Cox in 2014 that marked the mainstream awareness of trans lives, rather than our existence as a kind of rumor haunting the American middle class. Before 2014, perhaps someone you knew had a cousin or friend or something; when I first came out around 2010, people would often meet my disclosure with one of their own about the one trans person they were connected to. I feel weird about this now, but at the time it felt nice, like we were sharing a secret.  

RS In addition to your work as a novelist, and cartoonist, you run the indie press Instar Books with Miracle Jones. And while Summer Fun was inspired by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, Miracle Jones confided to me that Instar was inspired by another musical group, Wu-Tang Clan. In what way has Instar Books brought the ethos of the Wu to the world of independent literary publishing? 

JT Instar grew out of the work Miracle Jones and I have been doing together since we met in an undergrad writing class in 2003 and told our teacher that we only liked one another’s work. Making weird publications is the skeleton on which our friendship is enfleshed. We started by publishing illustrated zines of one another’s short stories, and then we did some joint anthologies that we sold from a card table on the University of Texas Drag, and now we have rate sheets from printers and trade distribution and all kinds of treasures of this world. 

Part of it is just—we are friends, this is what we do, don’t question it. But there’s an actual business and ecology-of-literature argument for it. The early 2000s were a weird time to be trying to publish work in, like, Ploughshares, and neither of us was doing work that we thought would ever end up somewhere like that. We were both frustrated at this and lived in Austin, which had an existing zine and mini-comics scene that was great, fed by tributaries of the underground comix movement: Gilbert Shelton had a store there where you could put stuff you printed, etc. It was easy to plug into that space and help fill it with the work we were doing, building friendships and finding how what we were doing really had a place in the world that had nothing to do with its place in mainstream literature. This is a lesson that I still think about and that informs what we do. 

I’m stoked that next year we’ll finally get to publish a physical edition of Miracle Jones’s SFF trilogy, The Fold, which friends and I have been an eager cult audience for since he started circulating it to us around 2010. His work, as you know, is glorious and like nothing else—imagine the works of Grant Morrison, Spider Robinson, and Dark Tower-mode Steven King, yet somehow filtered through the narrator of Bleak House, and deeply about empathy and pain. It’s work that I think is important—and this is distinct from this being my friend’s work—but it’s also work that trade publishers have found hard to assimilate. I want one of Instar’s contributions to the publishing ecology to be finding ways to connect that work to readers who will care for it, to whom it can make some contribution. It will always be difficult to assimilate work: in some cases due to form, in some cases due to format, in some cases due to identity. There has to be an ecology that can metabolize it, that can feed both readers and writers.

As you know, we spent the pandemic year on the Instar Books Discord server playing music for one another and talking about our feelings. It helped me to get through, and I think that’s true for others. Your DJ sets were great; I love the one called “Open Skate” where you conjured a late-1980s-skating-rink vibe, all disco balls and Tiffany belting, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and rolling under the limbo bar. A member of this Discord described its vibe as “the Black Lodge, but everyone is kind.” I like that, and I like the current explosion of neighborhood-feeling Discord servers as a viable model for building and maintaining a literary community. Joyful spaces that take work to maintain but don’t necessarily provide return on capital—and maybe that includes hostels, or maybe that includes the Beach Boys fan community, which for years kept SMiLE and other work alive by endlessly circulating bootlegs. This will always need to be actively cultivated. Maybe this is where the Wu ethos enters: finding ways to function as a small society and collective that interfaces with capitalism but sources what it does in some kind of hard-to-assimilate way that brings joy. Yes, please, more, yes.

Summer Fun is available for purchase here.

Ryan Spencer is a Brooklyn-based photographer and frequent contributor to BOMB. His next book, There is No Light at the End of the Tunnel Because the Tunnel is Made of Light, is forthcoming this year from TBW Books.

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