Author W. Lance Hunt in Chicago, April 5, 2018. (Moresby Press photo)
The Cost of Ambition and Deceiving Ourselves: Author W. Lance Hunt Discusses His Novel A Perfect Blindness
By GREG BEAUBIEN April 6, 2018
CAN YOU SEE THE TRUTH ABOUT YOURSELF? In author W. Lance Hunt’s multi-layered debut novel A Perfect Blindness, two ambitious young musicians cannot—or will not—recognize their true motivations, natures or sources of inspiration, and they hurtle toward disaster as a result. The book, which takes place in Chicago’s alternative-music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, throbs with sex, struggle, excitement, betrayal and regret—much like the songs and bands that inspired Hunt to write it. Moresby Press sat down with him to explore the themes behind his sprawling, 424-page novel.
Q: In your book A Perfect Blindness, striving young musicians move from Columbus, Ohio to the big city of Chicago, seeking fame and fortune. The novel could be called a coming-of-age story, a rite-of-passage drama, or a cautionary tale about the price that people pay to pursue—and possibly achieve—their dreams, including the consequences to their personal relationships. Do you see the book through those prisms, and how does its story parallel your own experiences?
A: We’re all presented with choices in life, sometimes very hard choices, and when we make them, there are consequences. When you set out to achieve a goal, you have necessarily excluded other things from your life. In the book, personal relationships in particular are sacrificed for a goal. Whether it’s worth reaching is up to the individuals. The book has three endings for its three main characters, each being a direct result of the choices they made.
As for me, in my life, the book reflects that back in 1988 I picked up and moved to Chicago from Columbus, Ohio, on very little notice, to pursue my dream of writing. And then when I got here, I did very little writing and got caught up in other people’s dreams instead. So I ended up leaving. I started writing again once I got to Mexico City, and then New York City.
Would you say that the lead character, the keyboardist and singer/songwriter Jonathan Starks, was willing to sacrifice personal relationships and accept whatever consequences may occur, as long as he achieved his dream? Or was his dream tempered by his fear of the consequences?
Jonathan and his friend and guitarist Scott are both pursuing the same general dream. Scott is completely driven and focused, and willing to slaughter everything in his path to get what he wants. There are reasons behind his ambition that are hidden to him—an idea that goes back to the title of the book. He doesn’t understand his own true motives. Jonathan is very focused; he wants to be a musician for a living and will give up just about anything to get what he wants. But he does not understand the source of his gifts; he doesn’t see it clearly. And he sacrifices a lot of things, somewhat unnecessarily, to get where he’s going. Whether or not he sees who he really is, and his gift—that’s the question.
You said Jonathan didn’t understand the source of his gift. Can you explain that idea a little more?
He turns out to be a very gifted songwriter and musician. He’s always had a talent but he never understood how to tap into it. One of his lovers makes an offhand comment, a quote from a Lawrence Durrell book: There are three things to be done with a woman: You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature—or in Jonathan’s case, turn her into a song. He gets the idea that the only way he can write is by using physical, erotic passion, and this becomes his driving force. But he needs to realize that he doesn’t necessarily have to chew up personal relationships and extract all their juice to write.
Scott is single-minded. He’s all about getting there, achieving. And Jonathan at that point in time, when he’s thinking about moving to Chicago, believes that his relationship with his girlfriend Amy is the source of his power. She also saves him from self-destruction. Before he meets her he’s contemplating suicide, because everything had failed. She comes into his life and gives him the key to unlock his talents. But now that he can exploit those talents, can he leave her and move to Chicago and still survive? He’s torn.
There’s a point early in the book when Jonathan winds up in a dead-end office job, and he says to himself, “I’m ashamed of who I’ve become. I’m sleepwalking through the empty hours that make up another day.” He says he needs to know who or what he is, and “to matter to anyone at all.”
He’s invested so much in his identity as a musician. This is who he is, or who he wants to be. He doesn’t make his living at it yet, but he wants to. He still defines himself as a musician, but after repeated failures he stares at the reality that, “Maybe, this is not who I am.” And it rattles him to the very core of his identity. He’s lost and starts thinking about hanging himself. But then, when he gets the Durrell quote from Amy, he thinks, “Okay, maybe I do have a chance. Maybe I wasn’t mistaken before.” Amy puts him back in touch with his skills, and then things start taking off for him.
She turns his life around and becomes his muse, which is why he’s reluctant to leave her.
What do Jonathan and Scott think success will give them, if they achieve it?
They both identify themselves as musicians. If they aren’t musicians, who would they be? “This is who I am,” they each feel, “and if I’m not this, I’m nothing.” Jonathan wants to write and play music for a living. He doesn’t want to have to work as a waiter or a temp. His goal is not necessarily fame and fortune—certainly that comes along with it, and it’s nice, but he doesn’t have to be a millionaire. He wants the freedom to be able to play. He loves being up on that stage, playing for an audience and trying to communicate with them, trying to articulate aspects of the human experience.
Scott, on the other hand, wants to be famous so that the people he grew up around—he grew up in a trailer park in deep Appalachia—can’t criticize what he does or who he wants to be with. And he wants to keep a promise to a friend who has died. This is where his energy comes from. But he won’t admit it to himself. He thinks he just wants to be a rock ’n’ roll star. But he refuses to see the truth about himself, which causes his tragic ending.
Is that what you mean by the title A Perfect Blindness?
Very much so. The main characters are blind to some aspect of themselves. Whether they see it or accept it are the underlying questions.
Does achieving success make these characters suffer?
At one point in time, yes, they all do. But there are three stories being told simultaneously. There’s Jonathan’s story, which is whether or not he’s going to realize the true source of his ability to write, and not be destructive. Scott has to be willing to accept this certain part of himself, which he knows but refuses to see—and if he doesn’t, there could be tragic consequences. The Jennifer character sees the entire world through a pop-culture lens. She compares everything to books, movies, television or advertisements. And the question is whether she can see the difference between real life and manufactured life. Each one of them is blind to a separate thing, and the question is whether they can realize it, and what they can do with that realization should they reach it.
Hunt outside Rainbo Club in Chicago. (Moresby Press photo)
Do you see yourself in the character of Jonathan Starks?
In many ways, yes. He was more like me in earlier versions of the book, until I realized that I’m kind of boring [laughs]. He had to be somebody new.
Aside from the parallels to your own life, where you moved to Chicago when you were a young man and had this grand adventure, what drew you to this story, especially considering that the main characters are musicians, and you are not?
The very first version of this book, which I wrote in 1996, was imagined as an apologia, a detailed explanation for a series of decisions I had made in my life. The characters were representations of people who were important in my life at that time. I masked them by making them musicians. And then I realized that nobody on earth would be interested in that except for me. The story had to change. The musicians stayed because I had so much knowledge of—not being a musician—but every aspect around it. I’d been a roadie, I’d run sound and lights for a band, I’d recorded music and been in engineering sessions, I’d done music videos. And I needed some way of using all that knowledge.
And then I went to grad school, and spent a lot of time with Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet.” I wrote several pieces on those books in grad school, and on Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, which presents contrasts in points of view, just as Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” retells the same events through different points of view. That’s what I was trying to do with this book, turning it through three points of view, to illustrate that when the “I” of the first-person subjective narrative meets the “he” or “she” of the objective third-person narrative, they don’t match. The truth must lie someplace between the two stories, suspended in contradictions. And so the book changed yet again, to reach its final form.
There’s a lot of music in the book. Some of the songs you mention may be familiar to readers, especially fans of late-eighties, early nineties alternative rock, electronic music, etc. You make references to songs they may know, from bands they may have heard. But other songs are fictional, that you invented, that your characters write in the story. Was it difficult to make the reader hear a song in their head that they’ve never actually heard?
Yes, and I honestly don’t know whether I succeeded in that respect. For each one of those fictional songs I had a real song in mind as the foundation. And then I just hoped that people could imagine what it would sound like as it was played, from descriptions of the type of music the characters talk about wanting to play, and the other musical references.
What people cannot imagine is the melody. But the reader can fill in the gaps in her imagination. Not necessarily to hear a melody, but to approximate the kind of song it was through the instruments and styles—in Jonathan’s case a bright, shimmering keyboard part over an electronic beat. It requires the reader to suspend his disbelief and participate in the fiction.
There were times when I tried to capture the sounds, to get them across, and I wrote some lyrics. I was writing for an audience that would get these references. People who know this era, this music, in some cases even the clubs, they say, “Yeah, this is what it was like.”