Emma Imrie was a Plath-obsessed, self-taught teenage musician dreaming of fame, from a remote village on the Isle of Wight. She found it too, briefly becoming a star of the nineties Camden music scene. But then she died in mysterious circumstances.
In the aftermath of Emma’s death, her younger brother, Jeff, is forced by their parents to stay at the opulent home of childhood friends on the island.
During a wild summer of beach parties and music, Jeff faces up to the challenges that come with young love, youthful ambition and unresolved grief. His sister’s prodigious advice from beyond the grave becomes the only weapon he has against an indifferent world. As well as the only place where the answers he craves might exist…
All too often as writers I think it’s very easy for us to get our ambition caught up with trying to making good art. A few years ago various novels on the go with which I had a lot of hopes and ambitions caught up with. But then a scene- in which a young boy remembers watching his sister perform with her band and how watching her changed him- pushed itself to the fore in my mind.
This one scene seemed to come from nowhere and almost write itself. When I shared it online there was a natural, organic reaction from strangers (very unusual, usually it’s like sending something out into a void!) and people said they really liked it and wanted more. While I ploughed on thanklessly with novels in which all these grand pseudo intellectual ideas were being played out through tortured plot lines I would sometimes, for my idea of fun, go back to that little story of his boy and his sister. What was curious was the extent to which (and I know this is common for writers) my own experiences, struggles, and uncertainties started coming through this character. Jeff is a young, lost teenager who is creative but who has no idea what to do with this aspect of him, an aspect which he is often embarrassed by as it labels him ‘weird’. He knows he can’t enter the rat race without quickly going insane, and he knows that is a bit soft, but he also knows that being in some way ‘on the outside’ will be tough too. He sometimes throws himself into the margins- living for a while on the beach for instance- so at least the sense of rejection is on his terms. Unlike me, Jeff had a brilliantly talented older sister, Emma (I always wanted one) who tragically dies. His struggle to find himself over the course of one particular summer is exacerbated by his grief for Emma. Through her he explores what being an artist means, what kind of a life it would make for, and also he tussles with vague ideas of artistic legacy. His artistic struggles are made all the more powerful, potent and confrontational by him not knowing how his sister died, and he uses the space and time of this one summer to try and find out by reading the diary Emma she left behind. In many ways Emma- brash, seemingly confident, talented, bitchy- has the persona he knows you need to ‘get somewhere’. In retrospect I liked a young man having a woman as his idol. In the ways PJ Harvey was an idol for me as a young boy. The scene where Emma skips school to see her perform and sits too deeply in the experience- to the point that it freaks out her boyfriend- was all about how I was at gigs at that age.
“Something occurs to me, that you should let a man people in to your life on your own terms. And if you’re going to do that, then you should probably let people into your world on your own terms. And what better way to do that than through your art?” Emma, “Dead Rock Stars”
What people never talk about in the life of an artist- a life which is often romanticised- is just how much dead time there is. Anyone who is also creative will know what I am talking about. If you are truly creative (and I don’t think that means buying moleskin notebooks and being angsty about your unfinished novel) it’s something you have to do every day. Like breathing. Artistic friends of mine tell me in hushed terms that they start to get sick if they’re not creating. But how do we square that with making work that is meaningful, work that carries us along the path we want to go down? I wanted to write a novel which captures all the dead time and frustration of being an artist, voids which I voiced through Emma. All the graft of trying to convince people of your artistic ideas- whether it is to get them to join your band or let them use your basement to play music in. I wanted to map out the interface between the wildness of our ideas, bubbling up from the murk of our unconscious and the strict formats by which we are allowed to commercially express ourselves. Setting the novel in the nineties was not just about capturing the naivety and upheaval of that time as I remember it. It is also that (per internet and Covid) art had a more tactile quality in that era. Pre MP3, if a friend had a CD by a band you loved, it was truly treasured. You couldn’t find any track on the internet, you had to hunt it down. The artist who made a song you loved had a record deal and having gone through that portal they got to express themselves in lavish sleeve art, across various formats. When you bought a song from them you owned it physically. When you recorded songs you loved off the radio it was like snatching some ray of sun from the heavens and stealing it for yourself. If a friend had a fanzine, or a band you loved were mentioned in a magazine it meant something and you cherished it. I miss that era but it was an era in which I struggled. I was in various bands that went nowhere, with people it meant less to than it did for me. I don’t say that to blame them in any way- it was a useful exercise in self-reliance and, if I’m honest I don’t think I had what it takes.
“All I’ve ever wanted is to be frightening enough to get noticed.”
My ideas when I was a teenager were too strange, too unformed, too untamed, too lacking in finesse and technique. I was flailing- almost as much as Jeff does. And although at times I had the bolshiness and pushiness Emma did underneath that was always a festering sense of uncertainty. I needed to show that in creative people, like Emma, that underneath the seemingly brash exterior is often someone finding it very hard to develop thick skin, someone who in fact feels every reaction to their art acutely. As I wrote Emma’s diary I more I found myself caring very deeply for her, for whatever reason.
“The truth is that there is no centre, no portal where all the decadence and glamour you craved opens up for you. There is just a lot of people standing about pretending they know where it is, pretending that they are part of its heart.”
Another key component in “Dead Rock Stars” is the idea of the summer. The novel takes place largely over the course of one transformative summer for Jeff, when he confronts his sense of loss over Emma and when he first falls love. For Jeff is a summer of beach parties, of experimenting with substances and with how he chooses to relate to others. I remember as a child the summer holidays being kind of the only era in which you got to find yourself, outside the confines of school. The nuance of whether an invite to a party was real or not, or if someone you fancied was giving you a bit of attention because they liked you or just wanted to be friends, was all very painful. Being back in that space was not easy. Jeff has Emma to guide him from beyond the grave and I did not! In a way maybe this novel is me advising my younger self.
“It all stings. Every humiliation just illuminates, like a row of promenade lights, all the other rejections and betrayals that snake into the darkness of your past. You only think that record deals, gigs and minor fame create a net that will hold your life because you are on the outside of the net. It doesn’t hold shit. All you have is what people are doing in the room with you now.”
I suppose all this makes it pretty clear how much this book means to me. I sometimes feel that if people read this book and nothing else of mine that would be okay. That’s how I feel about it right now. But as it became clearer ‘what this book is’ I got confused. I loved being in the company of Emma and Jeff so much that I just wrote scenes to be with them a little longer (pretty strange, I know). Once I had a sense of the shape of the novel I found myself using Emma to say lines I wanted to say. About the world, about the way people treat each other. Emma says so many lines that I want to shout from the rooftops, that I want written in blood (I’ve scattered a few of them here). The idea of a novel as a manifesto for how to live and even how we should live, takes hold. Emma is far wittier, far bitchier and far more acerbic than I am. But I do stand by everything she says about people and about the world we live in. I used her as a mouthpiece to voice my own hurt at things that have happened to me (boo hoo, eh?) and my concern for the way people treat each other generally, particularly young artistic women like her (I don’t pretend to speak for anyone, except perhaps for other ‘creative people’ generally- but I was inspired by the way Kurt Cobain described something in another voice in the song ‘Polly’). The novel became a receptacle for everything I wanted to say and so certain lines got crafted when they really nailed a point that meant a lot to me. I think novels have the room to really explore something in that way. Music can be played in the background but novels require constant attention, the toll for that being you need to keep the reader’s attention.
I’ve never had therapy but for me writing novels (and by extension talking about the practice of writing them when promoting them) has probably been a form of therapy. I’ve created characters who represent facets of me, and other characters through which, in fictional situations, I get to say what I wish I had said. When I was writing this novel, through a strange combination of circumstances I had an awful lot of time on my own. My teaching work wasn’t secure and this uncontracted novel was my life. But it also felt quite futile as I had no publisher or agent then. It is so curious to me how famine and feast life is. As I write this I am in a different place, and the issues that troubled me than are thankfully behind me and I’m grateful for it. I have two books coming out through two different publishers and an agent and brilliant writing partner I’m working with for a third. It is almost like life questions your commitment to a cause by only giving you one out- that cause. Had I not had the artistic struggles I’d had I would not have been able to write Emma. I would not have been able to show her grappling with every moment of the struggle. I had nothing solid in my life other than this novel when I was working on it, to be honest, so when I say I put everything into it I really mean it. My pain about certain tough situations I’d been in (too personal to blithely mention in a blog), my feelings about my own relative isolation at the time, they all went in, bubbling and sizzling, into the pan that was this novel.
“I asked myself, what makes up a human life? Are you not human if you lack a proper bed and a job and a purpose? Do you need someone saying they love you back, in order to be human? Do you need to see them every day? And if the answer to all these things was yes, then why had I never felt more human? And if not, then why did people insist that you needed all those things?”
I remember vividly writing a scene when Emma has a disastrous gig at a local pub and the promoter asks her to stop playing and how afterwards her friends kind of disown her and it makes the humiliation even worse. It mirrors and in greatly exaggerates a situation that once happened with me, a moment which was so significant in how I saw being creative. I think it was the night I realised (at last) that I had no right to expect the world to care about the artistic ideas of some white middle class boy from the back woods. By writing about the embarrassment of that night I got to appease those feelings. But that scene about artistic failure remained bound up with feelings of failure until it was in a published novel, at which point failure does become kind of useful. For which I am so grateful to the publishers and the whole team that bring your idea into physical life.
“Where does someone’s energy go when their body is cracked open? Does it end up in the corners of all the bedrooms they visited, nestled in the hearts of everyone they knew? Do they have their own secret portals through which they come in and out of the world, where we can sometimes feel them? And if they’re an artist, does their influence go even deeper, into places inside people that they didn’t even know they had?”
But I think the point was for me to have to write this scene not knowing if it would ever get published. Often, in a novel, anything outside of the plot feels like shaky territory, straying into indulgence, but to me the flesh on those bones is where a novel really breathes. How could I have written about artistic failure if I knew for certain a book deal was around the corner? At the time the feeling of putting all this angst into a novel that probably wasn’t going to get published was like layering pain upon pain, to be honest. But it meant something is wrought into “Dead Rock Stars” that can’t be faked. Pretty much every aspect of my life at the time felt insecure, even though in many ways the difficulty was nothing relative to that which many people put up with (I did know that, honest). But this difficulty did allow me to convey a rawness into the writing that wouldn’t have been there if I wasn’t so deeply invested in the novel. There was also the sense of ‘however much you might think you’ve nailed something who will care? Who will really read it? Why would people spend money on something as painful as this?’ Doubt was layered upon doubt. In cafes, during days of little employment I kept refining and adding to this story, and I became more and more steeped in the sense of absurdity and fear of delusion that I was simply investing too deeply in a project which may well be- not nothing, but worse than nothing, if it just led to more rejection.
In the end I realised- and it was a powerful realisation- that my control ended when the novel was out there in the world. Whatever the reaction to my writing would be, perhaps I’d learn something from it. If it reached the people it was meant for, great. But I had been sending it out through excitement without being precious about the novel. It was getting rejected before I even knew what it was. I was not appreciating the power we have as an artist, which is to choose when we let our work out. The problem is it is only when someone embraces what we’re doing that we are given the facility to know what it is, that it is ‘finished’.
“It occurred to me that so often in life, as we move around the stage set of this world, we feel as if we are trying to create a sense of truth about what we do. We use rituals and dates, and we imbue events with significance, all as part of our desperate attempt to make life feel real. But perhaps the only real is our private communion with a personal sense of meaning?”
It fascinates me so much how situations force us to confront our sense of self-belief. The other curious thing was that for a dark period of time the main way I related to people was by sharing my writing with them and offering them feedback on theirs. It was a kind of pseudo-intimacy. I said what I really felt but through a character. But setting up that support system meant I got to see who believed in my writing (thank you, Sara, Rachael, Cassandre, Hollie, Frances) and put so much into a novel that it kind of strained the boundaries of what a novel can do. I wouldn’t be writing a book with someone else had they not come through for me and been there for me during that era.
There is something about the modern era that invites us as artists to push the various forms of expression available to us. Getting a recording or book deal is so hard and so many people are trying to ‘share’ their voice. Having a previous book that has done well guarantees you nothing, if anything people see the new artist as the best proposition and in many ways with each new novel you start from scratch in terms of winning people over with your work. But at the same time the technology and isolation of the current era means expressing yourself has never been more facilitated. You can self-publish a novel, record a song and distribute it on Youtube and the whole issue of convincing the traditional gatekeepers (from A&R men to publishers) has only got more complex. I have nothing against people who self-publish but for me personally I always needed someone to financially invest in my work to know it was good. Someone else taking a risk, having a financial stake and literally investing in my idea has always been key. But in this era we can use the means of expression at our disposal to strain at replicating the roles others would traditionally play. We can kind of create our own puppets, these days, to enact the roles of key characters in our life. We can pretend we are our own record company, for instance. I think to some extent this capacity is both luxurious and cathartic. But the danger is it can take us down a rabbit hole of solipsism and delusion.
The novel was, for a period of time, a lifeline for me. I wrote it intending it would be a lifeline for others too. We can use the adage ‘I wrote this for myself and if anyone else likes it that is a bonus’ but I think that remark is cowardly and it is only ever the first part of that statement which tells the truth.
I’ve noticed that the younger women who’ve read the book have said how much they love and relate to Emma. It was said again and again by the many readers who read early drafts. At that point, I knew I was onto something. It had come about by ‘not trying’, by writing this book for the sheer love of it and to say what I wanted to say. I feel like if someone hates this book then they’d certainly hate me! And that’s fine, because at least I am present in it. Somewhere along the lines I realised the two novels I had finished but not published were not accepted because a) they lacked heart and b) I hadn’t really put myself into them, with my vulnerabilities.
The novels I love tell the story of my inner world. I wrote those words to tell the story of people’s lives. The words they tell to themselves to comfort themselves that they’re not alone. The words they recite because it’s how they feel and what they want to say. In many ways I wanted Emma to be totemic. In this novel she’s on the cusp of being a star. Through this novel I wanted to make her one!
Publisher after publisher loved the opening scene but baulked at some of the content further down the line. I was in a holding contract with a major publisher for many months. Then- strangely enough- one day I went for a walk and had the strange idea of calling the novel “Dead Rock Stars” (a mocking term that captured the brash element of nineties novels that influenced it- like Emma Forrest’s ‘Namedropper’ and also captures the darkness of what I write about- ‘how’s it going with your dead rock stars, Guy?’ It also captured the iconoclasm of Emma’s mind, where, like me, she feels that people like Kurt Cobain and PJ Harvey are part of her own tribe). I also decided to cut every scene, sentence and word that wasn’t essential.
Days later I had a publishing contract. After it starting off so natural, and then getting so confused and swollen, I had seen the clean hard lines I needed to follow. And “Dead Rock Stars” was done.
Thank you, Guy Mankowski
About the author
Guy Mankowski was singer in the signed band Alba Nova, as went on to play guitar in bands like The Beautiful Machine. His novels include ‘The Intimates’ (a 2011 Read Regional Title), ‘Letters from Yelena’ (winner of an Arts Council Literature award & featured in GCSE training by Osiris Educational), ‘How I Left The National Grid’ (written as part of a PhD in Creative Writing) and ‘An Honest Deceit’ (winner of an Arts Council Literature Award and a New Writing North Read Regional Award).
He is a full-time lecturer at The University of Lincoln.