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Tome On The Range

A Q&A With Bill Callahan & Extract From Letters To Emma Bowlcut
Laura Snapes , August 18th, 2010 06:54

Laura Snapes talks to Bill Callahan (aka Smog) about his new tome Letters To Emma Bowlcut, as well as serving up a juicy extract

"I couldn't talk to you but I had to write to you," reads the opening line of Bill Callahan's first novel, Letters To Emma Bowlcut. A book of letters to a nameless woman – whether ex-love interest or object of his projected desires, it's unclear – it's a collection that deals in the same enigmatic tropes familiar from the past two decades of Callahan's songwriting, but with added wryness and smut, as The Quietus' exclusive extract of the novel demonstrates…

When did you first start writing Letters To Emma Bowlcut? Several parts reference your lyrics and song titles - did the lyrics feed into the novel or vice versa?

Bill Callahan: I started a couple years ago. No references come to mind except the title of my last LP is in there, because it was too good to only use once. I don't believe there are other crossovers. They're two very separate things.

Had you long harboured ambitions of being an author? Who are your favourite writers?

BC: I'd like to be an author someday! I don't think I am. I just wrote a book is all. I think you have 'favorite' authors and 'favorite' things when you are young, ie from childhood to early 20s. After that, things kind of explode out and you see writing as writing. You value writing as writing. And anything can be as good as the next. Your grampa can write a sentence in an email that is devastating, beautiful. So, I'm more a follower of writing than favorite writers. It's too rigid, otherwise.

Being able to hear a piece of writing speak is something that changes over time. Sometimes something that means nothing to you at one period can blow you away at another. Writers are fallible. Writing is not.

Why write it in epistolary form?

BC: Making it epistolary gave it the opportunity to be everything and nothing. In epistolary form it can be poetry, prose, essay, bit, whimsy, advice column, journal entry and none of these things, because they are letters. And that's what always gets me about letters, they are free expression. There's no classic form (apart from the salutations, but I did away with those) and they aren't art unless they really are.

Authors seem to be afforded a privilege that songwriters are not, whereby the author is separate from the narrative voice. As the interpretations of 'I Break Horses' in particular show, it's assumed that songwriters' material is always personal to them. Why do you think that is? Does it bother you, and is there any autobiographical element to the novel?

BC: It really has to be that either everything is autobiography or nothing is autobiography, with nothing in between. That's the only way to deal with this age-old question of which I am, pardon my French, not remotely interested in. Although most people seem to find it a crucial question, integral to the appreciation of the work. I think songwriters are generally presumed to be writing about their own lives because you can see their eyes and feel their breath, through the voice. Even if you are listening to a record, not watching someone perform, you can tell where the eyes are looking. Listen to James Brown, you know just where his eyes are. This makes the personal attachment you speak of. The other arts are not like this. Painting, film - who knows where the artists' eyes are pointed?

Feel free not to answer this, but can you explain a bit more about what you mean by the "vortex" and the "core"?

BC: It feels a little early to be voicing on that. The book is only 11 days old. I would like to give people, including myself, a chance to have their own feeling about it.

Below: An extract from Letters To Emma Bowlcut


It could just be a yeast infection. You should get it checked out. Don't make your old man make love to a doughnut. That is, if you two are still going at it. It's been hard for me to tell.

I've got a head full of air, too. Unfocussable. I can not unblur my eyes enough to read a micrometer. A drink centers me but I usually make myself wait until at least 9:00 p.m. for that. Or 8:00 p.m. Whichever comes first.

Then spiders tussle on the page with my hand as referee.

I looked at a book I have with the solar system on the cover. It was on the floor and I opened it with my bare foot. I looked at the earth nestled there among so many unfamiliar objects — a duck among the cows — and decided it was a blessing to keep trying.

I think I'm getting better at loving people, but I have no idea where that thought came from. I'm getting better at loving your boyfriend. Whether or not that's what he is.

There's a street fair being set up right in front of my house. Rides, cotton candy, Kill The Clown, the whole bit. It's like there's a constant reverie going on outside my house. A gaudy flashing dream that only stops when I go to sleep. I pull out of my parking space straight into a traffic jam. Inch along, look around. I had no idea where I lived.

This city is a mess. City, teeth.


You leave and return so easily. I admire the cadence of it. I want to go out more but a nation's army needs me to wash 50,000 blood-splattered uniforms first. In the river, on a rock.

The Vortex mocks.

I'm bored alone and bored with my social options. Sometimes the weekend comes too soon. You don't get a chance to miss your friends.

I moved my bed into the bedroom. It seems healthier to be ready to accept visitors even if none are scheduled. Having the bed in the center of the living room was like sleeping on a moored skiff.

I get more accomplished with this new way of sleeping.

There is probably little to nothing in your library about my profession. Yet it is an old discipline. Invisible, omnipresent. Not so much a secret as too delicate to withstand common scrutiny.

The other night I had to endure Mina Bunn. She kept telling me what I need. She teased me about the Vortex life. She's so self-centered, her criticisms of other people are only criticisms of herself. If she goes out and doesn't see you, she thinks you must not be going out. Still we let her come around, and I've been trying to figure out why. She's pretty. That's part of it. And she always has something to say.


But enough about me. What about you. You've been iceberg-tipping-it lately. I need to know more about this man of yours. Baron Von Pirate Pants.

And I hope each morning you wake like a bird in a nest and fly without a thought.