In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how they inform the author’s literary identity!
It’s so weird for me to think of myself as a writer. It’s not because I suffer from imposter’s syndrome or balk at the term “writer”—it’s because, for much longer than I’ve been a writer, I’ve been a musician.
I’ve been a late bloomer at just about everything in life. I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was thirty, whereas most of the writers I know began in their twenties or earlier. By the same token, I didn’t start playing music in earnest until I was in my twenties, whereas most of the musicians I know began in their teens or earlier. I got into the punk scene in the late ’80s while in high school, and it took me a couple years before one of the basic tenets of punk really hit me: Anyone can do this. So I bought a cheap pawn-shop guitar, stubbornly waved away any offers of instruction, and started bending my fingers into whatever shapes made cool sounds.
I practiced every day, as the cliché goes, until my fingers bled. I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t care. The feeling of strumming strings and having that vibration travel through my body and into the air… I could have played one chord over and over for an hour and I would’ve been happy. In fact, I think I did exactly that a few times while teaching myself guitar.
Eventually I was able to piece together enough chords to sketch out the skeleton of a song. So I asked a friend to play guitar with me, in the hopes we might start a band. It was a disaster—my friend actually knew how to play the guitar, and when he said things like “Play an A chord” or “You’re out of tune,” I had absolutely no idea what to do. Once I broke a string while we were playing together, and I embarrassingly had to ask him to change it. Autodidacticism isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
The perfect solution soon presented itself: What if I switched to bass? No chords to worry about! Just one note on one string at a time! As soon as I did that, everything clicked, and within a couple months, I was onstage with my first punk band, jumping around and bashing at my bass like it had just called my mom a dirty word.
My band played punk in the mid-to-late-’90s, when punk became hugely popular. We recorded some records and opened for many of the legendary bands of the era: Rancid, Jawbreaker, Jimmy Eat World, the list goes on and on. We never got popular ourselves, but we had a great time—and along the way, I kept playing guitar on the side and actually started getting pretty decent at it.
When my band broke up in 1997, I immediately started another one, this time as a guitarist instead of a bassist. Rather than punk, we played a mix of emo and shoegaze—slower, more textured, more melodic. I really grew in leaps and bounds as a musician. From there, I dabbled in all kinds of bands, from Neil Young-style country rock to power-pop to experimental noise. There was still a trace of punk attitude and ethos in everything I did, and I always wound up playing with veterans of the punk scene like myself. I went on tour numerous times, made some more records, and truly felt like being a musician was my calling in life. The fact that I never made a dime as a musician and had to work retail jobs or in warehouses to get by never phased me.
That changed when I hit thirty. Being in bands had started to wear on me. Not just the lifestyle, although that was challenging in and of itself. Creatively, I was having a hard time constantly compromising, seeking middle ground, and having to navigate three other people’s tastes, desires, goals, and schedules. I loved the collective creativity of being in a band, but I wanted to try expressing myself in a way that was more personal, more of a direct connection between my brain and the brain of someone else.
So I fell into writing. I’d always liked writing, and I’d dabbled in it from time to time, mostly for punk zines. But now that I was in my thirties, I thought I’d see if I could make some semblance of a career out of it.
Miraculously, I did exactly that. It was tough. I was knocked on my ass again and again, even as I made progress here and there. And as I began writing for more and more national publications, and even got a novel published, the people who knew me thought of me as a writer. Which threw me for a loop—I never stopped playing in bands, so I always thought of myself first and foremost as a musician. Still, my band activities gradually receded, and I became more of a weekend warrior, doing it just to hang out with friends and blow off steam.
Something hit me recently, though: a burning urge to get back out on the road, and to record, and do a serious band again. Part of that came from working on my new book, Strange Stars. It’s a nonfiction book about science fiction’s influence on the music of the ’70s, from David Bowie to Parliament to Kraftwerk. As I researched and recounted the stories of so many musicians I idolized, my love of making music surged back like a tidal wave.
Against all common sense, I gathered a new band together and concocted an ambitious plan: to get signed to a real record label, something I’d never managed to do with any of my earlier bands. Granted, I’d never tried that hard. But being a professional writer for over a decade had given me a new perspective on having ambition. I learned a lot of valuable life lessons from punk, but making a living from my art wasn’t one of them. But the confidence and concentration I’d developed as a writer made a huge difference. A little bit of discipline can go a long way, and within a year of forming my new band Weathered Statues, we’d recorded an album I was really proud of—and we’d gotten signed to a real record label. On top of all that, we got one of my musical heroes, Lol Tolhurst of The Cure, to remix a song for us.
Weathered Statues’ debut album, Borderlands, is being released in May of this year, and Strange Stars is being published in June. Now I’m faced with this incredible prospect I never would have imagined when I was younger: I’m doing a band tour AND a book tour this year. In fact, in October, I’ll be touring Europe with Weathered Statues, and immediately after our last show in Amsterdam, I’ll fly to London to start a Strange Stars book tour of the UK.
Ask me in 2018 if I consider myself primarily a writer or a musician, and I’ll probably hesitate. It’s fine to be both, naturally, and I’m far from the only creative person who works in more than one medium; it’s probably more common than not. But usually, one pursuit grows to overshadow the other and become the main thing you’re known for, or at least the main thing you identify yourself by. I guess I’ll just count myself ridiculously lucky that I’m having this particular identity crisis.
Writing books is isolated and solitary; playing music is public and cooperative. Rather then detracting from each other, they balance each other. If I wind up maintaining this kind of equilibrium for at least a little while longer, I won’t complain. And who knows? Maybe I’ll write a science fiction concept album next and finally get all my creative pursuits on the same page.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, The Atlantic, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, and others. His latest book is Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. Jason currently plays in the internationally touring post-punk band Weathered Statues and is a resident DJ at various events including 45s Against 45: An Anti-Trump Dance Party. He lives in Denver.