“If I Could Get By Without Sleep, I Would”: Tobias Carroll Discusses His New Novel, Ex-Members, with Ryan Sartor

When I think of the New York City literary scene, Tobias Carroll is right at the top of the list. He’s consistently championing writers, whether through his interviews at book launches around the city or as managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, a vital source for all things literary fiction and nonfiction. I also just always get a kick out of his daily Instagram posts where he drinks a cup of coffee and reads a book. What’s better than that?

Since 2016, Carroll has published a series of beautifully written books. His story collection Transitory was selected as one of Dennis Cooper’s favorite fiction books of 2016. Carroll’s debut novel Reel was named one of the best books of 2016 by Nylon. And 2020’s Political Sign was a finalist for the Big Other Book Award for Nonfiction. Tobias Carroll’s new novel Ex-Members is an expertly crafted book about two of the most underrated things in life: punk music and the state of New Jersey. It was great talking to him about the novel and his writing process.

Ryan Sartor: A friend of mine once said there are “page turners” and “page huggers.” Ex-Members is definitely both. I was wondering about how much time you spend on the individual sentence versus the story as a whole? Or is it all one in the same for you?

Tobias Carroll: First and foremost, thanks! I don’t think I’d ever thought of this book as particularly page-turner-esque, and I’m glad to hear that was your experience with it.

As for sentences versus story: It varies. Usually the last pass I’ll do of a thing—whether it’s a short story or a novel—involves reading it out loud to hear what the sentences sound like. (I believe I got this as a revision concept from reading an interview with Jonathan Lethem.) But I’m not necessarily sure that it’s the best way of going about it.

The thing that’s been rattling around in my brain a lot lately is a comment Alexander Chee made in an interview he did with Lincoln Michel, wherein he spoke about doing different revisions with a different thing in mind. Historically, I’ve tried to tackle everything at once, and I think I’m going to try a more focused approach for the novel I’m currently revising. Of course, that also means I’ve been stuck on the question of which revision is the first revision, and thus I haven’t begun the revision process there yet.

RS: There’s a beautiful section in the book where you write about Mallory Polis and Greil Reed’s first significant talk happening in a New Jersey diner. What’s your relationship to New Jersey diners? Any favorites you’d recommend to readers who find themselves in the area?

TC: My relationship with diners in general and New Jersey diners in particular is that I love them. Though my mind was somewhat blown during my college years when my friend Scott—who hails from a more northern point in the state than I do—took me to a diner in North Jersey and I realized that North Jersey diners also had bars. This was not usually a feature of the Central Jersey diners I grew up with, and I’m still a little unnerved when I see a massive liquor selection on one wall of a diner.

The diner that loomed the largest in my high school, college, and post-college years is, sadly, now defunct. That would be the Broadway Diner in Red Bank, New Jersey, and I spent a lot of time there after seeing various bands at the Bates Lodge, an Elks Lodge located elsewhere in Red Bank. I would often have a late-night veggie burger there, and I can still taste the bizarre blend of healthy (vegetables! All mixed together!) and not so much (fried! So, so fried!) that were a part of said meal.

The All Seasons Diner a few miles south of there in Eatontown also loomed pretty large in my process of growing up. The same is true of the Americana Diner in Shrewsbury, which I don’t think I’ve set foot in in close to twenty years.

Long Island City’s Court Square Diner is my go-to diner these days. Good eggs, good toast.

RS: This novel made me think of another great book related to music, Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street. Were there any particular books or authors you were in conversation with while writing this one?

TC: I’ve read (and loved) a lot of novels about music and musicians over the years, but I don’t think I’d say that this is specifically in dialogue with any of them. The two things it’s probably most in dialogue with are both works of mine. One of the reasons that this book was written this way, and is set over several decades, was because I wanted to do something very different than what I did in my novel Reel. There’s also a shelved book I have, called The “Polite Rebels” EP, of which the centerpiece is a long novella about a trio of friends growing up in a New Jersey town; one of them’s in a band, and finds unexpected success.

It would not be accurate to call this book a reworking of that earlier project, because they’re pretty different thematically and do very different things, but I knew that I wanted to return to writing about New Jersey and hardcore. Both are things that had a pretty substantial influence on me, and I’d tried and failed to write about them before. This book was, ultimately, about seeing if I could.

[My alternate answer for this: “No books or authors, but I do think this is in conversation with a whole lot of zines.”]

RS: One section of Ex-Members is a fictional oral history of the band at the center of the novel, The Alphanumeric Murders. What inspired you to write in that style? Do you have any favorite oral history books?

TC: I had the idea to write a fictional oral history pretty early in the process; I can remember talking with friends about it at least a decade ago. I can’t remember if I’d always intended for it to be a part of this project or if the idea of blending the two came up later in the process. Especially around the time when I was working on the early stages of this, the oral history as feature (and as book) felt pretty ubiquitous.

As for favorites? Two that comes to mind are Gimme Something Better by Jack Boulwar & Silke Tudor and Rob Tannenbaum’s I Want My MTV. Both felt like good uses of the format, both in terms of offering different angles on certain events and for giving access to a wide variety of people involved in or with the subject of the book.

RS: This is your fourth book published since 2016. How have you been able to keep up this high level of output?

TC: The funny thing is, I feel way behind right now relative to where I am. There’s a novel I’m working on revising right now, and I’d hoped to be a lot further along in that process by now. 2019 was a big year for me in terms of productivity; I figured out a lot of ways to balance freelancing and different creative projects, and got to go to a few residencies as well. And then the pandemic came along and fucked everything up. If I could get by without sleep, I would.

RS: You’re especially gifted at naming the various fake bands and fake album titles. I quite liked the album title Skeleton River. Did you have a separate process for coming up with all of those names or did they just come to you as you were writing the book?

TC: A couple of them were ideas that have been rattling around in my brain for ages. I have a lot of “if I was in a band, they’d be called …” thoughts. And sometimes I’ll just make something up. Die Monsignor Die was something I said in a text conversation with my friend Scott during the George W. Bush administration; for whatever reason, my brain saw fit to preserve it.

RS: Virgil Carey is such a great character. I love this introduction of him: “Virgil Carey was not in the best health of his life. Perhaps this walk would rejuvenate him, he thought. Perhaps it would bring him a sort of physical clarity.” I guess that’s not a question, I just wanted to point that out.

TC: Thank you! Virgil was a challenging character to write; he’s one of a few characters in my fiction where I’ve taken some life experiences, made a few things go differently, and doubled down on bad decisions. But he’s also the first primary character I’ve killed off on the page, and that felt weird.

RS: Are you a musician yourself? The Dean character especially felt very lived-in.

TC: I’m not! The last time I regularly played an instrument was in middle school, when I played the trumpet. I stopped doing so in high school because I had weird feelings about the marching band uniforms. (I later grew an accidental mullet in high school; I was in no place to be passing judgment, is all I’m saying.) I have a lot of musician friends and ran a zine in the late 90s. But I’m not sure if the world is ready for the great rock and roll zine novel.

RS: There’s a lot of humor throughout the book, like when Nelson Cort leaves the band to become a youth pastor. That seems to be a line drawn throughout the novel: You’re either in the band or you’re something else entirely. You’ve been fighting the good fight as a writer and member of the New York literary community for years. Have you seen artists come and go in this way?

TC: Definitely. I feel like I’ve seen it in any number of creative communities. And I get it! Whether you’re a writer, a musician, a visual artist, or something else, there’s a lot of putting yourself and your work out there for little to no reward, with no guarantee of a reward. I’m definitely aware of people who have taken a step back due to work or having a family or something else like that, and I completely understand that.

There are so many factors going into this, of which class and privilege are two of many. To an extent, it’s one of the reasons that Åsa in Ex-Members (spoiler) ends up spending time in the military—she’s not in a position where she can pursue college without going that route, as opposed to Dean.

That being said, I also have a hard time figuring out all things creative community-related these days. The pandemic feels like it’s upended a lot of the way things were, and I’m not really sure where any of this is going to end up.

RS: There’s a section about halfway through the book where you describe a concert in depth with such rich details when Will Morgan loses his glasses. It reminded me a lot of another early DeLillo book, End Zone, and the football game sequence. Was that sequence based on a specific concert?

TC: It’s a combination of a couple of things. I had a pair of glasses destroyed at The Narrator’s final show in New York City, with Oxford Collapse opening, and that moment was taken pretty directly from life. Curiously, after I wrote that scene, I read Matthew Specktor’s novel That Summertime Sound, which also features a character losing their glasses at a punk show. I suspect it’s a more common occurrence than I’d have previously thought.

I believe I was listening to a lot of Unwound (specifically, Leaves Turn Inside You) as I wrote that segment, and so their music was absolutely an influence there. Though I should also stress that I’ve never seen Unwound live, though I do have a poster on my office wall from a run of shows they did at Brownies in the early 2000s. Though apparently Unwound is getting back together, so hey! That’s cool.

Amusingly, none of the shows that I saw at Coney Island High were anything like the one in the book. Saw The Rentals there. Saw Superdrag once and the Descendents once and Mr. T Experience on my 23rd birthday. I think, with that show, I was purposefully channeling the kind of music I was missing out on seeing at that time in my life, if that makes sense.

RS: One particularly stark image in the book is that of an unfinished hotel. Did you write this novel during COVID or before? An unfinished hotel feels like such an apt metaphor for where we’re at as a society.

TC: This was written long before COVID, but I’m glad to hear that that image resonates in a different way in 2022! Honestly, that comes from growing up near Asbury Park. In the 90s, there were a number of half-completed buildings there, where work on a particular project had just come to an end for some reason. I worked a temp job in Asbury Park for part of a summer, and I had an hour for lunch. Sometimes I’d get fast food and park near one of the buildings and sit in my car and eat. It was a weird time in my life.

That image of a building just stuck in mid-construction stuck with me. It was one of a couple of real buildings that turned up in New Dutchess in Ex-Members. The church in there where Virgil goes to the concert is, more or less, the church I went to when I was growing up. There was a lot of mental copying and pasting for the geography of this fictional town.

RS: This is a small thing, but I loved the Hartford Whalers reference. I grew up in Connecticut, so the state having a major league sports team was such a big deal. I never went to a Whalers game though, which I guess says something.

TC: I also never went to a Whalers game when they were around, but my favorite hockey player when I was a kid—Pat Verbeek—was traded from the Devils to the Rangers, and for a while I had a Verbeek Whalers jersey.

Writing this book, I ended up writing in a lot of random things like that. I just finished John Langan’s collection Corpsemouth and Other Autobiographies, where he writes about using some details from his life in fiction that isn’t strictly autobiographical. This wasn’t quite a case of that, but every once in a while I’d add something that made me smile, in part because the narrative headed into some pretty grim territory. (This is also why there’s a Joe Brainard homage in the oral history section.)

RS: There’s a section toward the end of the book where Virgil tells his story through a series of tapes. It was such a gorgeous format I’d never seen in a novel before. What made you want to write that section that way?

TC: That was one of the last sections I wrote, and I think at that point the shape and structure of the book helped establish how I should write it. (And here I’ll say that what comes next is fairly spoilery, though it might not make any sense out of context.) I had the sense that Dean was going to work found audio into his composition, and once I’d figured that out, the idea that Virgil would be communicating to Dean via the tapes helped establish the way that part would be formatted.

(This part is also spoilery.) I also liked the idea that, as Virgil is coming up with his confession, he’s unsure if Dean is ever going to listen to the tapes, and he dies without ever knowing. But since Dean has incorporated those tapes into his work, it stands to reason that he did.

(I am no longer spoiling anything here.) Structurally, Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie and Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody were big influences on that section—and, to an extent, on the book as a whole. I was challenging myself to see if I could establish Dean as a character without getting into his head the way I got into most of the other characters’ heads. I was thinking, too, about Kim Cooper’s 33 ⅓ on Neutral Milk Hotel, where (if I remember correctly) Jeff Mangum didn’t take part in the interviews for it, and so the portrait that emerges of him is from the perspective of his bandmates. I really admired that approach.

RS: Being in a band seems like such a ready-made trigger for thinking back on youth in such a compact way. Did you find yourself grappling with your own youth while you were writing? (That’s not to say you’re not still young. I just mean where you were younger.)

TC: I don’t think I did when I was writing, but I’ve definitely been thinking about it a lot in the last few years. My protagonists are usually a little younger than I am, so at some point there’s probably going to be a reckoning with aging. Though on the other hand, I’m not totally sure. Ex-Members has a lot of characters who, while not being autobiographical, share some qualities with me. The novel that I finished after that and the novel I’m working on now both have protagonists who I feel a little more distance towards. But I also think that every novel I’ve written can be read as a record of where my brain has been during the time that I wrote it, even if that’s not apparent to anyone other than me. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Ryan Sartor works as a writers’ assistant in Los Angeles. He is the host of the often defunct Difficult to Name Reading Series. 

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