Please welcome Ellyn Oaksmith to LGBTQReads today to discuss her new book, Chasing Nirvana (which happens to center my favorite band of all time) and depression. (TW: suicide mentions.)
A girl, a band, a dream.
Fran Worthy is just another girl trying to make it through senior year in Aberdeen, Washington. But it’s 1993 and Fran is gay. Her comfortably off the radar life turns vividly public when a student nominates Fran for prom queen. When confronted by angry parents, Fran refuses to back down, promising to deliver her hometown heroes in hopes of winning prom queen votes.
Fran heads out on a 24-hour road trip to Daly City California with four friends, including her crush, who may or may not be gay. Their plan? To sneak backstage and ask Kurt Cobain and Nirvana to come home and play prom.
No problem, unless something goes wrong.
Deep into the writing of Chasing Nirvana, a book about a young gay girl who tries to get Nirvana to play at her prom, my more than slightly puzzled mom asked me a question. How I could write about a gay girl from the poverty stricken flats of Aberdeen, Washington? A girl who is bullied, despised and harassed for being gay. Unlike Fran Worthy, my main character, I come from a loving, tight knit family that is very progressive. My 80-year-old parents march in protests and have socialized for decades with openly gay friends. Perhaps the underlying questions was how could I, a woman given abundant love and support all my life, channel the inner emotional life of someone given so little?
At the time I brushed off the question. “I’m a writer, it’s what I do. I live other lives.” And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered. What was driving me to write this story? What was the shared emotional core? In the first draft the story was told entirely from the main character’s point of view. The problem was that for much of the story, she’s concussed, which made the story too bleak. Fran’s concussion made her feel isolated, confused, tired and overwrought. That’s when it hit me. I had unwittingly written about my own struggles with depression. Sure, it’s deeply buried in a fast moving plot with a road trip quest to meet Nirvana but the more I thought about it, the more I uncovered my own links to my main character and her savior: Kurt Cobain.
On the surface the comparison is laughable: a suburban mother of two comparing herself to the rock god Kurt Cobain. (Insert eye rolls from my two teens.) But everyone consists of layers of all the different lives we’ve led. At one point I was a screenwriter in Hollywood. I’d visit studios, pitching stories to neurotic, narcissistic, over-privileged producers and their sycophantic assistants, struggling through the entire ordeal under the shadow of depression. Writing stories is what kept me sane. If I could create, I could live in an alternate world. A world with happily ever afters. Where people grow and learn from their adventures and mistakes. The imaginary world upon which I built my career didn’t include a sink hole of blackness that followed me like a monster, waiting to swallow me whole. What does a depressed person write? Comedies. Naturally.
Kurt Cobain was about 13 when he saw a body hanging from a tree outside the Aberdeen grade school. He and a classmate stared at the corpse for a half hour before school officials sent them packing. Several members of his family killed themselves and at 14, Cobain told a school friend that he would become a rich and famous rock star then kill himself in a blaze of glory like Jimi Hendrix. Neither kid realized that Hendrix’ death wasn’t suicide.
It’s hard to say when exactly Kurt became depressed. Aberdeen wasn’t an easy place for a sensitive young man fixated on art instead of sports or more manly pursuits. Kurt developed a taste for booze, finding a morbidly obese man to buy him and his friends malt liquor in exchange for pushing the man’s wheelchair to the store. In high school Kurt began writing songs that would become the basis for Nirvana’s first albums. Kurt channeled his anger, frustration, sadness and disillusionment into lyrics that were filled with longing, alienation and irony. My experience with depression and writing has been that writing, like depression, has a cyclical rhythm. When a great idea hits, life is a blast of high octane sunshine fueling manic energy and productivity. When the story (or song) is written, consumed by the public and the world moves on, it feels like the end of a passionate relationship. I want to wallow in sadness. Wear pajamas all day, eat ice cream, drink bourbon and eat potato chips for dinner. Kurt had far worse predilections.
Heroin isn’t a subject in my book. The Kurt I wanted to capture was funny, charming, quirky and quite possibly, in 1993, burnt out by fame. But not so badly that he couldn’t spend a few moments with a fan and recognize a fellow artist. Someone who, like him, was just trying to make it day by day by channeling the pain of living into something beautiful: creation. A song that’s never been sung. A book that’s never been written and in my main characters case: a photograph that captures a seminal moment in rock history.
Ellyn Oaksmith is the USA Today bestselling author of four books including the Kindle bestseller Chasing Nirvana. She lives in Seattle with her family. Luckily, she’s waterproof.