by Clea Simon
Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of Hold Me Down, and a link to purchase it from Amazon.
My new book, Hold Me Down, is set in the rock music world. My protagonist Gal is an older woman who, decades before, was a rock star for a brief and shining moment. She was also a heavy drinker and a little bit crazy for reasons that I hope are made apparent in the course of the story. When we meet her, she’s back in town – Boston, my home base – to play a memorial for her drummer and best friend, Aimee, who has died of natural causes, having led a very different life than Gal did since leaving the band. At the memorial, Gal sees someone who ends up dead. That murder is what sets up what is, after all, crime fiction, but in retrospect, it is never really the center of the story.
The music world, “clubland” as I think of it, was also the setting for my 2017 psychological suspense World Enough, and, for me, it encompasses a whole of range of places: the bars and basement clubs, the stinky practice rooms and decaying burlesque theaters that have been repurposed for bands. The radio stations and record stores and even the tour buses of what we used to call “major label” bands, like Gal’s.
Part of the reason I set Hold Me Down in this world, in clubland, is obvious; Rock and roll is fun, to me at least. I started my writing career as a music critic, and, before that, I played in bands. I was one of those people for whom a certain set of clubs served as a “third place,” not my home or work. As the years have gone by, I’ve done that less and less. But music, live music, has remained important to me.
There are stories that draw us and settings that feel right to us, choices that we make unconsciously, before we even start to write, and often these are integrated in ways that we might not understand at first. The rock world was right in that way for this book.
You see, rock and roll has a thing about authenticity; the history of this, from Bob Dylan up through the Shags is a whole other topic. But basically, in rock, especially punk with its DIY ethos, the artist as songwriter is revered. At its heart, rock is not simply supposed to be entertainment. It is supposed to be about baring your soul—to a beat, of course.
The mystery at the center of Hold Me Down is a murder; that’s what we crime fiction writers do, and, even more to the point, I like to think that this crime is ultimately revealed to be an essential part of Gal’s story. But there’s also a more personal mystery in the book as well.
You see, when we first meet Gal, she’s no longer touring. She’s barely playing. But she’s still a star at heart, swaggering and cocksure of her ability to hold the audience, to summon the “wild, wet need of their eyes,” as she sees it.
But as my protagonist sifts through her memories trying to understand what happened, and why, we flash back to the shy young songwriter Gal once was, and the comparison reveals that, although the present-day Gal appears confident, she’s blocked as a writer. The insecure young Gal pulled great songs out of herself, including the title tune, “Hold Me Down.” The older one “knows the tricks that turn a pop progression into an earworm.” But she’s not writing anything good, anything real or authentic.
Which means that along with the murder is the mystery of how that insecure but talented girl transformed into this older woman who’s faced with a dead body and a friend who doesn’t want to defend himself from murder charges. Who is desperately trying to figure out what to do to save her friend, but who is also struggling other ways, unable to write as she did in her glory days. Maybe unable to move on.
It wasn’t until I was well into several drafts that I realized my setting – this world I love – would not only let me explore this character and her issues, it gave me the means to show the full range of her struggles to the reader. Gal’s work, her love, is her music, and that was a gold mine for me. Because I not only had current and former Gal’s voice, her actions, and her memories, I had the songs she wrote, each of which is a product of who Gal was at the time she composed them. And the songs aren’t static. They’re not time capsules. Once these songs are out there, they take on a life of their own as creative works will do. People play them, they respond to them. They hear what they want to hear.
Even Gal reacts to her own songs in different ways at different times. When Gal is in her early anxious stage, for example, she is a careful composer, consciously adding a bridge to a song that she worries may be too simple. Later, when she is in a less controlling (or in-control) phase, she dismisses that bridge, breezing over it as a bit of pretentious fussiness. Having this external bit of Gal gave me an opportunity to illustrate not only Gal’s changing state of mind over time, but also her changing take on her own work and, by extension, who she was only a year or so before.
Because just as Gal is trying to understand the murder of her colleague, she is also struggling with who she is in the present day. With her art as she attempts to write a real song – another “Hold Me Down” that will ring with authenticity, once again. Authenticity, which we can also read as truth.
As we all know, truth is the usually the payoff in crime fiction. The whodunit or the why-done-it of a mystery, for sure. But it’s also the key to our characters. Beyond the simple motives of money or lust, their truth is what makes them live, the reason they become real for us.
And, of course, a big part of Gal’s truth – my truth – is mixed in with the music world and with all those memories, as well. In particular, the way in which nostalgia or love, pain or fear can warp our recollection of the past; a past encapsulated in Gal’s songs, in all our earlier work, in my own experience with this dark and insular world.
Ultimately, writing about this world brought all these elements together for me. It let me explore once again the many ways in which humans love and damage each other, how they move on – or don’t. I only hope it sings.
To enter to win either an ebook or print copy of Hold Me Down (winner’s choice), simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “hold,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen October 30, 2021. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address if you want a print copy in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS. BE SURE TO STATE IF YOU WANT EBOOK OR PRINT.
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