How I Came to Write Dark Slivers

Posted: November 10, 2012 in Dark Slivers: Seeing Nirvana in the Shards of Incesticide

The publishers of the book series 33 1/3 requested proposals for new, 25-35,000 word, volumes in their collection of album guides. For no reason I can discern I was seized by enthusiasm and went for it. There was no process of weeding out before I chose Incesticide; it popped into my head and it felt right. I justified it because (a) it’s barely discussed and has always been under-appreciated (b) the three studio albums are deeply covered and (c) the coincidence of the anniversary coming up on December 15, 2012 felt worth marking regardless of what Universal were doing. The first draft chapter submitted, and since revised, stated “Bleach’s anniversary was marked with a Sub Pop special edition; Nevermind’s saw several deluxe reissues; for Incesticide…So far nothing.” A liking for waifs and strays meant it appealed to me.

The year since has disappeared in an avalanche of notes, scrawled ideas on paper scraps at the gym, emails sent from work to home and back again, plus the main manuscript in the middle. My average day became six hours sleep, twelve hours at work or commuting, then six remaining hours (plus whatever was stolen from my sleep hours) for writing and the rest of life.

I was one of 473 proposals for 33 1/3 so didn’t get through. Their feedback helped drive me on; the factors were that I was up against people with years of music experience and also they couldn’t imagine publishing a second Nirvana study if it wasn’t on Nevermind. Very reasonable! By this time I’d pushed beyond the initial remit and knew my destination. The book is a bit of a hybrid; there are four chapters exclusively on Incesticide while the others weave the album into wider analysis showing how illuminating Incesticide is and how integral its songs are to Nirvana.

Eventually I’d moved far enough along, sought out and, by some miracle, secured a literary agent willing to support the book — she said she liked my writing style and that I seemed to know my subject incredibly well. Alas, times are hard for publishing and music publishing in particular is suffering. Ten rejections later all focused on (a) too much competition and/or (b) not general enough to appeal to an audience beyond Nirvana fans, we were done…

…NO. Approval from a publisher would have felt nice but frankly, by this point, I was working day in, day out on what is, at finish, a 15 chapter, 72,000 word study of 230 pages. I felt the book had things that might be of interest to lovers of Nirvana; to people like me. Again, good luck intervened and I located a small publishing imprint.

As a Nirvana fan, treating the topic, the people and the people who might read it (i.e., fans just like me) with scrupulous respect was crucially important. I didn’t even use a photo of Kurt Cobain on the cover because I felt it would be taking advantage of him (fanatical I know…) I have a shelf full of Nirvana books (27 at last count) and while some are great I’ve genuinely felt ripped off by a number of them — I knew what I wanted to avoid creating. As a fan first and a writer second I constantly tried to make sure I was creating something I might enjoy.

In terms of my style, my feeling was that the basic storyline had been rehashed many times over and that I didn’t want to just create another chronological biography stringing together anecdotes. I interviewed a small number of people on a specific number of questions and used them sparingly and as appropriate. My core focus was on using the music itself, backed up and supported by my bootleg collection, by online sources and YouTube to create a book where others could go and look up the evidence themselves if they wished.

My writing is definitely a result of my working career allied to my academic work (I have two degrees in history from Cambridge University and I work at a technology analysis firm.) What I created was a series of argumentative essays, analyzing and interpreting specific themes or topics. It does make for a harder read, but I hope a convincing one. I felt throughout that there were lots of works describing ‘what’ happened in Nirvana’s career but very little space dedicated to wondering about ‘why’, or ‘how’, or what significance the events held.

In a few days, the creative artwork and design will be concluded, the book will be in the hands of the printers. It’s the only book I have any intention of writing about Nirvana; I’ve said everything I have to say and my reasons for writing this book have never had anything to do with starting a music writing career; I don’t want to turn something I love into something I do purely to get paid and live, that would rob me of the pleasure I’ve had in creating this work.

My remaining thoughts, leftovers from the book, responses to news, ideas I never got to develop — I’ll put it all out on the blog, I genuinely just hope you enjoy reading it. If any of it means you feel motivated enough to see what I’ve written in the book then I’m certainly delighted — I loved writing it and if others like what I’m doing enough to want to read it then that’ll feel fantastic.

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