5 Questions with The Crash Palace author Andrew Wedderburn

Okotoks-based author and musician Andrew Wedderburn has just released his sophomore novel The Crash Palace (Coach House Books, 272 pg.) to great reviews.

To celebrate, the longtime, Calgary indie-rock figure answered 5 Questions about the novel to theSCENE, blending in a little of his musical background.

Q: What’s the elevator (masks on, of course) pitch for The Crash Palace?

A: Audrey Cole, a single mother from Calgary, runs away from her life for a night. She takes a car (it isn’t hers) and heads out of town after dark while her daughter Shelly is asleep.

When she was younger – before Shelly was born – Audrey was always driving. As a teenager she bought and sold $50 cars, driving them into the ground and then finding replacements in the Bargain Finder. After graduating high school, she took a job as an oilfield crew driver outside Fort McMurray. She started driving for The Lever Men, a washed-up rock and roll band, shuttling their broken-down old van from one empty bar to another across B.C. and Alberta. That’s how she ended up at The Crash Palace – a secret party spot in an old building hidden away in the wilderness northwest of Rocky Mountain House.

And that’s where she drives, late that night, just for one night, just to see it one more time. She’ll be back by morning, she tells herself.

Q: What was the initial inspiration for the story?

A: After The Milk Chicken Bomb was published I struggled with a lot of second-novel paralysis. I had a lot of pages and notes full of half-baked ideas that were not coming together into any kind of interesting stories no matter how much I poked at them. 

Then I wrote a couple of things that took root. First, a couple of pages about a teenage girl who was into buying and selling beat-up old cars with her allowance money. My friend Aaron Booth had once told me a bunch of stories about being a teenager and buying old wrecks to go rally-driving in, and that had been swirling around somewhere inside my head. Right away Audrey had a narrative energy to her that made me want to learn more about her. She dictated her own pace and tone in a way that made her really exciting to write.

Second, I had this image of an old six-storey brick building on the side of a lake in the middle or nowhere. And after a while I thought: what if Audrey goes there? Why? What’s she looking for? And that line of questions became the novel.

Q: At what point did you know it was a novel and not a song?

A: My songwriting and fiction writing are pretty distinct parts of my brain and pretty different practices. Lyrics for me are never narrative in the way that fiction is: I spent too many of my formative years trying to emulate abstract songwriters like Kristin Hersh. I will never be a Bruce Springsteen-style songwriter who can create character-driven narratives with dynamic growth and emotional catharsis, all within three verses and a bridge, no matter how much I might want to try. When I do think in terms of narrative, it’s always the fiction brain, and I need about 5,000 to 70,000 words. No one wants a 5,000-word song.

The flip side of that, is it took a while to figure out what kind of novel it needed to be. To use and stretch a music metaphor, Audrey the character and her early scenes were like a particular style of tune. Once I realized I wanted to write a whole set of those tunes, I had to spend a lot of time putting the right band together – the tone and pace, the rhythm and delivery so that I could sustain it over the course of a novel.

Q: On a scale from 1-5: How rock and roll is it?

A: It’s pretty rock and roll? In a boots-on-the-ground, loading gear out of the van and up and down stairs into an empty bar in Revelstoke on a Tuesday night kind of way. Audrey’s adventure with The Lever Men is just one part of the novel but it plays a pretty significant part in the action and her own internal conflict, and obviously I’ve got that world to draw on as a writer and it was a ton of fun to re-create some of those details. I said to my past and present band-mates “None of you are in this novel, but you will recognize some of the bars that the band plays.” The Lever Men are an aging country-surf-rock-and-roll group made up of old punk-rockers in their forties and fifties. The Crash Palace itself is an amalgam of a certain kind of out-of-the-way, vaguely-illegal, semi-magical music venues existing on the periphery of the daytime real world. There are some Calgary rock-and-roll Easter eggs tucked away in there, on posters and T-shirts. 

Let me take away that hesitant question mark that I led with – it’s pretty rock and roll, probably a solid five out of five.

Q: What’s the perfect album, yours or another artist’s, to listen to while reading The Crash Palace?

A: I actually made a set of Spotify playlists for each of the major characters, for the Coach House folks while we were in the editing stages, to help establish the feel. Audrey is all instrumental surf music, which she has loved since discovering the Dick Dale cassettes in the glove box of her dad’s truck while learning to drive. Rodney Levermann, the Lever Men frontman, is classic country and country punk. The Skinny Cowboy, who is a mysterious, menacing figure from Audrey’s past, is ’70s Stones and heroin biker-rock. Alex Main, the owner of The Crash Palace, is night-club dance music. I put together a unified playlist for an American music blog called Large Hearted Boy that boiled it down to about 20 tunes, which goes from Me and Paul by Willie Nelson to Tired of Waking Up Tired by The Diodes to Loaded by Primal Scream.

But the perfect single record is your favourite Link Wray greatest hits collection: anything with Rumble, Rawhide and Jack the Ripper on it.

The Crash Palace is available now at Calgary booksellers Shelf Life, Pages and Owl’s Nest.

Andrew Wedderburn is a writer and musician from Okotoks, Alberta … His debut novel, The Milk Chicken Bomb, was published by Coach House Books in 2007 (and in) 2008 it was a finalist for the Amazon / Books in Canada First Novel Award, and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. As a musician and songwriter Wedderburn has written, recorded and toured extensively in the groups Hot Little Rocket and Night Committee, releasing seven full-length albums over the last two decades. (He) currently resides in Okotoks, AB.