As we may have mentioned, next week we are kicking off the first in what we hope will be a long line of events in the Baby Got Books Reading Series. Our first guest is Rob Sheffield who will be reading from his excellent book Love is a Mix Tape on Wednesday, January 23, at Wordsmiths Books in Decatur (details). Mr. Sheffield graciously agreed to subject himself to a few questions about the book.
Baby Got Books: In the book, you describe yourself as someone who comes across as introverted and fairly reserved. How did you arrive at the decision to begin writing what is an intensely personal story of pain and loss? How much time went by before you started to write the book? How long did it take to get it all down?
Rob Sheffield: Yeah, I guess I was always shy, the “Shy Boy” that Bananarama sang about. When I was in my early 20s, all I wanted from life was to hide out with my records and my fanzines and my books and let the world pass me by. I used to think that was the best I could hope for, but it turned out I was wrong, although I guess I can always go back to being a hermit boy when I’m old and grey if I want. But it took five years before I could start the book, really. There were some false starts in there, but I’m glad I waited until I was ready. I started it in 2002 when I was moving into my new apartment in Brooklyn (which isn’t so new anymore, I guess, but I still love it) and I finally had shelves big enough to hold all my tapes. So I stopped putting them in those rickety Elfa shelves, and put them up in the china cabinet where I could admire them, and took others out of boxes where they’d been cooped up, and slapping them into the boombox, and every tape kept telling me, Play me—I have a story to tell. They brought those moments alive so vividly, I knew I had to write about the tapes, and the book just kind of spilled out of that, for about two years. Somehow writing about the tapes made me feel brave enough to start telling the whole story.
BGB: In the book, your description of Renee’s death and the aftermath is very powerful, because it is written in a way that feels very raw and immediate. Was it difficult to stop yourself (or others) from editing out the rough edges and gritty emotion?
Rob Sheffield: One of the reasons I’m glad I waited till I was ready is that I wouldn’t chicken out of writing about the really bad times. I knew my editor, Carrie Thornton at Three Rivers Press, and I knew she wouldn’t let me chicken out either. I was surprised (more than I should have been, because my friends warned me) how tough it was to write about them, to admit that I was in trouble, even a few years after the fact.
BGB: In retrospect, are there things that you wish that you had not included in the book?
Rob Sheffield: The only thing I regret including is that one of the tapes had a song by G Love and Special Sauce. I really should have left that one out. “My Baby’s Got Sauce,” ugh and ugh again. But I figured, once I start leaving embarrassing songs off the tapes, I’ll never stop, so I better just leave them alone.
BGB: Are there things that you wish you had included?
Rob Sheffield: There’s a lot I had to leave out—I felt like I could have gone on for a thousand pages without using up the story, so it was just a matter of where to draw the line. I wanted it to be short enough to read in a weekend, because there was so much sad stuff in the story it seemed too harsh to ask for more of people’s time than that. Yet I can’t BELIEVE I didn’t have a single tape with a Dusty Springfield song. Now that is a shame.
BGB: Were there any negative reactions from friends or family that were close to you and/or Renee for sharing your story as a couple in such a personal way?
Rob Sheffield: I was lucky to have the support of all our friends and family. I needed all I could get, really. It’s funny how since the book came out, I’ve been hearing a lot of other people’s favorite Renee stories they think SHOULD have been in the book. I guess she told her friends a lot more of our private business than I was telling them!
BGB: I recently attended a funeral for a friend. At a gathering afterward, a mix CD of some of his favorite songs was handed out, which turned out to be a fantastic idea and got everyone sharing stories. Why do you think that music is able to create such intense memories/bonds between those that share it?
Rob Sheffield: I’m sorry about your friend. It is amazing how deeply music connects to the memories of specific people in specific times and places. It’s funny, I was just up in Boston visiting my parents and we were sitting around the fire and my mom made me sing the old Irish song “Bold Thady Quill,” just like she does almost every time I’m there, because that song reminds her of my grandmother from County Kerry. No matter how old people are, or where they come from, the music they loved is something I remember, and that’s the key that puts me in touch with their spirit.
BGB: Your book and others, like Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, resonate with many of a certain age that spent too much time hand-crafting what one hoped would be the ultimate mix tape — one that would be remembered for the ages (or maybe I’m just projecting). The mix tape is now an historical artifact and even CD mixes may be on their way out. Do you think that recent technologies make “the mix” a lost art? Does dropping 30 songs into an iTunes Playlist carry the same emotional weight?
Rob Sheffield: Yeah, it’s definitely a lost art. You can make ten mix CDs for ten different girls in an hour. A mix tape, that proved you put at least ninety minutes into it. You picked out the catchy song at the start of Side Two, and the slow song at the end of Side Two, and the short songs to fill up the blank tape at the end of the side—it’s a complex calling. And they were finite—the other night I had dinner with a friend and we were listening to an ipod her boyfriend gave her with 800 songs loaded on it, and I thought, that’s an awful lot of songs to try and dazzle someone with at one time. Thing is, I just plain love mix CDs too, love how fast and easy they are. I guess there’s no sound-bearing media I don’t love. This summer I got pulled out of the security line at LaGuardia because I had a Walkman in my bag. The guy was like, “What the hell is this?” They asked, Why do you have an ipod AND a cassette player? I started to explain I just like listening to “Beggars Banquet” and “Let It Bleed” on tape better than on mp3—but fortunately they let me through.