Because I’m still trying to figure out WTF happened to us. The truth is, an awful lot of us—even the most radical of “Boomers”—ended up being a whole lot like our parents. We couldn’t have imagined then how hard life would be, how you have to work every minute of every day, adjusting constantly along the way, if you still want to be the person you were dead-set on becoming when you were young. We couldn’t imagine how we’d come out on the other end wondering how in the world we turned out to be who we are.
More specifically, though, I’m still trying to figure out how my closest college friend’s passion for righting the wrongs she saw in our society led her to commit illegal acts that profoundly affected the course of her whole life.
These questions have no answers, of course. No question really worth asking does. Fiction is about asking those questions anyway.
So it’s a women’s book about the Sixties.
Well. It’s the story of a woman’s experience during that time and, probably, women will be the ones most likely to read it. Women also read and are enlightened by the countless books about the Sixties written by men, which are just called…“books.” This makes me a little crazy. But rather than rant, I’ll just say that I’ve had great feedback from the men who’ve read it, so far.
Does the book in any way reflect your own experience during the Sixties?
Jane is very much like I was as a girl; Tom, a lot like my husband, Steve, whom I met on the first day of my freshman year at Indiana University. Like Tom, Steve was a Sigma Chi. I fell into fraternity life with him. We…danced. By the fall of 1967, when the “real” sixties were just cranking up in the Midwest, we were married, with a new baby, living in an off-campus apartment, working to get through school, and trying to make ends meet.
I woke up slowly to the truth about the war in Vietnam. But even after I understood what was really happening there, I felt disconnected from the antiwar movement itself. I wanted peace, but I also still wanted what I had wanted when I made up my mind I wouldn’t live the way my parents did: a college degree, a family, a nice house, clothes—lots of them, a reliable car. So many people I knew who got involved in the antiwar movement were kids from well-to-do families, for whom everything I wanted would have been given to them—if they had wanted it. And would be given to them, later, if and when they got tired of protesting and decided they wanted a nice, comfortable life, after all. I couldn’t relate.
But what if my life had taken a different course? It seems impossible now, but it interested me to let Jane veer off of our shared path and see what might happen to her.
The title, An American Tune, is the title of a Paul Simon song. The chapters are named with song titles. What’s that about?
I love that song. I love the idea that a country could be a kind of tune. The epigraph of the book comes from it: We come on a ship we call the Mayflower/We come on a ship that sailed the moon/We come at the age’s most uncertain hour/And sing the American tune.” I wanted to write “an” American tune, to explore the Sixties and their aftermath by way of one person whose life was shaped by them in a particular kind of way.
About the chapter titles: You can’t write a book about the Sixties music in it, but I wanted the songs to do more than just play on the page. I wanted them to time-travel readers to vivid moments in their lives in which those songs were playing on the radio or the stereo, moments that create the strange slippage of time that occurs when, suddenly, you’re the person you were, listening to a song, rattled by the wash of joy or longing or ancient sense of possibility it brings. When it works right in a novel, the memories that float up complicate and deepen the effect in ways that the author could never predict or hope to understand.
For me, now, hearing one of the songs on the playlist creates a schizophrenic effect. I’m my young self, fully alive in that other time; I’m also Nora/Jane, wherever the song is playing in her fictional life.
Nora’s life unravels between the run-up to the Iraq War and “Mission Accomplished.” Does that make it a political novel?
The aftermath of 9/11 was an ugly time, ripe to be taken advantage of by those with political agendas, but so few Americans seemed able to see how the Bush Administration was using it to suck them into backing a war in Iraq, which was clearly going to be as stupid, immoral, and unwinnable as the war in Vietnam had been. I was in a state of rage myself as events unfolded, especially at people my own age who simply refused to see the parallels. Once, during that time, I sat in an airport, overcome with grief, watching a kid in uniform say goodbye to his family.
The book doesn’t have a political agenda, though. A major thread in it is the terrible power that secrets have, both on those who keep them and on those from whom they’re kept. The secrets and lies of Vietnam are still playing out in our government and in the personal lives of those who were affected by them. Nora’s own secrets and lies might have bubbled to the surface at any point in the aftermath of 9/11, the disorientation they brought deepened when her daughter left for college; she might even have reconnected with her lover, Tom. But setting the action in this particular time frame brought both sets of secrets and lies to bear at once, heightening her struggle. Also, it gave me a way to process my own rage and grief, to make use of it.
Barbara Shoup is the author seven novels, including Night Watch, Wish You Were Here, Stranded in Harmony, Faithful Women, Vermeer’s Daughter, Everything You Want, and An American Tune, and the co-author of Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process and Story Matters. Her short fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous small magazines, as well as in The Writer and The New York Times Travel Section. Her young adult novels, Wish You Were Here and Stranded in Harmony were selected as American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults. Vermeer’s Daughter was a School Library Journal Best Adult Book for Young Adults. She is the recipient of numerous grants from the Indiana Arts Council, two creative renewal grants from the Arts Council of Indianapolis, the 2006 PEN Phyllis Reynolds Naylor Working Writer Fellowship, and the 2012 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Regional Indiana Author Award. She was the writer-in-residence at Broad Ripple High School Center for the Humanities and the Performing arts for twenty years. Currently, she is the executive director of the Indiana Writers Center, an associate faculty member at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, and an associate editor with OV Books.