When I first saw the cover for Jason’s book, Strange Stars, it stopped me in my tracks. Then, upon closer inspection, I realised it was a book about music *and* science fiction. To which I then said aloud: SOLD! After all, these are two of my favourite things in life. I bought a copy in hardback, and when I was thinking about who I could interview next on my blog, Jason instantly came to mind. If nothing else, I knew for a fact all my musician friends would love his book. Thankfully, he agreed! So let’s get started shall we? But first, a quick introduction:
Jason Heller is the author of STRANGE STARS, a book about sci-fi’s influence on ’70s music (David Bowie, P-Funk, Hawkwind, Rush, Kraftwerk, Devo, and everything in between). Jason is also the author of the alternate history novel TAFT 2012 (Quirk), the Goosebumps book SLAPPY’S REVENGE (Scholastic), the Pirates of the Caribbean book THE CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW HANDBOOK (Quirk), and numerous short stories in magazines and anthologies. He also penned a chapter of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s THE TIME TRAVELER’S ALMANAC (Tor), and he’s written about pop culture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The A.V. Club, and many others. He’s also assembling a coffee-table book with Desirina Boskovich titled STARSHIPS & SORCERERS, which will be published by Abrams Books. In his spare time he plays guitar in the post-punk band WEATHERED STATUES and is a resident DJ at FUNK CLUB and MILE HIGH SOUL CLUB. He lives in Denver with his wife, Angie.
So, Jason, how did you come to be a writer? Was it always something you were interested in or did you fall into it?
I’ve always been interested in writing, but I didn’t start doing it seriously until I was 30. I spent my 20s playing in punk bands and working in a record store, which led to music journalism. Once I latched onto writing, I realized it suited my introverted nature pretty well, and I realized it was going to be my form of expression for the rest of my life.
What were your favourite books/films growing up? What kick-started your creativity as a child/teen?
I saw Star Wars in 1977 when I was 5, and it was the first movie I remember making a huge impact on me. Science fiction and fantasy became my favorite genres soon after, and soon I was drawing pictures of spaceships and building them out of Legos. As for books, Dune was my first favorite novel. I first read it when I was 10, and it opened my mind to just how expansive science fiction could be. But it was discovering punk rock during my teens that truly made me realize I could be creative, in any way that I wanted, on my own terms. Punk was, and is, incredibly liberating and inspiring to me.
Your new book ‘Strange Stars’ explores the relationship between science fiction and music – two of my favourite things! Can you tell us about it?
Strange Stars is the story of the musicians of the ‘70s who drew inspiration from science fiction. Foremost among them is David Bowie, which should come as no surprise to anyone. And of course, groups like Rush, Parliament, Kraftwerk, and Devo are included. But I tried to dig deeper as well, and the more I did, the more I realized that there were so many connections and joyful coincidences between these artists. I also trace the parallels between science-fiction music of the ‘70s and what was going on elsewhere that decade, including the space program, the UFO craze, futurism, and advances in technology both musical and non-musical.
What inspired you to write this particular book?
The first concert I ever saw as a kid was David Bowie, and he’s always been my hero. So mysterious and mythic. I began working on Strange Stars before David Bowie’s sudden death in 2016, and I think the inspiration came from having a proposal rejected for a book about Bowie’s 1972 science-fiction concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Which is my favorite Bowie album. I was so frustrated by that rejection, I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ll show you, world! I’ll write an entire book about science-fiction music, Ziggy Stardust included!” And strangely enough, that worked. When Bowie died, it made the project that much more special to me.
I see you’ve also written books for children/YA. How does writing a Goosebumps book compare with writing your adult alternate history novel, Taft 2012? Was one harder than the other?
Writing my Goosebumps book, Slappy’s Revenge, was very easy and fun. I got to write from Slappy’s point of view, and that perspective came very easily to me… Not sure what that says about me as a person, though! Writing Taft 2012 was much harder. It was a full novel, and although it was fictional, it required a lot of research. It imagines that the American president William Howard Taft returns to life in 2012 and is goaded into running for office again—the point being, he was actually a meek and reluctant president when he was in office a hundred years ago. Overall it’s a sweet and sentimental book with just breezy bits of political satire. It was only six years ago, but it seems like a lifetime. Now that we in America have an absolute monster in the White House, I’m sad to say the low-stakes lightheartedness of Taft 2012 is totally irrelevant!
You’ve worked a lot of different roles within the publishing industry: You’ve written a bunch of novels, you’re a Hugo Award-winning editor, a critic, and an essayist. Do you have a favourite of these, or do you enjoy each equally?
I would say writing essays is my favorite thing. I love the idea of zeroing in on a topic and exploring it in short form. I’ve also had a number of short stories published, and I adore writing that length of fiction. But at this point, I think book-writing is really starting to grow on me, especially nonfiction. The idea of diving so deeply into subjects that fascinate me has become more tantalizing than anything else.
If you could invite three rock stars (alive or dead) to dinner, who would they be and why?
First, I would love to have dinner with David Bowie, for sure, just because it would mean he was still alive. But also because his final album Blackstar is such a staggering achievement, and I would love to hear all about its creation, direct from the source. Second would be George Clinton. Not only do I love Parliament/Funkadelic’s music, I’m sure Clinton would have a thousand crazy stories to tell. Third would be Poly Styrene, the late singer of the ‘70s punk band X-Ray Spex. She incorporated futurism into punk rock in a way that no one else has ever done, and her visionary depiction of technology and consumerism blew my mind at a young age. Funny enough, all three of these people appear in Strange Stars, so if they showed up for dinner, I could give them all copies!
If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be? Do you have a secret passion that we don’t know about?
My not-so-secret passion is playing music. I still play in punk bands, and my current one is called Weathered Statues. We play dark post-punk, kind of like Joy Division or Siouxise and the Banshees, and our debut album Borderlands came out through Svart Records earlier this year. We’re touring Europe soon, so we’re pretty active in that regard! But at this point in my life, being in a band is still just a hobby rather than an occupation. As much as I love writing, it’s always a chore. I have to force myself to sit down, concentrate, and apply myself. Playing guitar, on the other hand, is as natural and easy as walking down the street for me.
What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had told you when starting your writing career? What do you know now, that you wished you knew then?
I wish my younger self had known that sending angry or frustrated emails is not a good way to achieve your desired goals as a professional! I’ve mellowed out a lot since then. Much more diplomatic now. As it turns out, the things I learned in the punk scene don’t always apply well outside the punk scene, haha.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on a couple of books right now. One’s another nonfiction book about the history of music, and the other is an urban fantasy novel that takes place in the ‘90s. It’s too early to spill any more beans about them, but I’m excited for both, and I can’t wait to finish them and show them to the world. In the immediate future, though, I co-edited a fiction anthology with Selena Chambers called Mechanical Animals, and it’s being released in November by Hex Publishers. It’s a collection of short stories—science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the unclassifiable—that involve mechanical animals in some way. And of course, the title is a nod to the Marilyn Manson album of the same name. I just can’t get away from music.
Thanks for your time, Jason!
Readers, would you like to know more about Jason? Here’s how you can:
Want to get your hands on Strange Stars? You can buy it here.