A window into Rich Ferguson’s visceral and poetic debut coming-of-age novel, NEW JERSEY ME, plus excerpts of the audiobook with music and a Q&A with the author about his inspirations and literary L.A.
For the next half hour or so, Callie and I drove around our dumpy little town. Nowhere to be found were the stunning vistas I’d seen in those LA movies; where people would drive high into the late-night Hollywood hills and in less than a blink of an eye could witness a stunning view of downtown then, far across that jeweled and glittering city, behold starry-skied Santa Monica. In Blackwater everything was grim, flat, boxed in. Maybe it had been a different story in the eighteen hundreds when the town was founded. Dense groves of pines, crystal-clear creeks, lush farm lands. Back when I lived there, though, my little town was just strip malls, gun shops, radiation, and funeral homes.
Callie and I held our breath as we passed Satan’s Tree, rolled our eyes as we cruised by the high school, and shook our heads as we passed Piney shacks with concrete-reinforced bomb shelters dug deep into backyards, in preparation for the power plant’s eruption, or World War III. Had I been alone, or with Jimmy, I might’ve pounded a couple brews, smoked a fatty, or downed some cough medicine to make the ride more interesting. Not that night, though. I wanted to stay clean for Callie.
At one point, I noticed her good foot pressing into the floorboard. I motioned toward that foot. “Brake or gas?”
“Gas,” she said.
“You wanna go faster?”
“Yeah. Just a little.”
“No problemo,” I said. “But only a little.” I inched the car up to fifty. We sailed past Duffy’s Bar and the place I’d eventually come to love and hate—the Rainbow Casket Company.
We ended up out in the Dump. I killed the lights and engine, but left the radio playing low. Normally, I would’ve popped a tape into Mom’s cassette player, but I was so nervous about my date that I’d spaced on bringing any tunes.
About my tunes.
Ever since I was a kid, bombarded by K-Tel Records ads I’d seen on TV, I’d learned early on the power of rocking tunes. The right tune at the right time could totally make a date. Take a song like The Kinks’ “Give the People What They Want.” It got girls’ libidos moving faster than a Corvette engine flywheel. And another: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” It was great for wooing slinky stoner chicks. Aerosmith’s “Toys In the Attic” could tame the most rebellious, feather-haired rocker babes.
That night, however, all I had was WMMR, the Caddy, and the Dump to provide my Callie first-date soundtrack—Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” playing low, the ticking of the car’s cooling engine, cricket chirps, the burble of frogs, along with the whoops and hollers of distant partiers drifting in through the open windows.
For a moment, Callie just sat there, staring out the window and quietly humming a tuneless song. No way did it match the sweetness of her face. She motioned toward the sky, pointing out a snaky line of stars stretching across the night. “Know what constellation that is?”
In school I’d learned a few things about the heavens—like how there were eighty-eight constellations, and the sun was the only known star in our galaxy that wasn’t part of a constellation. But Callie’s constellation eluded me.
“Hydra,” she said. “It’s a weird one.”
I must’ve given her a completely clueless look because she proceeded to tell me the whole story. How Hydra was the largest constellation in the sky. A beast with the body of a hound and one hundred serpentine heads. Had poisonous breath and was so ugly that it caused people to die from seeing it. One of Hercules’s great tasks was to kill it. But when he began fighting it, he discovered that every time he cut off one of its heads, three grew back. Eventually, he had his charioteer, Iolus, burn the headless stumps, which prevented regeneration. The last head, however, was immortal, so after cutting it off, they trapped it under a rock.
Callie stopped there, shook her head. “Sorry. Sometimes I can talk a lot.” Then she turned in her seat to face me. “How’s school?
School was like always, math was Public Enemy Number One. But I excelled in classes like geography, world history, and French; classes that swept me far, far away from Blackwater. “It’s fine I guess.”
“What about Terry?” she asked. “I don’t see him bothering you anymore.”
“It’s taken care of,” I said.
“Good,” said Callie. “I hated how he’d hit you. Especially your face.”
After that, we stared at each other so intently it almost scared me how I felt like I was falling into her deep watery eyes. Drowning in Pale Jade Rivers Me. Never Want to Resurface Me. But then she looked away and my falling stopped.
Callie glanced down at her fake leg.
So did I. “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened?”
At first she didn’t respond.
“Look,” I said, “if you don’t wanna talk about it—” My words fell away. I didn’t know how to pick them up from there.
Callie helped me by saying: “It’s fine. I’ve spoken to so many people about it so many times.” She readjusted herself in her seat, then began. “I was with my mom. She was driving to the cleaners. She wanted to get there before it closed so she was in a hurry. Since then, she keeps telling me she never saw the stop sign. Said it was hidden behind a tree. But that’s crazy. We’d driven that road so many times. She should’ve known. Anyway, the last thing I remembered seeing was this car outta the corner of my eye. After that, the doctor telling my parents they’d have to amputate my leg because my femur had been shattered so badly.”
I didn’t know how to respond. My mom was reckless. But Callie’s situation was far worse. If I’d been telling that story, I would’ve been yelling my head off. She, however, spoke in little more than a whisper.
Callie let fly a nervous flutter of a laugh. It spilled from her mouth like a tiny bird. “It’s definitely been a big adjustment,” she said.
“Do you hate her for what happened?” I asked.
Callie got a look on her face like she’d been asked that question a million times, or had at least considered it that many times herself. “For a while,” she said, “no matter how many times my mom apologized I hated her. Now I don’t know what to think. Sometimes I try to forgive her and everything’s okay. Well, sort of. Then there are other times…” Her whispery voice trailed off like smoke, then began again. “All I know for sure is that my parents argue a lot and aren’t happy here anymore. Neither am I.” She stopped.
Sure, there was the radio and usual evening Dump sounds. Otherwise, the car had become so quiet I could hear my ears ring.
Callie leaned into me as if she’d been blown there by an invisible wind. “You can touch it if you like,” she said. “My leg.”
Excerpted from NEW JERSEY ME by Rich Ferguson, Rare Bird Books / Barnacle Books, 2016.
LISTEN to Rich Ferguson read from audiobook excerpts of NEW JERSEY ME, with music by Tyson Cornell, Butch Norton, Josh Haden, Cameron Stone and Andrew Bush:
AFLW: You’re from the Jersey shore. How much of NEW JERSEY ME was stoked by your own coming of age? Did you go back to your hometown to write the novel, or was it written from memory? From imagination?
RICH FERGUSON: NEW JERSEY ME was created from both imagination and real life. Each character was created from a combination of various personalities. Jimmy, for example, was a hybrid of four old friends. Terry was the embodiment of pretty much every guy in my old town that wanted to kick my ass. And there were quite a few through the years. One of the most exact translations between novel and real life was the nuclear power plant (which is really its own character in the novel). When I lived in Forked River, I could see the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant from my bedroom window. It scared the hell out of me. Every day I figured that that would be the day it would blow up and reduce my family and me to radioactive dust. Then one day I discovered that the power plant wouldn’t blow up, but would instead “leak” radiation into the air. That scared me even more because then I lived every day believing I was continually being poisoned by invisible particles of alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. I literally lived every day like that for nine or 10 years. Mark (NEW JERSEY ME’s narrator) embodies that paranoid relationship with his town’s power plant.
AFLW: It’s heartening that one of your characters is disabled, missing a leg, and yet she is given her full sexuality and humanity. We need more characters like this in literature. What inspired you to write Callie?
RF: Good question. Callie was one of those characters I hadn’t planned when first writing the novel. She didn’t come to me until a few good rewrites into the book. Most every character in NEW JERSEY ME is wounded in some way, mostly emotionally. Those emotional disturbances mess with their lives and life decisions in various ways. At some point, I realized I wanted to have a wounded character, in this case physically, that could rise above her wounds while more clearly possessing her sexuality and life decisions. Enter Callie. She was one of the great surprises of the novel. I loved writing her, and her relationship with Mark.
AFLW:You’ve been described as a L.A.’s street poet laureate. How long have you lived in Los Angeles? How has the city affected your writing or infiltrated it? Changed it or you?
RF: Yeah, I’ve seen that “L.A. street poet laureate” moniker. It’s very sweet, but really, there are so many amazing poets in this city. Ones with such great voices that so perfectly embody the joys, sufferings, and madnesses of L.A. living. I could start naming poets, but then I wouldn’t be able to stop. One that really comes to mind is Wanda Coleman. She truly embodied L.A. life–all its nitty-gritty, hard-living and loving; all its beauties, bombshells and banalities. I truly miss her physical presence in this city.
As for L.A. and me, I’ve been here close to 20 years. Which is a bit of a surprise, considering that when I first arrived I hated the place. Some years ago I wrote a piece called “The Los Angeles Book of the Dead.” It was my take on THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD meets L.A. life. I’d originally written it as a performance piece, but it also ended up getting published in the L.A. Times. That was the first piece where I felt like I was truly channeling my experience in this city. Overall, L.A. has helped to make me more of a storyteller. Maybe it’s because I’ve been surrounded by so many people, for so many years, that are screenwriters and novelists. L.A. has also helped to make my writing and me more resilient. We may have to go through some deep shit to get where we’re going, but we eventually get there.
AFLW: Speaking of Los Angeles, you’re a big part of L.A.’s literary scene, reading at venues across the city, spreading the love of your poetic words to far reaches. How has being connected to other L.A. writers, past and present, influenced you? What does L.A.’s literary community mean to you?
RF: When I was younger, I discounted the strength of community–whether it be in literature or music. I pretty much thought that you had to go it alone, that to be a part of a community meant something less. Like your personality or spirit would get swallowed up by the group. Time has shown me, however, that community is tremendously important. I’m very grateful to be a part of some very strong literary communities here in L.A. One that comes to mind is Brad Listi and The Nervous Breakdown. While TNB primarily exists in cyberspace, I’m good friends with Brad here in L.A. and he, along with other TNB writers, have done a lot to support one another through the years.
I mentioned Wanda Coleman earlier. Luckily I was able to perform with her a few times while she was alive. She was such a great inspiration, both through her words and dynamic live performances. Besides Wanda, there were other writers I noticed when I first came to L.A.–folks like S.A. Griffin and Scott Wannberg. Those poets, and others, made me realize how performative, how imaginative, and surreal poetry could be. Then came Milo Martin and Ben Porter Lewis–creators of a whole scene back in the 90s at the Onyx Coffee House in Los Feliz. That scene was amazing. There, you’d see beat poets, rap poets, all kinds of poets and musicians on the same bill. It was really quite a rush. Every show felt like you were taking part in something historic. It was really that big.
As for today’s literary scene, I love crossing paths with people in both the poetry and prose scenes. There are truly some truly supportive lit events here in town: David Rocklin’s Roar Shack, Conrad Romo’s Tongue and Groove, and Susan Hayden’s Library Girl. Alexis Rhone Fancher also hosts some wonderful literary salons in her home. I also host a monthly lit/music event called All Lit Up that happens at Chevalier’s Books in Hollywood. That’s an indie L.A. bookstore that’s been going strong for years. There’s also Beyond Baroque in Venice. That’s a true L.A. literary institution. I admire how they’ve consistently supported, and have created their own literary scene. They’ve given rise to some truly unique literary voices over the years.
And of course, if I may say, there’s Angels Flight • literary west. You’ve come onto the scene like gangbusters and are providing a strong sense of L.A.’s diverse literary community in both cyber space and the real world. I know I’m not alone in saying I’m beyond happy you’re here and so pro Los Angeles.
AFLW: You integrate music into your writing and readings, and you’ve performed with Patti Smith, Loudon Wainwright III, X’s Exene Cervenka and many others. What the connection for you with writing and music?
RF: I began playing drums while I was in college, and really got into playing in bands once I graduated Rutgers and moved out to California (first S.F., then L.A.) Music and rhythm are in my blood. That rhythm has helped to better tune my ear to writing. I can hear and feel when I’ve turned a phrase correctly, or when I need to keep working it and working it to make it sing.
Rich Ferguson has shared the stage with Patti Smith, Wanda Coleman, and other esteemed poets and musicians. He has performed at the NYC Fringe Festival, the Bowery Poetry Club, and is a featured performer in the film What About Me? (featuring Michael Stipe, Michael Franti, Krishna Das and others). He has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Opium, Sensitive Skin, and has been widely anthologized. Ferguson is a Pushcart-nominated poet, and a poetry editor to The Nervous Breakdown. His debut novel, NEW JERSEY ME, was published by Rare Bird Books / Barnacle Books. View a trailer of the book, with music by Tyson Cornell, Butch Norton, Josh Haden, Cameron Stone and Andrew Bush. Vox by CLS Ferguson. For more, visit www.rich-ferguson.com