Adam Braver’s fiction takes place in moments of cultural upheaval. His 2003 debut, Mr. Lincoln’s Wars, portrays a mourning president dealing with both a nation on the brink of dissolution and the heartbreaking death of his son. November 22, 1963, published in 2008, brings an unexpected intimacy to the final day of Camelot. Braver’s seventh novel, Rejoice the Head of Paul McCartney, is nothing less than an investigation of humanity and forgiveness set in late-1960s California. The title refers to the theft of Paul McCartney’s head from a billboard on the Sunset Strip advertising the Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road.
Do you consider your work historical fiction?
It’s never been my agenda for the books to give an understanding of history. Instead, there is always an issue—not a historical issue but an issue that’s in my mind, and history seems to be a venue to work it out. For instance, what it means to grieve.
In Rejoice the Head of Paul McCartney, you use an act of vandalism as a starting point. Do you see this, too, as representative of some sort of collective shift?
Certainly, the desecration of Paul McCartney’s head on the Abbey Road billboard symbolized a shift to me. But in terms of humanity, as I was writing and reflecting on the world we live in now, I wanted the book to be almost affirming. Throughout, there is a search for beauty, for the human element, which ultimately prevails or blossoms a little bit through all the madness. We live in a time we think is crazier than any other time, until you go back and read about another time and see its trials. In the era of the novel, the world was imploding in its own way. Still, I did not want the book to be about how terrible the world is, or the struggle to get through it, but instead about the victory of humanity, of good. And, not to be forgotten, the casualties that come out of that, too.
Madness is a good way of putting it. Do you feel there are parallels today with 1969?
I certainly feel it’s much more sophisticated now, sophisticated crazy. The way craziness is communicated, marketed, implemented, and weaponized. My suspicion is that it felt very much the same way to people even if it was less severe or severe on different terms. It’s hard to imagine that all the issues around the Vietnam War weren’t tearing worlds apart. People no doubt felt threats to their ways of life very consistently, and certainly the late 1960s was a heightened time.
The book did not start off being about the Paul McCartney head, but once I came across it, it became the revolving moment, the touchstone for all the different narratives, the motif of the book. The plan was always for the book to be structured as a series of suites. I wanted it to feel like musical suites, where each suite, in this case chapter, would have all these little movements that could work together in a musical or thematic way.
The suites overlap in time. Can you speak to how chronology works here?
I wanted the novel to be an unraveling of time, but as though on a spring—time can draw us into another era, but certain things can spring it back. The idea is that we carry stuff with us, and certain experiences bring us back and influence us, and other things take us to other places. But they aren’t linear, in the same way a memory does not always correspond with whatever triggers it. Your memories can bounce all over time to make sense of this moment. That said, it’s not a book about memory, although it does have some of those ideas.
Sunset Boulevard is a small world in your book, yet it’s one of the longest and most recognizable streets in the world.
I lived in Los Angeles, left when I was six or seven. It’s a frozen moment in my memory. I’ve been back a million times since then, but in my mind it still looks like Adam-12. The police cars look like that to me, the people still look like that to me—like a Beach Boys cover. So partly in my mind, everything is smaller. In regard to historical fiction, this is the perfect example of how I didn’t feel any need to set the record straight. It’s the world of the people in the novel. As they live their lives, they aren’t invested in the history.
How did the book come about?
A big factor was my mother’s early death. It made me reflect quite a bit about a certain period of our life together—the period and setting of this book—when it had just been the two of us, a single mom and her only child making their way through all these cultural moments. I especially was struggling with the idea that I was the sole keeper of those impressions or memories of that time in life. There were no others to offer counter perspectives or, for that matter, to set the record straight. And while this is hardly an autobiography, the idea of jumping back into the various images of that time (late 1960s, early 1970s), that place (Los Angeles), and the particular cultural milieu (which my mom traveled in) became a starting point. It is an entirely fictional world, and there was never any pretense of making it accurate to my experience. But that was something of a jumping-off point. I suppose that the universal part of this comes back to the analogy of a spring-loaded line of time. There are periods of life that we get drawn back to, as we understand what shapes us—both in the personal and in the cultural. And maybe, as I start to riff here, this returns us to the question of the historical in “historical fiction” and some of my resistance to it defining my work. We’re all products of our history—and of the sense that it is still being worked out in the “present,” from the cultural to the political to the personal.•