Writing With The Smiths: Pen, Paper And Morrissey

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Host Guy Raz talks with Peter Wild, the editor of Please: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths.

GUY RAZ, host:

The British music magazine, NME, once called The Smiths the most influential band ever.

(Soundbite of song, "Ask")

THE SMITHS (Band): (Singing) Shyness is nice and, shyness can stop you, from doing all the things in life, you'd like to.

RAZ: The four young men from Manchester, England, led by the iconic front man Morrissey, sang about boredom and misery and feeling awkward and literature, but always with a knowing wink. And like a lot of teenagers and young adults who came of age in the 1980s, for Peter Wild, The Smiths defined that era.

Mr. PETER WILD (Author, "Please: Fiction Inspired by The Smiths"): (Reading) If you'd had your heart broken, if you thought you loved someone and she wouldn't give you the time of day, if you had a thing with someone and it didn't work out, if you bumbled, felt crap, thought that the person staring back at you at the mirror more closely resembled a gargoyle than the person you thought you were, you know, inside, if you're a teenager basically, the argot of The Smiths was the articulation of your every inadequacy.

(Soundbite of song, "Ask")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) Ask me, ask me, ask me. Ask me, ask me, ask me

RAZ: That's Peter Wild reading from the introduction to a new book of short stories inspired by Smiths songs. It's called "Please." And Peter Wild is the editor.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. WILD: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RAZ: The song we've been hearing, it's called "Ask," and like so many Smiths songs, it already tells a story or stories. There's a line: spending warm summer days indoors, writing frightening verse to a bucktoothed girl in Luxembourg. Peter Wild, how did you get the idea to get, you know, almost two dozen writers to tell stories using songs by The Smiths as a starting point?

Mr. WILD: What happened was over the years, I put my (unintelligible) writers and what have you. And I've interviewed lots and lots of writers over the past decade.

RAZ: You're a literary critic, I should mention.

Mr. WILD: Yeah, I do a Web site called Bookmunch. And as a result of doing that Web site and interviewing writers, time and time again, I found people saying to me, oh, well, you know, when I write, I do like to have music on in the background and I do find that the music kind of helps me write and conjures up certain things in the writing itself.

And so, as I say, over a period of years, it got me to thinking what kinds of bands - where there bands that people turned to more than others when they actually sat down to write? And The Smiths was one of those bands that came up time and again. Whether it's because of the very evocative music of Johnny Marr really or those very, you know, evocative guitar sounds that he makes.

RAZ: Johnny Marr, of course, the guitarist for The Smiths.

Mr. WILD: Or whether it was Morrissey's lyrics. The Smiths were a band that I found writers had on in the background as they were doing their daily writing. So it came out of that.

RAZ: The book is a collection of 24 stories. Smiths fans will be familiar with most of the titles. "This Charming Man," "Big Mouth Strikes Again," and of course, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now."

(Soundbite of song, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed. Oh, you've been in the house too long, she said, and I naturally fled.

RAZ: Now, the short story in the book, which is obviously called "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," is written by a writer named Kate Pullinger. This story is about being miserable but in a very different way, a completely different twist. Can you describe the story for us?

Mr. WILD: It's about a gentleman, a married gentleman, who appears to be having a sort of online flirtation with one of his colleagues. And on her birthday, he decides it will be a bright idea to send her a sort of JPEG of himself or a streaming movie of himself dancing naked while singing "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now."

And then what happens is, I think, his daughter is ill and so he's away from work for a few days, and when he returns to work, he finds that this bit of movie that he's filmed for his colleague has gone online and has been seen by millions and millions of people all over the world.

RAZ: That would cause misery.

Mr. WILD: You would think so.

RAZ: And the song by The Smiths talks about, you know, I was looking for a job and then I found a job and heaven knows I'm miserable now. It's a different story but it sort of touches on the themes, I guess, of workplace misery.

Mr. WILD: Yes, indeed.

(Soundbite of song, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now. In my life, why do I give valuable time

RAZ: Is there one story in here that really sort of reflects in your view the lyrics, the actual lyrics of The Smiths' song?

Mr. WILD: Funny enough, there's a story by Willy Vlautin called "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before." It's about a guy who takes up with a woman and she's a high maintenance other half and makes his life a misery really. And he does everything he can to make this woman happy and he moves to a different town, gets a different job, change his night shift to a day shift just so he can be there with her, and does everything within his powers to make her happy and doesn't make her happy.

And that struggle, that idea of a search for happiness and what happiness means, I think that really, for me, sums up The Smiths. Because I know, again, there are people who don't get The Smiths, there are people for whom The Smiths are very miserable, and there are people who are fans, who love The Smiths, who find them really happy and funny and to articulate things that other bands don't articulate. And because of that, I think that Willy's story really does a good job of existing in that area of talking about things that people don't talk about.

(Soundbite of song, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) Stop me, uh-huh, stop me. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before. Nothing changed, I still love you, oh, I still love you. Only slightly, only slightly less, than I used to, my love.

RAZ: Peter Wild, any idea how Morrissey feels about all of this or what he might think about it?

Mr. WILD: Well, we sent copies of the book to Morrissey and to Johnny Marr. Johnny Marr we have heard back from, and we've been told that Johnny Marr likes the book, so that's very nice. Morrissey, we haven't heard anything from.

However, I did a previous book in this series called "Perverted by Language: Fiction Inspired by The Fall" - The Fall are an English band who perhaps don't travel to the States quite so well. But in reaction to that book, Mark E. Smith, the lead singer of The Fall, decried me from the stage, tore up copies of the book from the stage, sought to just (unintelligible) from left to right really as what she was able.

And so I am taking silence to be a blessing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Peter Wild. He is the editor of the new book, "Please: Fiction Inspired by The Smiths." He joined me from Manchester in England.

Peter Wild, thank you so much.

Mr. WILD: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) I was detained, I was restrained, and broke my spleen and broke my knee, and then he really lays to me, and it's Friday night in outpatient, who said I'd lied to her? Oh, who said I lied, because I never, I never. Who said I lied because I never. And so I drank one, it became four. And when I fell on the floor, I drank more. Stop me, oh, oh, oh, stop me. Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before.

(Soundbite of ticking)

(Soundbite of bell)

RAZ: The clock is ticking on this round of our Three Minute Fiction contest. The deadline is tomorrow - that's Sunday, February 28th, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time. So, you've got just a little more than a day to get us your story. Our judge, Alan Cheuse, will join us on the program tomorrow for an update, and he'll read some excerpts from a few stories that have caught his eye so far.

Now, if you'd like to submit yours, go to our Web site. That's npr.org/threeminutefiction - that's all spelled out, one word, no spaces. There you'll find a photograph we've provided for inspiration. And you can also see some of our favorite picks so far. Again, that's npr.org/threeminutefiction.

(Soundbite of ticking)

(Soundbite of bell)

Frederick Chopin never wrote a symphony or an opera and he rarely performed, yet, he's considered one of the greatest composers of all time.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we celebrate Chopin's 200th birthday.

TOM HUIZENGA: Listen, if you go out onto the street and say to someone: I'm giving you free tickets to a piano recital and they're going to play Bach or they're going to play Chopin. They're going to play Shuman or they're going to play Chopin. I mean, I think people would say I'll pick the Chopin recital.

RAZ: NPR music producer Tom Huizenga joins us in the studio to talk about some of his favorite Chopin recordings. That's tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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