W.B (Bill) Belcher’s (MFAW ’07) debut novel, Lay Down Your Weary Tune, is about a failed journalist who becomes a ghostwriter for a folk music icon. The novel, which he began at Goddard, was released on January 26th from Other Press.
What was the impetus for writing this book?
During the first year of the MFA program, I worked with Sarah Schulman to develop a reading list that investigated the crossroads of fiction writing and playwriting. I was interested in how various forms of storytelling overlap. Some common themes began to emerge in my work, including the use of masks, music, and protest. When I read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer back-to-back, an idea began to take shape, one that drew on folk music storytelling and the coming of age/toppling of childhood idols narrative. Of course, that’s the clean version – the process was much more chaotic and scattershot. The early draft and the final version of Lay Down Your Weary Tune are distant cousins, many times removed.
How did you find the main character?
I created two characters in tandem – a reclusive folk music icon who’d abandoned the public’s gaze and a young narrator searching for purpose. There’s nothing necessarily new there, but that’s how it began. At the beginning, they were just boxes with names on them. It takes a long time to “find” the main characters and fill those boxes with regrets and triumphs, likes and dislikes, fears and hopes. It also takes a lot of trial and error. Flannery O’Connor said “The writer must write not about character, but with character.” For me, that’s a matter of living in that sort of dream state that happens when the writing, thinking, and routine all click together – that’s when I have access to the characters and I’m not just forcing them through doors.
What did you do when the going got tough?
It’s going to get tough and lonely, and self-doubt is going to creep in. All you can do is keep working. I have little tricks I play on myself, from phone apps that tally word count to artificial deadlines to printing out drafts with color coding and margin notes. I idea is to shift the routine to keep focus. After I’d worked on the manuscript for a few years, I remember wanting to stuff it in a drawer or toss it onto the fire. I’d convinced myself that it was a good attempt, but it was time to move on to the next project. A friend of mine urged me to stick it out, and then I heard Bret Anthony Johnston on a panel in Boston remind the crowd that it takes 10 years on average to get that first one into the world. So, I turned back that self-doubt and just kept plugging away. You have to willing to play the long game, and more important, you have to try to understand your own process. But even if you do everything right, it’s still going to get tough. I’m not sure it would be worth doing if it was easy.
W.B. Belcher (Bill) grew up in a mill town in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. He attended the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, MA), and later Hartwick College (Oneonta, NY) from which he received a BA in English and Theatre Arts. Belcher earned his MFA from Goddard College (Plainfield, VT), where he studied both fiction and playwriting.
As a teacher, Belcher has led fiction writing and grant writing workshops for a variety of groups in New York and Massachusetts, including The Sage Colleges, Saratoga Arts, the Easton Library, and the Greenwich Library, among others. From 2006-2008, he served as community workshop facilitator and reading series coordinator for Inkberry, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the literary arts in the Berkshires.
Most of Belcher’s professional life has been spent in the not-for-profit world. He currently serves at the Director of External Affairs for The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY. Prior to The Hyde, he worked for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), The Sage Colleges, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, and Glimmerglass Opera. He is also a member of the board of directors at Caffe Lena, the oldest continually operating folk music coffeehouse in the country.
He lives in Upstate New York, near the Battenkill River, with his wife and two kids.