PEN DIY: Wesley Stace on How to Lead a Double Life
Discussed: Coat Hangers, Dickens, Paul Morrissey, a boy brought up in girl’s clothing, following the logic of your own narrative, and music executives vs. publishing executives.
Armed with his guitar and a Bulleit on the rocks, the incomparable and prolific Wesley Stace (also known as John Wesley Harding) took the stage on December 1 for the final installment of the 2014 PEN DIY series. Stace delivered his talk “How to Lead a Double Life” in a breathless rush that covered a varied landscape of songwriting, novel writing, and Victorian notions of sex and gender.
Having spent three decades writing and producing music under the name John Wesley Harding and a decade publishing under his given name, Stace ditched his pseudonym once and for all declaring, “I am now the artist formally known as Wesley Stace.”
Step 1: Write a Song
Or rather, write a line. Stace’s experiences working as an usher in a Cambridge art-house cinema formed the inspiration for a line in a song he held on to for ten years before finding a verse to go with it: “I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth / and I was dumped down South.”
Poetic exigency led him to the next line: “I was found by the richest man in the world, / who brought me up as a girl.” Those lines would form the basis of “Miss Fortune,” off his album Awake—released when he was still known as John Wesley Harding.
Step 2: Write a Novel About the Song
Over the course of seven long years, the five-minute song “Miss Fortune” would become the 700-page novel Misfortune—a Dickensian exploration of gender politics, and a creative feat uniquely suited to Wesley Stace.
How did he do it? In a novel, “things have to make sense,” Stace said. Why did the richest man in the world raise a boy as a girl—and how? And why in the world did the child’s mother allow it?
Buckling down to his task, Stace mapped chapters to lines of the song, and wrote a novel he imagined his literary heroes—Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Austen—would be proud of, even though “they didn’t touch gender with a barge pole.”
Step 3: Publish Novel Under Your Real Name Rather than Your Musical Name
Stace’s publisher said it was suicide. But he wanted to publish the novel under his own name. He had observed an unsettling trend of popular musicians writing good novels, which were then dismissed as “hobbyish.”
Publishing under his real name, Stace figured critics might delight in the discovery that “the writer of this book with complete sentences and adjectives […] had done a duet with Bruce Springsteen.”
Step 4: Lead a Double Life
Life was “a little bit schizophrenic,” Stace recounted. “You don’t want to be the tap-dancing author,” playing a gig at a book festival for free, when you could make money playing a gig instead.
It wasn’t until Stace began writing about himself and past relationships, that he realized leading a double life was no longer necessary.
Step 5: Let Go
After writing a series of fully autobiographical songs, Stace realized that “the novels were taking care of the need to make things up,” and his music could be about Wesley Stace, rather than John Wesley Harding. His new album is called Self-Titled. During the post-talk Q&A, Host Mike Albo joked, “Your real name sounds faker than your fake name.”
There were difficulties that came along with dropping the name, says Stace, but: “I totally don’t regret it at all.”