Mo Daviau – Every Anxious Wave
I met Mo Daviau where she can be found most days, chipping away at her next work, at her office in North Portland. I jogged up the steep, narrow staircase to meet her in its foyer, which gives onto a balcony. I was eager to hear more from the author of Every Anxious Wave, the time-traveling love story that I had been absolutely gobbling up in my spare time for the previous week. We sat across a low table, and talked:
PATRICK FINDLER: So, I want to talk to you about your book!
MO DAVIAU: Excellent!
PF: Yeah, Every Anxious Wave. So basically, first of all, can you take me through the title, and a rough thumbnail of what it’s about? So what’s the title from?
MD: The title is a lyric from the song Kath by Sebadoh. The whole lyric is “I’m so glad I waited for this, every nervous moment worth it, every anxious wave rode through, to find me lying safe with you.” A friend of mine, Tamar, who I went to college with and DJed college radio with way back in the 90s, came up with the title for me. She just started throwing Sebadoh lyrics at me. That’s the one that stuck, so it feels like it’s an appropriate title. I really like it, and I’m glad that Lou Barlow from Sebadoh gave me permission to use it.
PF: There’s a lot of groups from the 90s that show up in the book, but Sebadoh didn’t seem to be one of them. I was actually surprised to notice that.
MD: Sebadoh gets one shout-out, I think, when Karl is laundry-listing all the albums in his jukebox. But no, he’s – yes, for some reason Sebadoh doesn’t – yeah, doesn’t really show up on Karl’s radar as he’s telling the story.
PF: Well, but who is Karl? – and don’t tell too much of his story, because it’s a little bit too interesting, and I don’t want to spoil it for readers; it’s such a fun read. But who is Karl, what’s his story, or how at least does it begin?
MD: Karl Bender is a 40-year-old former indie rock guitarist who finds himself in Chicago owning and tending a bar, and one day he goes looking for something in his bedroom closet and realizes that he has a wormhole that allows him to travel back in time, and he of course uses this to go to rock shows, because that’s what Karl would do with the power of time travel. So he and his buddy Wayne sell time travel trips to rock concerts in the past until there’s a mishap that requires the aid of an astrophysicist, Lena Geduldig, who is a graduate student of astrophysics at Northwestern, and they meet, and it goes from there.
PF: So just, I have a few things about the setup that I noticed, that were just – I’ve never seen anything where, like, the time travel is used so much in a way that matches – how to put this? This is so human-scale.
MD: So that whole thing is like, keep it small and quiet. When I was at the MFA program at the University of Michigan and we were workshopping my novel as my thesis, a thing that would come up, would be like “Mo, you know, he’s got the power to time travel, and all he’s doing is sending himself and his buddies back to see rock shows! Think about what a global impact time travel would actually have, and how is he circumventing that?” And my answer to the question was always like, “Well, indie rock ethos. You keep it small and special for your friends.” That’s sort of a – you know, as I sit right now at age almost 40 and looking back on my youth and all the music I enjoyed, it’s not really a point of pride any more that I managed to enjoy and navigated a music scene that put a lot of stock into exclusivity, but back in the day, that was what we did, and he still functions from that mindset, I guess, and somehow bribes and cons his way into keeping it on the downlow.
PF: But everybody he meets immediately has gigantic ideas about how to change their life, right?
MD: Yeah, of course!
PF: But he’s different. I thought that was interesting. He has this list of, these ethical rules that he doesn’t break.
MD: He eventually breaks them.
PF: He eventually breaks them, otherwise the novel –
MD: There wouldn’t be much of a novel if he didn’t break them.
PF: I feel like I have thousands of questions, but a lot of them are “Isn’t this part cool?”
MD: You know, it worked for Chris Farley!
PF: All right – so, isn’t this part cool, where it just – the whole time travel to go back and see a band, I just couldn’t help but think that, how often I listen to music, and how closely it’s tied to a time and place.
MD: Oh yes, it’s a huge memory stimulant. Of course.
PF And it’s such a natural – how is it I’ve never seen this before? It’s such a brilliant idea!
MD: The night I started writing what even actually become this book, it was 2010, and I was home by myself, and I was depressed about how my life was going, and I had this idea in my head that if I just turned up the song “Sally Wants” by the band Henry’s Dress loud enough, it would propel me back to 1995, and I could make a completely different series of choices that would have landed me not in that spot alone that night in 2010. And I tried it, and it didn’t work. Sometimes I still try it; I love to crank up that song! But it doesn’t actually, you know, break the space-time continuum. But everybody can put on a song from a period in their life, and sort of close your eyes, and be like “Wow… I feel like it’s 1998 again, and I can sort of feel where I was at that time, and sort of have emotional time travel in my head,” however briefly. So we do what we can with what we have, in terms of time travel!
PF: The other thing I feel like I learned from the book, it’s a very sort of a gentle Monkey’s Paw story, isn’t it, where getting what you want doesn’t get you what you want. For almost any character. So the –
MD: Right! But you know, Lena wins time travel, if you think about it.
PF: That’s true. So, Lena. She was really interesting. She wins time travel. I don’t want to talk too much, give too much away. But she – Lena was really interesting. Most of the book is told from Karl’s point of view. But there’s two or three sections told from her point of view. Can you tell me about them? Feelings, thoughts about them?
MD: Lena is an amalgamation of every woman I’ve ever known, from college, grad school, who’s really, really smart, and who, unfortunately, society has used that against her in subtle, different ways. When Lena was 18, she was raped by a guy she went to a concert with, and when she goes back in time and undoes that, everything changes for her – everything gets better, just like one step up for her. If you sort of parallel out her life trajectories, she does the same things, but she’s more happy and successful without that in her past. And I just have seen so many women who suffer little time disadvantages or slights along the way in their life, just from little – or bigger – things. So Lena, people have not been kind to her, and so she doesn’t really give a shit at this point in time, when we meet her.
PF: She – her not giving a shit, it really comes across in her language. She writes a very amusing anthropological, or expedition report, I guess, and then an email. Her voice comes across extremely strongly, and it’s like I’m almost in a different world from Karl’s world. Her voice is so vivid, and her storytelling is – while her language is very muted, in a way, it was just an interesting fact. Were those parts easier, harder, different to write?
MD: I had it in my head that she talks – like, she’s a scientist, so her communications style and how she interacts with language is influenced by her life in the sciences, so I sort of felt like she would be sort of a clipped, to-the-point kind of communicator. She’s not going to romanticize anything, or, you know – she might make a joke here or there, but she doesn’t think she’s funny. And so I think that’s where I was going with that. This is somebody who studies the stars, and writes reports.
PF: Karl’s language, on the other hand, sometimes becomes very poetic, quickly, just turns on a dime.
MD: Karl’s very romantic indeed. He’s a little poetic, that one. He’s got some longings.
PF: Longings. Cool. So let’s see, you got your MFA at –
MD: University of Michigan.
PF: Michigan. And that’s where you started writing this book?
MD; I started writing it before I got to Michigan, actually, so it was about half done when I arrived. Finished it there, it was my thesis, it won a Hopwood Award, which is a big deal.
MD: And yeah, so it was all done by the time I was finished with my MFA.
PF: Okay. And it’s coming out in February?
MD: February 9th.
PF February 9th. From St. Martin’s. And… how does that feel?
MD: Feels great!! I’m starting to get a few reviews in, it’s kind of weird. There’s – I got a really wonderful review from Kirkus, that was really cool.
PF: And what did they say, what parts did they focus on? I’m just curious.
MD: There’s a quote, the first line of the review I absolutely love, and there was some talk of putting it on the cover of the book, which was “a punk rock time travel love story for the ages. All of them.”
PF: The ages!
MD: I really loved that line.
PF: Well, those are all true facts!
MD: True facts!
PF: Cool. Are you working on something now?
MD: I am! Working on a couple things. Right now I’m focusing on this light, fun romantic comedy about a guy who falls in love with a YouTube relationship guru, and decides to try to meet her at one of her weeklong retreats at a retreat center. Kind of like the Esalen Institute, which is a New Age-y retreat center in Big Sur. I went to Esalen this past year. So he goes – it doesn’t turn out the way he wants it to, but it turns out somehow. True love will find him in the end, just not how he thinks.
PF: That reminds me of something about Karl. He is an actually nice guy. He’s not a capital N, capital G Nice Guy. He remains ethical and concerned about people’s well-being. I wanted to express my admiration for that.
MD: Thank you! Yes, he’s a good one. Good Guy Karl Bender. He’s kind of a jerk to Lena for a little bit, but he learns his lesson very quickly,. Yeah, I just kind of liked the idea of a bartender who takes care of his flock. You don’t really see the rest of his flock, but…
PF: But you get the impression that a lot of them drink free.
MD: He loves his 22-year-old bar back. In my mind, there are other people who are regulars as the Dictators’ Club. I think in earlier drafts, you know, I had a scene where there were a bunch of people sitting around watching Karl hold court, like he was trying to be Wayne, or something like that, but they all got cut away in rewrites.
PF: That’s good, because Wayne is absent, for part, and Karl has to speak to his empty chair.
MD: Yeah, who takes care of Karl, you know? Somebody. Not even Lena.
PF: All right. Not even Lena? Wait a minute.
MD: Not really. Does she? Do you think?
PF: I guess I didn’t think about it, because Karl’s so focused on her, it didn’t occur to me. Huh.
MD: As a woman in the dating pool, I am very self-aware about men who – I don’t want to say – manipulate is a harsh word. I’m trying to say this in a way that isn’t judgmental, but sort of calibrate their relationships with their girlfriends to a sort of motherly, caretaking role. Because of that, this happens to be – I think Lena has proofed herself of having any sort of capability to do that. She is not willing to play that game.
PF: That’s really interesting.
MD: Okay, you wanted to ask me about craft? Like, half of what I do is intuitive. I can’t teach it. I’ve tried to deconstruct it. I can’t. I am a big proponent of the butt in the chair, the making time, the turning off the internet, the focusing. I think that’s like half the battle right there. I think you need to be really invested in maintaining a good reading list at all times, because that goes with being intuitive. You read like a writer, so you sort of study as you go, reading novels. It’s a long arduous process, you throw away half of what you write over the long haul of your writing time. I don’t know if I have any, wisdom other than “Just do it! Butt in the chair.” All the nuts and bolts kind of stuff. I don’t really – there’s nothing sort of airy or wise about what I do. I just go to work.
PF: And do you – how many drafts did you go through, with this?
MD: I don’t even know. At least, like, 10 or 12. If I go back, there’s a first draft that doesn’t look anything like the second draft. There’s a draft that’s in the Hopwood Room at the University of Michigan that is mostly different than what is in the final published book, so – but the first chapter, I lost track of how many times I rewrote it.
PF: So what does it look like when you rewrite it? Do you take the existing chapter, and start nibbling at the edges, and then tear out large chunks, or do you start with a fresh page?
MD: I usually take out chunks. I mean, this is – so here’s a craft admission here for you. I did improv comedy for years, and I took all the classes, I took workshops, every weekend of my life I was on stage making up plays with people. I don’t do that anymore, but what I do do is sort of have a long improv scene going in my head by myself, and that is my writing process. People ask me, “How do you write funny dialogue?” I’m like “Take an improv class!” So that’s my helpful hint, and hopefully that’ll raise enrollment in local improv classes around the nation.
PF: You talked about the humor. There’s something about the humor in the book that comes across not only in scenes and in dialogues, but even just in small little sort of non-emotionally laden descriptors. On the very first page, “khaki-clad keister”
MD: Yeah, khaki-clad keister! I think that’s a shout to my ex-husband?
PF: Is it?
MD: Yeah, he says “keister.” Wayne – a lot little details about Wayne are actual details about my ex-husband, Bob.
PF: Knee socks? Adidas?
MD: No, well, khaki-clad keister, being from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, being hyper-focused, science.
PF: That’s right, Wayne was hyper-focused. Yes.
MD: Those were all Bob things.
PF: Two characters wear khakis. I was surprised to nice. It’s not often you see khakis, and I – Wayne and –
MD: You hang around computer dudes, you’re going to see some khakis.
PF: I think I must be hanging out with the wrong, or the right people, depending.
MD: Wayne even wears pleated khakis. Oooh.
PF: Nice! Are you giving any readings in February?
MD: I’m doing a tour, sort-of kind-of, little tour. Mostly cities where I’ve lived of have a pretty strong friend base, so my launch party is February 10th at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. I lived in Austin for a long time. Then from there, I’m going to Ann Arbor, where I did grad school, reading on February 15th, and then I come back to the Pacific Northwest. I’m doing reading at downtown Powell’s on Friday, February 19th, and on Monday, February 22nd, I’m at Elliott Bay in Seattle, and I’m trying to schedule a reading in LA, and my very dear friend from college, Katherine Riley Harrington, is setting up a reading for me in Des Moines, Iowa. So Des Moines, if you’re out there, coming to ya March 4 at Beaverdale Books!
Purchase a copy of Every Anxious Wave at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library.
Mo Daviau was born in Fresno, California and proclaimed her life goal of publishing a novel at the age of eight. Mo is also a solo performer, having performed at storytelling shows such as Bedpost Confessions and The Soundtrack Series. She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where Every Anxious Wave won a Hopwood Award. Mo lives in Portland, Oregon.
Patrick Findler lives in Portland, OR, surrounded by piles of unread books. His hobbies include languages and losing at strategy games.
This interview was transcribed by Katherine Nehring.