Luna Rex's Novelist, Guitarist J. Lee Glassman on Key West, Bioluminescence and the Written Word
J. Lee Glassman is a South Florida poet, musician and novelist. He's also a man of two worlds; those disparate entities being Palm Beach and Key West. While he might be better known to our readers as Luna Rex's rhythm guitarist, Glassman is also the author of a 2008 collection of poetry Sloppy Poems and Other Senseless Banter Barely Worthy of a Bar Napkin that reflects in short bursts what he has gone on to explore in the larger novel treatment.
His newest endeavor, Jonny Bails Floatin and the Luck of the Bioluminescence, goes on to explore the quirks of Key West living through the title character Jonny Bails; a hard-drinking street performer with a night fishing problem who gets himself into a bioluminescent fix whilst enduring the (un)wanted knack for discovering bales of weed at sea and transient love. We had the chance to speak with Glassman about his book and his South Florida experience.
Let's start with the obvious: tell us about your Palm Beach/Key West upbringing and the two other counties in between if you could. While coast and sunshine might be an applicable common thread, we are talking about two wildly disparate existences.
Early on, I had a bit of a shielded upbringing in Boca Raton. I was completely unaware of Boca's reputation because I had several very creative and down to earth friends and we lived in our own worlds. As kids we spent time in the woods and at the beach. As teenagers, we worked several jobs, bought junky old cars and explored every chance we got.
But every time I went to the Keys as a child and young adult, I felt like the Indiana Jones of the sea. And when I was old enough to hit the bars down there, I realized that there are many folks who, even in their old age, still think they are the Indiana Joneses of the sea. Everybody down there seems to be searching for something.
In an area like Fort Lauderdale, to the west you have swamps; to the east is the beach. To the South is Miami, and to the North is Palm Beach, one of the richest places in the country. So there is an abundance of things to keep people busy. But if you live in the Keys, you really only have your neighbors. If you want to escape that, you better have a boat. And if you have a boat, you better be pretty mechanically inclined.
I knew the Keys was a special place when I stumbled into a dive bar and my brother's friend ended up arm wrestling in a fierce battle with a fella who looked like a weathered pirate. This man was large, angry, and drunk. But he had a thunderous laugh. I think it was a Cuba versus USA thing. In the middle of that mayhem, a sweet little toothless lady was trying to pick up my brother who was probably thirty years younger than her. Needless to say, the toothless lady's swagger didn't exactly woo my brother. He ended up riding his bicycle off a bridge accidentally that night. The next morning, after very few hours of sleep, I think we went fishing. I'm not sure that type of cycle is healthy, if it's a common thing, but it seems to work for some folks down there.
Luna Rex - "Travels from a VW Bus"
You've had a collection of poetry published before, also dealing to a certain degree with these dichotomies, as a writer how do you marry the two and moreover, how did you make the jump from short works to a full-fledged novel?
The poetry collection was a very odd time in my life. It was the result of the perfect storm of emotions -- a combination of despair and humor. I wrote about 80 poems in a very short time, and I've never written poetry since. I just wanted to laugh at my misfortunes. Often, my poems were tiny slivers of life, mostly fictional, where something abominable happened. It was therapeutic and had no connection to my novel writing. I would have never published the poems had my good friend and fellow writer, Joe Gibbs, not found a stack of the poems on loose leaf paper and read them aloud at a backyard barbeque. I noticed that they had a certain sadness, but at the same time told uplifting stories that some could perhaps relate to.
I actually began writing short stories around the year 2000. They came to a crashing halt at some point around 2003 because I was impatient, refusing to outline or develop plots. The poems all happened around 2006 to 2008. As soon as I stopped writing poetry, I went back to my short stories to develop them. I decided to take my time and told myself that no matter what, I wanted to write, The End. I think in 2000, I couldn't see a few days ahead of me. But these days, I have patience and the ability to focus on what it takes to bring something to completion. Ultimately, I felt a bit constrained with poetry, but with fiction writing, I often see plots playing out like movies, so they're easier to put on paper.
Luna Rex - "The Painter (aka Bob Ross)"
In my opinion, there is something endemically extra-terrestrial to Floridian authors; in the strength of those who make this swamp their stomping grounds there's an almost guaranteed "weird" approach to literary narrative. How does your home state lend itself to a plot line that deals with bioluminescence and what drew you to its glow?
The original idea I had for the plot of Jonny Bails Floatin came when I was playing a lot of guitar for my band Luna Rex, and songs were taking a new life. One day, I was counting my blessings and feeling grateful that I had ten fingers and the ability to play a guitar, followed by a fleeting panicky thought of losing my fingers doing yard work or cooking (this next part is a bit of a spoiler in regards to the novel). That thought was followed by the disappointing realization that science has not allowed humans to grow back appendages that have been lost. I figured that one day, with the help of some unusual ocean creature and how they regenerate parts, this could happen. So I made it happen in my novel.
My love of the ocean and anything that lights up made bioluminescence an obvious choice. Being lucky enough to grow up on the ocean and in the waters of the Keys gave me the chance to see bioluminescence in person several times. Each and every time was an experience I'll never forget. The first time I saw it, I was night fishing with my brother and a few friends off Marathon. I felt like I was hallucinating. And it made me wonder - if there's something so tiny and beautiful on the top of this ocean, what could be hidden in the depths?
But in the end, I agree there is a "weird" approach to the literary narrative of many Florida writers, and I think I caught that bug in some ways. I think the "weird" sometimes comes from a wide diversity of people accompanied by excessive heat.
You're also a musician with Luna Rex, moon-pulls aside, are you a writer or musician first and foremost, and how do you apply your disciplines? Meaning, does a Key West weirdo inspire a song or does a weird song inspire a memorable character?
I think I am a writer first because to write original songs, I feel like I have to be a writer and storyteller. I'm not a very good guitarist. Paul Axelband is the guy in our band who blows the doors off the place. I just keep a rhythm. Even the first few songs I wrote on guitar were stories. Our band has a song about a guy who hallucinates meeting Bob Ross. I loved that concept because it might have happened to someone I know. Then there are songs like "V.W. Bus," "The Farm" and "Majic Table," which all tell a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Song ideas definitely used to come to me with plots surrounding wacky characters I knew or met around town. Thank you Lake Worth! But lately, I think my novel writing has rubbed off on songwriting. For instance, since I started novel writing, most of our songs have had more abstract lyrics. I found it more difficult to bring characters to life in both disciplines, so I tried something new with the music and songs like" All Kinds of Terrain" and "Gojira" were born -- they have themes, but don't tell stories. So I guess inspiration can come from either direction, it just depends on which one you want to tap into first.
Luna Rex - "Mangos and Time Machines"
Let's close this session with something I think you'll appreciate as a musician. "Region Rock" has lead me on many avenues of musical discovery. Not unlike Confederacy of Dunces did for New Orleans, how closely do you feel you have captured the Conch Republic's daily/street mise en scène?
There are a few parts of the novel that are loosely based on the many things a person may encounter in any given trip to Key West. I wanted the side street stuff to come alive though. Of course, I love the gimmicky tourist stuff, but those things, aside form Mallory Square perhaps, do not carry the weight of a drunken night of side street dive bars and wandering back to your hostel, partially lost, being followed by chickens.
I think I might have captured the feel of Key West because many of my readers from all over the country have expressed the fact that the novel made them want to come back to Key West or visit for the first time. So yes, I feel I did a decent job balancing the sweat, alcohol, music, and "weird," ultimately capturing the feel of one of the most fascinating towns in the country.
J. Lee Glassman's books are available in paperback and Kindle editions here.