Mark Binelli and I met for the first time on Oct. 27, 2012, in New York City. The excuse for the meeting was the TV broadcast of Game 3 of that year’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. I grew up in Detroit and its suburbs and have remained a life-long fan of the Tigers, so the sports editor at The New York Times thought it might be amusing to have me hook up with fellow Detroiters and write a string of sketches about the agonies and ecstasies of watching the Series. With a nod to Frederick Exley, they called the sketches “A Fan’s Notes.”
Mark Binelli also grew up in the Detroit area, and he agreed to join me for Game 3 at a dive called the Motor City Bar, about halfway between our apartments in lower Manhattan. As soon as we were settled on our barstools, Binelli delighted me by confessing that he didn’t have much use for Detroit’s twinned obsessions, cars and sports. So with one eye on the TV screen — a Detroit loss, one of four straight in an ignominious sweep — Binelli and I spent the game talking mostly about books. We talked about his first novel, Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!, a wicked recasting of the two doomed anarchists as a slapstick comedy act; we also talked about Binelli’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, which turned out to be a marvel, a clear-eyed look at our hometown’s history, its racial divide, and the many forces that brought it low.
Since that night in 2012, Binelli, a contributing editor Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, has published a stack of superb journalism — about Pope Francis, supermax prisons, George Clinton, feral dogs and ruin porn in Detroit, and a U.S. Border Patrol guard who gunned down an unarmed Mexican boy on the far side of the border fence. And now Binelli has published his second novel, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits, a title of considerable irony since Hawkins’s only hit record, “I Put a Spell on You,” qualified him as the quintessential one-hit wonder, though one with an outlandish stage show and a backstory that Binelli found irresistible. Binelli and I met recently in a park near New York’s Chinatown, where we drank beer and talked about books.
The Millions: Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ All-Time Greatest Hits is one weird little book.
Mark Binelli: Thanks very much [laughs]. I take that as a compliment.
TM: In spots the book reads like straight journalism, then it’s almost a biography, then there are passages of pure fantasy, a little autobiography — but somehow it all hangs together. How did you arrive at this strange narrative strategy?
MB: I guess what attracted me to Jay [Hawkins] as a subject initially — I never thought I would write fiction about a musician, I’d been writing about musicians for Rolling Stone for years and that always felt like kind of a separate zone — and honestly it didn’t interest me that much, fictionalizing Jay’s story. I’d been backstage, I’d been on tour buses, I’d been in recording studios with musicians — and the idea of creating made-up scenes that I’d already lived through didn’t hold much appeal. The idea to write about Jay basically came from reading the liner notes on his albums.
TM: So there was no life-long attraction to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins for you?
MB: I loved “I Put a Spell On You” the moment I heard it, which was probably at some point in college. I’m pretty sure my first exposure to it was in the Jim Jarmusch film, Stranger Than Paradise. I immediately thought, this is such a weird fucking song — it’s funny but it’s also very haunting and evil. It’s hard to make a funny song not cross into a novelty song. It was recorded in 1956, so it’s 50 years old, but to record something that’s that timeless, almost out of time, it’s a tough thing to do. So years after I first heard the song I was reading the liner notes to one of his CD’s, and the way his biography unfolded — in his telling — I thought, God, this is the ultimate rock star story/novelistic picaresque.
TM: You say “in his telling” because he was always embellishing his life’s story — claiming that he was adopted and raised by a tribe of Blackfoot Indians, that he studied opera in Cleveland, that he joined the Army at age 14, that he was a middleweight boxing champion in Alaska, that he fathered 75 illegitimate children. Did that attract you as a novelist — the fact that it was almost a made-up life to begin with?
MB: Yeah, that immediately gave me liberties to take him at his word, and then go further than that and make up scenes based on these stories that he told. But back to your original question about how the form came about, it was kind of through that. Once I was attracted to the idea of writing about him as a character, I started thinking about all kinds of different ways I might get at it. At one point I thought it could be kind of cool to write a straight, thoroughly researched biography.
TM: But you rejected that idea.
MB: I rejected that idea ultimately. I liked the perversity of the idea, because he’s not that sort of iconic musician, like John Lennon or Dylan. We could sit here and make a list of hundreds of musicians and Jay would be very, very far down the list of subjects for a biography or a novel or a rock biopic. For me, that was a big part of the appeal. It was such a weird idea to take this marginal figure who had one hit song and who made up all this shit about his life story — and then elevate him into the pantheon of rock gods.
TM: Did you start doing research into a possible biography before the book became a novel?
MB: I did a little bit of research, but pretty quickly I decided it was going to be a novel. And then at that point I decided I didn’t really want to know the truth, which is the opposite of what we have to do in our jobs as journalists. It was very freeing and nice not to want to know if he actually fought in World War II. If I know the truth, it might impair my ability to imagine it.
TM: So in a sense, the less you knew, the freer you were?
MB: Yeah, and I intentionally kind of researched around his stories. I probably could have found his military records and figured that out, but I didn’t want to do that. I did look into whether or not younger kids lied about their age to enlist, and that turns out to be true. I did look into what it was like for an African-American in the Army at that time? — how segregated was the Army? I wanted to get the details kind of right, or at least have a sense in my head of what it might have been like.
TM: Little tiny things, like when Jay goes squirrel hunting as a boy and winds up feeling that killing the squirrel was such a pathetic act — I’ve got to believe there was some autobiography in that. It was such a vivid little grace note.
MB: The funny thing about a lot of the childhood scenes is that some of that is the most autobiographical writing I’ve done. I love the idea of grafting details from my life — a white Italian-American living in 2016, in his 40s — grafting that onto the life of a black singer born in Cleveland in the late-1920s. Being able to mix all that stuff together was really appealing to me.
TM: You mentioned the Jarmusch movie Stranger Than Paradise. Something I was surprised you didn’t include was Screamin’ Jay’s movie parts. He played a hotel clerk in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. There’s that great scene in A Rage in Harlem, based on the Chester Himes novel, where Hawkins is performing “I Put a Spell on You” while Forest Whitaker is trying to dance with Robin Givens. Why didn’t you include some of that stuff?
MB: That did cross my mind, but in my head the book stops with him in Hawaii, sort of in exile. Pretty early on, I became less interested in what he did after that. The only point in the book that jumps forward in time is that one short scene where all of Jay’s offspring have a family reunion.
TM: That actually happened, right?
MB: Again, I’m not sure. There really was a website somebody put together after Jay died called “Jay’s Kids,” and they put out a call to Jay’s offspring to get together. I don’t know if there really was a meeting. Early on, I thought about doing a chapter where I interviewed a bunch of his kids. Then I had an idea about doing a long chapter from the point of view of one of his kids, going around the country trying to meet his lost siblings. I kind of cycled through lots of alternate scenarios. I have a problem picking one book when I start writing a book, and I think that’s partly where this hybrid style comes from.
TM: Have you heard this term “ahistorical fantasia?”
MB: Um, no.
TM: I’ve seen it used in reference to Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! — where there’s a set of historical facts, which the author twists and then adds fantasy on top. Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown is such a book, and I would certainly think Screamin’ Jay would fit in there.
MB: I’ve never heard that term, but I like that kind of book. Based on these first two novels, I guess that’s what I do [laughs].
TM: What is it that you do?
MB: Before I wrote Sacco and Vanzetti, I was trying for years, pretty unsuccessfully, to write short stories taken from my life. It never worked. When I hit upon the idea of Sacco and Vanzetti, part of what worked for me was the history element of it — having something I could research and draw upon. In a way, it connects with my work as a journalist. You go out and talk to people and take notes. You have raw material to work with. With the novels, I liked having raw material to work with — with Sacco and Vanzetti, it was the history of Italian anarchists and film comedy teams; with Screamin’ Jay, it was his story of the world he was living in. I liked having that stuff and then being able to just fuck with it.
TM: So the history is a springboard, a beginning point. It’s not the point.
MB: Right. You can play off of it and mess with people’s expectations. I found that works for me.
TM: What are some other books that you would consider similar in that approach? E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime?
MB: Maybe Ragtime. I loved the book, but Doctorow is not doing anything totally crazy with history. A novel by Kevin Barry, Beatlebone, is a recent example, where he takes this sliver of a fact from history–
TM: That John Lennon actually owned an island off the west coast of Ireland.
MB: — and then he makes up this great taxi driver/fixer character who takes Lennon around on this lost weekend there. I think all of that’s made up. I don’t know if Lennon even visited the island. That’s something great. I think maybe Pynchon to a degree does a lot of that. It’s funny, the other day I was in a Duane Reade and they were playing an old Chuck Berry tune, one of his big hits. I love Chuck Berry, it was a great song, but I heard it and I thought this really sounds like a song from the ’50s. It sounds very dated. And it just made me think how weird “I Put a Spell on You” is — you don’t really know where it comes from. I think that’s partly why it’s been covered so often and in so many different ways. And then Jay’s theatricality was ahead of his time.
TM: He was fucking with political correctness before political correctness existed. Going onstage inside a coffin? With a bone in his nose? Come on!
MB: Right, he was dressing like an African witch doctor from a very racist Looney Tunes cartoon from the ’40s. He knew what he was doing. He was messing with audience expectations — white audience expectations. One of his later records was called Black Music for White People, and it seems to me his stage persona, his get-up, his whole shtick was a way of saying to white audiences, “You think you want authenticity from a black performer? How ’bout this?” I kind of love the idea of that. Again, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but I’ve got think some of that was going on in his head.
TM: Are you going to write about musicians again, other than in your journalism? You think fictionally you’ll attack other musicians?
MB: I don’t have a next project. I have a few rough ideas, but none of them involves music. I stumbled onto Jay’s story and was drawn to it, so it could happen again. You never know.