Aspen Summer Words: Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders
June 23, 2010
ASPEN – For some 15 years, Wesley Stace has been straddling two worlds. Under his own given name, he has been writing novels, including his well-received 2004 debut, “Misfortune,” and “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer,” which will be published in Stace’s native U.K. a week from Thursday.
The novel writing is a lonely and quiet business, which is ideal for Stace, who is 44, married and has two young children. The novels are typically set at some point in the remote past – “Misfortune” in the 1820s; “by George,” his second book, between 1930 and 1973 – but the books are acts of exposing himself.
“In my novels, I think I write much more openly about myself, and how I’m feeling,” Stace said outside a coffee shop at the bottom of the gondola on Tuesday afternoon.
Under the assumed name of John Wesley Harding (nicked from the title of Bob Dylan’s 1967 album), Stace has also had a career as a singer-songwriter. It is a relatively mobile and outgoing profession, involving touring and getting up on-stage to make a personal connection with the audience.
Unlike his novels, Stace’s songs are sly, elusive and generally narrated in a voice that doesn’t reflect his own. As a songwriter, he compares himself to Mose Allison and Randy Newman, whose ironic tone puts a distance between the song and the writer. “I like the slightly less emotional, not the on-your-sleeve, confessional songwriting,” he said.
The two realms have put Stace in the company of two sets of artists. He has toured with Los Lobos, X, and was on an early Furthur Festival, surrounded by members of the Grateful Dead and other musicians from the jam-band nation. He also appears at literary gatherings. At a writers’ conference near Paris a few years ago, Stace found himself up very late one night in a hotel room, singing folk songs with novelist Colum McCann – winner of the 2006 National Book Award for “Let the Great World Spin,” and the current writer in residence with the Aspen Writers’ Foundation – and Olga Grushin, a Moscow-born novelist who taught Stace and McCann some Russian folk tunes.
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Stace brings his two worlds together in John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. The variety show gathers artists from Stace’s parallel universes, and from other realms as well: Among those who have appeared in Cabinet of Wonders presentations since the idea was launched in New York City a year ago are novelists Colson Whitehead and Rick Moody, singer-songwriters Rosanne Cash and Josh Ritter, and comedians Janeane Garofalo and Eugene Mirman, from “The Flight of the Conchords,” who has been a key collaborator with Stace in the shows.
“It was a way, really, to bring together my singer-songwriter friends, the ones who are literary and smart, and my book-writing friends who aren’t overly book-smart,” Stace said. “Cabinet of Wonders is kind of those two things thrown in together. And throw in some theater and comedy. It’s so varied, it’s bonkers.”
When the Cabinet gets opened in Aspen Thursday at Belly Up, as part of the Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, among those who will pop out are McCann, Mirman and Doe, as well as singer-songwriter Kristin Hersh, of Throwing Muses; and authors Elizabeth McCracken and Edward Carey. The show, which features readings, song performances and more, is molded by Stace, but for the most part he lets the invited artists do what it is they do best.
“It’s a giant umbrella show into which you can put whatever’s already there,” Stace said, adding that virtually all of the participants have been friends of his. “It’s a shell, a cloak. It’s got its own shape, which I kind of manufacture as it goes through the evening. You see them doing what they normally do, and then you see them do what they do when they collaborate with other people.”
Music and literature also have been coming together for Stace in another way. His first two novels were not about musicians: “Misfortune” followed an orphan boy who is raised by a wealthy family as a girl. (The book did include lyrics to several original ballads, which Stace recorded for a separate album, titled “Songs of Misfortune.”) “by George” revolves around a family of ventriloquists.
But “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer” revolves around a classical composer, and the critic who years later tries to explain the murders committed by the composer. And a fourth novel, still in progress, is about a music group.
“‘Charles Jessold,'” Stace said, “is about music, but not the kind of music I make. It’s about the feelings, the emotions of music, but not getting into the nitty-gritty of what I do. And about the relationship between musicians and critics, which I think is really interesting.”