Interview: Anna Shinoda and Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda Talk "Learning Not to Drown"
Mon, 11 Aug 2014 13:33:56
Anna Shinoda's debut novel Learning Not to Drown is emotional, entrancing, and engaging. It instantly transfixes readers with its dreamy and rapid-fire prose, weaving together an unforgettable tale of a family and its trials and tribulations. Given that energy, it's not so different from a Linkin Park record. Both prove instantly enticing and also rewarding on a deeper level, provoking thoughts and emotions of all kinds. Learning Not to Drown also remains one of the best books you'll read all year.
Given that artistic connection, ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino sat down with author Anna Shinoda and her husband Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda for an exclusive interview about Learning Not to Drown and so much more.
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Your prose in Learning Not to Drown is very dreamy at times, but the story itself remains realistic and relatable. How do you balance those two sentiments?
Anna Shinoda: I think part of that has to do with my writing process in general. I probably spend ninety percent of my process daydreaming, which I think lends itself to that otherworldly feeling in parts of the book. I'll be thinking about something, and a scene will start coming together in my mind. Slowly, I'll feel things like the smells and what's going on in the dialogue. Once I've got a really good handle on the scene, I'll sit down and start typing it in. I try to get that daydream into the computer. I come back in and make it more cohesive as a story in my revision process. I did 22 full revisions of the novel, and that's not including individual chapter revisions. In that process, I tried to get it a little more concrete and shape it into an understandable story with a beginning, middle, and end.
You allow the reader into Clare's head, while clearly establishing her character.
Anna Shinoda: Absolutely! That's something which was really important to me because I wanted the reader to really experience what it's like to have a family member who's incarcerated. It was really crucial for me to get to the point where the reader felt like he or she was right there with Clare for the whole journey.
The book begins examining her family very quickly, thrusting the reader into conflict.
Anna Shinoda: The funny thing is, in my first draft, I trade to make it a big surprise the brother was in prison. Like halfway through the book, you find out, "Whoa, that's what's going on!" It didn't work. It was great to do a revision where I put it out there in the beginning and started getting into these problems within the family and not have it be this secret from the reader. It worked out well.
Do you tend to listen to music while you're writing?
Anna Shinoda: When I'm writing, I actually like to listen to music without any words. So, I generally go to classical music. Emerson String Quartet is a group of musicians I was listening to a lot while I was writing this. What they do has this dark, unsettling feeling to it, but it also has a hopeful feeling as well. That was one of the groups I listened to. I'll listen to pretty much any classical music in general as long as it's not too well-known. I wouldn't want to be listening to "Fur Elise" or something because my brain already knows that and can go off on other memories made with that song in the background.
Mike, what was your first reaction to reading Learning Not to Drown? When did you first experience it and what did you feel?
Mike Shinoda: Well, I first read a version of it that felt more like a memoir. Anna worked on this book for the better part of ten years. The early version was like her getting things off her chest. There was stream-of-consciousness as well as more specific memories and whatnot. As it developed and got better, she sort of removed herself and her actual situation from the story and replaced those elements with more colorful and interesting characters that were bigger than real life. That's not to say it's some epic fantasy. It's actually a very realistic and complex novel. That's what I like about it. I got to watch that process happen, and she made a lot of choices to make the story a better story. This is true for music as well. It's even more true for painting and drawing, which is what I went to school for. Sometimes, when you draw something that's too much like the actual thing, it doesn't feel very real. Then, when you take artistic license in the colors and the depth, it starts to feel more like what you feel when you look at something. I think that was true for Anna's story.
Anna Shinoda: I wanted to mention, Mike was able to help critique what I was doing and give me feedback throughout the whole process. He doesn't read a ton of things, but he's really good at giving a critical eye to something. There were certain chapters where I wanted to make sure I didn't mess up the boy parts, especially when Peter is describing what he saw to Clare. I wanted to make sure that rang true, and it sounded like a teenage boy is telling a story to his sister and not an adult woman trying to pose as a teenage boy telling a story [Laughs]. Mike was really helpful with little tweaks like, "No, no, a guy would never say that. Take that out and put it this way instead". That was hugely helpful for me.
In both of your respective art forms, you've examined addiction. How do you personalize that exploration of such a touchy subject and communicate something different?
Anna Shinoda: One of the things I've learned throughout the years of having personal relationships with several people who had addiction problems, the bottom line is that they deserve respect as human beings and the addiction is only a fraction of their lives. That's something I think, a lot of times, people forget in the depiction of addicts in movies and things like that. They're normal people for most of the time until they flip into the addiction. A lot of them function very highly. Personally, I wanted to communicate this very realistic view of what that is like. The drugs and alcohol and the effects they have on a person aren't there all the time. Whether consciously or subconsciously, that was important for me to get through in my story. It's difficult as someone who loves that person to experience both sides of them.
Mike Shinoda: On my end, the first thing I think of is the approach. If you know someone who is an addict, it's always a difficult thing. From my perspective, something that has been the most effective but also difficult is to say to that person, "You're doing something to yourself that affects you. It affects other people around you. I care about you, but I also can't put up with this". You really have to stick to your guns as far as drawing a line and saying, "If you continue to be this way, then I have no choice but to not participate—not hang out with you anymore or not have a relationship with you anymore". It's whatever you have to do in order to protect yourself. They're at the mercy of this other voice inside their head. Oftentimes, it's a very convincing voice. They need to realize it's doing something negative to them because it may not seem like it is.
What books, movies, or music do you two bond over?
Anna Shinoda: We share a lot in common. We're both museum nerds. Whenever we're out on tour, something I know Mike will always want to do is go check out a museum or an art show. As far as our taste goes, we both like dark but interesting art.
Mike Shinoda: It's definitely darker and more serious stuff, but it's not just dark for the sake of being dark.
Anna Shinoda: We also like dark comedies.
Mike Shinoda: You could be talking about Mark Ryden or Murakami or a movie like Fight Club or Tim Burton's movies. What did we watch recently, Anna?
Anna Shinoda: It was Donnie Darko, and we both walked away going, "Huh?" We never saw it when it came out. We were on vacation, and we decided to watch it. My all-time favorite movie is Harold and Maude. Mike's is Se7en. We're interested in this art that's sort of dark, but you can still take a step back and find the humor. Book-wise, we both love Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris. If you're reading those without humor, it'll come across as incredibly dark. With that humor, it adds this extra layer. That's something Mike and I instinctively enjoy. There are also some classical painters we bond over. Rubens is one of our favorites. It has that dark, bizarre, and interesting side to it.
Mike, given The Hunting Party's heavier edge, what heavy records impacted you the most?
Mike Shinoda: Coincidentally, I was listening to a playlist I made of newer rock music. Then, I flipped over to a playlist I made while we were writing The Hunting Party. There's something special about albums like The Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come, At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command, and Betty by Helmet. Those are some albums that were defining moments in what I liked about my experience with rock 'n' roll. They're defining moments in my experience with rock music. Because I listened to a lot of hip-hop, I didn't like all rock. The closest thing I came to that is when grunge became really popular, I liked a lot of those bands. I didn't like all of them though. I'm still pretty picky about what bands and songs I like. I think that's more familiar to people these days because of the access to individual songs with streaming and all that. Back in the nineties, it wasn't. You'd be buying albums on cassette and CD. Your mentality was you'd like the artist or the album and not the individual songs from each.
How clear is the whole vision for both of you while you're creating?
Mike Shinoda: For The Hunting Party, ground zero was a day when I couldn't find something to listen to. I was going through all of my music services trying to find an aggressive and modern song. There were so few of them that fit the description I had in my head. None of them were exactly what I wanted. Then, I realized what I was writing at the time was not that. It was more like what alternative radio sounds like now. I felt like I was playing it safe to some degree, and I wasn't making the challenging album I could be making. I put that aside. I ended up putting it in a folder and basically throwing it away. A batch of new things started happening, and it was much more exciting. It comes down to the fact that for rock music and our band in particular, we're living in a time where the metrics by which you measure success are changing. Success isn't chart position. It's not income for us at least. There's something else out there which measures success. It has to do with the excitement of the fans online. It has to do with the excitement of the fans at the shows. I'm grateful that fans will go out and buy the albums and songs. If that's how they want to show support, I'm very grateful. I also know that under the radar, our concert tickets have been selling like crazy. People are really coming out to see the shows. I think that speaks more to the connection we've got with the fans in part because of this album. It's hard for us to get played on the radio with our first single being a six-minute metal song [Laughs].
Anna Shinoda: I'd written other manuscripts before this one, and they didn't sell. Part of the reason this one ended up selling, being published, and doing decently is because incarceration and its effect on family members is really important to me. I grew up with a brother in-and-out-of prison. For me, it was finding a topic that was so important and true to myself and then doing research and exploring how that fit in the world in general and trying to create a novel that shows the reality in that situation. It was difficult to write, but it had that seed of importance and passion for me, at the same time. As I'm moving forward and working on other projects, that's now where I'm starting. My next project is a really important topic for me whether it's personally or something I'm seeing in the world around on me that I feel is an incredible injustice. It isn't talked about or dealt with in a way that perhaps it should be. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. When you consider that there are close to two million people in the prison, think of all the family members out there. When I was doing research, I realized that was close to a lot of people as well as me. Many people don't want to open up and talk about it and the effects it has on families, but it's happening regardless.
When are you two going to work on something together?
Mike Shinoda: It would be a lot of fun. We've talked about it! We don't have anything at this moment though.
Anna Shinoda: There are no concrete plans, but it would be a lot of fun.
Will you be checking out Learning Not to Drown?
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Photo: Innis Casey Photography