The Paula Gordon Show
Sandra Mackey

Wesley Stace

. . . novelist & musician. As John Wesley Harding, Wesley Stace has 13 albums to his credit and one in the wings.  He has performed with many popular musicians from Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and John Prine to Joan Baez, Peter Buck and others. His original songs have been featured in films and often covered. In addition to lyrics published as chapbooks, Wesley Stace is recognized for his essays and wrote the introduction to The Modern Library’s The Haunted House by Charles Dickens. Educated at Cambridge,Misfortune is his first novel.


Misfortune is not all bad, according to Wesley Stace and John Wesley Harding. The two names fit one man -- Mr. Stace, aka the performer John Wesley Harding -- as the one title, “Misfortune,” is shared by the song he wrote that inspired his first novel by the same name.

Often feeling the need to revive things, both in his musical career and in his novel, perhaps it’s a natural that Mr. Stace’s song was a ballad, and his novel begins in 1830. “Misfortune,” the ballad, never appears in Misfortune, A Novel.  But neither would get very far without the ballads of old, the classic English tradition of setting stories to music.

Feeling quite old-fashioned in his need for a story, Mr. Stace also likes a tune and good rhyme in music, he says, thinking of them as the building bricks of art. Easily Mr. Stace’s favorite kind of music, he says, is the kind of music with which Fairport Convention and other bands in the 1960s made names for themselves during the great welling-up, revival and electrification of English folk music. Savoring the music’s strong back-beat, for him these musicians were rediscovering and bringing back to life ancient songs, making them appealing in the same ways he would like his musical career to do. Of course that feeling found its way into his ballad and into his novel, he says.

Wanting to write a very warm book with big characters and a big plot -- the kind of book Mr. Stace likes to read -- gave him the grounding for surprising twists in the long and honored tradition of coming-of-age stories. In his original song, his character is someone on whom society puts pressures but who comes out smiling. Rose Old in the novel is very much cut from the same cloth, with twists and turns enough to keep the author juggling.

No, this is not a well-researched period piece. Wesley Stace wrote about things that interest him -- the 19th century, Quakers, ballads and libraries, though he confesses having to do research on costumes, because they play an important in the novel. But when his plot said, “This is what is going to happen,” he followed its lead, just as when his characters took on a life of their own, he gave them their due. Yes, he recognizes, characters come from one’s subconscious because you’re creating them, but they are people -- you don’t understand why you’re creating them, their relevance comes clear to you later.

While it was certainly his intention to honor individual consciousness in his novel, he says that in a sense he’s still sifting through the book himself, finding out along with his readers what it’s “about.”  Because first and foremost, he says, he wrote the novel to tell the story lurking in his song -- “...I was found by the richest man in the world....I was brought up as a girl...” You’ll have to ask Rose how things worked out.

[This Program was recorded April 29, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Wesley Stace describes the part his novel plays in the heritage of story in English culture for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. The importance of story-telling in the human experience is considered, in books and in music.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:51 secs

Conversation 2

Noting the long and illustrious tradition of English ballads and their stories, Mr. Stace relates ballads to the tradition out of which his novel comes, as do his albums. He describes his approach to finding information. He thinks of the ballad tradition as a river, he says, and compares how he sings them to singing songs he’s written. He describes how he wrote the novel _Misfortune_, starting with his song by the same name, creating a whole world, drawing on all the things he knows how to do.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:05 secs

Conversation 3

Mr. Stace lets his character, Rose, explain the possibility that it is women who are the great female impersonators. He describes why he thinks of his novel as a coming-of-age story.  He wanted to write a very warm book with big characters and a big plot, Mr. Stace says, so he had to let the book decide how to write itself. He remembers why he chose to set the story in the past and describes the freedom that gave him. He talks about the importance of clothes, of gender and of not fetishizing the past, content with what he calls a rip-roaring plot.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:16 secs

Conversation 4

Having written hundreds of songs, Mr. Stace describes ways that being a musician contributed to becoming a novelist. Music is part of his whole family, he says, remembering the doctorate he did not complete at Cambridge.  He describes how life has unfolded for him. He draws parallels between the song, “Misfortune,” and the novel.  He focuses on how Rose has to invent herself. Expressing his rejection of slavery, patriarchy and religious institutions, he gives examples of how novels give the novelist away.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:10 secs

Conversation 5

Mr. Stace recalls his favorite part of his novel, a mystical moment similar to the spirit of old ballads, he says. A reader should never feel manipulated by a writer, he says, and explains why. Averse to sloganeering, he compares great songs to terrible ones. Story and characters hold people, Mr. Stace believes, confident a good story allows things to emerge.  He describes touring, why he does not have to replicate himself musically. He thinks of the people who fund his career as his patrons, he says, and explains. He puts his approach in historical perspective, describing his own love of story and his drive to revive things.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:39 secs

Conversation 6

He’s still discovering, Mr. Stace says, with vivid examples from his novel and his songs. He summarizes his hope to honor individual consciousness in Misfortune.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:36 secs


We are always appreciative of unhearlded people it takes to get a good book into the hands of the reading public. We thank Sophie Cottrell for her hospitality and for giving us a glimpse into the “behind-the-scenes” work in the publishing world.

We wish Mr. and Mrs. Stace all the best.

Misfortune: A Novel is published by Little Brown.
To learn more about Wesley Stace, visit his website.  He also has a website for his alter-ego, John Welsey Harding.

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