We just finished the novel, 49 Mix Tapes, by Jeff Tompkins and had the pleasure to talk with him about the book and its 80s context. Set between 1985 and 1989, this is the story of Will and Abby. Will wants more, but Abby has him stuck in the “just friends” zone. It is a fun story about not just their relationship, but coming of age in the late 80s and all the culture that goes with it. The book is loaded with the music, movies and TV of the 80s and is a fun trip down memory lane for any 80s nuts. Throw in a good story with interesting characters, and it was the perfect pick for my recent trip to the beach. You can connect with Jeff at his blog or buy the book (or ebook) on Amazon. It is also available for Nook.
1. What sparked the idea for “49 Mix Tapes?”
I had been thinking about this story in very general terms for over twenty years. I graduated from high school in 1989, so all of my teen years were in the 1980s, and 80s culture has always stuck with me. So did the idea of writing about Will and Abby. They didn’t have names until the summer of 2011, when I started to work on the book. But I knew them very well, and I knew I wanted to tell a story with a soundtrack. It seems strange to try that in book form, but it’s what I was going for and I hope it worked, and maybe it will introduce younger people to some of the music (and movies) of that era. I spent two months writing about Will and Abby, figuring out how I wanted the story to go, but most importantly really knowing who they were as characters. Those two months yielded about twenty-five pages of character notes and plotlines, and I spent the next three months writing the book.
2. Do you see yourself in Will? Did you have a best girlfriend relationship that went unrequited?
There’s a little bit of me in all the characters, but more so with Will, of course. Especially the writing aspect, and how he keeps his writing to himself. I didn’t have a best girlfriend situation that went unrequited. Abby’s character is largely based on an ex-girlfriend who started off as a girlfriend, not just a friend, and it was a relationship that I never wanted to end. I didn’t want to tell that story as it actually happened. It would have been more autobiographical than I wanted. So I put Abby in the role of a friend, and approached the whole thing from a different angle.
3. The book is chock full of 80s references to movies, TV, and music. What were your favorites?
Like so many other people of our generation, I’m a huge fan of John Hughes. The word “genius” is probably overused in our society, but I believe Hughes truly was one. I also think Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a masterpiece. I watched most of the popular sitcoms in the 1980s, but my favorite was definitely Cheers. When it came to hour-long shows, I don’t think I missed a single episode of Moonlighting or Miami Vice. As for music, it was mostly the new wave stuff for me.
4. How do you feel about all the remakes of 80s movies that are happening now? Compliment to the 80s, or ruining the classics?
I cringe every time I see something about a remake. To me, those movies are perfect the way they are. They’re time capsules of sorts and I just can’t imagine other actresses and actors playing those parts.
5. I was intrigued by the characters’ fixation on the impending doom associated with nuclear holocaust. I certainly remember that as a part my 80s childhood. In what ways do you think it affected us? And, do you think today’s kids feel it, perhaps related to different threats?
I think it affected us negatively, but not as negatively as it did our parents’ generation. They made it into adulthood believing that the Soviets were going to obliterate us one day. In 1989 (when I was 18 and just out of high school) we watched the Berlin Wall come down and I think that’s when most of us started to figure out that it was the beginning of the end of this mysterious “evil empire” on the other side of the world that collapsed from within and might not have been worth all the worry in the first place. But we sure had the fear drummed into us, not only from our leaders, but also from the pop culture. But, hey, we got some great songs out of it. As for today’s kids, I’m not very familiar with their movies, TV, and music, so I don’t know if geopolitics infects their entertainment. Even if it doesn’t, their generation is growing up with the fear of terrorism. That is, if they’re listening to politicians and the media. I kind of hope they aren’t, and that they’re just having fun and being kids. So each generation had/has their own fears. The main difference is that, unlike today’s kids, we had good music and movies. Kidding! (Sort of . . .)
6. It was neat to look back on a time when teenage life was unplugged. If someone wasn’t at home, they were just unreachable. Crazy stuff. How do you think today’s technology has changed the coming of age process?
I think it’s probably a lot more difficult for kids these days. Looking back on the things my friends and I got away with, I know we wouldn’t have pulled them off (or even tried) if our parents had a way of tracking us like parents do now. An electronic trail of my conversations and whereabouts? No thanks!
7. If Will and Abby had made it to the 90s and gone to college together, would they have stayed together? If you were to write an epilogue, what comes next?
I’ve thought a lot about this. In an earlier draft of the book (which I jokingly call the “director’s cut”; it’s about fifty pages longer) there’s an epilogue. It’s Will, at age forty, talking about getting older and looking back on his entire life from the viewpoint of a middle-aged man. I decided to cut it because like so many teen movies of the 80s, the book is a fairy tale, and I wanted it to end where it ends in the final version. More importantly, though, I was trying to leave it where it was because at that age you really have no idea where your life is going. I think the ending as it is wraps up the story of that period of Will’s and Abby’s life, so not hinting at the future was a deliberate decision I made.
8. Do you still have your mix tapes from the 80s? What’s the song list for your favorite?
I don’t have a single mix tape left from the 80s. But I do have hundreds of 80s mp3s. In fact, they probably make up 95% of the songs I have loaded on my mp3 player. (I use the Sony Walkman mp3 player simply because the original Walkman meant so much in those days so even that’s a bit of nostalgia to me.) For a while in the 80s I was a huge fan of The Police. But now, all these years later, I’ve realized that the songs I really loved (and still do) were mainly from two bands: The Cars and The Go-Go’s. That’s why they’re so prominent in the book. Those bands had a number of hits, but it’s interesting to go back and listen to the songs that weren’t as well-known and rediscover how good they are. I don’t think there’s a song by The Go-Go’s that I don’t like.
9. I loved that the climactic scene at the end was tied in prom – so very 80s. Some of my favorite 80s movies feature plots that hit the crescendo at the prom (thinking of Valley Girl and Just One of the Guys among others). Was that on purpose?
It was sort of a nod to the prom scenes from 80s movies, but it didn’t start out that way. I first had the climactic scene happening entirely on Abby’s front porch. But the ending as it is in the book just came to me one day. It seemed like something Will would do. He’d been getting braver and more impulsive, so the scene just kind of played out like that. And without giving too much away, the problem they run into at the end was something I added to set it apart from how those scenes usually played out in the movies.
10. What’s next for you? Do you have another book in the works?
I have a few notebooks (much like Will does) that are full of ideas. Some are just one-line thoughts, some are pages and pages of dialogue between characters I might use in the future, and I have a couple of outlines and character sketches for future books. One of my writing goals in 2012 is to complete the screenplay adaptation of 49 Mix Tapes.