Interview: Dan Crane, Author
Admit it. You’ve done it. We all have at one time or another. As kids in our bedrooms. As drunken adults at a wedding reception. You might have done it in the car on the way to work today.
Play air guitar, that is.
But some people take air guitar beyond just a simple, spontaneous expression of a song’s rock-ness. Some people actually train and travel the globe in order to compete in air guitar competitions. And Dan Crane is one of those people.
A “real” guitarist, Crane played in bands for years. But friends introduced him to competitive air guitar and he was hooked. Dissatisfied with an unfulfilling job, Crane crossed the country competing in a number of tournaments and journeyed to Scandinavia to rock it out on the international stage. He documented his experience in To Air is Human: One Man’s Quest to Become the World’s Greatest Air Guitarist, a rollicking read that follows him from a strip club in New York to the Carson Daly show to the legendary stage of the Roxy in Hollywood to the small college town of Oulu, Finland for the Air Guitar World Championships. A long the way, he encounters a hilarious assortment of characters named Krye Tuff, The Rockness Monster, C-Diddy, The Red Plectrum, and many others.
Crane was kind enough to put down his air axe long enough to exchange some emails about the genesis of his obsession with air guitar, the coolest names in the biz, and how he built a writing career.
Slushpile: You entered your first air guitar competition somewhat just for fun, in order to “play what would likely be a crowded gig, get some free drinks, and be judged on my merits as a rockstar – all without having to carry any gear to or from the venue.” At what point did air guitar cease being something that was just fun and become more of a vocation or obsession for you?
Crane: I think air guitar truly became an obsession after Carson Daly flew me to LA to compete in the West Coast finals following my appearance on his show. Once I came in second place for a second time, I thought, “Okay, I must be pretty good at this to keep getting second place…” and I also thought, “Fuck. This is a ridiculously stupid amount of fun.”
Slushpile: You grew up playing in bands and have serious musical abilities. In addition to those pursuits, what drew you to writing?
Crane: I had spent about eight or ten years as an educational software producer, and always knew it was the wrong career for me. I was pretty sure I could write, I just never thought about making a career out of it. My conversion was really thanks to an editor at Slate who I met at a dinner party at Malcolm Gladwell’s (who hosts excellent dinner parties, btw). Afterwards, she and I began an email correspondence. She thought I wrote funny emails and eventually suggested I pitch her some stories, which I did, and she liked, and Slate ran.
Slushpile: As a follow-up to that question, how did you build a career as a writer? In To Air is Human, you describe your dissatisfaction with a job in the software industry. But once you left that gig, how did you get your freelancing work off the ground?
Crane: After I had written my second or third piece for Slate—a tour diary of my band which at that time was called Les Sans Culottes, now we are Nous Non Plus—I got an email from an agent that liked my writing and asked if I had any book ideas. I didn’t really at the time, but sent her a few crappy ones anyway. Then, randomly, I met another writer who suggested I talk to her brother who was a book agent (Matt McGowan at Francis Goldin). We talked, and I pitched him a few book ideas that he didn’t like. Then he said, “Tell me more about this air guitar thing you’re involved in…” So the idea for a book about my experience as an air guitarist was really his. The title, of course, was all mine.
Slushpile: In the author’s note you (or Bjorn, rather) writes “I didn’t do all this so that I could write a book about it.” At what point did you start thinking your air guitar odyssey would make a good book?
Crane: Like I said, it wasn’t really my idea to write a book about it—it was my agent’s. The point of that author’s note was that I didn’t want people to think that I simply participated in all these competitions as a stunt to have a book subject. I really did get obsessed. I really did fly around the world in pursuit of air greatness, and there were moments (difficult as this may be to believe) that I actually thought I achieved some kind of artistic transcendence in it all. The thought of a journalist trying doing it as a stunt was sort of an anathema—and I wanted to disprove any suggestion that this was my motivation.
Slushpile: Did you have any books that you used as role models or inspiration for To Air is Human?
Crane: Yeah, I read or at least perused some rock bios (Dave Navarro, Anthony Kiedis, Tommy Lee) but I thought those were overall pretty awful—did you know that Tommy Lee’s cock is a “character” in his book? Every time he “talks,” there’s a little spooge bubble for his thoughts. His dick has a mind of its own I guess…
The two books that inspired me most were Hell Bent for Leather by Seb Hunter, and Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City. And Klosterman was nice enough to give me a blurb too.
Slushpile: On a more general level, what are some of your favorite books?
Crane: One of my all time favorite books is Mating by Norman Rush. I love pretty much anything Matthew Klam writes, and I once wrote a song (Smoke) based on one of the short stories in A.M. Homes’ The Safety of Objects. I loved “Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure.” He’s hilarious. Currently reading Rock On by Dan Kennedy and enjoying it. I’m a big George Saunders fan too—we have the same editor, but he’s a fucking genius—I’m just a schmuck.
Slushpile: What advice do you have for other aspiring writers who are currently employed in less-than-fulfilling jobs?
Crane: My advice would be to find a subject matter that you can completely obsess over and will have no problem dedicating at least a year of your life to entirely. This can be fiction or non-fiction of course. And then, I guess I’d say just keep throwing your ideas out to whoever seems willing to catch them. Eventually something will stick.
Also, take frequent breaks, during which time, might I suggest you play a little air guitar?
Slushpile: A key milestone in any air guitarist’s life is selecting the stage name, the “nom d’air” as you describe it. Bjorn Turoque is pretty damn cool but I think my favorite name in the book is The Rockness Monster. Which one of your competitors’ name do you like the best?
Crane: I have to agree. The Rockness Monster is just plain awesome. I think he now actually officially goes by “The Rockness Fucking Monster.” He’s a great guy, and a helluva air guitarist—undefeated on his home turf of Los Angeles, and 2005 US champ (edging me out by .1 of a point).
My second favorite it Airsatz, but I think that flies over most people’s heads.
Slushpile: What was the most challenging aspect of describing air guitar to readers? What did you struggle with in writing about an invisible art form?
Crane: It’s the same struggle I have with writing about music, which I hate doing. That’s why I included that introductory note paraphrasing Elvis Costello’s famous remark about writing about music. It went, “If I may paraphrase Elvis Costello, writing about air guitar is like choreography about blueprints.”
Yes, describing something so visual, and yet something that’s ACTUALLY INVISIBLE, is not easy. But I’d like to think I nailed it.
Slushpile: Did your experience playing air guitar in front of thousands of people benefit your writing? Maybe you had fewer inhibitions in your work? Maybe you weren’t as worried about criticism as another beginning author?
Crane: I’m not sure I could quantify how much the public performances benefitted the private writing. I’ve always been a fairly open self-deprecator. I did think twice about including the story of paying $1,200 for a lap dance (and considering my mother now likes to bring it up every few months or so, I regret it a little. Also I’ll probably never be able to run for governor of New York. Although…) but I think that it’s important to be open and honest, especially if it serves a point. As far as criticism goes, I’ve never really feared criticism. If anyone actually bothers to read the book, that’s good enough for me.
Slushpile: What kind of guitar do you envision in your hands when you’re rocking some serious air?
Crane: An invisible one.
Slushpile: In the time period of the book, the air guitar competition experiences tremendous growth in America. How many competitions and competitors are there today?
Crane: This year, they expect to do nearly 30 competitions in the US alone with two regional semi-finals. Competitive air guitar’s growth over the past five years has been exponential.
Slushpile: How did you find an agent and a publisher for To Air is Human? Did you query widely with a traditional proposal? Did an agent approach you based on some of your newspaper writing? How did the whole deal unfold?
Crane: See above re how I met the agent. Once we agreed on the subject, he guided me through putting a proposal together and we did a back-and-forth for a few months while I got him everything he thought he needed—from a chapter outline, preface and sample chapter to related press and a video reel (since I had already done TV appearances, etc). We then sent the proposal out to thirteen houses and I had my first offer two days later. I was completely shocked. In the end, there were offers from four publishers, and we happily settled on Riverhead.
Slushpile: The book has a cool design with graphics and illustrations by Ben Gibson. How did you work with Gibson? Did the publisher hook you up with him? Or, did you work with him prior to submitting the book for consideration?
Crane: Gibson is one of Riverhead’s in-house designers—I really liked his work with George Saunders’ Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. He’s great. I do regret we didn’t prototype the cover a bit more though because it really rips easily – I think there were a lot of returns because the covers were half torn off by the time they reached the stores.
Ben and I worked closely together to nail down and fine-tune the illustrations, which he based on my text. Ben rocks!
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Crane: Iterate. Write as much as you can without self-editing and then go back and tighten until it’s as close to perfect as you can get it.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t –live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Crane: Meet other people in the publishing industry and find a nice way to pitch them, or their friends, ideas. Then take them out for a drink/dinner to thank them. And be funny.
For more information on Dan Crane’s writing and his love of fine snack food, check out his website.
For more information on the Scandinavian air guitar wizard, check out Bjorn Turoque’s website.