Stuff & Nonsense 014: Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?

Hello! It's nice to be back. What a whirlwind few weeks. First, there was San Diego Comic-Con - the mammoth pop culture marathon that looms large every summer. Can't believe this was my 10th one in a row. Each year it feels like the show expands and morphs and this edition was no different. I had a nice time, I think, considering I was working from breakfast until the wee hours for a week and change. Saw a lot of friends (all too briefly), missed a lot of friends and got some good work done via meetings, conversations, panels and whatnot. I even had some news to announce - more on that below.

After the show, I slept in my bed for two nights and then hopped on a bus to our nation's capitol to hang out with some close friends. So, yeah. I'm tired. But excited and glad to be writing these newsletters again. And as usual, I have an interview to share!

One minor note - linkage is a little light this week mainly because I haven't had my usual browsing time, same with reading, TV and podcasts. I'm way behind on the latter two, including Bloodline and True Detective. I'll have more to say on it next week, I predict. Book-wise, I'm really enjoying Neely Tucker's second Sully Carter novel, Murder, D.C. Go read it!


I should preface this interview by saying that Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos is one of my closest friends. We were roommates (along with her husband Ryan, who is also one of my best pals!), she officiated my wedding and we're in a band together. That said, most of the people I interview here are friends of mine to some degree, and I invite them into this space because I think they're interesting and have thoughtful thing to say. Elizabeth is a perfect example of that! She's super-smart, a great writer and has lived a varied and really interesting life in many different fields. I hope my questions did her justice. Glad she had the time to swing by.

I know you very well - but for those reading this newsletter, what's your Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos 101?

I'm like a superhero with a continuity problem in my origin story. I'm a writer with a day job, and I'm also a musician with a day job. That day job used to be in academia where I taught college kids how to not panic when they got a bad grade for the first time in their lives (and also about music history, of both popular and classical music). These days, I've departed academia for the high-stakes (not even kidding) world of NYC real estate, in which I teach buyers how not to panic when they're dealing with the arduous process of buying a house. It's far more lucrative, and no one ever asks you for a letter of recommendation.

You've done a ton of music field work, which I find immensely interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that and what it entails?

Ah, fieldwork! I loved fieldwork. So, here goes: I'm trained as an ethnomusicologist, which means I studied music in/as culture. Ethnomusicology is the bastard child of musicology and anthropology, and my grad program (Columbia) leaned heavily toward the anthropological. Fieldwork is basically deep hanging out, but it's frequently called "participant-observation." In my dissertation research, I hung out with folks who were putting together Ladyfests--early 2000s Riot Grrrl-inspired nonprofit music festivals--in order to write some grand thoughts about Third Wave feminism. It meant going to a lot of planning meetings (the part that's a drag) and to a lot of shows (the part that was awesome).

Post-dissertation, I've done a lot of oral history and archival work for my book on music and feminism in the 1990s. It's very, very hard to do fieldwork if you're an unfunded independent scholar. Academic presses tend to frown upon fieldwork projects that are not approved by university research boards, because there's no supervision of the human subjects aspect of the fieldwork. So, if I'd kept on in the same direction, I'd never be able to publish anything.

You're also a nonfiction and fiction author. What can you tell us about that?

I'm either a really diversely talented writer, or I'm a complete dilettante. I can never decide. I would say that nonfiction and fiction use two different parts of my brain, but that's not entirely true. It's more like different registers of my voice--I can say some things better in fiction than I can in my nonfiction, and vice versa.

I write YA fiction, which is represented by Eric Smith of PS Literary. I don't write stereotypical YA--though, TBH, there's only a tiny sliver of YA that fits those stereotypes, which are mostly developed to shit on the tastes of teen girls. My fiction comes from a very feminist place--I write what I wanted to read when I was a teenager, but also what I want to see as an adult woman. There's been a lot of discussion lately about how very few books with female characters (and female writers) succeed in literary fiction. I find that YA is the opposite--there's room for complex female characters, particularly in contemporary (think A.S. King's Please Ignore Vera Dietz and Ask the Passengers) and historical (think Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity) categories.

In terms of nonfiction, I'm working on a huuuuuge book project that I started in the twilight of my academic career: a book about popular music and feminism in the 1990s. It's an intersectional feminist history of what Ann Powers once called "The Decade of the Year of the Woman in Rock," with chapters on Riot Grrrl (of course), TLC and Queen Latifah (obviously), Rock for Choice, and music and rape culture. It's definitely not a nostalgia trip, as it's far too depressing at times. I've published a lot as an academic, but this book is my attempt to find a new nonfiction voice that appeals to a broader audience.

What books/albums/shows have you been reading and enjoying?

I just read Jonathan Franzen's forthcoming Purity, which I can't say too much about because I have a review of it coming out in Nylon. It was an uneven book, but I nonetheless felt compelled to stay up until 2 a.m. to finish it. Franzen's weird relationship with technology certainly crept in to Purity in a way that wasn't good--he writes things like "handheld device" in places where a normal human would say "phone," even if they mean "tiny pocket computer that does everything AND makes phone calls." Forcing the proper term--that NO ONE USES--into a narrative that is otherwise idiomatically normal frustrated me to no end.

I'm about to read my old critique partner Laura Lee Anderson's Song of Summer -- it's exciting to see something in published form!

Due to my husband's knack for getting promotional items, I have recently acquired some fancy headphones. As a result, I've not been listening to anything new, but I've gone down an "everything on my iPod classic" rabbit hole, which means revisiting everything from The Jam (you know how much I love them, Alex!) to Alban Berg's Lulu. I'm also really enjoying the new Sleater-Kinney, which is absolutely predictable.

As far as shows go, I'm rather desperately trying to catch up on everything. We finally finished the last season of The Americans last night, and OMG HOW AM I GOING TO WAIT UNTIL NEXT SEASON?

Who doesn't love The Jam? But yes, your fandom is particularly strong. Thanks again for getting me into them! Also, I feel like The Americans is the best show on television these days. So consistently good. Anyway!

Shifting a little bit - you've written a ton of really interesting posts on your blog about academia, the challenges you and others faced. You also work in a completely different field from where you spent a big chunk of your professional life. What's that transition been like and how different are the two gigs?

The transition was both incredibly painful and shockingly easy. What was hard was realizing that, despite my fancy degree from my fancy school, despite publications, despite awards, I was never going to get a tenure-track job. And, without a tenure-track job, I was never going to make a living wage or have any kind of job security.

But, because academia is so insular (some might even go so far as to call it a cult), it's very hard to extricate yourself without feeling like an abject failure. And, to those people inside academia, you definitely are a failure if you leave, because "there's always room for people who do good work." That phrase is particularly insidious--when you're in grad school, it's used as reassurance; when you're out on the job market, it turns into a phrase that means you must not be doing good work if you don't succeed.

So, academia comes with a psychological toll that is hard to overcome, because once you feel like a failure, it's hard to get out of the cycle. Ironically, writing about my "failures" in academia (and it's REALLY FUCKING HARD to see graduating from an Ivy League school with a PhD as a failure, in retrospect) and my life as an adjunct was what made me feel like it was finally time to get out.

And here's where it got easy. I managed to land a gig in real estate (after getting licensed, of course) with the super awesome Nielsen Sadownick team in the Brooklyn Heights branch of The Corcoran Group. I do a lot of research for the team, but I also work with buyers and sellers. Real estate isn't anything I ever saw myself in, but I'm surprisingly good at the day-to-day work and suddenly have a real adult, middle-class human amount of money in my bank account. I still think about complicated things like gentrification and income inequality all the time, though, because there's no off button in my brain.

One more thing: We're in a band! We haven't practiced in a while and are dealing with the challenges of adulthood and wanting to make music. What do you enjoy about playing in a group? Playing live? What are your hopes for the future of FD?

WE NEED TO PRACTICE, ALEX. (And I need to finish my contributions to our latest over-the-internet track.) I love the camaraderie of playing with others, and so it's been HORRIBLE to be away from that for so long. The one major problem with the career transition is that I have had a hard time figuring out my schedule--I never quite know when I might have an open house or showing in the evening. I'm getting better at it, though, so LET'S DO THIS. (As soon as I get back from visiting my parents in Louisiana.)

Thanks for chatting! See you soon.


I'll be reading a short story at the Queens LitFest on Aug. 2 with Nancy Bilyeau and Megan Abbott - two amazing writers that I'm honored to share the stage with. Come by!

Another amazing piece of true crime reporting by Sarah Weinman.

Great profile of my publisher, Polis Books, by Oline Cogdill at Mystery Scene Magazine. I'm quoted as well and there's a nice mention of my two upcoming Pete Fernandez novels.

Here I am talking about the Dark Circle comic books I edit at San Diego Comic-Con.

Speaking of Sleater-Kinney - here are Carrie's 10 essential books.

And, finally - this is happening.

Happy belated birthday, Raymond Chandler.

Until next time!