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For Author Peter Straub, Listening To Jazz Was Like Reading Fiction


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Peter Straub was the best selling author of novels, short stories, novellas and essays. He passed away earlier this month at the age of 79.

Peter started out with dreams of writing poetry and literary fiction. After publishing his first two novels, and two books of poetry, he finally asked himself the question that so many artists find themselves asking: how do I make a living at this? An agent suggested he try writing a "gothic novel," advice that reoriented him for much of the rest of his career. His natural ability to write novels that, as he said, would be appealing to people who love Philip Roth and those who love Stephen King, connected with a huge audience that picked up what he was putting down over the course of many years.

But before he became a writer in earnest he was a jazz lover. He discovered jazz as a boy growing up in Milwaukee in the late 1950s. He gravitated toward Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans and Miles Davis.

While the hip, swinging sounds of his favorite soloists followed him from stage to stage and page to page, there was something else that stayed with him as well: the darker moments of his childhood. A car accident that shaped his first years in school and left him alone and isolated in a body cast and a wheelchair, just as he was learning to read. He recovered, but it turned out to be a kind of catalyst for his career as a writer. And there was an even darker secret that he somehow managed to hide from even himself well into adulthood.

In our conversation, originally recorded in 2017, we explored all of this. The through line of jazz and fiction, improvisation and writing, how the past stays with us into the present, and how watching his Norwegian farmer relatives taught him to write diligently.

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