How a punk rock god snuck into my romance novel
I was getting nervous.
A major moment for any romance novel writer was upon me: I was about to introduce the love interest of one of my two heroines and I needed to give her a name.
And that’s when I realized I had screwed up.
As a general rule, leading men in romance novels need a big name, or at least a good name. Would a Mr. Darcy be such an appropriate catch if Jane Austen had called him Mr. Tuttlebert? Would Christian Gray look the same if EL James had nicknamed him Melvin Wheeze?
My big mistake was that I had already used Lance. Earlier in Seductive lady Vanessa from Manhattanshire, the titular Lady Vee, an uninhibited and unbridled romance junkie, meets a young man in love. I had made up this guy – Lance – to be a handsome straight man. His job was to tell a story of lost love so that Lady Vanessa would burst out with a vast trove of misguided romantic advice and try (and fail) to mend her broken relationship.
And that’s pretty much what happens.
Except that the first Lady Vanessa gets all hot and bothered at the mere mention of Lance’s name. She regards those five letters as the most manly known bodice nickname and drifts in a reverie on Lance as a truly carnal signifier, not just a noun but a piercing noun and verb.
You can see it, right? Tall, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed. Dark hair. Serious, true, attentive.
I could have changed the sad Lance’s name to, say, Tristan, but Lady Vanessa’s thoughts were too good – at least for me – to cut. So Straight Lance was on board. I needed to look elsewhere to baptize the new favorite of the book.
And speaking of idols, I thought Hart would be a good last name for true love. It was obvious, of course, but a rock-solid start. Now I needed a perfect, dignified name. Then it hit me:
It was obvious. You can see it, right? Tall, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed. Dark hair. Serious, true, attentive. I let you choose the color of his compassionate eyes.
And, like Lance, Grant Hart wasn’t just a name either. As Grant’s lover Aisha Benengeli explains, Grant Hart is “a declarative phrase.” A name, in other words, that says, let love rule.
The solitary pursuit of writing sometimes invites self-satisfaction. I admit it: I was very happy with Grant Hart. I had found an inspired name that could go the distance. He deserved to be in a satirical romance novel – a romance that aims to celebrate the genre in all its brilliance and absurdity.
But the next day, I realized the source of my so-called genius: real life. I hadn’t invented Grant Hart. It already existed. I had even seen him play. Somehow, in my creative rush, I had forgotten the source of my inspiration.
The first Grant Hart was a true rock n’ roll hero. In 1979, he co-founded Minnesota’s legendary Hüsker Dü, a trio whose searing, catchy post-punk sound paved the way for alternative rock and grunge.
In 1984, the group Zen Arcade, a a seething and ambitious two-disc concept album on a runaway, almost universally acclaimed, with Hart and Hüsker Dü co-founder Bob Mold hailed for songs that transcended the bounds of hardcore. Hart, a singing, songwriting, barefoot drummer who dabbled in guitar and keyboards, was arguably an ancestor of Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who later swapped his kit for a guitar to front Foo Fighters. In fact, Foo Fighters covered a Hüsker Dü track written by Hart, “Never Talking to You Again”, and Green Day covered his “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely”.
Other than his name, my fictional Grant Hart – who leaves the woman he loves when she asks him to and then thinks about her every day for years as he helps farmers in the developing world – has nothing in common with the true genius-and-addicted musician.
Using Grant Hart’s name in his story started to feel like a happy accident.
This Grant Hart had an acrimonious band-ending split in 1988 with Mould. Hart’s first solo album, Intolerance, remains an underrated gem. He strapped on a guitar and led a new band, Nova Mob, but it never gained popularity. Eventually he cut back on his performances, got sober, and worked as a graphic designer.
In 2013, he released the third concept album of his career (The Argumentafter John Milton lost paradise) and was the subject of Every Everything, a courageous and lucid documentary about his life. Then he fell ill. He died, a brilliant broke troubadour, in 2017 from complications of liver cancer.
When I realized I had given my character the stolen name rock hero, I wondered if I should find a replacement.
But then I remembered something, and it made me think that the late, great Grant Hart might totally dig having his name in my book. In a way, he belongs there.
It’s because Grant Hart is the only songwriter I can think of to sing about reading books. Paul McCartney sang about writing (or arguably editing) in “Paperback Writer.” Much like Elvis Costello in his witty “Every Day I Write the Book,” but Grant Hart sang about reading. The song – a catchy piano ditty – is called “Books About UFOs”. Here is the opening line:
Walk down the sunny street to the library
Consult books on space.
Hart sings the story of a girl eating oranges, reading books, and sitting in a lawn chair on her roof looking up at the sky. Cue the happy chorus:
She tells the same old story to everyone she knows
She’s just sitting in her room reading UFO books.
There it is: an ode to reading, a portrait of an obsessive devourer of…well, Hart isn’t very specific. I like to think she reads science fiction, astronomy, and stories of alien sightings.
As it happens, Seductive lady Vanessa from Manhattanshire operate in a similar territory. My Lady Vee is addicted to romance and sees the world through the lens of her beloved books. Using Grant Hart’s name in his story started to feel like a happy accident. A fitting coincidence. A cute literary encounter conceived, perhaps, by my own unconscious.
“Books About UFOs” ends with the singer – Grant Hart, anyone? – resolved to find a planet and give it the name of the girl in his song.
Thinking about this unusual romantic gesture, I realized that there was no way to change the name of my fictional hero. It was even more perfect than I had originally thought. It wasn’t stealing; it was a tribute.
I had to Grant Hart.
The seductive lady Vanessa from Manhattanshire, by Seth Kaufman, is available now for pre-order.