J.J. Colagrande was born and raised in New York City
and lives in Miami. He's been a contributing writer
for the Miami Herald, Miami New Times, 944, Closer,
and the Sun-Sentinel. His stories have appeared in
Carve, Big Bridge and Mary, among others.
Colagrande earned an MFA in creative writing from
Florida International University. He is currently a
Professor of Writing at Miami Dade College and
Barry University. His work is available from BlazeVOX
Books.You can keep up to date on the ever evolving
Headz project, including outtakes, art and music, at
the website www.headzthenovel.com.
Headz is the debut novel from author J.J. Colagrande, and follows a group of indie
characters from New York City, Miami and San Francisco as they journey to a Chicago music
festival that none of them will forget ― and few will get to see.
Rich with a kaleidoscope of characters, it is in many ways a traditional tale that emphasises
the trip over the destination. With echoes of On the Road as well as Armistad Maupin's Tales
of the City, Headz combines a classic all-American journey with the spirit of summer music
TBS: Was it important to you to feature many different music genres and people with
different taste in music in the novel?
JJC: Absolutely. I wanted the characters to be as culturally and ethnically diverse as
possible to represent the broad spectrum of American counterculture. If you go to a music
festival it's not just hippie jamband music; there's reggae, hip-hop, indie, deejays, ect. And
it's not just a bunch of white people—in Headz the characters are white, Spanish, black,
Asian, gay, straight, rich, poor, Jewish, Buddhist.
TBS: Which character did your story start with for you?
JJC: Keith was a character I had created previously in a short story, so I already knew
him. Teflon also had a lot of back story, some of which is on the website, and through that
back story did I get the ball moving. It's ironic because Teflon and Keith are intrinsically
linked. They are both sort of trapped inside a figurative cage. Teflon inside the Cage
basketball court, under the false tutelage of his father, and Keith inside his own head with
his obsessions over Sky. I began the project five years ago, so it's easy for me to meditate
on this now, with perspective, and reach a conclusion, but at the start it was just, go, go,
go. Get it all out.
TBS: Kristen (KC) is portrayed as a writer, struggling to get people to accept her chosen
profession. And struggling to make a success of it. Did she provide you with an 'in' to the
story? Is she the character with whom you most strongly identify?
JJC: KC McGovern began as a mouthpiece to comment on writing in general. She's anti-
establishment; she's sort of revolting against the literati who take themselves a little too
serious. But over time she morphed into a real person, young, driven, dreamy, maybe a
little naive. I can identify with KC in the way that I am marketing Headz. I have been going
to music festivals and promoting very much in the same way she is peddling her own book.
I didn't think it would end up like that, but I don't have a problem with it.
Interview by Ruth Lilly and Michelle Misfit
TBS: Do you think that your experiences with publication have affected your feelings
of success? Would your perception of your success have changed if you had self-
published as KC did in the novel?
JJC: Well, I was adamant about not self-publishing Headz because I thought that it
would give me less credibility. I was determined to find an agent and mainstream
publisher, but eventually I went with a small independent press. You know what really
makes me feel like a success? The people who blurbed my book. On the back, to have
David Amram, a living legend who collaborated with Jack Kerouac, say positive things
about my book, that gives me security. And John Dufresne and James W. Hall — they
are big dogs in the industry. Having them blurb my book makes me feel successful. So,
when I do struggle with the insecurity that I'm not a "good" writer because I can't get
published by a mainstream corporate publisher, I look at my blurbs and that gives me
the confidence and foresight to realize I have a good product, a product that
mainstream corporate America isn't supposed to grasp. That drives me to promote
endlessly. And to this date, we've had 7 printings of Headz, with over 1400 copies sold.
It's hard to consider industry and corporate people trailblazers; on the contrary, they
follow the scorched earth.
TBS: KC, Thelonious and Teflon all have a strong sense of aspiration. Is this an
important ideal to you? Would you say aspiration is what pulls you through when
you're in a situation like theirs?
JJC: They are all from New York City and like the city they inhabit, they have scope or
lofty aspirations. They're big and bad just like New York. All the cities in Headz are
personified by the characters that live in them. That's why the Miami characters are
eccentric and druggie. And the San Francisco characters are open and experimental.
Shore Morris, who we meet in Washington, is a bit of a political junkie. But I do believe
aspiration is an important attribute.
TBS: Did you at any stage worry that you might alienate certain readers by choosing a very specific dialect/slang for some of the characters?
JJC: Yes. That was a legitimate concern, but it is also an authentic voice very specific to these countercultures so I don't have a problem
with the voice. But I do think the slang aspect has turned off some powerful agents who have considered taking this project on. And it's a
shame because I know with conviction that there is an audience for this project. I also know that the voice, slang, dialect you talk about is
important to people in hip-hop communities and authentic to a certain generation.
TBS: Do the cities in which you have chosen to set the novel have personal significance?
JJC: Yes. I grew up in New York, I lived in San Francisco, and I currently live in Miami. I also think they are very important American cities,
with regards to culture and quality of life. I also include Chicago in that equation, and that is why I chose that city as the destination of the
TBS: The novel is highly urban. Do you think that an urban environment is more conducive to creativity than a rural setting in today's
society? Do you feel this has changed from other periods of artistic output?
JJC: You would think a rural environment would be more conducive to creativity because of the peaceful setting. I mean, most writing
retreats are in the country, no? Although I never lived in a rural setting, I personally love the hustle and bustle of urban environments. I find
much inspiration in a city landscape. I guess the key is to be able to find the peace and time to be able to produce within the confines of a
city landscape. But if you look at previous periods of creativity, I'm thinking of Paris in the 20's and New York in the 50's, it's relative to a
person's individual aesthetics.
TBS: Clearly you're a music/festival fan. Why did you choose to finish the book before the festival actually takes place?
JJC: Here's a story about a bunch of kids going to a music festival. It's all about the music and getting to this festival. But in the end, the
story ends when the music is supposed to start, and only 4 out of 11 characters will attend, and of those four, none of them originally had
the intention of going. It's the whole 'it's the journey not the destination' thing.
TBS: What is your favourite music festival?
JJC: Oracledang! It's the biggest and baddest of the summer.
TBS: What is it about music festivals that compelled you to write a book based around one?
JJC: It's a wonderful, unique setting that absolutely captures the spirit of youth. This is a setting that hundreds of thousands of people
attend every year. The whole idea of Headz is to give an outsider an inside look at the spectacle that is an American music festival, so when
they go to one, they will be familiar with the setting, while also giving an insider a unique, honest portrait and entertaining story of a world
they love and inhabit.
TBS: Do you have any great festival stories you would like to share with us?
JJC: There are many anecdotes. They're all condensed and embedded into a giant composite within the parameters of a post-modern,
character-driven, entertaining story called Headz, a novel. Your readers should get their paws on a copy...
Thanks very much to J.J. for taking the time to talk to us. You can keep up to date on the ever evolving Headz project, including outtakes, art and
music, at the website www.headzthenovel.com.