By Karsten Stanley Andersen

The Bruce Librarian interviews Wendy Parnell

Published 2015-08-23
Author of the picture book "Born to Run - the Story of Johnny 99" agreed to answer questions about her book and her Bruce fandom.

A couple of weeks ago the Bruce Librarian reviewed the new picture book “Born to Run: the Story of Johnny 99” by Wendy Parnell. After the review, Greasy Lake sent some questions to the author to learn more about her and her relationship with Springsteen. And if you thought Wendy Parnell was just another clever opportunist trying to make a little money on Springsteen's name, you're wrong. As the interview reveals, she is one of us. In fact, while we're all great fans of Bruce, how many of us can claim to have been sat down for a Bruce intervention? Well, Wendy can, and that's one of the things she talks about in this article, as well as her meeting with Steve Van Zandt, and touring Austin with a life-size cardboard cut out of Bruce.

So how long have you been a Springsteen fan and how did it happen? 
Love the way you phrased the question with “and how did it happen?” Makes me laugh because that’s what it feels like, something that happens to you, something wonderful that goes deep into your soul and transforms you. It was 1983 and I was sixteen. I was listening to and getting turned onto a lot of music, mostly whatever my big brother listened to. A friend gave me a cassette of Born to Run and told me he thought I’d really like it. Like all important life events, I remember the moment vividly. I was in my first car, my dad’s old Fiat spider, when I put the cassette in the car stereo. I remember how the music hit me. It was, and still remains, the most moving, soul stirring, poetic album I have ever heard.

Tell us about one or two highlights of your Springsteen fandom
Meeting Steven Van Zandt this year is certainly a highlight of my fandom! I met him in February at The Nobility Project’s annual Feed The Peace Awards in Austin, Texas where he was being honored. Meeting him was a surreal experience as I have heard Bruce saying “On guitar, Miami Steve Van Zandt!” through my stereo a countless number of times and have seen him play onstage with Bruce. In addition, I had recently been turned onto Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a genius of a radio show on Sirius XM and had just started watching Van Zandt’s show, Lilyhammer, which made the experience even more meaningful. I had a brief and pleasant conversation with him that night. I even made him smile, which I don’t see him do much in photos. The photo I got that night of me and Van Zandt, with him smiling, is a picture I’ll always treasure.

What is it about Bruce Springsteen's music that inspired you to create your own art and basing it on Springsteen? 
It actually started with Joe Ely, another great music artist, and, as you know, a friend of Springsteen. I had gone to hear Joe Ely play at Gruene Hall like I had done many times before. It was on this particular night that I was struck with the idea to create my first music-inspired picture book. Joe had the capacity crowd with their arms in the air, dancing and jumping up and down to his high energy hit “Musta Notta Gotta Lotta” (sleep last night). Later in the set Joe sang about Buddy Brown going back to bed and that's when it hit me. What if Buddy Brown went back to bed because he musta not gotta lotta sleep last night? Right then I could see a picture book. And I thought, if I can create a story with two Joe Ely songs titles, how many more can I fit within one inspired picture book. And that was my first picture book and that’s how it started, my weaving song titles and other references to an artist together to create a story. My friend and Grammy-nominated artist, Marcia Ball, upon seeing my Joe Ely inspired book said she’d love to have a book inspired by her music. That was my second book. So when I decided to keep going with this genre of books that I had created there was no question that my next picture book would be Springsteen-inspired since he is unequivocally my favorite music artist. I also love that Born to Run is my third picture book and Born to Run was Springsteen’s third album.

How did the wonderful illustrations and your collaboration with Matt Hall come about?
Meeting Matt was serendipitous. I began writing my Springsteen-Inspired book in 2010 and had been looking for years for an illustrator to bring the book to life, and not just any illustrator. I wanted someone worthy of the job because this book embodied over thirty years of passion for an artist’s music and someone I greatly admired. Since the main characters in the book are cars, I fantasized about having an illustrator who had worked on the Pixar animated movie Cars and who could give the book that cinematic look and would understand how to anthropomorphize cars. I also wanted to work with someone in my geographical area so we could meet regularly over the course of creating the book. I tried Googling to find an illustrator, using key words “ llustrator", "Pixar", "Austin" to no avail. Then one evening I sidled up to my boyfriend at a wine bar round the corner from my house when he points to the guy he’s just met standing next to him and says, “You need to meet his guy” and it was Matt Hall. Matt not only lives in my same town but had worked for DreamWorks for years. He was the illustrator I had hoped to find!

It struck me as I read the book how many Springsteen references there really are - not just lyrical, but also sometimes in the illustrations - references only a true Springsteen fan would catch. You must be a real Bruce geek? 
I am! So much so that when I was in college my friends staged an intervention to try and save me from my Springsteen mania. They really did! It went something like this. I was in my dorm room with my Springsteen posters on the wall, listening to my Springsteen music, looking at my Springsteen magazines when a friend called me into the hall. When I get out in the hall I’m surrounded by my well-meaning dorm mates who have me sit down. They tell me that I have a problem and that they are there to help. Then they drag my boxes of Springsteen memorabilia from my dorm room, pull the boxes out into the hallway and tell me that, for my own good, they are going to take it all off my hands. I sat there stunned. This was 1985, just after Born in the USA, another pinnacle of Springsteen's career, and Bruce was everywhere, in every magazine, in books, on shirts, you name it and I tried to collect it all. And this was before the internet so my Springsteen stuff had been slowly collected from all kinds of different places and sources. Also I already had all of Bruce’s music so I had begun listening to and collecting his bandmates and other New Jersey music that I knew he liked. It was an impressive collection that I had amassed. Truth is, as I watched my boxes of Springsteen stuff being hauled off, I was kind of relieved because my habit was costing me a small fortune as anytime I’d see anything with Bruce on it I’d have to buy it. Although I’d love to see that collection now! I guess the invention and my rehabilitation didn’t take as I’m still passionate about Springsteen’s music.

Springsteen's music is usually not associated with children. Why a children's book rather than a book for adults? Are you on a brainwash mission? :-) 
My books are a great way to brainwash, er, introduce kids to music. Also, my picture books offer something to adults because, as parents know, kids want you to read a book over and over again so you hope it’s a good one. But I didn’t write this book just for children. I wrote this book for anyone of any age to be able to enjoy. Springsteen fans will enjoy the music references. Kids will enjoy the colorful illustrations of cars. And both children and grown ups will enjoy the story. It is an especially great book and gift for high school graduates since it is the story of leaving home and lessons learned along the way.

I can tell from your website that you have kids yourself. How do they feel about Bruce Springsteen and your fandom, and do you think there's any hope that future generations will embrace him? 
I have a son, age 12 and a daughter about to turn 10. Their music tastes are not as malleable as when they were younger. ha! My son is into Minecraft parody songs. My daughter likes a lot of the same music I do. She makes a great deejay on road trips. Recently, as part of a social media post I created, my kids went ‘round Austin with me to various notable tourist locations to pose with my life-size Bruce Springsteen cardboard cut out [Check it out] I’d say my kids are pretty tolerant of their mom and her Springsteen fandom. The kids and I take turns in the car picking tunes. They have liked some of the Springsteen songs I’ve played so maybe there’s hope for future generations. The kids' favorite Springsteen song I’ve played thus far is “Ain’t Good Enough for You”.

Did you read the Outlaw Pete book by Frank Caruso and what did you think of it?
Yes. It is a beautiful book. Now when I hear “Outlaw Pete" I see the illustrations in my mind. I have the book, alongside my Springsteen picture book, on my coffee table.

Will there be a sequel or another book based on Springsteen's music?
I’d love that. Maybe so. I’d love to see what Johnny 99 does next. As I’m fond of saying, my books are “books with heart and books with soul and books inspired by rock ’n roll” so it’s possible.

Can you reveal any other artists that you want to turn into picture books and that we may see from your hand in the future?
My next artist-inspired picture book, Snake Farm, is currently being illustrated and is inspired by the music of another favorite artist of mine, Ray Wylie Hubbard. I have a number of artists in mind for future books. I would also love to be approached by some of my music heroes that would be interested in being the inspiration behind one of my books. This November will be the release of my picture book Rock Star Mom. It’s unlike my other picture books in that it is not inspired by one artist. Rock Star Mom celebrates moms in a fun and hilarious way as it is about all the crazy, funny and true ways that moms are like rock stars. Like Springsteen’s song and album, I'm Working on a Dream and part of that dream is to touch hearts of all ages with my books. Thank you, Karsten, for this fun interview. I always enjoy talking about Bruce Springsteen!

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