How the Mistakes Were Made: A Novel

How the Mistakes Were Made: A Novel

by Tyler McMahon


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Laura Loss came of age in the hardcore punk scene of the early 1980s. The jailbait bass player in her brother Anthony's band, she grew up traveling the country, playing her heart out in a tight network of show venues to crowds soaked in blood and sweat. The band became notorious, the stars of a shadow music industry. But when Laura was 18, it all fell apart. Anthony's own fans destroyed him, something which Laura never forgot.
Ten years later, Laura finds her true fame with the formation of The Mistakes, a gifted rock band that bursts out of ‘90s Seattle to god-like celebrity. When she discovered Nathan and Sean, the two flannel-clad misfits who, along with her, composed the band, she instantly understood that Sean's synesthesia—a blending of the senses that allows him to "see" the music— infused his playing with an edge that would take them to the top. And it did. But it, along with his love for Laura, would also be their downfall.
At the moment of their greatest fame, the volatile bonds between the three explode in a mushroom cloud of betrayal, deceit, and untimely endings. The world blames Laura for destroying its rock heroes. Hated by the fans she's spent her life serving, she finally tells her side of the story, the "true" story, of the rise and fall of The Mistakes.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312658540
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/11/2011
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

TYLER MCMAHON is the author of the novels Kilometer 99 (2014) and How the Mistakes Were Made (2011). He teaches fiction writing at Hawaii Pacific University and is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review. He lives in Honolulu with his wife, food writer Dabney Gough.

Read an Excerpt



I don’t mind the hate. It doesn’t bother me anymore. There was a time when I was adored by the same brain-dead sheep who despise me now. I don’t miss that. Behind every dead rock god, there’s always some uppity female scapegoat. Why shouldn’t it be me? The public eye sees only love or hate. Fans aren’t capable of anything in between. So let them hate me; I can handle that. The part I can’t abide is having my own history ripped right out from under me, my life rewritten by magazines. It’s true that I’ve made mistakes. But it’s also true that I made the Mistakes.

All the quickie-biographers and poseur journalists say I stumbled across those two boys in some basement in the mountains somewhere, already playing amazing music—that my eyes turned to dollar signs and all that was left to do was shove them into a recording studio and a stadium. That’s not how it happened.

The first time I heard Sean and Nathan play, there was an elk heart bouncing on the floor. The beer-soaked attic of a venue would’ve never met fire codes in any state besides Montana. The first of the two local bands on the undercard called themselves Venison in Unison, and ran everything through distortion pedals, even the drums and vocals, resulting in a slush of chords and screams that was little more than a soundtrack for the mosh pit. Their lead singer sang draped in a fleshy vest fashioned from a deer’s rib cage. Meat was their thing. At the height of the set, they tossed the elk heart into the pit, where the kids kicked it around like a half-deflated soccer ball. Everyone thought this was awesome.

It was August 1990. Fires raged through the surrounding forests. Walking around town earlier in the day, my eyes stung. The air in the valley was dense and gray, the sun a dim glow through the smoke.

After the first band, I went to the bar. The place served only Pabst Blue Ribbon and Jägermeister, both from a tap. I ordered one of each. Above the stage, a skylight had been painted over. Little streaks of smoky night sky came in through scratches in the black paint. As I walked back to my table, one kid pointed at me and whispered to his friend.

There were times when I liked to see these small-town punk enclaves. It used to make me proud, like my teenage years weren’t all a waste. But this particular night, it put me into a foul mood. I sat by myself and smoked, picking my feet up whenever the heart bounced too close. The rest of the Cooler Heads—the band I was on tour with—ate dinner somewhere downtown. They were a hipper-than-thou bunch of college kids from Seattle who sang poppy odes to their own record collections. I’d excused myself to come straight to the venue. Even so many years later, I still followed some of Anthony’s rules, like never missing the opening act.

*   *   *

There was nothing remarkable about Sean and Nathan when they climbed onstage. Wearing faded T-shirts and threadbare jeans, they carried instrument cases and a grocery bag full of cords and pedals.

Nathan lowered the microphone stand, then set about plugging in gear. Sean held a hand up to shield his eyes from the overhead lights. The singer from the previous band sat down behind the drum set, also of the previous band. On the floor, the elk heart lay still. They tuned up and nobody paid much mind.

Nathan laid a list of songs down on the floor of the stage, then whispered last-minute comments into the ears of his bandmates. He wore his blond hair in a sort of disheveled bowl cut, not unlike one of the Beatles. Back then, his face was clean-shaven. I remember thinking that he had good posture. To start off their set, he strummed the bass line with a pick. The drummer dropped in after a bar but was terribly off-rhythm. Nathan turned and nodded his head along with the downbeat until the guy got it.

Their sound cracked open once Sean came in. His tone was nothing special—a cheap Stratocaster knockoff, a half-open Cry Baby, some kind of fuzzbox—but he had this pins-and-needles style that was impossible to ignore. It made my skin crawl. Kids in the crowd shivered during certain lines. The taller of the two, Sean slumped his shoulders and stared down at his strings. That bush of dark hair already covered part of his pale face. Half the time, his back was turned toward the crowd.

Their final tune—something like an Irish drinking song sped up—brought out the best in them. Nathan did a call-and-response thing, and the boys from the first band shouted along. Behind the microphone, his face clenched tight, eyes retreated farther into his skull. He might have been singing to a million people, for how serious he took it.

Sean, on the other hand, didn’t seem to know or care that he was onstage. While his sidelong lines wove in and out of the melody, he looked curious—more than anything else—like he was surprised at the sounds coming from the speakers.

They didn’t sound great that night. The mix was bad; the drummer was off. Nathan’s microphone was too quiet to hear the words. Still, they had something that a lot of bands didn’t. There was drama in their music, a critical tension between order and chaos. Much later, I would understand that Nathan tried his hardest to hold the songs together, while Sean did everything he could to pull them apart.

*   *   *

The rest of the Cooler Heads showed up as Nathan and Sean finished. Jack, our front man, was red faced and smiley from booze. The other two girls, Claire and Kristina, giggled at something he’d said. I didn’t look forward to our set.

As their bassist, my job was easy: Stand there playing simple lines and looking aloof. Jack twirled around in his ridiculous dances. I watched him perform, the way he raised his eyebrows up and pointed into the crowd. It struck me that night as phony to the point of terrifying.

Something came over me as we started our final song. I found a pick in my pocket and turned up the gain on my amp. Instead of plucking, I strummed the bass as Nathan had an hour earlier, playing it double time. Claire didn’t miss a beat on the drums. Kristina caught up a couple bars later. Jack glared at me. I leaned forward and hid my face in my hair. Eventually, he sang without enthusiasm.

*   *   *

I drank more Jägermeisters while waiting for the van to load. By the time the boys approached me, I felt well buzzed.

“Are you Laura, from SCC?” Nathan did the talking while Sean stood silent by his side.

In the middle of lighting a cigarette, I nodded my head to confirm what he already knew.

“We”—he pointed back and forth between himself and Sean with his thumb—“we’re huge fans.”

“You guys sounded good tonight.” Smoke came out my mouth along with the words. “If you ditch that drummer and get serious, you two could be onto something.”

“You think?” Nathan said.

“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”

He let out a breathless half laugh.

“But ditch that drummer,” I said.

Nathan and Sean exchanged glances and smiled, communicating in that nonverbal language of theirs that I’d become familiar with over time, but never quite fluent in. I took another drag from my cigarette and looked around the room, wondering where my band members were off to. Half our gear still lay on one side of the stage. The singer from the venison band, Sean and Nathan’s drummer, picked the elk heart up off the floor.

“I remember the first time I heard your records,” Nathan said.

“I think that guy’s going to take the heart home with him,” I said.

“Back then, did you know what a great band SCC was, how important you all would become?” Nathan asked.

“I used to believe that what we were doing was important. Sometimes I still do. Most times I think that band could’ve been a hobo pissing in the woods for all anybody cares, in the bigger picture.”

The vocalist/drummer walked by and pushed the elk heart into Nathan’s chest. Nathan put his hands around it, still looking at me. It was as big as a grapefruit, colored in the dull whites and deep reds of raw meat. Dust and hair from the floor clung to every side. The severed tubes at the top looked like they must be part of some machine, not possibly an animal.

Nathan caught me staring. “Do you want to hold it?” He extended it out toward me.

I took the heart from him with both hands. It was cold. The grit from the floor felt oddly more alive than the actual flesh. I held it right-side up with one hand and lifted it to my eye level.

“I never held a heart in the palm of my hand before,” I said.

Nathan nudged Sean and the two of them smiled, pleased by my reaction.

“Does he talk?” I looked at Sean. He slouched farther forward, as if trying to make himself a few inches shorter. A couple brown curls crept down his forehead.

“Once, I went camping with my family.” Sean’s eyes darted around as he spoke. “My grandfather brought one of those along. He cut it into strips and cooked it like kebabs over the fire. It’s good.”

“Would you sign this?” Nathan held out an old SCC seven-inch and a felt-tip marker.

I took them from him. The cover of the record was a black-and-white drawing I’d done a long time ago. It showed a small figure crouching in the corner of an empty room, his head cast down in his hands as though crying. The threatening shadow of another figure stretched along one of the walls. SECOND CLASS CITIZENS read the blocky script. There was a chance that I’d glued that sleeve together and put the record in myself.

“If you guys ever come to Seattle, or if you get serious and want to go full-time, give me a call. I could help you out.” I wrote my phone number on the white space of the wall in the drawing, but didn’t sign my name.


Copyright © 2011 by Tyler McMahon


Q&A With Author Tyler McMahon on How the Mistakes Were Made

Q: How the Mistakes were Made has an incredibly evocative and richly detailed setting: Seattle's grunge/punk music scene the early 1990's. What drew you to this particular time and place?

A: Seattle—especially at this time period—has always cast a long shadow for me. I was 15 or so when Nirvana's Nevermind was released. As a teenage misfit on the other side of the country, all the Sub-Pop and so-called "grunge" music—as well as the photographs and clever liner notes—fed a certain illusion that there was a place out west filled with people like my friends and me. It was a sort of Utopian vision for sloppy outsiders.

Later, when I lived in Montana and Idaho in my twenties, I always thought of Seattle as the Capital of the Northwest. It was a place where friends and cousins were drawn to, often for work or education. It had a sort of gravitational pull on so many small towns. That was something I wanted to capture, and the reason I made Sean and Nathan come from the rural Northwest.

Q: The bands in the novel both rise to fame on shoulders of devoted, grass roots fan bases. Why was it important to you that the bands you depict were "made" by their fans? How to do you think the current musical landscape of internet downloads, YouTube videos and self-promotion outside mainstream record labels has changed the notion of "fandom?"

A: My fascination with 80's hardcore began as a fascination with the material aspects. It still blows my mind that kids with guitars and old vans and primitive recording technology were able to pull off such an end-run around the music industry—especially at that time. I firmly believe that the underground punk scenes of a decade earlier paved the way for grunge, alternative, and indie rock. I wanted to show how marginalized or fringe artistic movements can shift the paradigm of pop culture.

As a teacher, I spend a lot of time with college students, and I'm always interested in how they look at notions of fandom and celebrity. They don't seem to have the same contempt for commercialism that my generation did. Which isn't to say they embrace it so much as they're indifferent to it and less threatened by it. I'm sure that's related to the digital revolution; many more young people now have experience with the invention and promotion of some kind of creative project. It might also have something to do with American Idol and its ilk.

I tried to encapsulate some of this tension through the pairing of Sean and Nathan: Sean as the artist who can't handle anything beyond playing his guitar, Nathan as the workhorse who puts in long hours crafting the band's music and image.

Q: How the Mistakes Were Made takes on the difficult subject of self-destruction, especially among those who have achieved immense success very quickly. Why do you think the idea of a celebrity "imploding" or "breaking down" is so compelling to our current popular culture? What does it say about us?

A: As a writer, I've always been a little obsessed with self-destruction. I think what most interests me is the way that certain modes of it—like drug abuse—are vilified, while others—like sleep-deprivation, overwork, hunger, unhealthy forms of exercise—seem to be lauded.

In the case of celebrity, I was interested in how we crave explanation for those implosions and breakdowns. In my cursory reading about Kurt Cobain, I couldn't get over the way that certain heartbroken fans wanted some explanation other than suicide. Some continue to spin complex conspiracy theories about what actually happened to him.

As somebody who's lost friends and relatives to suicide and drug abuse—as well as to mysterious combinations of the two—I've always found those alternate explanations disturbing. Our time would be better spent seeking way to address self-destructive behavior, not finding excuses for it.

Q: Laura's flashbacks to her childhood are heavily influenced by the Cold War mentality. Could you describe this mentality - in brief - and then explain how it shapes the characters and events in the novel?

A: Many of my earliest memories involve being terrified by some sort of nuclear apocalypse. I would have nightmares about it all the time. So many childhood sleepovers ended with somebody's older brother or sister whispering about how the bombs worked—if they used keys or buttons, if the president could launch them from his limo, how big they were and what shape they had.

Laura has such a tough, tomboy exterior. It felt necessary to give her some kind of soft underbelly—especially in the flashback sections. The nuclear anxiety fit the bill—and grounded her more solidly in the time and place. I handed those fears off to her, and was happy to be rid of them.

In a broader sense, I believe the nihilism and apocalyptic visions associated with the Cold War did inform the origins of punk. I say that not as a lynch-pin explanation for the movement, but more as an extreme example of the many good reasons that young people had to feel detached from government, from previous generations, and so on.

Q: In many cases, there seems to be a double standard for what is accepted and reviled for men and women in the public eye - particularly in the celebrity realm. How does this double standard appear play out in How the Mistakes Were Made?

A: It's interesting; I did a little research recently on the Femme Fatale characters in Detective novels for a lecture I gave. Throughout the history of literature, women have often been a source of temptation. Many early forms of fiction—the King Arthur stories are a great example—stress the hero's need to distinguish between "good" women and "bad" women. It's the polarized, black-and-white aspect that bothers me. Still, I think we look at public female figures this way. Someone like Hilary Clinton is essentially loved or hated—but nothing in between. In my book, I wanted to show that Laura's shortcomings don't necessarily mean that she's two-faced or manipulative, but that she's a person like the rest of us. Her mistakes are everyone's mistakes; they just look grotesque under the spotlights.

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