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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013

Exploring ’70s America

A conversation with Pepperland author Barry Wightman

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Barry Wightman works rock ’n’ roll, the advent of “high tech” and an improbable romantic tryst into his debut novel Pepperland, a vast, intimate exploration of the 1970s. In the novel, Pepper Porter is on his way to rock stardom when his long-gone girlfriend Sooz re-enters his life. A computer wiz, Sooz has come up with an algorithm able to change the direction of digital communications and launch a revolution. But she is an ex-Weather Underground member and a radical revolutionary on the run from the FBI. Porter becomes torn between his music career and the opportunity to change the world.

 

How did you come up with so many themes for this novel?

I’ve been thinking about this novel for a long time—it took me six years to finish. The blending of rock ’n’ roll music and high-tech stuff is kind of me. I know a thing or two about each subject, so it was natural they would become themes. I love the whole “change the world mentality” that went with early technology start-ups. And who doesn’t like a good love story?

 

This novel seems timely. Did you have the current debates about civil liberties in mind while writing?

The ’60s and ’70s had a paranoia thing going on between the government and the radical left, abetted by the Nixon tapes of Watergate and other illegal things that went on. That paranoia still echoes today because paranoia tends to swing from side to side. The left used to be paranoid and currently the right is paranoid.

 

Did your musical tastes translate to your characters?

Oh yes. I’ve always been into really melodic, jangly sorts of guitar-based rock ’n’ roll. Some of the sounds that I hear in my head, and that the band plays in the book, are similar to the sound of Big Star, a band from the early ’70s that’s been a cult favorite for over 40 years. They had big harmonies and loud guitars—people should check them out. I’ve always been amazed how young people identify with this type of music.

 

Since this is a novel with technology themes, I wonder if you prefer print or e-books.

I’m old school. I just love the feel of books, really good paper and a really good cover. I’m a sucker for that. It’s more fun. I think there are plenty of readers like myself.

 

What do you hope readers take away from Pepperland?

I want them to understand the seeds of stuff like the iPhone and small computers. A lot of people in the early ’70s made these things happen and it’s easy for them to be forgotten. They helped invent the mouse and personal computers—they really did want to change the world. They had to throw out the old and think of the new.

 

Pepperland has been a summer bestseller at Boswell Book Co.