An American Tune: The Story Behind the Story

By Barbara Shoup


When I was twenty-seven, a young wife and mother, a close friend from college became involved with a political group that committed an act that drastically changed the course of her life. I knew her. She was a good person. Reliable. An excellent student, a hard worker, intense sometimes, extraordinarily competent, a little reserved. I absolutely could not imagine how she could have done what she did, how she could have become the violent person portrayed in the media.

It’s a question that’s haunted me ever since then, the question behind An American Tune: What makes people cross that line between acting passionately in a cause they believe in deeply and acting in a way that is harmful, both to themselves and others?

Even so, An American Tune wasn’t a book I had been planning to write.

In 2002, I was working on a nonfiction project that required research in the archives of the Indiana Daily Student and, one day, came upon an article about the demonstrations that occurred in May of 1970, in the wake of invasion of Cambodia. Thousands of people streamed from dorms and apartments and fraternity and sorority houses and gathered in Dunn Meadow, where student leaders stood on a makeshift platform urging a peaceful protest. But the crowd was too agitated to listen and, when a rumor rippled through the crowd about a panty raid going on at Read Center, most of the demonstrators left Dunn Meadow and marched to the dorm, where they found a couple of hundred drunk fraternity guys ranging around, yelling up at the girls, who hung out of the windows laughing and tossing out their underwear. Soon cries for panties changed to “Get out of Cambodia” and “To Hell with Nixon.” Girls left the dorm, and joined the march, picking up more and more people along the way.

For a lot of people the Sixties were no more than a great big party, I thought—not that I hadn’t had this thought before, but for some reason that day it struck me as the kind of insight that might have brought with it such despair that it became a turning point for someone who was truly committed to the ending the war. You didn’t become a revolutionary overnight, you became one in small steps, each one taking you closer and closer to crossing that line that would change your life forever. What finally carried you over it could seem very, very small when set against the consequences followed.

After reading the article, I left the archives, bought lunch, and walked to People’s Park near the edge of campus to eat it. Still half in that other time, I couldn’t help but notice how many things had disappeared since I’d been a student there myself—book stores, clothing stores, favorite restaurants.

There were a bunch of boys there in baggy shorts and Birkenstocks playing hackey-sack. Rowdy, full of themselves, they hopped and wheeled and backpedaled, ducking and reaching to bounce the little rainbow-colored bean bag off their tattooed ankles, their knees, elbows, wrists, shoulders, foreheads. When the hackey-sack landed on the bench where I sat, one of the boys darted over, bent and twisted within inches of her face as he scooped it up, and sent it flying again—as if I were invisible.

“Motherfuck,” another yelled, stretching to bonk it with his forehead.

It amused me, though I was startled realize I was invisible to them.

It didn’t make me think, instantly, now there’s an idea for a novel. But when I got home that night, I sat down and wrote, “Nora Quillen sat in People’s Park considering what was lost.” By the time I finished the first chapter, someone had called out, “Jane,” Nora had turned instinctively in response—and I knew I’d found the thread of a story that I wanted to follow.

This was during the run-up to the Iraq war, which was beginning to seem and more like Vietnam to me—and pretty soon both wars made their way into the story. So did the boys playing hackey-sack, a little Michigan beach town that I love, bits and pieces of my own life. During one writing session, a wild, red-haired girl, Bridget, appeared from nowhere, demanding to be Jane’s best friend.

Writing a novel tells you what you’re thinking about, what you still don’t understand and, writing this one, I learned that I was thinking about a whole lot of things: war and politics, family, marriage, children, friendship, love. The treachery of secrets. What it was like to be young—and the shock of looking in the mirror and seeing that it’s the face of an old person looking back at you.

At times, especially when I was writing about Jane’s life in the Sixties, I felt melancholy. The past felt more real to me than my day-to-day life. The strange, visceral sensation that sometimes came over me—the feeling that I actually was my young self again—was unsettling. Other things about writing the book delighted me, like coming upon a young guy hauling stones onto the beach to write “Will You Marry Me.” He planned to take his girlfriend to view from the high bluff above that evening, he told me—and walked into the novel the next time I sat down to write.

Early on, I took the title, An American Tune, from a Paul Simon song of the same name. I gave each chapter the title of a song from the Sixties—because music was so important then—and had fun trying to find the right song for each one, a song that echoed the chapter’s feel. I made a CD with the “soundtrack” of the songs, which I listened to, exercising—and which turned into a three-CD set as the novel grew.

I wrestled with the structure of book, abandoning alternating chapters in past and present in the last draft (of many), amazed (with an element of “duh”) at how changing the order of the chapters made things, finally, fall in place.

I can’t say I learned the answer to what makes people cross the line between acting passionately in a cause they believe in deeply and acting in a way that harmful to themselves and others. I learned a long time ago that any question worth asking doesn’t have an answer, anyway. The pleasure is all in pursuing it —and in whatever the process of pursuing it reveals to you about what life, what it means to be human.