Tales from the moe.Republic – In the Lost Kingdom with John Derhak
Good old-fashioned storytelling and rock n’ roll can create strange bedfellows. Sometimes, the alchemy works out better than one expects and, after all, it is always about the grand tale anyway, right? Historian and author, John Derhak is the brother of moe. bassist Rob and in the mid-90s, he started writing a column, feedin’ at the trough’, that became well known to moe. fans via the band’s newsletter. Time has passed and the newsletter has long since passed into obscurity but Derhak has resurrected the spirit of his column with a cavalcade of fresh and eccentric yarn spinners from Farmer McNugent and his penchant for elephantine escapades to One-Eyed Red Beard, the fearless pirate stalking the sea off the coast of northern New England.
Jambands.com spoke with Derhak to discuss his novel, Tales from the moe.Republic, which manages to extrapolate the short piecesessentially wildly-creative letters written to his brotherinto a robust collection of tall tales and jaunty misadventures. The book is centered upon a mythical locale on the coast of Maine called the moe.Republic Hotel, as stories get more outlandish while Derhak leads the reader from one misbegotten historical-tinged fable to another with the breathless abandon of a writer hitting all the notes. Indeedone would be hard pressed not to see the connection between Derhak’s prose and the structure of a live concertshorter pieces rest comfortably next to long, extended improvisatory epics before a languid trip back to terra firma.
Part I The Heart of the Lost Kingdom
Father always said it would come to this. – Tales from the moe.Republic, John Derhak
RR: Can you talk a bit about your moe. connection and how the band provides color to the book?
JD: My brother is the bass player. The book has everything to do with moe. and absolutely nothing to do with moe. I touch upon them; I use moe. as a springboard into the stories but if people who know moe. are picking up the book to read it and find out all the ins and outs of moe. they won’t, obviously. Somebody that comes along and picks up the book who knows nothing about moe., I think it explains enough about who moe. is and they’ll also be entertained hopefully by what I’ve written.
RR: At the beginning, the book is set up so the moe.Republic is not a mythical hotel. Even the most jaded reader may think that you opened this hotel with your brother, Rob, the bass player from moe., and he’s really annoyed with you right about now.
JD: (laughter) That’s a funny thing. I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails and people asking me where the place is and that they can’t find it on the map. This one guy has a 25th wedding anniversary coming up and he’s trying to surprise his wifewho is a big moe. fanand wants to know “how do I get there?” Some guy in Wisconsin wrote me and said, “Heydid I miss out on something here? I’m a master brewer and I didn’t get any news about a brewery opening up in Maine, let alone for moe.”
RR: What was the origin of the “feedin’ at the trough” column, the original backbone for Tales from the moe.Republic?
JD: Rob and I were sitting at a pub on the waterfront in Portland, ME about 13, 14 years ago and we were just talking. He said, “How would you like to write a column for the newsletter?” Back then, that’s what they hadthey had a quarterly newsletter. I thought about it and, of course, I was excited. I’d love to do that. I love writingand creative writing, I’d never really gotten into toand said, “Why not?” That’s where it began. It was just a whim, really. It just came up out of the blue.
RR: How often were you writing these stories for the moe. newsletters?
JD: It went on for about five yearsthree or four times a year. It’s funny because if you look back, it was right from the mid-90s to late-90s on into the early part of this century when the newsletter just began to slowly fade out and the rise of the web came. They just overlapped and once everybody realized how powerful the web could bea kind of tool of transmitting ideas and informationthat was the end of the newsletter and that was pretty much the end of the column.
RR: Seemed like it might’ve found the perfect home in a pre-blog state on the web. It was never discussed?
JD: It was never discussed. Blogs weren’t there, then, so to speak. They hadn’t really come about until three, four years ago. By then, I’d moved away from that. It was a conversation that had come up maybe four or five years ago and Rob and his wife, Becca were talking to me in the late summer and said, “You know you should put that column into a book. A lot of people, moe. fans, still remember and ask about the brother John’ character.” At first, I wasn’t sure how I could do it. I’d really only written whatever it wastwenty or so lettersand [I needed to] transform them into a full-length book. I thought it over and I began with a few stories. Funny how one thing leads to another.
RR: What’s your background? What other writing had you done in the past?
JD: Mostly history. I used to work at the University of New Hampshire. I went to graduate school there and you have to write a lot of stuff. That really is what prepared me to write this book. I was in graduate school long enough to learn how to really write but it just wasn’t my passion. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It wasn’t until I really started to write this book that I found that “heyI like this a lot more than history.” When I moved down here [Author’s Note: Derhak divides his time between Maine and Florida], I worked as a historian for about six or seven years for a private company that dealt with historical autographs, manuscripts and things like thatthe kind of stuff you’d get at auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s. I was doing that until I pretty much crossed over and began focusing full-time on writing this book and got going on it.
RR: It is obvious that New England history informs your work. Are there writers who have influenced your stories? Do you notice a connection with particular writers or is it all part of the Great American Storytelling tradition?
JD: Ohhit’s a little either/or. (laughs) I can’t really say in terms ofI didn’t really have any specific, too-specific, historians in mind when I was writing the book. I had a professor at the University of New Hampshire that I really liked and I really liked his writing style. I always tried to emulate his writing style. His name was Charlie Park. He wrote a lot about the history of northern New England, which I always found fascinating because it wasn’t really written about that much. Another guy, too, named Allen TaylorI don’t know if he’s still at Boston University; I think he’s out in Californiahe wrote a lot about the history of the eastern frontier and what it was like up in that part of the country around the early years of the republic [Author’s Note: American, not moe.]. There are a lot of good stories up there that never got told.
Part II From Hit Single to the 30-Minute Track
But it’s bigger than that, too. He was, to say the least, a local legend, a national character, and by all standards an international enigma. That is true. Yet his mark in history will endure throughout the ages. – Tales from the moe.Republic, John Derhak
RR: The novel begins with brief notes detailing the mythical aspects of the hotel in letters written to your brother, Rob. Consequently, this literary aspect moves from the witty hotel owner perspective to a classic adventure story with many oddball characters enhancing the journey. What I liked was the stories sounded like tales told around a campfire or some bar and one didn’t need additional mediamusic, television or otherwise. The novel reads as if you had the hook of the myth fairly early on and then, you developed a wonderful improvisatory style. How did you move from a small canvas to much broader strokes on a larger scale?
JD: The novel evolved. Like you said, it did move into longer passages and I started picking up the pace. I felt like the first few chapters, I was just trying to setup the setting or get a sense of where the place was but then I moved away from that. Stories just started coming out; I can’t really tell you how it happened, specifically. The last four or five acts just kind of emerged. They moved away from the earlier letters, like you said, and the stories just kept going on and on and on. When I first wrote “The Adventures of One-Eyed Red Beard,” it was about fifteen or sixteen pages. I let a friend of mine read it and my older son [Alex Derhak] and they both said, “That’s it? That’s all it can be? Come onyou got us right to this point and that’s the end of the story?” I just started working on that and, suddenly, it went from 15 to 20 to 30 pages and WOWI didn’t even realize it until the endwhatever it was, 70 or 75 pages of the book. I never really intended it to be that long but once I got into the story and it started coming out of me, I realized that something really special came out of that story.
RR: Let’s discuss some of those characters that developed as the canvas grew larger. Let’s start off with Mr. Bigwood and Farmer Casey McNugent.
JD: (laughs) Farmer McNugent is just a character that I made up. I read a story in some obscure newspaper, some weekly edition. I happened to pick it up somewhere, some place, and there was an article that said how they did the thing like that passage in the book with Rafiki, the elephant [Author’s note: selling elephant semen for profit]. (laughter) I said that story was so funny that I got to figure out how to do this. It was probably two to three years before I even wrote the story. I just found it so funny. I cut that newspaper out because it was probably about the only place where you would get the exact details on how to do something like that. I was in that part of the book when I was writing this outthe emus and stuffand I remembered that I had that article. I went back and I looked at it and built the character around that story. It was so funny; I picked up the newspaper at randomone of those free weeklies that you get when you walk into the mall or something. I named McNugent after my youngest son, Casey. McNugent is what he calls me. He loves some movie with Jack Black and there’s a character called J.D. McNugent so [Casey] calls me McNugent.
RR: WOW. If my dad had written me into literary posterity for masturbating elephants (laughter)I don’t know what really crappy convalescent hospital he would have ended up in(laughter) this is a difficult passage to describe to someone else. The reader needs to sit back, enjoy and let the elements fall into place. The funny thing is that by the time one gets to that passage in the book, it seems pretty normal for that sort of thing to be taking place.
JD: Well, thanks. That’s the way I want it to be.
RR: How about Porter Gibson Digit, the inventor of the infamous finger’?
JD: Yeah, well, thatI got to tell yamy older boy is a catcher [Alex]. He plays in the Northern League in independent baseball. He’s always been a catcher and there’s something special about being a catcher to me. Both of my boys played baseball but he’s still playing.
RR: Is this Alex or Casey?
JD: Alex. Mr. Bigwood [character in the novel]. Mr. Bigwood is a different person but I just named these characters in their honor. I’m not taking their attributes and trying to incorporate them into the characters. Porter Gibson Digit came about after I was driving along I-95 one afternoon here in Florida and some little old lady cuts me off and gives me the finger. I was just so flabbergasted. I wasn’t angry; I just started laughing. It crystallized“who invented the finger?” And that’s how the story began. I decided to make the story up and early on in the book, I felt this would be a great character to hang out at the hotelthe guy who invented the finger. Well, what did he do? He played baseball. He liked to write; he was a writer. Something I could relate tohe was a historian. It just kind of built into this story. I came across the story about the 1915 World Series and put it all together. I know that I did O.K. in that story because early on, I gave the first early draft of that story for my friends to read and every single person said, “Is this really how this happened?” Babe Ruth, the protest in Washington Square in New York Citythese were all historical characters and all of that was taking place at that time and the teams and the history of the country and I said that everything was true except for Porter Gibson Digit. He was a figment of my imagination.
RR: What about Gil Fonebone?
JD: Fonebone? He was named for a guy I went to high school with and I’m still good friends with him. We always had nicknames for ourselves and that was just one of the names. I used a bunch of nicknames from friends as I was going along in the book. Chief Mickey McO’Fayle, Fonebone, Bullethead Bergmeister, Jake Hutchinsonthose are guys that I’ve known for years and I used their names in honor of our friendship.
RR: When you were writing these passages, especially some of the longer segments, were you getting the story down and then adding the historical details later? Or, from your historical background, were you able to write the story and just double-check the details when you finished?
JD: I would say it was more closer to the latter. When I got going on a story, the stories that I knewthat I had come across as a historianfiltered into some of these stories. If you ever read about the history up around there, it doesn’t matter whether it’s from the first contact with the Europeans up to the present daythere’s all kinds of action going on up there. There were pirates burying treasure. There were rumrunners. I’m aware of that and I know what happened, where and when. I’d go and verify the facts after I wrote the stories but most of them were kind of filtering in and rolling into the stories as I was conceiving them and writing them out.
RR: I liked the fiction mixed with historical fact in the various stories. I enjoyed juggling what actually took place with an aspect of a fictional character’s background. The narrative was realistic enough to suspend disbelief.
JD: Right. These things would come to me and if I had any doubt about years or places, eventsI’d obviously go back and make sure that they were right. I wouldn’t just drop the Battle of Fredicksburg mention without making sure. I knew of those events and was aware of those events as I was writing it. I cross-referenced everything. Anything that has to do with true history, I made sureto the best of my abilitythat I got that right.
Part III The Higher Stages of the Barbarian Culture
Sometimes amidst the daily challenge to keep the party hot, the music playing, and the beer flowing you forget about the life that’s out there on the other side of the door. – Tales from the moe.Republic, John Derhak
RR: As the novel moves forward, the stories get more intricate and the characters get more outlandish, which leads us to One-Eyed Red Beard.
JD: Yeah. One-Eyed Red Beard. It’s from tales of lost pirate treasure along the Maine coast. There are stories that I knew of, was aware of and the pirates that went up there and heard stories about when I was a little kid. They just kind of filtered into this longer story. Like I said, initially, when I started writing that, it was only about 14, 15 pages. One thing led to another and just kept going and going. I was able to carry that on with I don’t know what you’d call itinstruments of the story like the smoke runners and the puffins and all of that kind of stuff that are up and around that part of Mainewell, Downeast Way as they say, where my imaginary hotel isin terms of pirates and there were a lot of pirate stories from around there. When you think of pirates, you think of the pirates of the Caribbean or something like that but there were pirates that were running up and down the eastern seaboard in the late 16th and early 17th century. I picked up on the story of Red Beard and I ran with it and incorporated all of these other characters in the adventure that took place.
RR: I lost track of the hotel by the end of the book as I was caught up in this wonderful flow of events. Did you think to yourself, “Well, I did cover the hotel but it seemed like a foundation that led to a better story on down the line?”
JD: No, I wasn’t consciously thinking of that. I know that I stepped out of the hotel for good after Porter Gibson Digitfor the most part. I say that in the opening to “The Adventures of One-Eyed Red Beard,” that sometimes you get lost in the routine. You’ve got to step outside of yourself and go do something. That’s basically what that story is all about or one of the essences of that story. I wasn’t consciously thinking that I was permanently moving away from the hotel. That’s actually a good point. No one has ever brought that up, beforethat I moved away from the hotel from that story on. Well, there were a couple of little, shorter stories that were from the hotel so it was in there.
RR: Symbolically, the book begins at the hotel in Mainean extreme eastern point in Americaand travels further and further from that geographical connection. When I got to the end of the book, I realized that I was never really there but I was there the whole time. I can see why you get e-mails about setting up 25th wedding anniversaries at the moe.Republic Hotel. How do you respond to those e-mails? Those are people that never left the hotel.
JD: First, I say, “Thanks, a lot. I appreciate it but it’s not the state of Maine. It’s the state of mind.” My goal is to open up a hotel. I think it really would be a fun thing to doto find a place in Maine and do something like that. It would be a fun place to create. I don’t personally see myself hands-on running it but I’d work with people to get it going. I want to write. That’s really what I want to do but right now, I’m pushing this book and I don’t have much time to write. I’ve got sequels for some of these characters.
Part IV On the Far Side of moe.Mountain
DudeReceived your message last night. Relax will you? For the umpteenth time mother and the girls are not going to play Sunday nights. That’s passThough she did mention the possibility of opening at moe.down next year. – Tales from the moe.Republic, John Derhak
RR: Has Rob ever had that talk with you about co-owning a hotel where he says, “Don’t even think about it?”
JD: (laughs) He rolls his eyes but he never says, “Don’t even think about it.” Is it pie in the sky? Who knows? Will it happen? Who knows? It’s a nice to think of that, like I said, one thing leads to another. It could happen.
RR: Definitely. Earlier in July, Signet International Holdings, Inc. acquired the television rights to Tales from the moe.Republic. How are you involved other than, hopefully, financially?
JD: I will as it stands now, when I signed that contract, I will be overseeingas I understand itthe review of the scripts, help work on them, develop the ideas but I cannot have complete control over that kind of stuff. I had to sign that away; that is the only way that they would do it. I think that for anybody that’s what you’ve got to do. One of the stipulations I did have in there was that moe. would have the right of first refusal to write the theme music and transitional music for the show. That’s what I really wanted to make sure that that was included as part of the deal.
RR: But as far as tampering with characters or whatever needs to be done to fit the flow of the story, you can give the script a glance but you can’t control the outcome.
JD: I can’t. It just wouldn’t have worked. To tell you the truth, there’s only so much I can do or that I’d be able to do. I created this fun place to go to and all that and all these characters but it’s just like you have twins [Author’s Note: this writer has twin boys]. They’re going to grow up someday and go out on their own. That’s pretty much the way I look at this book. I can only hope that the people who are in charge of it and take this over or run with it and do the day-to-day grunt work can appreciate that and carry on the intention of the characters I have created. I’m sure they will, to a degree. It just depends on where Signet goes with it.
RR: Do you want to discuss some of those character sequels you have in mind?
JD: Sure. When I finished this book and I had some time between completion and getting it published, I started working on another Kinghorn and Bigwood adventureabout 10-12 chaptersand I actually started working on a prequel to Porter Gibson Digitabout 6-7 chapters. The way I’m writing it now, I’m not sure if it would be too much of a problem or not if I can kind of incorporate them into the same story. It’s still buzzing in my head. As of right now, I’m looking at them as separate stories but I might fold them into one. It just depends on the way I’m going with the story because I like this little town and region that I created. I don’t want to leave it.
RR: I would like to read more about those characters, especially with that part of northern New England as a backdrop. How did growing up in Maine inform your development and the tone of the novel?
JD: I grew up in a small town called Dover-Foxcroft. [Author’s Note: moe. fans who also caught a Phish festival at Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Maine would have to travel a few hours southwest down the I-95 and onto another highway system to reach this small community.] At the time, I don’t think it had more than three or four thousand people. When I was a really young kid, there were two T.V. stations and I can remember that when I was 9 or 10, they added a third and I thought I was in hog heaven. Everything you learn, you just learn by being out and being a kid and just doing stuff on a daily basis. It was a great place to grow up. You were outside of the way it is now which is mass communication, constant sort of information coming at you and you’re unable to sort it. Back then, I guess, because it was so far away from everything that, I don’t know, it informed you becauseit’s hard to sayit was part of the whole process of growing up in the middle of nowhere. (laughs)
RR: Right and being part of a generation where your imagination wasn’t corrupted by a wide variety of sources.
JD: Yeah. (laughs) It’s the truth. You just had your imagination and the stories that people passed onto you. You go to the movies and the movies were like twenty-five cents or something like that and you’d see a second-run feature like Tarzan or Frankenstein. (laughs) That would be about it for entertainment on the weekends. Where I lived in Maine wasn’t on the coast but we spent a lot of time going down to the coast in the summertime like down in Mount Desert Island, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. It’s beautiful when you get down along the coast therethe rugged eastern frontier. That filtered into my geography of Downeast Way when I was writing it. I guess you could say if there’s any kind of innocence or naivethat you picked up in the characters in the book, it would be from my years growing up in Maine as a rube. (laughter)
RR: I like that the book is filled with campfire tales, stories from a quiet bar or a car out on the highway, the only lights are from the front low beams on a dark road.
JB: Yep. I did that consciously, too. I didn’t want to make this any kind of political statement. I really just wanted to make people laugh. That was my number one goal and spin a yarn here and there and keep the stories together. I knew it couldn’t be one continuous narrative because of the way I was writing the book but I wanted to make sure that all of the stories and characters were interconnected. I’d like to say that I think I succeeded at doing that.
RR: You did and I really appreciated the artifice of the letter as a storytelling technique. I was thinking that I wished that I could get letters like this. (laughter) The art of letter writing sure needs a kick in the ass these days. What was Rob’s reaction to the novel?
JD: I didn’t know if he, at first, knew how it was going to turn out. As I started to give him more things to read, he finally finished the book in total. He said, “Geezthat’s a pretty good read.” Al Schnier read it and he told me, “You knowyou sent me a couple of advance manuscripts and I didn’t read them. When I got the copy of the book that just came out at Summer Camp, I read it on the way home and sure, it was kind of weird reading about people I knew and seeing my name but once I got beyond that and got into the stories, I really liked it, John. I genuinely thought it was a great book.” That was important to me, too. All those guys that had read itVinnie said to me how much he liked it and it was importantI wanted them to respect what I did. I wanted it to be, in some ways, a testament to them, too. They are providing me with this wonderful platform and springboard and I wanted it to be worthy of their success because I think they’re a hell of a band. Rob Derhak is my brother and I have a lot of emotional attachment with them. I’ve seen them from almost the very beginning up to the present day and they’ve matured so much and what they’ve become, to me, is so impressive.
RR: I spoke with Al earlier in the year for a Jambands.com feature and we spoke about the vitality of the band and the moe. family organization. You’ve definitely tapped into that spirit on a whole other level.
JD: Well, thanks because that was one of the intentions of the book. I really wanted to do that. I wanted to be able to express that in the different passages, letters and stories that I wrote so it is nice to hear and get that feedback because that is one of the things that I wanted to accomplish when I was writing it.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com