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The Airborne Toxic Event's Mikel Jollett on His New Memoir

Tattered Cover Book Store presents a virtual book event with Mikel Jollett on Tuesday, May 12.
Tattered Cover Book Store presents a virtual book event with Mikel Jollett on Tuesday, May 12.
Dove Shore

About five years ago, the Airborne Toxic Event frontman Mikel Jollett start writing songs as a way to deal with his sadness after his father’s death, but after penning a few, he knew he needed to write a book.

“I was really vexed by the fact that my dad had died,” Jollett says. “I guess I felt like it was so overwhelming. And everyone knows grief is sad. I think I was just surprised by how baffling grief was, like the world just didn't make sense.”

In trying to understand his father’s death, Jollett looked for a starting point for the story but kept having to go further back into his life until his earliest memory, the day he and his brother left Synanon, one of the country’s most infamous cults. And that’s how Jollett’s memoir, Hollywood Park, slated for release on May 26, begins.

Jollett was scheduled to be at the Tattered Cover Book Store on Tuesday, May 12, as part of his book tour, but instead the store will host a virtual event. Starting at 7 p.m., Jollett will read from the book (a ticket includes a signed copy of the book that will be mailed in late May), talk about it, answer questions and play a few songs from the forthcoming Airborne Toxic Event album, also named Hollywood Park; the record serves as the book's soundtrack and borrows heavily from the narrative of the memoir.

The book chronicles the emotional abuse Jollett experienced as a child; his complex relationship with his ex-con father; his time at Stanford, where he graduated with a degree in psychology; his work editing the music magazine Filter, where he interviewed David Bowie, Robert Smith, Tom Waits and others; and eventually his founding of Los Angeles indie-rock band the Airborne Toxic Event.

When preparing to write Hollywood Park, named after the racetrack he and his father would often visit, Jollett tried writing the first chapter using six different voices, one being a forty-year-old man looking back on his life while another took an absurdist, Still Life With Woodpecker sort of approach.

But after reading numerous memoirs and novels, taking 100,000 words of notes along the way about what techniques writers were using and how they were using them, Jollett decided to open Hollywood Park from the point of a view of a child trying to piece together the reality of the world around him. His writing voice broadens as he ages throughout the memoir. Jollett says the book has four sections, each with its own perspective and own grammatical structure.

"Each section has its own sort of attitudes and understandings of events, because I evolved over time as I grew up, and so I wanted the narrator's voice, my voice, to evolve as well,” he says.

In the first section of the book, Jollett wanted to tell the story of a traumatized child who was told a false narrative and then slowly discovered the truth of it over a lifetime.

“And then you watch the process as I slowly learned in my life what was a lie and what was real," he says, "because I mostly grew up in the wreckage of Synanon, the cult where I was born. I mean, we left when I was very young, and a lot of what it was to me was like this puzzle I had to put together. “

During the three years he worked on the book, Jollett interviewed people about the things he couldn’t remember, and he returned to places and recorded himself talking about them or took notes. Standing at significant places from his past helped conjure memories.

“Toni Morrison has this idea that places are where your memories are," Jollett says. "They’re still there in those places. I would go to a place in my mind, and oftentimes I would just go to the place, and I'd stand there, and I’d just take notes.”

Memories of traumatic events can sometimes be a bit hazy, and Jollett approached those in two different ways. "One is to say, here's how it's foggy," he says. "Another is to just re-create the fog."

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An example of this is how he writes about bunnies that he and his brother slaughtered and ate, which he likens in the book to their own experiences with abuse.

"It was exciting to me to write about them in this way — to know that there was this ache that I felt at the time," Jollett says. "Eight years old in the back yard with a hunting knife, a young rabbit bleeding on a tree. And to discover that this ache was not only that of a kid who didn't want to kill his dinner — because that's part of it, obviously — but also someone who identifies with the bunny. That meant that the idea of metaphor itself was already taking shape in my imagination, as it does with all children.

"We were trapped. We were pinned. We were beaten, and we were eviscerated for someone else's consumption, just like the rabbits," he continues. "And I knew it. And even though I didn't have the words for it at the time, I felt it. So in this way, the perspective of my book is that of a dialogue. It’s the dialogue between the child and the emotional world of the child. Maybe sort of the imagination of the child and the forty-year-old author, trying to make sense of it."

Tattered Cover Book Store Presents an Evening with Mikel Jollett is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 12. Tickets are $27.99 and include a signed copy of Hollywood Park. Sign up for the online event at Eventbrite.

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