There are few authors writing today who have such a gift for language and variety of style as Robert Paul Weston. His first novel in prose, Dust City, is a “hardboiled fairytale” that features the son of the wolf who killed Little Red Riding Hood. He’s written two middle grade novels in verse, Zorgamazoo and Prince Puggly of Spud, which take the reader on fantastical, rhyming adventures with magical creatures and an unlikely prince. The Creature Department, Weston’s fourth book, is a kaleidoscope of color and adventure, and was created in collaboration with Framestore, the visual effects company responsible for Avatar and Where the Wild Things Are.
Though his stories are filled with charm and whimsy, Weston has never shied away from the darker edges of life in his work – see Mrs. Krabone, the cantankerous caretaker of young Katrina Katrell in Zorgamazoo, who threatens the imaginative little girl with a lobotomy. His newest book, Blues for Zoey, is a noticeable departure from his Roald Dahl-esque earlier work. Blues for Zoey is solidly YA, a realistic fiction meets mystery meets coming of age story that is rich with astonishing characters and stunning prose.
In Blues for Zoey, Kazuo Barrett is saving every dollar he earns at the Sit ’n’ Spin Laundromat for an expensive and crucial medical treatment for his mother, who suffers an extremely rare sleep disorder. His focus is shaken, however, when he meets Zoey, a mysterious girl with pink dreads and a bizarre homemade instrument. Zoey’s entrance into Kaz’s life ushers in a chain of unusual events that lead him down a path of lies, half-truths, and violence.
For Weston, ideas and the books that are born from them are akin to family.
“I didn’t chose my parents, but I’ll go to war for them. I feel the same way about ideas,” said Weston. “The ideas settle on me. Once they have, I feel a duty to honor them, the same way I would honor my friends and family.”
Much of Blues for Zoey centers around the power of music, with the focus on a band called Freudian Slap and its lead singer Shain Cope. For Kaz, the voice of Shain Cope is unshakable. As Kaz says in Blues for Zoey, “Imagine a set of vocal cords pickled in whiskey for twenty years, then smoked over coals for another ten. Got that? Good. Now scrub what’s left with sandpaper. That’s Shain Cope.”
This ragged, oddly intoxicating music draws Kaz in and, in many ways, helps him start to define himself. For Weston, the inspiration of music was a personal one, drawn from his own teenage musical obsessions.
“[Shain Cope] was inspired by a particular type of singer I became obsessed with as a teenager. The first of these was Leonard Cohen. I was a little older than Kaz when he released his album, The Future. Lyrically, it’s kind of an apocalyptic record and the gravelly voice Cohen had developed with age matched it well,” said Weston. “After that album, I was hooked. I had to seek out every raspy, gravel-voiced singer I could find. Everything from Tom Waits to Louis Armstrong to Dicky Barrett from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I had them all. In my head, Freudian Slap plays like a mash-up of all those guys.”
Kaz is particularly drawn to a song called “Colt’s-Tooth Blues,” which he comes to believe was written as a personal message to him, despite having been written years before his birth. The idea that ensnares him, and also captured Weston’s imagination during the writing process, is that of finding beauty in unexpected places.
“I had bits and pieces of [the lyrics in Blues for Zoey written]beforehand, particularly the refrain about finding beauty in something broken and forgotten,” said Weston.
Throughout Blues for Zoey, Kaz seeks beauty in a variety of ways. He finds it in Zoey, who is both gorgeous and mysterious. He finds it in the jarring, rough voice of Shain Cope. He even finds it in the people who surround him, though he often has to look hard to see it. But finding beauty in his own circumstances is more difficult, as his problems are both practical and urgent.
One of the things that drew Weston was the desire to tell “a story about ethnicity the way I experience it, meaning as someone of a very mixed background, for whom ethnicity means everything and nothing at the same time.” Weston’s words, and Blues for Zoey, are an important addition to the conversation surrounding the need for diverse books. Kaz’s mixed ethnic background is both a punchline and a source of pride for him, though he’s not always sure how to express it.
Additionally, Weston explores another important reality for many teens and their families: urban poverty. The isolation Kaz feels is, said Weston, “more about poverty than urbanity. I don’t think it’s living in cities that alienates people, it’s living in cities without enough money.”In the opening chapter of the book, Kaz makes a list of the ten “puzzle pieces” of his life that are important. Money, as he says, is “life’s other major trip-up.”
After sex, of course.
There is a lot about life, and Kaz’s story in particular, that is broken and forgotten. From the practical realities of financial need, to the abstract connection people feel with music or to each other, Weston has composed a lively, haunting and lovely story in Blues for Zoey. As “Colt’s-Tooth Blues” puts it:
If only I were beautiful
Like something rotten on a beach
That stuff has got a kind of grace
No one ever sees
For more on Robert Paul Weston, visit his website.