My novel How the Mistakes Were Madetells the story of Laura Loss, a punk rock veteran who rises to fame with Seattle grunge band The Mistakes. After the group’s demise, Laura ends up hated by her fans, vilified by the press, and cynical toward the music scene she’s spent her life in. I’ve been asked many times: Who is this character based on? It’s a question that’s caught me off guard, and which has no simple answer.
Readers and critics often compare Laura Loss to Courtney Love, and that’s a fair point. But that’s not a biographical connection, so much as a hypothetical one. Years ago, I read an article about a disagreement between Love and the two surviving Nirvana members, over a yet-unreleased song. The writer closed the piece with a sarcastic rhetorical question: “she wasn’t actually in the band, right?” That got me thinking: what if she had been in the band? Would we—the public—be any more sympathetic?
I’ve said elsewhere that Laura’s persona is indebted to Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. That’s also where I cribbed her interest in painting. I knew that Gordon had studied art, and published articles in art magazines. Though Laura’s interest in painting became more historical and canonical, I liked the idea of her having a passion on the side.
There are many musicians that contributed to her character—Patti Smith, Kathleen Hanna, the girl who fronted a Boise band called Manville, and others. But one of the biggest sources of inspiration wasn’t a musician at all.
When I was a teenager, I learned that a friend had attended high school with the younger sister of Ian MacKaye (frontman of Minor Threat and Fugazi, and founder of Dischord Records). It seems silly now, but the notion of Ian having a little sister immediately took hold on my imagination. I was young and naïve enough to see all musicians as larger than life, even the staunchly independent ones. Ian’s legacy—in terms of music, ideals, and business practices—seemed a long and complicated shadow to grow up in, especially for a younger sibling. The idea crept into my mind and holed up there for the next twenty years or so, until I finally wrote this novel.
Tyler McMahon is the author of the novel How the Mistakes Were Made. He lives in Honolulu with his wife, food writer Dabney Gough, and teaches at Hawai‘i Pacific University.