How Do You Capture the 1980s in Writing? Six Novelists Discuss Re-creating the Decade

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

All week on Vulture, we're examining '80s pop culture, and how it lives on today.

Writers never make things easy on themselves, and nostalgia is no exception. While the phenomenon has a rich literary tradition that sifts down like a dreamy haze through the novels of Marcel Proust, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Virginia Woolf, it’s no mean feat to convincingly render a lost time and place on the page. In film and music, the signifiers of another era are seen and heard, viscerally apparent, with no need for explicit discussion or exposition. Authors, meanwhile, are often stuck describing the particulars.

So how do writers transport us backward through time, especially to a recent decade such as the ever-popular 1980s, without weighing down their stories? We asked six novelists:

Alexander Chee: Edinburgh tracks a boy’s long journey forward from a youthful trauma in the ’80s.
Caleb Crain: Though Necessary Errors is set in Prague in the years 1990–91, it has 1989’s Velvet Revolution in the rearview mirror.
Eleanor Henderson:
Ten Thousand Saints follows an adopted druggie teen who discovers the straight-edge punk scene of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s after a personal tragedy.
Grady Hendrix: The lurid thriller My Best Friend’s Exorcism uses the moral panic over “Satanic” metal bands in the ’80s as the framing of its demonic tale.
Michael Kun and Susan Mullen: Their highly anticipated We Are Still Tornadoes, set in the summer of 1982 and told in a series of letters, tackles the relationship of Cath and Scott, who grew up neighbors and find themselves adrift after graduating from high school.

As different as their books may be, they all faced the same core challenge — and walked the tightrope well.  

What excited you about writing a novel set in the '80s?

Hendrix: At first I was excited to write about the obvious things: the music, the clothes, the mall. I had about 60,000 words done of what I thought was a great draft; then my wife read it and informed me it was hot garbage, full of lazy clichés and shallow stereotypes. She was right. I’m a child of the ’80s, but my brain was so colonized by what I’d seen in a million movies and TV shows that I had lost my own memories. I spent about three weeks just reading my old letters and diaries from the ’80s, and my wife’s old letters and diaries, and slowly my real memories crawled back out from where they’d been buried. There was so much more to the ’80s than the cartoon version I’d been regurgitating. From that moment on, what excited me was writing about this complicated, unsupervised, slightly insane version of the ’80s which I’d actually lived through.

Chee: I chose it unconsciously at the time — it just seemed normal, having lived through the ’80s, and I was writing scenes inspired by experiences that happened then. The whole era radiates a signal, this beautiful, hypnotic mix of hope and doom, so specific to that time before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the internet.
 
Kun: Someday, future civilizations will reach the consensus that the 1980s were the pinnacle of human existence. Maybe I’m joking. Maybe I’m not. But I was excited to work on a book set in the ’80s because everyone likes to remember the time in their life when they were young, interesting, and thin, and that was the 1980s for me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the decade wasn’t all great music and iconic movies and wild clothing. There was also the ever-present threat of a nuclear war, an economic crisis, an Olympic boycott, and some very divisive political issues.

In film and music, ’80s signifiers are easy to come by. What are the challenges of evoking the decade on the page? Did it ever feel like you were in danger of overdoing it?

Kun: Whenever you write about some other time period, there’s always the temptation to throw in as many pop-culture references as possible just to establish that time period. Not only can it be overkill, but what was intended to add authenticity can come across as entirely inauthentic or contrived. One of the things we tried to do was make sure that any references to 1980s pop culture came up naturally. I’m reminded of an episode of The Cleveland Show that was set in 1984, where they had great fun having characters say things that they would never have said just to establish that it was 1984, like, “Man, I can’t wait for the 1984 Summer Olympics this year” and “You ladies want to ride in my brand new ’84 Trans Am?” If someone wouldn’t have said it then, they shouldn’t say it in a book set in that time period.

Mullen: Because we wanted to write the novel in the epistolary style, exclusively as an exchange of letters between the characters, we had to set it in the ’80s or earlier, before the time of email, texting, and cell phones. As a result, the most obvious ’80s signifiers are the actual letters that Scott and Cath write back and forth throughout the book. Aside from that, we tried to use ’80s signifiers only when they were natural and relevant to the characters. Music is something that teenagers share, and if friends like the same type of music, it can be a significant bonding experience. Scott and Cath are typical teenagers in that way, and we were able to create a great ’80s soundtrack to the book. There were a few other opportunities to refer to popular movies, to how local professional sports teams were doing, and to the hassles of waiting for the hall phone in your college dorm or having your mom answer the home phone when your friends are calling, but we didn’t go out of our way to purposefully evoke the decade.

Henderson: Do you remember the short-lived That ’80s Show? I'm pretty sure it was cancelled after one episode of big cell phones and big hair. The ’80s were so big that they're hard not to exaggerate, and that's the risk. When Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini approached me to adapt the book into a movie, I was nervous about the possibility that the film would be an excuse to clothe the cast in leg warmers. I was greatly relieved that this was not the case — they were as concerned by that very real challenge as I was.

Crain: The music of Depeche Mode and Madonna figure in the novel under their own names, almost as part of the plot. I don't know how you could write about being gay in that era without bringing up pop music. Maybe because my character is so self-serious, for him the other big icons of the moment are political magazines, including the Economist and the New Republic. Within the novel I don't give the magazines' names because I wanted them to appear the way they did to the hero, who doesn't know their reputations — glamorous, authoritative, heady, a little suspect.

Hendrix: Never for one second did I feel like I was in danger of overdoing the period detail, because if I wrote My Best Friend’s Exorcism right, then it wasn’t period detail. It was just detail. If I pretended that all people wore was stonewashed denim and hairspray then I’m going for an easy laugh and someone should smack me. But what the people around me wore was a more preppy look that was a cross between Professional Southerner and New England Prep School. My goal was to make it feel immediate, and lived, and not like a window display labeled “Ha Ha, the ’80s.” 

Chee: The question has to be, are you signifying the ’80s or are you thinking about what happened then, and why? Once you have the handle on that, it gets easier. Those “Frankie Say Relax” shirts, clove cigarettes, the skinny black rubber bracelets, fingerless gloves, chunky earrings in one ear, asymmetrical hair, copper hair mousse — sure, that all matters. But do you know why Frankie Say Relax? Then you get somewhere.

Did you ever look to other '80s-set books for inspiration, particularly the ones written back then?

Hendrix: I avoided them like the plague. Why steal someone else’s version of a decade I lived through? What was a huge help for me was reading magazines like YM and Teen Vogue and The Upper Room and Sassy and Time that were published in the ’80s. And the biggest thing for me was reading Iris Rainer Dart’s Beaches, from 1985. It’s still one of the best books about female friendship ever written.

Henderson: Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude was published while I was working on the book, and it was both the best and worst thing that could have happened to me. It takes place over the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, but it drew that period in such detail that I felt that I'd lived through it myself. I wanted to write the kind of book that captured the music and testosterone and energy of boys growing up in New York, making things, and making trouble — a book that was about the time and place as much as it was about the people who passed through it.

Chee: Definitely. In a general way there was a lot of experimentation with the essay and the short story, and there was fantastic radical queer poetry and fiction being written: 1988 was the year I discovered Anne Carson, for example. Also David Wojnarowicz, Derek Jarman, Marilyn Hacker, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Grace Paley, Susan Sontag, June Jordan, Paul Monette, Essex Hemphill, Ethan Mordden, David Leavitt, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White, Richard Rodriguez, just to name a few.

Kun: My suspicion is that people think of only two things when they think of the 1980s, the music and the wild clothes, and the quintessential 1980s novel on those subjects has already been written: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. It would be virtually impossible for anyone to write a book that so perfectly captures that decade. So why try? I also suspect that, as much as many of us loved the ’80s, many others view it as something of a lost decade, where people were mired in their selfishness and greed. There may be something to that — but if you think of the ’80s as being a decade filled with vacuous people devoted to selfish pursuits, why the hell would you want to write about it?

What, to your mind, is the most '80s-authentic detail in your book?

Henderson: The Frogger flashback. The 1980s, to me, was a wood-paneled game console.

Crain: That no one has cell phones, so getting in touch and staying in touch with friends and lovers is a problem in constant need of solution.

Hendrix: So much stuff came flooding back as I was writing. Baby on Board signs, the brief toad-licking craze, the mania for giving giant cans of flavored popcorn at Christmas, Coogi sweaters. But the one thing that I had totally forgotten was Frusen Glädjé. Ice cream was a big status symbol in my family, so when we graduated from Breyer’s to Häagen-Dazs we felt very European. Then came Frusen Glädjé in its plastic capsule, with its upscale ads, and to us it was the equivalent of welding a BMW logo to our Volvo. There was so much angst about having it in the house, being able to afford it, telling other people about it, letting people see it in your freezer, and then it went away, and after 1991 I never thought about it again. Until I wrote this book and out of nowhere it popped into my head and I remembered how much it meant. 

Kun: The music, and how important it is to the characters. So many of the iconic songs of the 1980s now pop up in commercials that it’s easy to forget how subversive they sounded at the time, or how exciting it was to discover them. Hearing a new band on the radio, running out to buy a new album, listening to it over and over again, then telling your friends about it. That’s what the characters in the book do because that’s what we all did. Perhaps it’s always been this way, but there was something wonderful about feeling that you’d discovered a new band or a new song yourself, that you were the member of a small club, and that you were inviting others to join. Maybe there was something a bit arrogant about it, too — you know, wanting to be able to say that you were the fan of a band before anyone else. “Oh, so you became a fan of REM after hearing their first album? Well, I saw them in a small club three years earlier. There were only five people in the whole club. And the other four are dead.”

Chee: Probably the mushroom-party sex-scene hallucination with "Blue Monday" unironically mixed in. New Order wasn't ironic to listen to. It wasn't nostalgia.

When you're producing fiction about an era you lived through, does it feel more historical or autobiographical? Is it both?

Crain: The era was long enough ago that I can see it from the outside but recent enough that I can still remember it from the inside. The book is to some extent about capitalism's final triumph in the Communist sphere, and I fretted a lot about getting right exactly when currency liberalization happened in Czechoslovakia and when various financial reforms were passed, and when fads for certain kinds of retail establishment swept through — fads that changed almost monthly in those days.

Mullen: There were both historical and autobiographical elements to having We Are Still Tornadoes set in the ‘80s. I was careful about Googling songs, concert tours, movies, yearly calendars, lunar calendars, and even weather events to make sure that they were accurately portrayed. Occasionally, I was disappointed to learn that a song I wanted to reference hadn’t been released until after the time period of the book, or surprised at how flawed my memory was of certain lyrics. From an autobiographical standpoint, to a certain extent I tapped into my memories of friends, events, or conversations from college in drafting some of the scenes. For example, when Cath is getting ready for a date and describes what she’s going to wear, it’s the same outfit that a friend of mine and I picked out for her to wear on a date with the guitar player from my friend’s band back in college.

Hendrix: Excavating the autobiographical part is essential. Making a long-distance collect call on a pay phone to my sister after I got thrown out of the house and not having her number. Every day the paper arrived with stories about day-care centers concealing secret underground Satanic tunnels and children being taken by hot-air balloon to black masses where they sexually serviced Chuck Norris. Actual lawyers were prosecuting these cases, actual cops were making these arrests, actual editors were printing these bizarre allegations like fact, and it felt like everyone in charge had gone completely insane. Going to the Coastal Carolina Fair and seeing a drug addict in a cage at the freak show. All that is important, but I also had to have the history fully researched to keep me honest. My Best Friend’s Exorcism takes place from September to December of 1988, so the walls of my office were plastered with weather reports, school calendars, TV schedules, newspaper front pages, and magazine covers from those months.

Henderson: It's odd to say that a novel set in 1988 is historical fiction, but that's what it felt like to me, because I was writing about characters who came of age a few years before I did, and, because I didn't grow up in New York, I was trying to reconstruct a world that I hadn't witnessed myself. I just finished a novel set in Georgia in the 1930s, and the process of researching, writing, and world-building was much the same.

Chee: There is a personal advantage, but also a blind spot. You have to research even the autobiography — it's false to believe you can just rely on memory. The big advantage is that you can remember the way people thought then, you don't have to apprehend it intuitively out of their old newspapers and diaries. You can remember a time when you had to push your radio into this one corner of your bedroom to get the cool college radio station that played Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy" — there was no YouTube. Music videos and mixtapes were the new thing.
 
Kun: It’s hard not to let some autobiographical elements slip in. Among other things, the two main characters in the book share their opinions with each other about music. It’s no coincidence that their musical tastes happen to match precisely [my and Susan Mullen’s] own musical tastes. If I’m going to co-write a book set in the 1980s, you’d better believe the main characters are going to like listening to the same music I liked — Squeeze, REM, Joe Jackson, the English Beat, Simple Minds, Kate Bush, Elvis Costello, and Michael Jackson. Oh, and Culture Club. Can’t forget them. They’ll be playing “Karma Chameleon” at my funeral if my wife and daughter have any respect whatsoever for my last wishes, which they probably won’t. It’s the perfect pop song. But you couldn’t pay me enough to write a book set in the 1980s where the main characters sit around listening to Styx or REO Speedwagon or Ratt.

What's something about this time period you wanted to convey to readers, especially those who didn't experience it for themselves?

Henderson: I think we tend to think about the ’80s as a decade defined by excess — cocaine, crime, the rise of Trump Tower. I wanted to depict the lives of young people who had a different experience — who in response to that excess chose much more restrained lifestyles, like the teenagers in the straight-edge scene I wrote about. The War on Drugs loomed large for any kid who grew up with the Reagans in the White House, but there were kids who were unironically embracing the Just Say No message, in some cases choosing not just sobriety but celibacy and vegetarianism. To me, it's a moment that only could have happened in the ’80s, when kids were coming of age a generation after the flower children. Then there was AIDS. It's so important that we don't forget about what AIDS did to us in the ’80s.

Chee: I was after the sense of danger that was very real then for LGBTQ folks even amid so much experimentation then around sex and gender. “Queer” was still an insult someone yelled as they chased you down the street. My novel is about a boy who fears he's a monster for desiring other boys, and the stories he tells himself to survive what he wants from this life.

Crain: I'm fond of the ’80s the way everyone is fond of the era he grew up in, but they were very difficult years for a gay man. No effective treatment had been discovered for AIDS, national politicians fulminated against homosexuality, and in coming out one still risked losing one's friends and one's job. Maybe that's what I'd wish to convey to readers who didn't live through it? Except I don’t wish that experience, or even a approximation of it in fiction, on anyone. The hero of my novel is someone who has come out in America and is now trying to run away from the challenges.

Hendrix: There wasn’t one thing I wanted to convey. I wanted to scrape away the easy irony, the cheap jokes, the lazy caricatures, everything that lets a reader keep her distance, and point and laugh. It’s easy to pretend that people in the past were somehow stupider and simpler than we are today. It’s easy to hold the era at arm’s length and sneer. That’s certainly what I did in my first crappy draft. But the ’80s I lived through were stranger, and more dangerous, and more complicated than that. Think about the music. The cliché we have about ’80s music is that it was all either hair metal or New Wave, power guitars or synthesizers. But the ’80s were when Tracy Chapman, Queen Latifah, and the Indigo Girls released their first albums. Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies were huge at my high school. The Pogues toured America, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson had hit singles, Public Enemy was everywhere. Nothing is monolithic, not even a decade. What you see depends on where you’re standing.
 
Kun: I don’t want to sound like the cranky old uncle sitting at the kids table on Thanksgiving griping about how the world has gone to shit, but I’m not sure that younger readers fully appreciate what a different world it was in the 1980s. I could say that I don’t understand skinny jeans, but then I’d be forced to try to explain stonewashed jeans, and for the life of me I can’t come up for a defense for them. I’m not suggesting that the 1980s were better, just that they were different. At every point in history, mankind thinks of itself as being technologically advanced, only to have time prove that they weren’t. In the 1980s, we thought we were technologically advanced. We had hand-held calculators, and we didn’t have to wait on line at the bank to get money because we could pull up in our cars and they would send us money through pneumatic tubes.

It’s funny to look back now and think of what we thought was high tech. But, ultimately, the ’80s were the last decade before personal computers and cell phones. Before emails, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and whatever new social media just came out while I was completing this sentence. The way people communicated was entirely different. In the 1980s, particularly the early ’80s, the only way to communicate with people was by the telephone and letters. Oh, and CB radios. I don’t even know how to explain what those were other than to say it was like having the crappiest cell phone in the world where anyone could listen in if they wanted.

Anyway, if you wanted to communicate with someone who was far away, you probably resorted to writing letters — and you took your time figuring out what you were going to say. In some ways, people in the 1980s were more thoughtful about their communications than they are today. I know that’s the case with me. In the 1980s, I’d write long, carefully considered letters to friends and family. Now, I’ll often send an immediate response back to a text that just says, “WTF?”