Rob Rufus is among the small, engrained-in-my-memory group of East Nashvillians who ventured into The Bookshop during the quiet, early days after we first opened — folks full of enthusiasm and eager to support my fledgling East Side bookstore.
On that first visit, Rob introduced himself as a book lover, a musician, and a writer with his first book due to be published a few months later. Released in September 2016, Die Young with Me is Rob’s memoir about growing up as a punk rocker in Huntington, West Virginia, and battling (and beating!) a rare form of cancer as a teen. The sincere and inspiring page-turner was widely praised and won a prestigious Alex Award from the American Library Association. (It’s also being adapted for Netflix, so stay tuned for that.)
It’s now more than three years later, and Rob’s second book — The Vinyl Underground — will publish on March 10. Last Sunday morning — in an effort to avoid my lengthy to-do list, which included deciding what I was going to write about in this column — I cracked open an advance copy of the book, intending to read just the first chapter. The next thing I knew, it was dusk, I was turning the last page, and I knew what “Bookish” was going to be about.
Propulsive and effortlessly engaging, The Vinyl Underground is set in a small Florida town during 1968. Ronnie Bingham’s day-to-day life as a high school senior consists of classes, wrestling, working at the local movie theater, and hanging out with his best friend, Milo. Privately, Ronnie is still reeling from the loss of his older brother, Bruce, who was recently killed in Vietnam. Ronnie is also terrified of getting drafted himself, since his eighteenth birthday is looming. He finds solace, meaning, and escape in music — specifically in listening to Bruce’s record collection.
Enter Hana, Ronnie’s intriguing new neighbor, a Chicago transplant who’s worldly, fierce, and not shy in speaking out against the war. She’s also half-Japanese, which doesn’t go over very well with some of the more narrow-minded
(read: bigoted) townsfolk.
Ronnie, Milo, Hana, and “Ramrod” — who’s also in danger of getting drafted — form The Vinyl Underground, a once-a-week record club where they bond over music and confide their hopes and fears. They devise a plan to ensure that Ronnie fails his draft exam, but then something awful happens, which leads to an even more daring act of resistance that is part Heathers, part Carrie (minus the telekinetic bloodbath).
When asked what prompted the idea for the story, Rob mentions that his father served in Vietnam. He chose to set the book in 1968 because, “there was a brief moment when America thought we might pull out of the war. I imagined how crushing it must’ve been for high school seniors when they realized peace was dashed, and they’d still have to report to the draft board come graduation day.”
Rob admits that making the switch from memoir to fiction required an adjustment. “When I write fiction, I’m dealing with characters from different backgrounds and experiences. So there is a lot of research, conversation, and rumination involved in making sure I’m as considerate as possible with those characters’ stories, even if they only exist in my imagination.”
As for the book’s focus on music, Rob notes, “So many Die Young with Me readers connected with how I wrote about falling in love with music. Since the 1960s was arguably the best decade of American music, I was excited to take the opportunity to write about it. Luckily, I’m a music dork so not a lot of research was involved beyond walking into my living room and skimming my record collection.”
When asked to describe The Vinyl Underground in one word Rob’s choice is, “LOUD. The book is all about the power (both good and bad) of loud music, loud ideas, and loud expression.” Right on!
We’d crack the sky.
We’d shake the earth.
We’d rattle and roll it, too.
—The Vinyl Underground
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Joelle Herr worked as a book editor and is the author of several books.
She owns and curates The Bookshop in East Nashville.