The new book "Lost in the '90s" tells the story of a teenage boy from 2012 named Kurt who travels back in time to April 1994, on the eve of Kurt Cobain’s death, where he meets his teenage parents and helps them fall in love.
While the effects of that tragic day ultimately factor heavily in the novel, author Frank Anthony Polito didn't necessarily plan it that way when he started writing it. "I knew that I wanted the story to open at a school dance where the main character, Kurt, and his '90s cover band, The Pogs, would be playing," Polito tells MTV News. "So I chose April 2012 and April 1994 would be the time he travels back to. I picked a Saturday night, April 7, and when I began researching what happened in April 1994, I realized that April 8th was the day that MTV’s Kurt Loder broke the news of Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide. There was no way I could ignore such a HUGE event when it came to telling a story set in April 1994 – especially one that involved high school-aged characters."
Cobain's death has a huge impact on the characters that populate "Lost in the '90s," specifically Kurt's father, who "loses all hope" after the Nirvana icon's suicide. We talked to Polito about the effect Cobain had on a generation, the reverence for the '90s that marks the book and how revisiting Cobain's music and legacy while writing gave him a new appreciation of Nirvana.
"When I first heard Nirvana back in the day, I chalked them up to another Guns ‘N’ Roses-type 'head banger' band," Polito explains. "But now, I’ve taken the time to actually listen to Cobain’s lyrics, and read about what he was doing musically, and he truly was revolutionary in his thinking."
Read on for our full interview.
MTV News: What drew you to such a specifically iconic, and of course sad, moment in rock history for your new book, "Lost in the '90s"? Why attach the narrative to that specific time and event?
Polito: For my first two novels ["Band F*gs!" and "Drama Queers!"] I tackled the awesome '80s. When I began writing "Lost in the '90s" in 2009, I figured the '80s nostalgia craze had just about peaked… Time to move on to the next decade. Because I know how long it takes to write and publish a book, I figured that by the time "Lost in the '90s" was ready to hit bookstores, it would be the year 2012 – which, back in 2009, seemed so far away!
I knew that I wanted to write a story about a kid from “today” who travels back in time to the '90s when his parents were in high school. So I did the math, which led me to 1994 – one of my all-time favorite years in pop culture.
I also knew that I wanted the story to open at a school dance, where the main character, Kurt, and his '90s cover band, The Pogs, would be playing. So I chose April 2012 and April 1994 would be the time he travels back to. I picked a Saturday night, April 7th, and when I began researching what happened in April 1994, I realized that April 8th was the day that MTV’s Kurt Loder broke the news of Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide. There was no way I could ignore such a huge event when it came to telling a story set in April 1994 – especially one that involved high school-aged characters.
MTV News: You mentioned that you didn't necessarily plan to have the events related to Cobain factor so highly into the book, but as you researched that's the direction it took. What about Cobain did you find so compelling that it sort of refocused your writing?
Polito: Back in the day, I wasn’t a huge Nirvana fan. At the time, I was more into British bands like The Sundays and The Charlatans UK and The Beautiful South – bands with “the” in the names. Then Nirvana came along and the whole sound of music started to change … and I didn’t like it. Nirvana reminded me of a heavy-metal type band that all the “burnouts” in high school had listened to and I basically wrote them off. Fifteen years later, when I started writing "Lost in the '90s" and I began reading more and more about Nirvana and the man that was Kurt Cobain, I realized that I had totally gotten it wrong. Yes, Nirvana might sound “hard” but Kurt Cobain himself was a very peaceful man. I never realized that he had been picked on and called names when he was a teenager. I never knew how pro-gay rights he was or that he had given an interview to The Advocate in which he talked about being “gay in spirit.”
MTV News: You mention that your main character's father was a big Nirvana/Cobain fan, and that he "loses all hope" after Cobain's suicide. Do you think that was the experience of a lot of people of that generation? Why?
Polito: I, personally, don’t remember being affected by Cobain’s death – other than thinking how tragic it was for him to die at 27. But I have friends who are a bit younger than me, who were big into Nirvana when they were in high school, and they’ve told me how devastated they were when Kurt died. How they sat in front of the TV for hours listening to the news reports, feeling numb, and wondering how something so tragic could happen to someone who, on the surface, seemed to have it all – success, money, fame, a wife and newborn daughter.
I’ve also read about others who contemplated killing themselves after losing Kurt because without him, they felt no reason to live. I think a lot of this thinking stemmed from the fact that so many people felt that Kurt was singing about them in his music. They connected with the lyrics and the passion and the pain he put into his songs. To imagine a life without Kurt Cobain’s presence was a difficult thing to bear.
MTV News: You mentioned that you once thought Nirvana was "another Guns ‘N’ Roses-type 'head banger' band," but after studying the lyrics you came to feel Cobain was "revolutionary in his thinking"? What about his thinking was revolutionary?
Polito: Before I really started listening to the songs of Nirvana, I used to think, “Well, you can’t dance to it.” To me, it ["Smells Like Teen spirit"] was just slow for a bit, then really, really loud, then slow again. Now, I realize that this was the band’s intent when writing it. I also appreciate the lyrics of “In Bloom.” Not only does the song explicitly address the people who claimed to love Nirvana but didn’t understand the band’s message, i.e. the types of guys who teased Cobain as a kid but were now paying money to buy his music, I love how the lyrics in the first verse go hand in hand with the lyrics in the second.
MTV News: There's a lot of '90s nostalgia out there right now. What about the decade do you think is so appealing to the current generation?
Polito: While we all love Facebook and Twitter and email and living our lives online, I think there’s something about the '90s – especially to those who grew up during the period – that we all wish we could recapture. Of course, there’s our youth. But there’s also that feeling of life being lived at a slower pace. We can all remember the time when we’d listen to actual CDs on our Walkmans, and we’d play video games on our Nintendos and PlayStations.
Today everything is digital, which is great in terms of saving space, but there’s something special about holding an actual CD or a book in your hand, and spending time playing a game with a friend in front of an actual TV, or talking on an actual phone to someone, instead of being all by yourself in front of a computer or shooting off a quick text.