Special Rocktober Close-Out: A guest blog post from RJ McDonnell


I’ll admit it. I’ve been so busy editing that I didn’t have a chance to put together the sort of Rocktober I’d wanted to.

But my friend RJ McDonnell wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily. I HAD to do something and what do you know? He’s got a new book out.

So… I thought I’d break my own rules around here and instead of asking RJ what song makes him think of his book, for your Halloween pleasure, to send Rocktober out with a bang, I asked RJ to pen a guest blog — possibly the first to run in over six years here at West of Mars — about why he writes Rock Fiction.

With no further ado:


RJ McDonnell

The greatest Christmas present I ever received was an acoustic guitar, given to my sister when I was 9 years old. She was thrilled with it for about an hour. After trying to form chords for the first time and failing miserably, she had no problem letting her little brother make a fool of himself. I realized at that learning to play would be a long and difficult road, especially since my parents couldn’t afford to pay for lessons. But on some level I knew that I had tapped into an inner passion and, regardless of the time and effort involved, I would learn to play that guitar.

I went into that Christmas with my eyes wide open. The previous year, my big present was a Flexible Flyer sled that I immediately walked to our neighbor sleigh riding venue a mile away. It was no big surprise that I was the lone sledder at 8:30 AM on Christmas morning. The big surprise happened when I put my tongue on the sled’s steering bolt when I reached the bottom of the hill on my first run. Yes, it stuck like Crazy Glue, just like in the film A Christmas Story. But instead of flailing my arms and crying, I had to drag a sled that was bigger than me up and down hills for a mile with my tongue twisted sideways. Man-up Flick, it could have been a lot worse.

So, my family was understandably cool about letting me glom onto my sister’s present. I may have traded her an evil sled with a leftover taste bud or two for my first six string.

The following spring I fell head over heels for a Beatles album that I purchased with proceeds from my new lawn mowing business. I started working on the songs with my guitar the minute I got home and didn’t stop at bedtime until my mother took the guitar out of my room and placed it next to my father.

The following morning I tried my hand at acting, as I faked a severe stomach ache in front of my 4th grade class at 9:15 AM. The school nurse drove me home. A couple of days later I overheard my mother say on the telephone, “I wish he would have at least waited until the nurse left the house before playing his album and guitar.”

When I reached high school I discovered an aptitude for English, which served as a nice counterbalance for the black hole known as Algebra. I was moved up into an advanced English class and had no trouble keeping in step with my new classmates. I didn’t know it at the time but it was the beginning of a lifelong journey.

Writing was a skill that carried me through college and grad school. Regardless of my level of preparedness for tests, I could always count on convincing profs that I knew the material with a well-crafted paper or two. It became my go-to skill if my band happened to land a gig the night before a test.

After graduation I tried working at a government job for two years while continuing to play in a band. But I came to realize that my career path and basic intolerance for bullshit were at odds with one another, and was destined to end badly if I didn’t take immediate corrective action. I really wanted a chance to work as a full-time musician but knew it wasn’t going to happen in Northeastern Pennsylvania. So I moved to San Diego, quickly teamed up with a talented lead guitarist, and we formed a band.

But fate can be downright mean at times. Just as my new band was gelling I shattered my left wrist in an accident. At first I thought I’d be back in action in no time – slap a cast on it and wait six weeks. But I broke the navicular bone, which is in the middle of several smaller bones and gets very little of the circulation needed for healing. Six weeks turned into six months, at which point I had bone graft surgery. That was followed by 18 months in casts and braces. Bottom line: I wasn’t able to play guitar for over 20 years.

Writing was my fallback position. I landed a full-time writing job a year after getting out of the brace. My first fiction gig happened when a coworker went to work on a new cable comedy television show with a Saturday Night Live format. My coworker asked if I’d like to submit a script on spec. A total of 34 of my scripts were produced and aired over the show’s two seasons, and I was hooked on fiction.

I’ve been a mystery/crime fan my whole life. My father was a homicide detective who watched every crime drama and movie on television. I transitioned from television to novels in college. I was especially fond of series collections and made sure I tapped into my passion for music when developing my detective’s background as a former club musician. In spite of the injury my passion for rock music never waned. I set up the series so that every one of the novels involved the music industry.

So far, all of the cases have related to rock music. Rock & Roll Homicide is about the murder of a metal frontman. Rock & Roll Rip-Off features a rock studio musician involved with an emo band. The Concert Killer follows a serial killer as he tries to shut down the rock concert industry. And, The Classic Rockers Reunion with Death takes a hard look at life after stardom.

Although my detective, Jason Duffy, played in metal bands until starting his apprenticeship as a private investigator, I’m not locked into writing about rock exclusively. I have two children in their early 20s. My daughter is a blues singer and my son is a drum & bass MC who warmed up a Grammy award winner last year. It’s possible I may wander into their worlds if they offer a guided tour. In the meantime, my working title for #5 is Diamonds, Clubs, and Rock & Roll.


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