INTERVIEW: Mike Henneberger Talks New Memoir

  1. Getting the proverbial ball rolling Mike, I want to thank you so much for writing Rock Bottom at the Renaissance: An Emo Kid’s Journey Through Falling In And Out Of Love In And With New York City. It is the book that I came to with very little expectations and a book I left realizing that this was the book I had been waiting years to discover. Let’s start at the beginning: The book truly reads like a big, beautiful, sloppy Valentine to New York City and experiencing it through the prism of being twentysomething. Was this your ultimate goal with the story?

First of all, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found the book interesting enough to want to chat about it, and I appreciate the hell out of ya for spreading the word.

I think one of the craziest things about this book, is that I didn’t really have a specific goal for this book. And I suppose that’s a lesson for any creative person, because, what’s the saying? “A goal without a plan is just a dream.” Pretty sure that’s it. But obviously, when someone reads the book, they’ll see that I wasn’t in the best frame of mind, and wasn’t really thinking ahead. And because of that, this book kinda sat on the shelf for a while, which might also be a good thing since it gave me time to read it with fresh eyes, and tweak it a little bit. Now when I read it, I almost don’t even see the person in it as me. Over the last few years, I’ve really been working on my mental health and am in a much better place than I was when I wrote this book. So, I guess that’s the long road to the answer to the question. When I wrote it, the only goal I had was to get something down on paper, as I obsessively mention in the book. But for the last couple years, reading it as far removed from it as I feel like I am, my goal is that people who struggle with mental health issues will see that those issues don’t have to defeat us. And even for people who don’t deal with things like depression or anxiety like I do, I hope those people will see that we don’t have to let our past mistakes define us. I also had a weird realization when I was reading it a while back––reading the gritty detail I get into about my depression and anxiety and suicidal thought––that I think this book will also really help give a better understanding of mental health issues to those who have friends or loved ones who deal with that stuff. I hope this book helps people the way the music I mention in it helped me.

  1. Even though you write the book as a sort of snapshot into a particular time and place, it really feels timeless in the best sense of the word. Was this an end-goal for you, to not write a memoir that in five minutes might feel dated but that would, like some exotic hibernating flower, open up all of these different layers each time a reader returns to it?

Wow, I’m glad you said that, because that was something I was worried about. But I think it helps that it takes place mostly in a hotel room in the middle of Times Square, and those are two settings that are probably never going to change. And then there are flashbacks, which surprisingly don’t feel dated either, I suppose, but it would be okay if they did since they’re flashbacks. I wish could say I’m a good enough writer to do that on purpose, but I guess, at best, I’m a good enough writer to know not to make references that are so obscure that the average reader won’t get them. Thankfully (and only for this reason) “Big Bang Theory” was such a hit, since that’s one I make in there, and while I can’t tell you what Diddy is going by now, I knew people would know him by that name, so I didn’t go back and change it. Plus, I reference music from the 50s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, so I think it helps keep it from getting locked down. I really didn’t ever think of that aspect before, but, man is that a relief to hear that. Thanks!

  1. Your writing recalls for me the best of Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman and even Jack Kerouac. Are these names at all off base comparison-wise?

I’ll take it! I love Klosterman and Hornby. They’re both much smarter than me and better writers, but, hey, this is just book number one. I’ve got time to grow. And I’d like to think that what I lack in Klosterman’s knowledge of EVERYTHING and Hornby’s class, I make up for in raw emotion and naked vulnerability.

I’ve heard the comparison to Hornby’s “High Fidelity,” which is obvious, and I’d never deny it. I think my book has some self-awareness about that with a few references to the movie. I used to say that the book is like “High Fidelity” or “How I Met Your Mother” if either of those had the drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues that the main characters most definitely would’ve had in real life. And of course, like most writers, I am influenced by the spirit of Kerouac, but personally that’s more influential than his writing. I had to read “On the Road” in high school, along with “Catcher in the Rye (to which I’ve also gotten comparisons), and I just felt like those books were soooo outdated, so I didn’t develop the affinity to them that many lit fans do. One of the first people to read this book was AJ Perdomo, the singer from The Dangerous Summer, and the first thing he told me was that he thought it was “like ‘High Fidelity’ meets ‘Choke’ meets ‘Catcher in the Rye.’” So, based on previous comparisons, I’d like to say you’re not off base, and if readers agree, well that would be one hell of an honor. Hornby, Klosterman, Palahnuik, Salinger and Kerouac, that’s some damn good company. If you haven’t read Rob Sheffield, he’s definitely someone music fans will dig. I haven’t gotten compared to him yet, which is great because I actually didn’t read anything from him ‘til after I wrote this, but I’ve read a few of his books since, and he writes with the same kind of passion and connection to music that I do.

  1. Music has quite obviously been an epic companion to you throughout your life and you use that personal connection to great effect in your memoir. Going broad here, what is it about music in general that has served as a balm to your soul and heart over the years? Is it something that might even be beyond words?

It’s definitely beyond words, but that’s never stopped me from trying to put something into words, which I think I try to do more than a few times in the book. I’d have to go back to the earliest music memory, because I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel this connected to music––as if each song’s SOLE purpose is for me, specifically, to relate to it. But I mention in the introduction of my book, that I have all these memories of my dad and his record collection. I can’t think of a lot of things that my dad cared about. Like, he wasn’t a sports guy or a car guy, but he always had nice stereo equipment and a bunch of records. And so, the part that’s beyond words is that I’m sure there was some subconscious connection made by my brain way back then that said, “Hey, THAT must be important.” I started my first band when I was 14, and I was the lead singer, so I studied music and other bands, and I think there was this other subconsciuos connection that formed and showed me that songs were a way that people communicated the most vulnerable of feelings, and at that time in my life, I mean, in every teenage boy’s life, really, I had a lot of feelings I needed to get out somehow. And then playing in bands, I was able to see the effect MY music had on people. So it’s just been this thing in my life––music’s link to emotion––that has just been super present as long as I can remember. How’d I do?

  1. You genuinely give readers an inside look at our life, from the good times to the bad. Was it tempting at all to leave anything out, or did you take a “warts and all” approach to your story?

Well, it’s definitely an all-or-nothing situation, which is why it sat on the shelf for so long. I wasn’t tempted to leave anything out, because, fortunately, as folks will read, I had absolutely no control over my brain as I was writing this. And, for those who haven’t read it, I don’t mean in some hippy supernatural creative spirit took over me, I mean that I was fucked up on Xanax, Adderall, Ambien, and a lot of booze. So what you see on the page, for the most part, is what just came out. As time passed, I fixed some grammar, corrected some typos, and changed some minor details that don’t affect the story but might’ve been unnecessarily crass. I mean, the person I was when I wrote this was very different than the person I am now, at least in the bad ways. Personalty-wise, I haven’t changed much, but my depression and anxiety were at their worst when I wrote this book, and that just makes it hard for you to think positively about anything. But I tried to keep it true to itself as much as possible because I want the people to read it to know what a dark state of mind I was in. And if you hate that guy, or if you think he sounds like an asshole sometimes, good. That just helps me prove my point that people can change and escape the worst versions of themselves.

And then of course, I met my wife like right after I finished this book. So…she’s not in it. We’ve been married for, in September it’ll be five years. And she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I love her and she loves me in the way I believed love could exist, in the way that I don’t shut up about in the book. So, it’s all or nothing. That put this book on the shelf a little longer, because I didn’t know how to show it to her, and I didn’t want to hurt her or whatever. But, if I took the things out that would bother her, there’d be nothing left. We’ve had our talks about it, some arguments, but she knows that it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I believe it can really help people who have dealt with similar situations. Like, if this book helps one person realize that they don’t have to commit suicide, and maybe they write a book or a song instead, then who the fuck cares how I come off looking from it, you know? Helping someone else is far more important to me than anything else, because I’d be dead right now if some other strangers hadn’t helped me without evening knowing it.

  1. Millions of people struggle daily with mental health. This is a profound theme throughout Rock Bottom at the Renaissance. What would you say to someone reading this interview that might be going through a lot of the same mental health issues that you write so candidly about in your book?

I’d say, this book would not exist if I hadn’t decided to take my mental health more seriously. If you’re dealing with your mental health issues, or even just emotions, the way that I did in the book, stop. We all have something to offer, and it doesn’t have to be a book or a song, maybe it’s friendship or maybe you’re gonna be the husband or wife or father or mother or brother or sister or waiter or congressman or whatever, that changes someone’s life. And fuck that, even if you don’t believe you can change someone’s life, fine, who cares? I’ve accomplished some amazing things that I never evene dreamed I’d be able to when I was a kid. I’ve won an Emmy, I’ve worked with or interviewed some of my comedic and musical heroes, I’ve worked for Rolling Stone, Spin and Billboard, the biggest names in music journalism, and I met my wife, who is also more amazing than I ever could’ve dreamed. And all of that happened AFTER I wrote this book. So don’t risk missing out on the good just because the bad feels like it’s too much right now. For the longest time, talk therapy didn’t work for me, but I’ve had a great therapist for the last few years and it’s made a world of difference. I’ve taken so many different anti-depressants, and never felt like they worked, and now, I’ve got a mixture of meds that I take (as prescribed), and that also helps like I never thought they would. If there’s any advice I can give ya, hopefully it’s by example, and hopefully I can help you believe that there’s something amazing on the other side, so don’t waste your time with bullshit like I did, just do what you gotta do to get to the amazing part.

  1. A purely fanboy question here: Music is such a major part of not only your life but also obviously of your memoir. You name drop some killer tunes throughout and these indelible pop words become almost like another character in your story. Was there ever any thought to releasing a companion cd to go along with Rock Bottom at the Renaissance or was that strictly cost prohibitive?

I’ve actually created Spotify and Apple Music playlists with every song in the book on them, and in the paperback, there are QR codes in the front that you can scan to get the playlists before you read, and in the ebook, there are links at the beginning of the book to go to the playlists. I’ve recorded a promo version of the audiobook, which has the actual songs mixed in whenever the lyrics pop up in the print version, but that’s strictly for promotional use only and so I can show the bands and labels what I’d like to do. I’m sure it’s gonna cost some money, but I’m really hoping that they’ll also think this book can help people, and maybe hook a brotha up with a discount.

  1. It’s all but impossible to avoid in this day and age mentioning the current global health crisis known as the coronavirus. How have you been during all of this?

Not too bad. I’m a video producer and director, and worked freelance for quite a while, so I’m used to working from home. I’m fortunate enough to work for a company that’s considered essential, so I still have my day job, too, which is producing and directing commercials for businesses in NYC. Business was slow for a bit, which was nice because I had time to work on book stuff, but now I’m overwhelmed and juggling a bunch of shit. So, really just stressed out with the book launch coming up in a month.

My wife’s a nurse, so that’ll help ya keep things in perspective. I’m grateful we both have jobs, and that people seem to be interested in this book. That keeps me focused, which, as you know from the book, is not an easy thing.

I miss going to shows, but I love how much money I’m saving. I miss hanging with my friends too. That part sucks.

  1. Speaking of this crisis, it’s difficult in the times we find ourselves in right now not to at least unconsciously correlate the entertainment we consume with everything going on in the world. How has the coronavirus affected the marketing and release of Rock Bottom at the Renaissance? Do you feel that perhaps your memoir is even more timely at the moment?

I mean, there is a lot of talk right now about the mental health side of this quarantine and self-isolation. In that sense, Rock Bottom at the Renaissance is sooooo timely, since it’s pretty much about, as I describe it, “a weekend of self-imposed isolation and self-destructive introspection.” I suppose I could’ve let the release be affected by all this since I did have a pretty ambitious marketing plan that included a launch party with some special guest musicians, and a short book tour that AJ from The Dangerous Summer was gonna join me on. So I probably could’ve pushed the release until a time when those things would be possible, but I’ve been trying to get this book out for so long, and, I just need to make it happen. We can do the tour later just the same I think, and who knows if that time will ever come. But releasing this book is just the first step to a bunch of other things, so there will be other opportunities in the future, hopefully.

  1. What is the one thing that you hope readers take away from Rock Bottom at the Renaissance?

I just hope that those who deal with mental health issues will see that they’re not alone. I hope those who have friends or family who struggle with depression or anxiety or anything like that will understand them a little better. And I also hope that people who don’t have mental health issues can look at this and see a guy who made mistakes and who had some pretty unhealthy ways of thinking about things or viewing the world, and, you know what, that’s not WHO he was. That’s just what he did. Three, five, nine years later, he was someone very different. None of us have to be defined by the things we do or did, as long as we’re alive we can move past them. But you have to be alive to do that.

  1. When the inevitable Hollywood film adaptation of Rock Bottom at the Renaissance does happen, who would you like to see direct the film version? Any thoughts on casting?

Man, I’m so glad you asked this question, because that’s definitely the dream. I’d definitely have to write the screenplay, but depending on how “Hollywood” it is, I probably wouldn’t direct it. That’s just a confidence thing I suppose. So, if it’s “Hollywood” enough to get a director that costs some money, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I actually don’t know who I’d want to direct it. Like, I kinda see it feeling like a “Garden State,” so honestly, just today, it crossed my mind to maybe get Zach Braff? I loved what Alma Har’el did with “Honey Boy,” and I think it would need to feel like that––kinda dark, melancholy, making something that not very hopeful seem hopeful, finding beauty in ugliness. I’m open to suggestions. As for casting, I’d love for Tyler Posey to play the lead for a few reasons: he’s close to the age I was when I wrote the book, he’s into the music that’s in the book, he’s an advocate for mental health awareness, and to my surprise, when I was looking him up, I found out that he’s half-Mexican like I am. And while my background isn’t a big part of the story, it’s referenced a few times. So it would be nice for the actor to have the same background. That’s as far as that thought has gone though. Fingers crossed.

  1. Final (Silly) Question: you’re stranded on a deserted island. While awaiting rescue you have one album and one film to while away the time with. Which book and which movie do you choose to have as companions?

Hmmm…you’d think we’d all have the answer to this ready, huh? My album, I think would have to be Jimmy Eat World’s Futures. I can listen to that front to back all the time. Book? At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I haven’t read a lot of novels, and I feel like I’d want a novel. I read a lot of non-fiction or books that I can learn something from. But, I’ve read “Love in the Time of Cholera” a few times, so that’s what comes to mind. That or some really huge book of Stephen King stories. Now a movie…I’m gonna go with “Saving Silverman.” I’ve seen it a million times and think I still could watch it a million more. It’s hilarious.

The book is due for an official release on June 9th and is now available for pre-order at rockbottombook.com.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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