Q1: Mr. Atkins, I’d like to start with your journey up until now. How did you become an author?
RA: Sure, I’d always wanted to be [an author]. I always thought I had a book or two in me. But I didn’t get serious about it until about 12 years ago when I started writing my first one. I’m 63 now, so I was around 50. It took a while to write because that’s how first books are. It’s your learning curve book. So my first book came out about 10 years ago, and I’ve had a book out every year and a half to two years since then. It’s kind of a late in life career, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I figured I’d get around to it. And I have. I started teaching full time (I’m an English teacher), and writing and I’m just enjoying myself.
I’ve done several things before that. The thing I did immediately previously is that I worked in industrial maintenance for a lumber plant. I did that for 15 years. And that’s about as much fun as it sounds. But it paid well, and I had a house full of kids; you do what you got to do. I always wanted to get around to doing this; so when my opportunity came up, that’s what I did.
Q2: Set List is your sixth book. How is it similar or different from your previous works?
Yes, it’s my fifth novel and my sixth book. I have one book of essays and five novels. It’s very similar in writing style. All my books are written in the same style, sort of bemused commentary on regular folks and how they get through the world. It’s a little more mainstream in that while it is set in a fictional North Georgia, much like all my other books; it delves pretty heavily into the rock ‘n’ roll scene from 1970 through the end of the century. And a lot of the songs that it refers to I think will strike a cord with a lot of the readers. We all have our own personal set list of songs that mean something to us. And I was hoping that this would ring true with our readers.
Q3: Can you tell me a little bit more about this theme of rock ‘n’ roll, as well as the songs that are listed in the book. Did you write these songs for your characters? Are these songs available anywhere?
Again, I’m 63, so I’m part of that generation that grew up riding down the road and listening to the radio, and listening to the late night FMs in our bedrooms and things like that. So for my generation I think the music is very important to us, but I expect that’s true for every generation. I think everybody has that connection. I did write the songs, and as far as the songs go, my friend of mine has put four of them to music and has done a good job. And another friend of mine put a different one of the songs to music. So the short answer is: there may be a CD someday. But right now it’s just my friends saying: “hey let’s see how it sounds when I play it on the guitar.”
And the songs are more are less singing to what was going on in that chapter…I guess what I’m saying is that if someone’s looking for a light read, they can just read this at face value and just enjoy the story. But if someone’s looking for a deeper symbolic [meaning], then it’s going on too, you just got to dig around to find it.
Q4: I saw that in addition to dedicating this book to your wife, you dedicated it to a number of “longhaired wild boys” who “stood with [you] under the lights back when the world was new.” Does this mean that you yourself were in a band?
Yep. Those “longhaired wild boys” were members of my first band. And it was actually named Skyye, with the extra “ye”, because that’s artistic and all. [The same name as the band in the book.] And those were the guys. I actually found two of them and have been in touch with them. Two of them have passed away, and two of them I can’t find.
We started of as a garage band, and we ended up being a bar band [like the band in the novel]. And we did that for not very long at all. In my case, by the time I was 21, I was done with it. It was about 4 years. But it was a very interesting and very fun experience.
I started playing guitar again while I was writing the book. I hadn’t picked one up in 40 years. But it goes to the heart of what, at least for me, writing is all about. We are the culmination of all the things that we’ve done. For me, writing about those things is a way to memorialize them. Plus, I always thought I wanted to be Bob Dylan.
Q5: Can you talk about the setting of the book? How did Northwest Georgia inspire a place you call Sequoyah, GA?
All of my books are set in either a fictional Sequoyah, GA or a fictional Sand Valley, Alabama. Rome, Summerville, Cedartown and Calhoun are the towns that were the inspiration for my fictional [places]. As with the musician stuff, I’m writing about what I know. I know this area, I was raised in the area. I’ve lived here [in Rome] for 30 years. So my fictional town is basically here.
Set List begins in 1970, when Blanchard Shankles and John Covey come together and start making music in a rock and roll band named Skyye. They were joined in their quest for fame and fortune by their friends Ford Man Cooper, Chicken Raines, Jimbo Tant, Tucker McFry, and Simpson Taggart, and these fledgling musicians set out upon a musical voyage that spanned four decades, fifty states, and uncounted miles as they pursued the elusive success that was always just one song ahead of them.
Along the way the band played the bars and the clubs, the carnivals and the dances, the dives and the festivals, and together through good times and bad, sickness and health, romance, marriage, divorce, birth, and death, they each built two lives: the one out under the lights that they were drawn to like moths to a flame, and the one they came back to when the music stopped and the crowds went home.
The story alternates between present-day north Georgia and the 1970s and is the story of a bar band as told primarily through the eyes of its members. Each chapter is built around an original song in the band’s repertoire plus an iconic song from the archives of rock and roll, and together these songs and these chapters form the set list of the band members’ lives.