Q & A

Robert Monroe

Q & A

Bungalow Terrace

Robert, what is your recently published novel, Bungalow Terrace, about? Spanning fifty years, Bungalow Terrace is the story of four best friends from a working-class neighborhood who are turned into a singing group, catapulted to fame, and become one of the most iconic rock-and-roll bands of the twentieth century. That is the foundation of the story, but it is really about their four individual, diverse lives, as well as the life of a superstar rock group. It wrestles with such issues as addiction, gay sexuality at a time when being gay was both illegal and considered a mental disease, death and the grieving process, secrets and their ramifications, rape and what constitutes consent, forgiveness, and reclaiming one’s life. It’s a friendship saga, a backstage story, and a show-biz novel.

What inspired you to write it? I wanted to write a story about the human condition and what traps people into a limited experience. As an artist, I have always been intrigued by the shadow that exists not only in the human condition but in society at large. It is this crisis of self that I wanted to articulate in Bungalow Terrace. I also wanted to put into words something concrete about what happens to an individual’s life when they are exposed to the miracle of a shifted perception. As the saying goes, if you change the way that you look at your life, then the negative things in your life will change. It is this seemingly simple yet daunting act of transformation that I was looking to explore in my novel.

Your story starts out in the 1950’s and runs through the end of the 20th century. How different were those days compared to today’s digital-obsessed world? They were very different, in both positive and negative ways. On the positive side, life seemed simpler and less complicated. The world felt like a safer place and people took more time to engage in the simple pleasures of life. It seems almost halcyon now, but at the same time, it was also a world riddled with intolerance. Acts of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and injustice went unquestioned and unaddressed on a daily basis. People lived in isolated cliques and never questioned the status quo. So, it’s a bit of a dichotomy. We all, on some level, yearn to move beyond the dictates of the current digitally obsessed “rat race,” while at the same time applauding a more expansive, accepting, and open-minded world.

The book revolves around four school friends who form a rock-and-roll band. The leader develops an addiction battle. What is it about music and drugs that we so often hear of musicians struggling with substance abuse?  I am not a professional, but I believe that most people engage in addictive behavior as a means of anesthetizing themselves to issues they don’t want to face up to in life. As far as musicians are concerned, many creative people have insecurities, and it may be a misguided means of quelling that doubt or coping with the demands of being thrust into the public eye. However, in doing my research, what I found most fascinating was that in the 1960’s, when a counterculture of young people began actively experimenting with drugs, that was not their intention. Their intention was to open up their consciousness, stimulate their creativity, and experience nirvana. I believe this false promise of enlightenment was one of the reasons why so many of our heroes became addicted to drugs.

Another bandmate struggles to desperately conceal his sexuality when being gay was persecuted by society and prosecuted by the law. Is it hard to reflect on such a time when people were vilified just for loving another? It’s not hard, but it is painful. I am a gay man, and when I entered puberty and became aware of my sexuality, being gay was still illegal and listed on the books as a mental disease. As a means of survival, my only recourse was to suppress it, deny it, and pretend that it didn’t exist. Imagine the worst thing that you could be labeled as in society today, and that was what it was like to be exposed as being gay back then. It could literally destroy your life. The shame, fear, and self-loathing of existing in the closet is an experience I am all too familiar with, and one that, despite our advances, still exists today.

Other bandmates have to confront their own pasts or secrets that catch up to them. How does one deal with stuff they hoped or thought were behind them? Secrets are dangerous, and unless you shine a light on them, they fester and become malignant. The energy and subterfuge it requires to harbor a secret is debilitating, and this is a theme I explore in detail in Bungalow Terrace. One character’s secret results in an unspeakable tragedy that alters the course of a family’s life. The only recourse, in my opinion, is to take responsibility for your life, speak your truth, and let the chips fall where they may. Chances are the repercussions will be less daunting than you expected, and it leaves the ground fertile for something more beautiful to grow. 

Your story is a tale of discovery and awakening. With whom do you feel it will resonate the most with? Why? I think the audience for Bungalow Terrace is vast and diverse. I believe it will speak to people of all ages who love friendship sagas, as it’s really the story of four lifelong friends. It will certainly resonate with anyone fascinated by the music and record industry, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, and anyone interested in mid-to-late twentieth-century historical fiction. But mostly, I believe, it will resonate with people of all generations who are interested in a story that begins in the days of youth and innocence and, through a series of happenings, finds that innocence destroyed, leaving the characters no other recourse but to journey through the proverbial woods to reclaim the most sacred and authentic parts of themselves.

Why do you choose to write about the insurmountable questions behind who we are and why we are here? I believe we all, on some level, question the meaning of life. It’s really the whole purpose of our existenceto embrace our humanity while, at the same time, recognizing our divinity. As the saying goes, there are many roads to the same place. Some are more treacherous than others, but they ultimately lead us to a place of remembering who we really are. Defining ourselves by our circumstances doesn’t allow us to change our minds about ourselves. In my opinion, we’re not our story. I believe we are the individuation and the essence of something grander and more powerful than that, however you choose to define it. Energetically, what you put forth is what will come back to you. It’s a matter of physics, and I touch on some of these themes in Bungalow Terrace.  

You write of conflicts, transformation, and forgiveness. How is Bungalow Terrace ultimately a tale of redemption? Through their struggles, conflicts, and scandals, each of the characters in Bungalow Terrace re-discovers themselves. They are transformed into a more authentic version of who they really are. Forgiveness is a very powerful tool. Until you choose the act of forgiveness, whatever you are struggling with will continue to define and inform every choice and decision you make. However, once you choose to forgive, whether it’s yourself or someone else, you are free, and the burden of that trauma is lifted from you. Each of the characters, through forgiveness and a shifted perception of their personal choices, is redeemed and reconciled back to themselves.

Who has influenced your writing? How would you describe your writing style? I have been influenced by many writers. For example, I find Jon Clinch and Tom Crewe’s mastery of the English language to be awe-inspiring, but surprisingly, the author who has influenced me the most is Grace Metalious. Here was a housewife in the 1950s who, through courage and fortitude, wrote a novel that literally changed the course of the publishing world. She was addressing subjects that no one, let alone a woman, was addressing at that time, and her tenacity to buck the system and speak her truth is humbling and inspirational. As far as my writing style is concerned, I think Kirkus Reviews said it best, “The author’s prose is punchy, colorful, and evocative.”

You worked for a dozen years as a casting director and talent executive with project credits for the Walt Disney Company and the United Paramount Network. How did that experience prepare you to pursue creative careers – first in photography and now as a writer? It was instrumental. First and foremost, being a casting director taught me how to express myself. It taught me how to succinctly articulate to someone else how to create something from within themselves to satisfy a client. It gave me a point of view, and it allowed me to cultivate a subjective, personal style. It taught me to be collaborative and to think outside of the box, and it taught me diplomacy. But most importantly, it taught me to trust my instincts while at the same time remaining objective and not taking anything personally. Where the arts are concerned, everyone has an opinion, and not everyone is going to like your work, but if you can let go of your ego and focus on what’s in the best interest of the piece, the chances are you will be successful.   

You are also an accomplished photographer with some pieces exhibited in art museums. Which is harder – capturing the perfect photograph or writing a perfect book scene? Why? They are both challenging for different reasons. Capturing the perfect photograph is contingent on so many outside forces, i.e., the light, the environment, the exposure, the set-up, etc. With writing, it’s more of an emotional collaboration between yourself, the story, and the arc of the characters. Writing the perfect scene is contingent not only on finding your voice and what you are trying to say but also on finding the character’s voice and how that particular character would express what you’re trying to say. In both instances, you may run into roadblocks. The important thing is to get back to what serves the emotional through line of the piece and how to best make it resonate with an audience.     

What challenges did you have in researching, penning, or editing your book? I did a tremendous amount of research for this book, and in the beginning, it was daunting. There is so much research material on this subject matter that I almost didn’t know where to begin. So, I took it one chapter at a time, narrowed it down, and researched specifically what spoke to the story. As far as penning the book, I wrote numerous drafts of the novel, editing and re-editing each version, and then, with the help of a professional copy editor, we got the book to where it needed to be. Some of her changes and suggestions were challenging and made me doubt myself, but through practiced detachment and focusing on what best served the story, the collaboration was, I believe, successful.

Are there bits and pieces of you in your book? Any autobiographical scenes, characters, or events? Absolutely. Kevin’s coming-out story and his self-acceptance as a gay man were inspired directly by my experience. Everything in the beginning chapters of Bungalow Terrace that take place at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School was inspired by my twelve years of attending a Catholic school. Even the argument that takes place at the Coronet Club was inspired by an argument I witnessed in summer stock. However, what was most eye-opening was my realization that all of the characters are different aspects of me. Vince is the compulsive part of myself; Colin is the part of myself that needs to control everything; Anita is the manipulative part of myself; and so on. I think that’s why this story always resonated with me. I recognized myself in it.

Where does your book’s title come from? What is Bungalow Terrace? When I was a child, there was a street near my school called Bungalow Terrace. Even at that young age, I thought it would make a great title for a movie or a play. After so many years, I forgot about it until one night the first line of my novel popped into my head and I realized that Bungalow Terrace was the title of my book. Initially, it is the name of the street that the four boys grow up on, but then a plot point occurs, and Bungalow Terrace becomes the name of the rock band. However, as the narrative continues, something else happens, and Bungalow Terrace starts to represent and serve as a metaphor for the recurring themes inherent in the book.