Save Me, Kurt Cobain, the debut novel from Victoria author Jenny Manzer, lives in the grey area between fantasy and reality. It’s a fictional story, but with real-life locations and a plot point hinged on a key event in Victoria’s musical past: Nirvana’s concert on March 9, 1991, at the former Forge nightclub.
The way in which Manzer wrote the story, which is set in Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle, among other locales, makes for something of a non-fiction/fiction hybrid. “I thought the first book I would write would be a non-fiction book, but I ended writing a book that is a bit of both, in some ways,” Manzer says.
Save Me, Kurt Cobain, published by Delacorte Press, a subsidiary of Random House, is a young adult novel set in 2006, with a 15-year-old protagonist. Nicola Cavan hasn’t seen or heard from her mother in years, but if “Nico” does the math right, the date of her conception puts her mom in Victoria for the fateful Nirvana show in 1991. When, on a ferry from Seattle, Nico spots a Kurt Cobain lookalike — the former Nirvana frontman, in the book as in real life, is long since reported as dead — the story begins to unfold in a way that is summarized by the book’s tagline: “What if you discovered that Kurt Cobain is not only alive, but might be your real father?”
Nirvana’s lone Victoria performance is what gave Manzer, a former journalist, the idea for her inaugural novel. Six months after the band’s concert at what is now Distrikt nightclub, the Seattle trio was anointed the biggest band in the world.
“They became so popular so soon after,” Manzer says. “[The book] was all based on that concert. It is a work of fiction, but I tried to make [Nico’s] story possible.”
Other notable inclusions add to the accuracy, from Victoria landmarks the Dutch Bakery and Lyle’s Place to the infamous murders carried out by the Green River Killer and Robert Pickton. Manzer, who is from Toronto, knows her stuff when it comes to writing about the Pacific Northwest, having lived in Victoria since the early 1990s. The topic of Cobain, however, was a more delicate matter for the University of Victoria graduate.
Manzer was not at Nirvana’s gig in Victoria, nor did she ever see the group perform live. But she consumed plenty of media related to Cobain and Nirvana. She listened to more than her share of Nirvana’s music, and read “classic” works about Cobain, including Heavier Than Heaven, the definitive Cobain biography from Charles Cross. “But at a certain point, I felt that I had read enough to put them aside. It mimicked what the main character was going through, which was becoming obsessed with Kurt Cobain. But I put the books down so I could explore the story, and the character of a 15-year-old.”
Manzer did most of her writing at night, when her two elementary-school-aged children were asleep. She kept to a writing routine that produced 500 words daily, resulting in a burst of creativity that continues to churn well after Save Me, Kurt Cobain’s arrival. Manzer says she is at work on her second book, a middle-grade novel about baseball.
With a background in newspaper journalism, Manzer feels she has the ability to write for both teens and adults.
“I think [the young adult genre] is much more sophisticated than it used to be. It’s a really good time for kids’ literature. A really big thing now is diversity, and getting other people’s voices out. My book limited that, because of who it was about, but it continues to be an emerging and vibrant place to write.”
Manzer’s writing in Save Me, Kurt Cobain — music-related, to be sure, but not exclusively — makes it suitable for both adults and young adults. Manzer says she wrote what could be labelled a crossover book. Since the book’s March 8 release, she has received feedback from readers of all stripes, ranging from a teen in Australia to a man in Washington state.
“It is reaching the intended audience, but I’m also finding that adults really seem to get into it. But it’s really for people who appreciate music. A lot of the themes in the book are about the healing power of music. Music is important to teens, and Cobain was so influential. People still care deeply about him.”