West Australian interview with Jenny Valentish

‘Cherry Bomb’ was the 1976 debut single for American all-girl rock band the Runaways. Cherry Bomb is also the debut novel for Melbourne-based journalist Jenny Valentish, who sets her tale of pop-rock duo the Dolls in present-day Sydney.

But in Nina Dall, singer/guitarist for the fast-rising Australian band alongside her cousin Rose, there are lipstick traces of the Runaways’ Joan Jett, as well as other rock chicks such as your Courtney Loves and Chrissy Amphletts – talented, alluring yet damaged and dangerous.

As Oz rock god Tim Rogers says in the blurb adorning the back of Cherry Bomb: “Nina Dall is as singular and mercurial a character as I’ve ever been charmed and terrified to meet.” The published tome also features kind words from Paul Kelly – typically economical in his praise: “Scathing, funny, true” – as well as Magic Dirt’s Adalita and Perth’s own Abbe May.

Currently editor of Time Out Melbourne, Valentish made these contacts as a music journalist since coming to Australia in 2006.

Before focusing on writing, the 39-year-old played in modestly successful bands in her native England (she won’t reveal which ones) and admits to filtering her experiences into the book.

“We didn’t play shopping centres,” Valentish says. “But there’s a lot based on real experiences . . . like shouting at the sound man when you actually haven’t turned your own amp on.”

The author says she left in the reckless “bull-in-a-china-shop” aspects of her own personality to create Nina Dall, while removing her more introspective elements with “surgeon-like precision”.

The anti-hero of Cherry Bomb gets into rock’n’roll, in part, to escape the tedium of suburban Parramatta, which Valentish substituted for her own ‘burb of boredom, Slough – the “unlovely satellite town of London”.

When we join Nina in Cherry Bomb, she’s left Parramatta for the neon and sleaze of Kings Cross and the Dolls are on their way. The unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll take centre stage, along with that classic hit of rock bands from Oasis to the Kinks – familial intra-band tension. “All the best rock memories have that conflict at the centre,” Valentish says.

Then there is Nina’s unhealthy attraction to veteran producer John Villiers, who might just hold the key to the band breaking really big, plus the mystery surrounding the disappearance of their aunty, 1980s superstar Alannah Dall.

However, Cherry Bomb is not simply a rock’n’roll romp – Nina is troubled for a reason. Abuse and some inescapable secrets lurk in her past.

“I wanted to write about the sexual abuse of children and where that leads you as an adult,” Valentish reveals.

“As a journalist who has done a lot of writing for women’s magazines and teen magazines, I felt very frustrated that it was a subject that was very rarely dealt with. If it did, it would have to be in a really melodramatic way surrounded by stigma.

“You think you’re reading this romp about the music industry and then you eventually come across this dark side as you realise what’s driving the character.”

Valentish adds that the relatively privileged, fame-hungry Rose acts as a “control group of what might have been if Nina was not abused”.

Besides the dark undercurrents running through the novel, Cherry Bomb also reflects many of the double standards women face working in what Renee Geyer saliently sang was (and remains) a man’s, man’s, man’s world.

“I know it’s frowned upon to bring up the subject of being a woman in rock but I think it’s a relevant subject,” Valentish says.

“Kate Ceberano said – what a name drop – ‘This reminds me of what it was like for me’. I think it’s a pretty universal story for a female musician.”

Valentish started writing Cherry Bomb in late 2012 on her daily commute home to Castlemaine from central Melbourne. She jokes there were “no interruptions, no fridge” on the train. While Allen & Unwin picked up the book in November 2013, Valentish admits to shopping round for a publisher well before then.

“I was really impatient and I was sending it off from about four months onwards,” she says.

“I sent it to a couple of agents who really did not like it and it made me think people are going to really dig this book, or really hate it.”

The naysayers embraced the spicy music-biz coating but couldn’t stomach the bitter core of the story nor the at-times acidic Nina. Valentish stuck to her guns: “I love a book with a difficult protagonist.

“It was the best year of my life bar none and it came out so easily,” she adds of the swift writing process. “I couldn’t really expect it to happen like this again.

“I’m not a spiritual person but it was like being handed everything I need constantly throughout the process. I’d walk down the street and I’d pass someone and the word coming out of their mouth would be just what I’d been looking for. Or I’d walk into a bar and there’d be a song playing that would trigger something.”

Valentish’s friend, R&B songstress Jade MacRae, and her boyfriend, tour manager Justin Healey, read early drafts to ensure the music industry material rang true.

Cherry Bomb doesn’t hit any bum notes in that regard – it’s an authentic tome that will have readers imagining which of their favourite rockers inspired this or that scene.

Valentish insists none of the musicians she’s met over the years ended up in the book.

“It’s the terrain that I’m familiar with,” the author says. “I’ve been seeing bands since I was 16 and as much as I keep trying to grow out of it, it’s something I’m very comfortable with. And I knew it was a topic that other people might find quite intriguing.

“If you didn’t know too much (about the music business) beforehand, you’ve got a bit of pub ammo now.”