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Cult Crossover

Spotlight on cult folksinger John Wesley Harding -- The ''Awake'' artist takes back his birth name, Wesley Stance, and releases a gender-bending literary debut

Two years ago, John Wesley Harding gave up caffeine. This is hard to believe because he seems incapable of remaining still. Sitting slipper shod in his cozy Brooklyn home office, he leaps out of his chair every few minutes to hunt for another book or record. ''Come, I'll show you something good,'' Harding says, his voice disappearing around the corner as he mounts the stairs in search of a first edition of Tristram Shandy. After scanning bookshelves crammed with Dickens novels and old English ballads, he pulls out a copy and points to the scribbling on the flyleaf. ''That would be Laurence Sterne's handwriting,'' he whispers, referring to the 18th- century author in an almost giddy voice.

It's this and his excitement for all things Victorian that inspired Harding, 39, to pen his first novel, Misfortune (Little, Brown, $23.95), a gender-bending tale of an orphan boy raised as a girl by one of England's richest lords. The concept of dual lives is one he's familiar with: The singer-songwriter wrote Misfortune under his birth name, Wesley Stace. ''John Wesley Harding is a particularly great name to have on the spine of a record,'' he explains, referencing the 1968 Bob Dylan album he nipped it from. ''It's pretty useless to have on the spine of this historical novel set in the 1830s.''

When he changed his name to Harding, he claims, he wasn't trying to reinvent himself as much as he was hoping to avoid embarrassment. As a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University in 1988, Harding didn't want any of his fellow academics to know he was playing acoustic gigs. But soon after Sire Records got wind of this folksinger with the hyperintelligent lyrics, he found himself with an American record contract and a new home. And while he can point to a few career highlights — including a song on the High Fidelity soundtrack and a 1995 spot as Bruce Springsteen's first opening act in 20 years — Harding has made a living by relying on a grueling touring schedule and releasing more than a dozen folk and rock albums that have sold modestly well.

It was a song from his 1998 album, Awake, that inspired the novel. In Cambridge one day, the words ''I was born with a coat hanger in my mouth'' popped into his head. It took until 1995 to turn that line into the song ''Miss Fortune,'' and another two years to spin it into Misfortune's lead character, Rose Loveall. ''Of all the songs I've ever written,'' Harding says, ''it was the only one where I thought, That story's not finished.''

Having unsuccessfully tried his hand at ''sub-Nick Hornby-esque'' novels, Harding turned to his beloved Victorian era and soon inked a two-book deal with Little, Brown (he is currently at work on the second novel, which spans a century in the life of a family of English entertainers). Author Rick Moody thinks it's Harding's facility with the past that makes Misfortune such a satisfying, intricately detailed read. ''Wes doesn't write like he went to the Iowa Writers' Workshop,'' says Moody. ''He writes like he's channeling Dickens or Fielding. That's very unusual and old-fashioned. So old-fashioned that it's new.''

Despite his literary foray, Harding doesn't plan on abandoning music anytime soon. Under the name the Love Hall Tryst, he and some friends are recording a mostly a cappella album (due out on Appleseed this July) based on ballads that figure prominently in Misfortune. But Harding reckons he has to pack it in at some point. ''I love making music, but I'm not sure that in 20 years' time, a dignified thing [for me] to do will be playing guitar on a stage,'' he says. ''You can probably grow old writing a little bit more gracefully than you can playing music.''

Originally posted Apr 11, 2005 Published in issue #815 Apr 15, 2005 Order article reprints