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July 7, 2005

Book Notes - Steve Amick ("The Lake, the River & the Other Lake")

Steve Amick did more than write The Lake, the River & the Other Lake, he created a town, complete with its idiosyncrasies and sense of community. The novel captures the local inhabitants at their best and worst, and is masterfully crafted. Check out the first chapter, or visit the interactive site for the book.

Here is Steve Amick's "Book Notes" contribution for his novel, The Lake, the River & the Other Lake, in his own words:

This collection of songs was originally put together to comprise the musical promotional sampler, found at The Wobbly Moose on the virtual map of Weneshkeen, a flash site to accompany the novel—check it out at Just go to the map, then go to the bar (The Wobbly Moose) and click on the mp3 jukebox. Or find it on my own site, It’s been very satisfying to hear from so many readers that for them, too, this “soundtrack” does feel very much like the book.

All the songs are by Michigan artists, some of wider renown than others, all used with their permission. Besides believing, as a musician myself, in the importance of supporting indy music, I like the idea that a unique little town might have its own special sound, rather than more commonly heard standards.

I selected fourteen songs that reminded me, sometimes startlingly, of elements or storylines in the book. Except for one song, I did not have them in mind when I wrote the book. (This single exception not only provided some early creative inspiration, but also appears in one chapter, performed by the composer in a cameo appearance—see #8 below.)

1. "The Song of the Townies”
Yes, by me, Steve Amick
There’s always pie… (Ratman Records 3-14159)

This song’s a guided tour of a small town, like Weneshkeen, given by a local whose landmarks are all based on inside, personal knowledge of the passing “he”s and “she”s and memories of distant events. There’s what I think of as the “presumptive voice” here, as with the novel’s undramatized narrator—that non-celebrity form of namedropping that occurs in small towns; a gossipy implication that you know who I’m talking about and that “inside” voice pulls you into the fold. (I don’t think I could count the number of “characters” in the novel that are mostly just names, simply mentioned with an off-hand familiarity, as if the reader will understand in context who they are. I think that adds to a better sense of the intimate size of the town.) “There’s that one hangout there where you’ll always see your friends…” underscores that intimacy. My buzzing harmonica and the la-di-das provided by my wife, Sharyl Burau, put it firmly in summer. And of course, both in this song and in the novel, there’s the final consolation of pie. (Because, hey, whatever else happens…)

2. “Careful Lovers”
Brian Lillie & the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra
Good Luck Fire Chief (Thursday Records 1175)

“Careful lovers never get to heaven..”
“Careful loves…they always leave their pants on..”
“Wild lovers, they own the night.”

I’m reminded of wild lovers who “just don’t care,” like sixteen year-old Mark Starkey and the hot handful, Courtney, and how he’s not ever quite sure is his girlfriend. But in a less chaotic way, you can include all the lovers: Jack vonBushberger rushing headlong and secretly into his elopement, the normally analytical Brenda and Miki, now abandoning their scientific postures for sudden love; the cautious sidling up of Janey and Roger, and, going back in time, the young Reverend and his secret teen young love with whom he has a preview of their future marriage on the windy beach one crazy summer night. (My guess is he does get to heaven, then, based on the theorem stated above.) I love the line about wild lovers not caring about “being right so much.” The driving strings and penny whistle give it a nautical touch that makes me know it’s all happening somewhere close to water. And it sails along with a breezy quality that feels like sailboats, bikes and wind in the trees

3. “Happy & Safe”
Dave Boutette
Confetti (Embassy Hotel Records 041)

There’s so much of the Up North summer resort town in this one: seasonal change (“And when the summer hits town…”) the sense of haven (“happy and safe…”); monotony (“you lose track of days…”), locals vs. Fudgies (“And all of the townies, they can park where they please…”); the influx of the rich and beautiful (“…and welcome all you pretty refugees.”) ; the deviltry one can get up to given the long stretch of summer (“And the summer starts to slow”…“caution: idle hands”). Languidly bittersweet, it’s got that shimmery, heated mid-summer burn to it that’ll leave you feeling puzzlingly sad and conflicted about the fact that it’s summer.

4. “I Feel Sorry For You (If You Don’t Live Here)”
Steve Amick
There’s always pie… (Ratman Records 3-14159)

This is one of my own, a jingoistic anthem about my great home state. I like playing with the mythic qualities of this place. (When the novel was first being read by publishers, all these very cosmopolitan New Yorkers kept saying, “It’s so exotic!”) In this song, I just took all the various cliché assumptions about Michigan and had fun with them. Maybe that’s sort of what I did with the novel, as well.
The other obvious connection is this business of local versus outsider. Yes, I feel sorry for you if you don’t live here… but how sincere does that sound? (I’m reminded of a great Ann Arbor t-shirt: “Welcome to Ann Arbor. Now you can leave.”)
Catch the sleigh bells, hoof rattles, natural skin drums and the simple tom-tom beat. In the end, you can hear Roger Drinkwater’s war drums. Is the implication “There are still Indians running around wild”? Or is it “in the end, they are the ones who will remain”?

5. “Crime on a Summer Day”
Timothy Monger
Summer Cherry Ghosts (No Bitings Records 02)

Who is pulling off a crime? Roger, certainly. But what about Deputy Struska, looking the other way for so much that’s going on, both out on the lake and up at the orchard, simply because she’s a local and feels kinship with the perpetrators of these crimes. Mark and Courtney are up to all kinds minor B & E, indecent exposure and other thrill stunts, most of which are not legal. And what about the Reverend and his secret sin? This song makes criminality sound so summery. And more pow-wow beat at the close—ghosts of something more than cherries?

6. “Get In”
Get Used To The Deuce (HAV2004)

Ostensibly a hitchhiking song, this feels like that restlessness one gets midsummer. In Michigan, that restlessness will put you in a car heading north (though the road trip I think of in terms of the book is actually south and east, to Canada, when Roger escapes for the Fourth.) A town like Weneshkeen, or any “up north” in Michigan, is steered, economically and socially, by a seasonally-based migration of visitors and you can see it along the highways on key holidays: on one day, northbound traffic is solid and parked, while you whip along free and easy heading south. Another day, the direction is reversed. And because it’s a peninsula, it’s all the more markedly one way or the other, north or south. Up north, there are no major roads going east-west.
In a larger sense, the song connects for me personally with my feeling of taking the reader to this special little town. There’s a definite insular quality to Weneshkeen, which I think is contributing to this feeling of going on a little trip that I’m hearing from many readers.

7. “Big Fat Berries”
Steve Amick
There’s always pie… (Ratman Records 3-14159)

Another of mine. The dobro gives it a wistful, nostalgic summer sizzle; the conga gives it the ambling goofy-footed pace of vacation time. I used an actual bike wheel in this song at one point and that moment feels so much like village kids riding bikes around what is really a pretty safe place, where grownups will look out for you, even if they’re not your parents. There aren’t many stoplights and you can sail through stop signs on your ten-speed and go down to Scudder Park where some kid supposedly built an awesome ramp or way out Fifel Drive to sneak into the bootlegger’s place. (Very overgrown—I’d bet there’d be black raspberries there.) Despite there being no berries right around Lake Meenigeesis, as stated in the opening chapter, they do have them up at vonBushberger’s orchard and a crop like that is often “u-pick.” I can imagine Mark and Courtney doing this on a good day, one in which they have some semblance of an actual date. Plus, the orchard has “the pie stand” there—the fruit stand right along 31, plowed into by a car at one point. In terms of this business of sunshine and rain: there’s a day described in Chapter 48, in which the rain earlier in the day, now burned off, has nonetheless reordered everyone’s sunny afternoon toward “alternate activities.”

8. “When The Sumac Is On Fire”
Dick Siegel
Snap! (Schoolkids Records 1502-02)

This was, very briefly, the working title for the book, early on, before I really mapped out the timeframe of the story. For some in Michigan, this is almost the unofficial state song. Dick Siegel is a legendary singer/songwriter living in Ann Arbor and performing all over the country, including, in Chapter 52, at the Sumac Lemonade investors’ party at Noah Yoder’s estate. Dick is the “lean-faced folkie” from downstate that Deerie Lime hires. He plays this song in that scene. (A tip for promoters: after reading the novel, Dick said you never know—he might have been talked into taking such a gig.)

9. “The Fall”
Jim Roll
Ready To Hang (One Man Clapping 0010)

The details in this song are almost prose themselves, but despite a few minor contradictions, it really reminds me of Mark Starkey’s relationship (or whatever it is) with Courtney, including the oblique references to her dad. I’d overlooked this song for years (which is odd, because it’s GREAT!) until after the book was all finished, but now when I hear it, I can’t help but think of that dangerous teen romance those two have cooked up. It’s tough and wistful at the same time. The line “He thought he’d tell her something… boyfriends never said,” raises that issue of Mark wanting to be something special, to stand out, plus commenting on the fact that he feels like something less than a boyfriend. So many lines like that pop out and echo the Courtney/Mark dynamic I can’t even list them all.
The title, “The Fall,” is also so perfect: it could mean “autumn,” the end of summer and therefore the end of their relationship; it could mean a moral descent or dissolution of their relationship; and it could mean a physical or structural collapse (read the book for that one! Chapter 71.)

10. “Firefighter”
Brandon Wiard
(previously unreleased)

Some of this feels like it should be called “Parsonage.” There’s the reference to birthday cake, the children’s photos lining the hallways…I see a depressed man trapped in a ranch house at sunset, desolate and lost. “Tell the kids I love them…” feels like the Reverend’s emailed farewell.

11. “Sky”
Brian Lillie & the Squirrel Mountain Orchestra
Good Luck Fire Chief (Thursday Records 1175)

A much happier sunset. You can hear the cicadas and the tall grass in the field and the coming stars and “driving with the moon” on what absolutely has to be a dirt road with an unmowed shoulder. It’s got the hypnotic lethargy of late summer, when you “watch all the summer colors fold up and fall,” and then the crickets come up. To designate this as being about only one element in the book is far too limiting. You could play this song while reading the entire last third of the book. (Though it’s honestly far more elegant and moving than anything I wrote, I’d say. Wow.)

12. “To Be Alarmed”
Jim Roll
Inhabiting the Ball (Telegraph 10152)

The simple downbeat again sounds Native American to me, and makes me think of Roger Drinkwater: there’s no need for him to be alarmed by Janey; there’s no need for her to be alarmed by his guerrilla campaign against the jet-skis, and in the end, his own anxiety and demons are lessened (the sounds that brought back memories from the past won’t do him any harm anymore), even though “this life will always leave a scar.” The cautious, tentative tone here really fits for these two. I love the awkward joining of “I did not know this could happen.”

13. “Michigan Moonlight”
Steve Amick
There’s always pie… (Ratman Records 3-14159)

We created the August night sounds with one tom-tom and an afuche’ (that scratchy sounding piece of percussion). Again, I didn’t write this song specifically for the novel, but it does seem to dovetail nicely with significant nocturnal trysts like Brenda and Miki stargazing among the Royal Anns, Roger and Janey on Noah Yoder’s strip of Lake Michigan beach, and most distinctly, the “first time” for Gene and Mary, back in 1955, in the lee of the cliffs at the bootlegger’s beach.

14. “Summer Is Over”
Timothy Monger
Summer Cherry Ghosts (No Bitings Records 02)

A grand closing to summer. Things are less frenzied now, more contemplative; a time to reflect on the last few months. The wind picking up sounds like Kimmy visiting Mark in the hospital, then stopping out by the sumac, with the Lake Michigan surf crashing in the far distance beyond; Reenie Huff’s personal search in the epilogue; and Janey stepping up onto the porch, amid Roger’s new form of peace, with a pie from vonBushberger’s. I like the exuberance and lack of melancholy; the bold refrain—Tim’s landlocked Beach Boyness is the perfect realistic response to the idea of the “endless summer.” It seems to say that there are no tears for summer passing; that this change of season is just as important as the coming of summer; that there would be no special summer time if it didn’t eventually end.

see also:

52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)


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