May 31, 2007
The Book Notes series has authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
With her debut novel, When We Get There, Shauna Seliy has captured Pennsylvania coal country of the 1970's, complete with its small towns and close families. As her thirteen-year old narrator searches for his mother, he faces her crazed former boyfriend, and the Croatian family circles to protect the teen and the story unfolds.
In movies, there’s often a single defining moment when a character seems to be asked, “Are you going to give up?” Maybe in a hard driving rain on an obstacle course, late at night, and the character lets loose a kind of primal shout at the dark sky. No! we understand, no he won’t give up! If the thing you are trying to do is write a book, and if you’re accompanied by the kind of bloodthirsty self-doubt that beset me throughout that process, the question presents itself more on the order of every few minutes. And you are more likely sitting in a crowded coffee shop wondering if your computer will get stolen while you’re in the bathroom. Or thinking, taking a look at a nearby homeless man writing messages on napkins, that the only thing that separates you from him is your laptop. Or maybe the question will present itself to you in the form of roiling night sweats caused by the deep tissue knowledge of your credit card balance that your body seems to have acquired. Or it’s possible that you read a little Alice Munro the night before, maybe a few lines of Chekhov. In the clear light of day, you know you’re screwed. They’ve done it all, and done it better than you ever could even if you were to stay at the coffee shop 24 hours a day for the rest of your life. Giving up starts to look not only fiscally responsible, but noble. Yes, you will give up! You will close your laptop and politely step out of the way so that the avenues to Munro and Chekhov will remain wide.
At times such as these, good tunes are essential fortifiers. They are excellent tools for blocking out the aggressive, unceasing bark of self-doubt as well as the sounds of coffee shop commerce. And more than that, songs themselves are three to four minute testaments to the value of making things. Before they were there, there was just nothing, silence. Each of them is a shout at the same silence that, say, your book itself is addressing.
The narrator of my first novel When We Get There is Lucas Lessar. He is Croatian-American. In the book, his mother goes missing and he sets out to find her. He lives on a steady diet of Balkan brass band music and Croatian folk songs. I’ve included a few of those in my playlist, which is otherwise made up of songs that I listened to (and listened to and listened to) while working on the book.
“Headlights Look Like Diamonds” by Arcade Fire
Starts out with a demanding and spooky howl, and contains the great anthem-like line for all writers who work without outlines, “Tell me how this story ends.”
“We Have a Map of the Piano” by Mum
When I was writing in coffee shops or other public places, this song worked liked a reliable doorway into another space. Come in here, the song says, it’s quiet, you can get something done in here. At one point, I had it on repeat for three days straight. Even when it wasn’t playing, it was still playing. It’s haunting in the best possible way. I have no idea what it’s about, it might not even be a song, maybe it’s a ghost.
“Maps” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
This song was my only friend when I was trying to get to the end of part one of When We Get There. I had the last scene of the section written, but not the scenes leading up to it. For weeks, I would look across at the last scene and feel as if I were gazing across some kind of Grand Canyon type situation. I would try to take breaks and go out for dinner with people, but the sight of other writers through windows of coffee shops working on laptops (and probably getting to the end of their part ones!) would drive me back inside. Good to have an insistent song like this with you on nights like that. “They don’t love you like I love you,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs say, and it’s true, they don’t.
“Tripoli” by Pinback
Another song for the repeat button, it feels like an undersea chorus taking you down for some first-class hypnosis.
“Hora Din Caval” by Taraf de Haidouks
Hora Din Caval is one of my favorites by the Taraf de Haidouks, a Romanian Gypsy band. This song always puts me in mind of the rambling treed landscape where some of the characters in When We Get There live. Watching “Inside the NFL,” I’ve often thought it would be a great help to have a Jerome Bettis type to shout at me during the low moments of book writing, but I think it would be better to be surrounded by the Taraf de Haidouks, and their violins and crazy rhythms.
“Moja Mala Nose CČizmice” by Tamburaski Sastav “Veritas”
This song makes an appearance in When We Get There. It’s on a record called, “Folk Music From Croatia,” that I bought on a late night whim in the world music section of a record store almost ten years ago. The song felt like a story. I held onto it and wrote around it. I liked the song right away, and I went in search of someone to tell me what it meant. I liked it even better when I found out that it means “My Love Wears Boots.”
“Ti Si Rajski Cvijet” by Jelena Ana Milcetic (a.k.a. Helen Merrill)
This is an old Croatian folk song, sometimes called “Samo Nemoj Ti.” This song is also in When We Get There. In English the song translates as, “I saw you picking flowers. Don’t tell your mother I love you. You are a flower from heaven. The world admires you. I’ll never stop loving you.” When I was growing up going to Croatian Clubs as a kid, everyone knew all the words to this song. Dear reader, it is one of the prettiest songs that ever lived.
“Otpisani” by Boban Markovic Orkestar
I recommend turning up your stereo as loud as possible when listening to the Boban Markovic Orkestar. Let your neighbors know who you are. Let them know you are not giving up.
Shauna Seliy and When We Get There links:
reviews of When We Get There:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
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