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June 12, 2007

Book Notes - Robert Wiersema ("Before I Wake")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

In is debut novel Before I Wake, Robert Wiersema has crafted a well-written supernatural thriller. Before I read this book, the word "resonance" kept cropping up in interviews and friends' recommendations of the of the novel. After reading the book, I can assure you that Before I Wake resonates on all the right frequencies of love, pain, and most of all, redemption.

Of the novel, the Globe and Mail wrote:

"…riveting debut novel…Wiersema has crafted a literary, supernatural thriller that grips the reader in a chokehold on page one and doesn’t let go until the very last line…Before I Wake is a classic thriller: creepy in all the right places and deliciously suspenseful. Beyond that, it has great emotional depth and resonance."

Preview or download this playlist at iTunesicon

In his own words, here is Robert Wiersema's Book Notes essay for his debut novel, Before I Wake:

To say that music is important to me, and to my work, would be the gravest of understatements. I often joke that I live my life with a soundtrack, whether it's the home stereo, the MP3 player, or the hundreds of CDs that have somehow migrated to my office over the years. I'm very rarely without something playing, and it's almost never 'just background' - I like my music so I can hear it, so I can let it work its magic on my soul.

A few months ago, shortly after Before I Wake was published in Canada, I was invited to do an event with Pages Bookstore in Toronto, part of their This Is Not A Reading Series series. I was thrilled to be invited, and knew that I would be able to think up something cool to do (bearing the "No Reading!" proviso in mind). As time passed, though, I found myself with a dearth of cool ideas. I'm a writer - I specialize in NOT being in front of large groups of people doing cool things. So out of desperation, I decided to talk about music - the role of it in my writing life, my writing background, and Before I Wake, in particular. I'd play some of the music, talk with a seemingly off-the-cuff anecdotal quality, and get off the stage early.

The first step of the process, of course, was to create the proverbial mix tape (actually an MP3 playlist, but that hardly has the same ring to it). In the end, I had an album's worth of material, and a presentation that ran long and was, dare I say, a huge success.

Since then, I've jiggered with the tracklisting a bit, but the essence remains unchanged. Here, then, are the liner notes for the soundtrack of something I called, in a fit of misplaced imagination, Torch Songs and Typing.

Pink Moon -- Nick Drake
Music is an integral part of my artistic process, an essential part. Most things I write, I can pin down exactly what I was listening to during the period of the writing. Case in point, my story "The Small Rain Down" was written in a weekend in late October while I was alone in the house. The soundtrack to its writing was Nick Drake's Way To Blue anthology: the tone of those songs, the sadness and despair, the sense of loss and regret, was perfect for what that story wanted to do. Similarly, I wrote another short story ("Lost Boys") to the first two albums from The Band. They nicely captured the rural, haunted feeling that the story needed. That story took considerably longer to write: I spent almost a month listening to nothing but Music From Big Pink and The Band.

I would like to be able to say that I learned everything about writing from my dedicated and repeated readings of Proust and Hemingway, but that would be a lie. As Bruce Springsteen once said, "I learned more from a three-minute record than I ever learned in school...". The next three songs had a lot to teach, once I was ready for the lessons.

Courage (For Hugh Maclennan) -- The Tragically Hip
Kingston-bar-band-writ-large The Tragically Hip seem an unlikely source for inspiration, but this song was crucial to a shift in my writing in the early 90's. The bridge of this song (which is actually a crib from Hugh MacLennan) changed my writing life, opening me up from my myopic, tortured semi-autobiographical scribbling and turning me toward larger, more significant human drama.

So there's no simple explanation
for anything important any of us do
But yea, the human tragedy consists
of the necessity of living with the consequences

Interestingly, Atom Egoyan seems to have felt the same way, using this song as one of the core dramatic threads through his film of The Sweet Hereafter (in a version recorded by Sarah Polley).

So What -- Miles Davis
If people have one jazz album in the collections, it's Kind of Blue. It's the best-selling jazz album of all time, and rightly so. What strikes me about Miles and his music, though, is not his technical prowess, but how his music succeeds by his embracing of his limitations. Miles had little in the way of a high register, and little wind (compared to someone like Dizzy Gillespie) -- he made those seeming shortcomings a strength, a personal style. I'm not a gifted prose stylist -- I know that. But I try to follow the Miles Davis approach: play the right note in the right place, and let it resonate. Play the air around the notes as much as the notes themselves. Let the notes linger in the air, and in the ear of the listener. "Don't play what's there. Play what's not there."

1952 Vincent Black Lightning -- Richard Thompson
Building on the lessons of Miles Davis, songs like 1952 Vincent Black Lightning imbued me with an economy of storytelling. What Thompson does in this song is what the classic ballads do so well: without a wasted word, he tells a profound, stirring and complete story in less than 20 lines, most of them dialogue. Get in, say what needs to be said, and get out.

Before I Wake:
I wrote the first draft of Before I Wake in a three month period, most of it from about four to seven a.m., huddled in my cold office with fresh coffee and cigarillos. And, of course, headphones, so as not to wake the rest of the household. Music was a big part of that writing. Some of it you can see on the page, some of it hovers in the background.

Joan Of Arc -- Leonard Cohen
Joan of Arc is the patron saint of Before I Wake (and is mentioned, fairly early on, in a conversation between Father Peter and Tim when they first meet in the story). The story of a girl who brought glory and happiness to her people, who then turned on her, burning her at the stake, resonates with me, and informs much of what happens to Sherry in the novel. Cohen's treatment of the story is unusual, and fairly profound.

Tangled Up In Blue -- Bob Dylan
Simon is one of the main characters in Before I Wake - a husband and father who works as a lawyer and is, as the novel opens, having an affair with a younger lawyer at the firm. Needless to say, I take great pains to distance myself from him and his caddish ways, but we do have a few things in common, including our record collections. Tangled Up in Blue is one of Dylan's finest songs, from one of his finest albums, and it speaks to a lot of the interpersonal themes of the novel, of loss and regret and return. When Simon talks about spending weeks learning to play the song on the guitar, that's a winking aside to my wife. As an undergrad, I spent several months working on a paper about lyrical variation in Tangled Up in Blue - that's several months of alternate versions, live take and constant replaying (to pin down the lyrics). That's a lot to inflict on any woman...

The Raggle Taggle Gypsy -- The Waterboys
During the writing of the novel, I was listening to a lot of traditional music, chiefly from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and versions of the songs collected by folklorist Francis Child in the 18th century. What I like about this music, aside from its inherent charm (which some simply don't hear) is the way it encapsulates a world view. In the world of these ballads, nothing is metaphor, nothing is symbol: everything is real. There are gypsies and fairies and spirits afoot in the world, and if you're lost in the dark in the woods at night, you're likely to cross paths with some of them.
The Raggle Taggle Gypsy is a classic ballad from the British Isles, and The Waterboys, in their traditional period, do a very fine job of it.

Friend Of The Devil -- Grateful Dead
The Dead were very influenced by Smith's collection, nowhere moreso than in their pair of chiefly acoustic albums from 1970, American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. Friend of the Devil is another example of that world-view I described above -- sometimes, you really do have hellhounds on your trail.

Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet -- Gavin Bryars
While working on a film in the early 1970's, Bryars happened to record a ten-second snippet of an old tramp singing a traditional hymn in an alley. Over the last three decades, he has built an entire symphony around that tragic voice, that absolutely haunting refrain. This piece is important to Before I Wake in a couple of ways. Firstly, it was instrumental in my early thinking about Henry and his role in the book. In my original thoughts, Henry was going to disappear in a socio-political manner, becoming a street-person. That changed, but the impulse carried through.
Secondly, the symphony is a profound piece of music to write to -- it allows me to get into the flow state that I so need, that allows me to pull the stories from the air around me.
(It seems there's a secret brotherhood around this song: following the presentation in Toronto, a number of people approached me, earnestly, recounting their own love for this song, and their seeming pleasure at having found another kindred spirit.)

Hallelujah -- Jeff Buckley
I had to include this song for two very different reasons.
First off, it nicely encapsulates a number of the book's themes, particularly those of failure and redemption. There is an uplifting quality to the song that belies its lyrics, and a rich quietness which can only be described as holy.
The second reason is more personal. Despite everything I've done, despite everything I bring to the table, I don't think I'll ever write anything as immediate, anything as moving, as this song. I don't think there are any words to rival the sound of an acoustic guitar resonating in an empty room... Ah well. There's nothing I can do except, as Bob Dylan once said, "keep on keepin' on". To quote Browning, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Robert Wiersema and Before I Wake links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the book's website at the publisher

reviews of Before I Wake:

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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