November 30, 2007
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Quinn Dalton was one of the first authors to participate in this Book Notes series when she created a music playlist for her first collection of short fiction, Bulletproof Girl. Dalton returns with a music essay for her new collection of short stories, Stories from the Afterlife, a book that showcases her versatility. The story's protagonists are men and women, young and old, and Quinn Dalton has the rare gift of giving all these characters the credible voices of our very own neighbors and friends.
Of the collection, short story master George Singleton wrote:
"Quinn Dalton possesses that rare ability to understand every working neuron in Everyman and Everywoman. The flat-out perfectly drawn characters in Stories from the Afterlife will stick to me in much the same manner as Richard Ford's and Raymond Carver's. Please, please buy this collection if, indeed, you've ever contemplated ditching your job to work as a stripper; felt guilty for impregnating the nursemaid; wondered how you'd react in a beer cooler with a pistol in your face; or contemplated holy men in a hardware aisle. Want to know what can happen from a one-night stand? You'll get this answer, plus. These stories are lyrical, complete, stunning, and unforgettable."
I have to admit, I can’t listen to music with words while I write. And in general, I prefer to work in silence—no talking around me, no talking to myself, ringer turned off. This may be because I live with two vivacious young girls who have a lot to say when we’re together, and while I know to treasure their energy, work time is quiet time for me.
But music gets into my head in the evening, or in the car (my kids are still young enough that I can sell them on listening to almost anything. This, too, I know to treasure while I can). Tunes worm their way into my mind, and I get obsessed with certain songs.
So when I look back on Stories of the Afterlife, and think about the ten narrators, I have to come into their music from the outside. I know them now, have known them for years. Where is their music? In some cases it’s easier to get to than others.
I’ll begin with the end. The last story, “Plot vs. Character” is about a soap opera script writer who’s struggling to extricate her own life from the familiar plot lines. She is just finishing college when she meets a man who, she admits freely, is not quite a man but a fantasy to her. Yet it takes her a while to shake it—him—off. When I think about that time in my own life, I remember how certain people could hold such power over you, however briefly, how they could become so magnified—and there are these two songs from a Greensboro-based band called Dawn Chorus that perfectly capture what I mean. “City Lines” and “If We Were Rich” are from their debut, double-CD album. You should check this group out. Why they are not already world famous is a mystery to me.
In “Lowell’s Lines,” a story built on two dreams, Mara predicts her father’s death the night before it happens. Since childhood she’s associated a song with him, “Sunny Skies” from Sweet Baby James by James Taylor. Later she finds out it was about heroin addiction and she realizes how you can love something and not understand it completely. She tells her mother about singing that song with her father all the time and her mother says, “Honey, that was our song…I sang that to you all the time.” The memory is imperfect. If Mara’s father Pull were still alive, he would sing her “Daughter” from Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Henry / Strange Weirdos’ music written for the movie Knocked Up. Also, Mara’s pregnant so I guess this fits in another way, too.
In “Small,” a two-page story about a young boy whose future is now in jeopardy because of a single violent incident, the association was immediate: “Rusty Cage” as Johnny Cash covered it on Unchained. Odd that an old white man could capture in his deep, ragged voice the rage and bewilderment of a young black boy, but there it is.
And to flip it a bit, in “Monks,” a man whose wife has left him is about to let a room in a run-down row house in Baton Rouge. It’s one of those summer nights when you can barely breathe, and he’s sitting on the porch about to hand over his cash—the whole story takes place over about an hour—and when I read it again the song that laid down the tracks of this story was John Lee Hooker’s “Stripped Me Naked” from Mr. Lucky.
And while we’re on this album, I’ve got to call up “I Cover the Waterfront” again—though there are many recordings of this beautiful, yearning song from Hooker and other blues masters, the recording I like best is on Mr. Lucky. I used to listen to it on repeat for hours, when I was alone and had that kind of time, writing or just staring out the window, imagining myself on that same dock, sipping black coffee and waiting for my lover. I mentioned this song the last time I wrote for Book Notes in connection with “Lennie Remembers the Angels” from Bulletproof Girl. Lennie was in my head when I wrote “Trigger Finger,” about a woman, known only as Lullaby, who has reunited with a man from her youth and finds herself the reluctant savior of a young girl who lives next door. Like Lennie, Lullaby is a former alcoholic with a wayward son named Cedric. Like the story “Lennie,” “Trigger Finger” took me several years and multiple rewrites until I felt it was finished, and when stories take that kind of time you just have to have faith and wait in the darkness for something to take shape.
My guess is the unnamed narrator of “Jimmy the Brain and the Beautiful Aideen” would listen to classic Springstein and Stones, maybe The Pretenders. These bands were part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years in Ohio. But this story – of a college kid working in a beer drive-through who falls in love with the owner’s wife – is both a thwarted love story and an elegy, and the song that came to my mind was written a decade or so after the story ends—Sun Kil Moon’s “Carry Me Ohio” from Ghosts of the Great Highway. But then, maybe that’s not so odd, as the narrator is looking back maybe ten years when he tells the story.
Another story that covers some years is “The Music You Never Hear.” This was a breakthrough story for me, in terms of letting a character have his or her way with the narrative, and being patient. I wrote the first draft in a notebook because I was traveling and didn’t have my laptop, and then months later I began writing it into my computer. I say it this way because I wasn’t just typing it in or entering it in—I was rewriting. That was an important thing for me to learn about the writing process. I still start and finish many stories on the computer, but now I’m also just as likely to write them—or some parts of them—longhand first. There was a line of a song in my head as I finished the story, and for some reason, I couldn’t for a long time remember the source, even though it came from one of my favorite albums, Sting’s The Soul Cages—the song is “Why Should I Cry for You?” and the lines are “And what would it mean to say / That, ‘I loved you in my fashion’?” This is what the narrator has done, and he suffers because of it.
I didn’t have a song in mind at all for “What We Do With Loss” about a man who has kept his homosexuality a secret from his family, succeeding in part because he has moved so far away from them, and also in part because his family doesn’t want to know. But then he must come home when his sister-in-law is killed in a plane crash, and in doing so begins to revive the connection he once had with his brother. The plane crash started this story, actually—a plane had gone down and the media seemed so hopeful that it was due to a terrorist attack, which it wasn’t—it was just one of those terrible tragedies we used to be able to pause for a moment and grieve over without 24-hour news. The song I gave to this story is “Trying to Find a Home,” my favorite track from the Tindersticks’ Waiting for the Moon, because in denying who he is to his family for so many years, the narrator has—with a series of nearly bare apartments and odd jobs—sacrificed his home and identity.
I had the good fortune to see Johnnie Whitlock, a phenomenal Greensboro-bred bluesman, play several times before he died in the early hours of January 1, 1998. He and his band, the Amazing Blues Caucus, tore Fisher’s Bar and Grill apart every time. I bought the CD they had for sale, ooh, ahh, and there’s a track on there that I wish Johnnie could play for Charlie in “Five-Minute Man” – it’s called “You Know It’s All Right.” Charlie, a camera store clerk who hides his own photos under his bed, needs someone to tell him this. Fortunately, his new neighbor Melanie, a single mother of three kids who has her own secrets, is up to the task.
Since I began with the end, I’ll end with the beginning. “I Know a Woman” is a series of stories strung together inside a story. There is the narrator’s former coworker who moonlights as a stripper before skipping town, a homeless woman welcomed into an evangelical church who proceeds to work her way through the men’s choir, a church elder whose fingernails start growing out threaded with silver, a missing girl who turns herself in at a police station years after she was thought dead. I think of Dire Straits’ “Wild West End,” how it moves from woman to woman, and this is how the story feels to me, one door opening to the next.
Quinn Dalton and Stories from the Afterlife links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)