June 26, 2008
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.
Unger's third novel, Black Out, is the rare book I can recommend to both literary fiction and thriller readers, a tightly woven tale that is as much at home in the den or the front porch as it is on the beach.
In Black Out, my main character Annie Powers or Ophelia March depending on how you wind up thinking of her when the book comes to a close, is a fractured character, unreliable and damaged. She’s living a perfect life, from all outside appearances. But her inner her universe and her not-too-distant past are very dark. Writing in the first person, in shifting tenses, I was very intimate with her. I often needed something to transport me, to align my thinking with hers. I chose music that lifted me out of myself, out of my world and into hers.
Music has been a big part of every novel I have written; there’s a particular soundtrack for all of them, whether I bothered to mention it to my readers or not. Sometimes it’s just internal. Or sometimes its embedded in the narrative --the song playing on the radio in the car, or the strain of music heard from an unseen source, what someone is listening to in the last moments of his life. But what my characters are listening to and what I am, is generally not one and the same. In Black Out, Annie doesn’t actively choose and listen to music much. She has far too much going on for that. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell her story without it.
At a conference I attended a couple of years ago, a writer I very much admire said that he is careful about the kind of music to which he listens, the books he reads, the films and television he watches. “Garbage in, garbage out,” he said. And I agree with this kind of you-are what-you-eat-philosophy. Of course, it’s especially true when you put your headphones on and start to write. What you’re listening to mingles with the voices in your head, becomes a part of the universe you’re weaving. This is what I was listening to as I wrote Black Out.
I know it's meant to be relaxing but there’s something about Gregorian Chants that make me reflect on death. In a peaceful, quiet kind of way. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing. But when the monks start doing their thing, those round bold ethereal notes take me right to the darkest place of my imagination. If I close my eyes I can feel myself lifting. I think of long dark corridors and echoing vaulting ceilings, soft footsteps disappearing into silence.
This is Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. An amazing tapestry of sound woven from music from the Middle East and Africa, it is in turns beautiful, dark, evocative and inspirational. The exotic instrumentals and vocals have an otherworldly quality that matched the mood and tone of Black Out for me. I am a huge Peter Gabriel fan and this is quite possibly my favorite of his creations.
This is the only album released by Mad Season, a group formed by members of Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees. Layne Staley’s vocals are raw and filled with angst and longing, pure beauty. Like my other choices for this playlist, the whole album has a certain meditative quality, a kind of grimness, a pull toward darkness, that I think characterizes Annie’s essence. But, also like the others, there’s an uplifting undercurrent, something hopeful, an acknowledgement that mingled with the pain of life, are also awe-inspiring, magical and truly good moments – we just need to chose those things. Sadly, Staley died in 2002 from an apparent overdose of heroine and cocaine. “Our pain is self-chosen,” he sings in “River of Deceit.” “Wake Up” and “I Don’t Know Anything” are two brilliant tracks on this killer album.
Another doomed beautiful voice in my head while writing Black Out. Grace ranks up there with my favorite albums of all times. What an amazing voice, poetic lyrics, magical instrumentals. Every track is special, unique, moving for its own reasons. With the exception of four tracks released after his drowning death in 1997, Grace was Buckley’s only album. Not as dark as my other choices, Buckley’s untimely, accidental death juxtaposed against the magnificence of his talent, make these recordings eerie to me in a way they might not have been had he lived. And, of course, there’s the drowning theme, which runs through Black Out. Though I didn’t think about any of that at the time of writing. I was drawn to this music for reasons I’m not sure I really understood at first.
Used to support meditation, or prayer, or to induce a trance-like state in Buddhist Practice, a singing bowl is considered a standing bell. A type of mallet called a wooden fish is circled around its edge to produce hypnotic warm overtones and harmonic undertones that resemble a singing sound. I’ve listened to the singing bowl, the chanting of Tibetan monks, and the gong for meditation and during natural labor and delivery of my daughter. But I’d never before Black Out considered it for writing. On a particularly difficult writing day (the whole mommy-to-a-toddler-am-I-still-a-writer? thing), I wound up listening to it just to relax and focus and wound up writing for hours, literally transported by the sound.
I write early, usually before the sun comes up, hopefully before the critic who lives in my head has had her first cup of coffee and sharpens her red pencil, necessarily before my family wakes up. It’s a meditative place, where I am channeling voices deeply internal and far beyond myself. Writing is an act of faith, a practice of craft, a kind of trance-state. Sometimes it’s easier to get to that place than others. In my process, music acts as the doorway. I walk through. I’m gone.
Lisa Unger and Black Out links:
Associated Press review
Curled Up with a Good Book review
Genre Go Round review
Naples Sun Times review
New York Daily News review
St. Petersburg Times review
Today Show review
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 (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)