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February 3, 2009

Book Notes - Jan Elizabeth Watson ("Asta in the Wings")

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

In Asta in the Wings, Jan Elizabeth Watson tells a fantastic tale through the eyes of young Asta, and vividly captures her bright, youthful spirit in this unforgettable debut novel.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Asta's narration is full of the wonderment and matter-of-factness of youth, and her eye-opening trip into reality is flawlessly executed by Watson."

In her own words, here is Jan Elizabeth Watson's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, Asta in the Wings:

Asta in the Wings is a retrospective narrative told from the point of view of Asta Hewitt, who is recalling a pivotal series of events that occurred in the 1970s, when she was just seven years old. She, her mother Loretta, and her nine-year-old brother Orion live as shut-ins in rural Maine, content with their imaginary play and with each other’s company. The second half of the novel follows Asta’s journey into the sometimes-inhospitable outside world— a world whose magic and wonders are less apparent than the magic found in her insular life, though she does her absolute best to find it wherever she can.


“Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John. This song actually makes an appearance (can a song make an appearance?) in the novel. I included it because when I was a young child I thought this was probably the most heartbreaking song I’d ever heard, even though I didn’t have the foggiest idea what it was about. When it would come on the radio, I would curl up next to the speaker and weep. Even when I was a young child—younger even than Asta—I had heightened aesthetic sensitivities and a flair for the maudlin.

“Here You Come Again” by Dolly Parton. This is the other song mentioned in the novel, and it occurs to me now that both songs are played during car rides; I guess I have a strong subconscious association between music and riding. This was another song I quite liked when I was little, and I thought I heard something plaintive in Dolly Parton’s warbling voice back then—a keening note under the impression of brightness. It never occurred to me that the song was a little bit dopey. In fact, I didn’t realize it was a Dolly Parton song until I was a teenager, and then I was mortified for ever having liked it because I had a snotty attitude toward country-western music at the time.

“Lilac Wine” by Jeff Buckley and “Turpentine” by Brandi Carlile. I pair these two melancholy songs together because I played them over and over when I was doing the final revision of the novel, and they complement each other well—they’re both just a touch folksy and, of course, they lyrics both feature wine. They are also both about loss, in a way. Listening to these put me in the correct mind frame to sustain the mood I needed throughout the novel.

“Winter Song” by Nico. This song really does evoke the winter for me—not so much lyrically, but in its essence. And nobody conveys icy desolation exactly like Nico. I played this track a lot when I was writing the outdoor winter scenes that take place about midway through the novel.

“Palomine” by Bettie Serveert. Although the adult Asta does not make an official appearance in the novel, I believe this is a song that would always make her remember her brother. I like the juxtaposition of the song’s sunniness and lead singer Carol van Dyk’s hoarse, yearning voice.

“Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap. My friend Katie made me a mix CD with this song on it, and it was another song I listened to over and over when I was polishing the final revision. The loopiness and theatricality of it remind me very much of the Hewitt family dynamic.

“Lullabye” by The Cure. This song was always lurking around the corners of my brain when I was writing the scenes with Leon, a mysterious upstairs tenant who befriends Asta. (I also believe that Leon, who is about nineteen in the novel, would be likely to become a fan of The Cure later on.)

“Dear Prudence” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. This cover of the Beatles song has a whimsicality and a hint of darkness that I like (which could also be said of my novel, I think). The lyrics—about a girl being enticed to come out and play and to “look around round”—are appropriate for Asta.

“Blue Light” by Mazzy Starr. The seeming innocence and spaced-out dreaminess of this song perfectly captures what is best about Asta and Orion’s relationship. It was another song I often played when I wanted to get into the spirit of the book.

“Brand New Key” by Rasputina. I came across this cover late in the revision process—it is a remake of the Melanie song from the 1970s, which was another goofy little ditty I loved as a child. I think Asta would like it too—both the Rasputina version and the original, which she would have heard as a child. It almost sounds like a song meant for a child, though its playfulness is decidedly adult and cheeky.

Jan Elizabeth Watson and Asta in the Wings links:

excerpt from the book
GoodReads page for the author
the book's page at the publisher
GoodReads page for the book

Film Damaged review
Providence Phoenix review
Publishers Weekly review
Tin House interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2008
Largehearted Boy Favorite Graphic Novels of 2008
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
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)


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