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March 13, 2009

Book Notes - Will Elliott ("The Pilo Family Circus")

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

Will Elliott's debut novel, The Pilo Family Circus, won several awards, including the inaugural ABC Fiction Award. Thanks to Underland Press for publishing this book in the United States.

The Pilo Family Circus is horrifyingly surreal, the story of clowns who take an apprentice into their otherworldly circus. Elliott has earned comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk and Stephen King, but his fresh creative (and chilling) approach to fiction stands on its own.

Time Out London wrote of the book:

"While the plot is wonderfully far-fetched and the language graphic yet spare, the sinister circus is easy to imagine, despite its off-putting American locus. ‘The Pilo Family Circus’ is a heavenly horror story that can either be followed intently or read more nonchalantly; but the impression it leaves will take time to fade."

In his own words, here is Will Elliott's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Pilo Family Circus:

I notice other essayists on this blog can cite exotic foreign places that relate to their work, and music which reminds them of those places. I wish I had similar tales! My book was written in the most ordinary place imaginable, which is the north side of Brisbane. I was in a messy room in a cheap flat, lodged between a pawn shop and a paint store. The daytime noise: bawling crows, like vultures telling me they were hungry, so would I please just hurry up and expire? At night, there were drunken domestic scuffles of my white trash neighbors to look forward to, to say nothing of the creepy old woman in unit 4 who had somehow acquired a 3-year-old, who she screamed at day and night. (Yes, I did call the cops...)

Anything was better than that sort of soul-sapping noise. If you see some music below you find especially objectionable, remember what I had to compare it to, and take pity.

So, this playlist is more for a sense of “otherness” and being (gladly) cut off from things, than a direct dialogue with the book itself. Sleep deprivation was a key part of writing Pilo Family Circus, a habit I'd picked up years before, thanks to having to take anti-psychotic meds. A way around that “deadening” effect was to stay awake for 40 hours or more, overclock the brain a little (like a fast version of being drunk.) So that probably explains why Mike Patton's music appeals to me so much, since he (apparently) was into sleep-dep for a while when writing some of his music.

So these songs played in a filthy bedroom-cum-study, littered with coffee cups and ash, with nicotine stains on the walls, papers scattered all over the place, and the room's saving grace: some fine books lying about in various stages of being read. And the tunes, of course...

Acid Bath: When the Kite String Pops

This is a bit of an uneven album, with a few unforgettable moments of realized potential. The sounds of menace, chaos and bloodlust on a song like "Toubabo Koomi" or "Jezebel" could well be a soundtrack to Jamie's switch to JJ the clown, who runs around in Jamie's skin (ala Jekyll/Hyde.) Listen to "Cheap Vodka" – that encapsulates it. Here is about 2 minutes of someone falling apart, snarling like a wolf closing on its kill, and revelling in it all.

Tom Waits: Blood Money

Don't trust a bull's horn, a Doberman's tooth, a runaway horse, or me... This cynicism is all through the lyrics on this album, and is a similar lens Winston the clown uses to view the world: sick of it all, not sure why he's even bothering to stick around.

For yrs truly, this album was for the quieter moments, the mellower and slightly more optimistic times, when writing didn't seem like a totally pointless endeavor. Yet the music is not happy, with songs like "Misery is the River of the World" and "God's Away on Business." I guess it's the same way some people – me included – are happiest when heavy rain drums the roof, while others are bummed out. Anyway, not much direct relation to the book, but it was playing a lot when I wrote it, as was the utterly magnificent Bone Machine.

The Birthday Party / Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

"The Carny" by the Bad Seeds is the obvious choice of song, but others fit by way of atmosphere, like "Tupelo," or "Red Right Hand." If you want creepy poetry, I mean stuff that'll keep you awake at night, listen to the Birthday Party song "Deep in the Woods," and read the lyrics while you do. The Birthday Party have something uniquely Australian about them, like the music sprang from the landscape itself: harsh, spare, desolate. I like to think some of this flavour made it into the book's language, which was also quite sparse.

Mr. Bungle: Disco Volante / Self-titled

Of all music on this list, it's Mr. Bungle's that speaks to the Pilo Family Circus most directly. The self-titled debut of course has a misbehaving-clown theme (check out the cover art work), and this was in the background of my mind when designing the book's clown characters. The whole album is a dizzy carnival, from "Carousel" to "Dead Goon." Each song reminds me of the book.

Disco Volante is of a similar atmosphere, perhaps even more intense. It is hilarious, at times acutely disturbing. You get a sense that the expression in the music is of someone getting onstage, degrading themselves to a point where nothing you say, do, or throw at them will bother them any more. (Like the Samuel Johnson quote: He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.) The effect, of course, is that you are sharing in the degradation, even maybe just by trying to understand what you're seeing... so the album gets you up there onstage too, maybe only a little, or maybe you, too, can revel in it.

"Merry Go Bye Bye," is the perfect soundtrack. I kind of feel the clowns in the book stepped out of this song, which is completely chaotic and deranged, lurching through styles and modes to a point it breaks down completely and can no longer strictly be called music.

Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions: Bavarian Fruit Bread

This whole album is awesomely mellowing, a nice counterpoint to being sleep deprived and paranoid. "Feeling of Gaze" is especially beautiful. Now and then I'd play this album so the sounds filled up the whole flat, listen with my eyes closed, pretending I was somewhere else, or hearing instructions on how to get to the place these sounds came from. It didn't work, but was worth a try.

Will Elliott and The Pilo Family Circus links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
publisher's page for the author
publisher's page for the book
excerpt from the book (PDF link)

Bookgasm review
Echoes from a Distant Mountain review
Fantasy Book Critic review
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
The List review
Shelf Monkey review
Sydney Morning herald review
Tangled Web review
Time Out London review

Goodreads page for the book
HorrorScope interview with the author
Sydney Morning Herald profile of the author
Tabula Rasa interview with the author
Two Flat Whites 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 (2009 Edition)
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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