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August 27, 2009

Book Notes - Daniel Kraus ("The Monster Variations")

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

Daniel Kraus is both a filmmaker and a writer, and The Monster Variations indeed has a cinematic feel as its chapters move quickly from scene to scene and the characters' lives are unveiled. The novel is a unique coming of age tale that revels in the often haunting power of personal myth. Marketed as a young adult novel, The Monster Variations will appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy a suspense-filled, well-told story.

The A.V. Club wrote of the book:

"The “monster” in The Monster Variations is primarily figurative; it’s the prospect of adult responsibility and adult secrets stalking three kids who, just a year earlier, were content to lounge around their treehouse. Kraus shows a rare skill at making that prospect of maturation terrifying."

In his own words, here is Daniel Kraus's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Monster Variations:

The Monster Variations is a story of three boys growing up—and growing apart—over a summer where a hit-and-run killer has forced a small town to impose a curfew. The boys, one of whom lost an arm in one of the hit-and-runs, try to carry on as normal, but the paranoia that strangles the town begins to affect them as well. It's a dark coming-of-age story, one with shades of Bradbury's Dandelion Wine and King's "The Body."

In general I don't listen to a ton of indie rock—and certainly not a lot of "sad bastard" music—yet I used just such stuff to get myself into the mood of this particular story. So here's a playlist of song I listened to a lot during the writing.

1. "Lion's Mane" by Iron and Wine

Without this song, there's no book. Look, I don't know anything about Iron and Wine. My gut tells me they're bearded. But I've never owned an album or gone to one of their shows. Somehow, however, this track ended up in my iTunes and one day it came on and nearly made me cry. I played it again and opened a new document and started writing the county fair scene that's near the beginning of the book, and for the next couple hours listened to the song on a loop. When I was done, I had a chapter. Soon after, I merged that chapter with another fragment of writing I had about a boy who had just woken up after being hit by a truck to realize he was missing an arm. And that's the book.

2. "Man O' War" by Eric Bachmann

Okay, here's a guy I actually know personally. Eric, best known from Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers, recorded the soundtrack for my 2003 feature film Ball of Wax. An incredible soundtrack, actually (much better than the film it was attached to), and one you should buy—it's on Merge Records and is called Short Careers. Anyway, this is from his solo album and it's gorgeous.

3. "Black Cowboys" by Bruce Springsteen

If you were one of those people who pish-poshed Bruce's Devils & Dust, I don't know what to do with you. This song, which Bruce mumbles in a rush of wordy lyrics, is about a little kid stuck in a dangerous situation where the only way to win is to run. The ties to my book are eerie. Simple and straightforward and overlooked.

4. "The Wife of Usher's Well" by Alasdair Roberts

Aside from that Iron and Wine track, I don't know if there's another I replayed at much during the writing as this one. Alasdair is a Scottish folk singer who played one of the few shows in my life that I actually felt was too short. This is a version of an old folk song, but with a voice that heartbreakingly sad he could be singing about the Dallas Cowboys for all I care.

5. "Only Someone Running," Matt Sweeney & Bonnie Prince Billie

Will Oldham probably seems fairly inevitable in a playlist like this. So sue me. This one has whistling in it!

6. "Devil's Train" by Crooked Fingers

Bachmann again. I've actually used this track while writing various projects. As a single, I'm not sure it's one of Eric's mega-hits, but as a writing tool, it's damn near perfect. Not too slow, not too fast—it has the pace of a good piece of prose. For me it's kind of like a blank piece of paper except much more fun to listen to.

7. "Red Gas Circle" by Guided by Voices

It wouldn't be a playlist without a track from my favorite band of all time. That said, GBV isn't typically good writing music—just too damn herky-jerky—so usually I could only get through a few of the softer, white-noisy ones like this before skipping ahead.

8. "Come Wind Come Rain" by Vashti Bunyan

Maybe you're wondering what my deal is. This innocent, finger-plucking, "dah-de-dah" number is downright delightful. But it comes back to the purpose of this music: to provide a background to what I'm writing. The small town setting of TMV, if listened to from above, sounds a lot like Bunyan. Much closer, you can hear the onerous groaning and squirming of the denizens, but that doesn't make the "dah-de-dah" any less real.

9. "Coyotes" by Don Edwards

I'm a sucker for a song that abandons all subtlety to try to make you a cry with "a tale of the old days." The corny cowboy-and-Indian imagery, the animal noises—this song should be embarrassing. Instead it's so earnest it practically cuts your heart out. Subtlety is overrated.

10. "Who's the Boss" (TV theme song)

Many a long writing session left me feeling winded and downtrodden. Thankfully, when I finally shambled into the living room Tony and Angela were always there waiting for me. If it were up to me, I'd make both of you as the boss.

Daniel Kraus and The Monster Variations links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
the book's video trailers

A.V. Club review
BookFetish review
Book Wise parents review
BookPage review
Sandbox World review
yalitlovers review

AL Focus interview with the author
AuthorsNow! interview with the author
Booklist profile of the author
Cynsations interview with the author
Time Out Chicago profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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