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January 20, 2010

Book Notes - Amy Greene ("Bloodroot")

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

Amy Greene's novel Bloodroot vividly portrays a family's three generations in Appalachia, and weaves the mystical folktales of the region into an impressive debut.

Greene's literary talet is evident as she portrays her characters honestly, flaws exposed beside their strengths. The dialogue is pitch perfect and effortlessly ties characters into their landscape, and the multiple narrators elegantly unfurl the dark and mesmerizing story.

Ron Rash wrote of the book:

"Amy Green is a born storyteller who depicts the voices and folkways of Appalachia with both eloquence and verisimilitude."

In her own words, here is Amy Greene's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Bloodroot:

It was around two years from the time I began writing Bloodroot longhand in a notebook until I turned in the final draft to my editor at Knopf. In the beginning, I spent whole days immersed in the story, learning the characters and dreaming up lives for them. But at some point, writing Bloodroot became more like work than play. I had to apply craft to what I had put down on paper in a burst of creativity. I needed to explore the characters deeper and know their motives. I needed to fix the holes in the plot. At the end of two years, it was frustrating that parts of my novel still weren’t working. I was stuck and a little depressed. My husband is my first reader, and almost as invested in Bloodroot as I am. He had listened to my story ideas and given me advice and helped make sure the dialogue rang true. When he saw the trouble I was having, he did one of the sweetest things he has done for me in our fifteen years of marriage. He made a mix CD of songs that reminded him of Bloodroot. He brought it into the room where I was working, put it in the CD player, and left me alone with the music. Maybe because he knows Bloodroot so well, or because he knows my taste so well, or both, each song that he chose was perfect. At first, I only listened. Then, after a while, I picked up my pen. The passion I had felt in the beginning was still there. I just needed some inspiration.

"Miss Being Mrs." by Loretta Lynn

This song about widowhood was written by Loretta Lynn after losing the husband she had been with for most of her life. Each time I listen to it, I think about Byrdie Lamb, one of Bloodroot's narrators, finding her husband Macon dead in his chair. Loretta Lynn’s voice and the haunting guitar chords capture the heartbreak I imagine Byrdie feels, realizing that Macon has died alone after all they endured together over nearly sixty years of marriage. Knowing something of the story behind the song, and of Loretta Lynn’s real life relationship with her own husband, makes listening to it even more powerful.

"Mother" by Tori Amos

While Tori Amos sings about a mother-daughter relationship, Amos’s lyrics bring to my mind images of Myra leaving home as she tries to feel some kind of connection to her dead mother. Myra abandons the safety of Bloodroot Mountain at seventeen to marry a boy called John Odom and move off to town—just as her mother left home at the same age to marry Myra’s father. Amos sings, "He’s going to change my name/maybe you’ll leave the light on/I can remember where I come from." But Myra worries that she won’t find her way back ("bread crumbs lost under the snow"), like her mother, who never returned to Bloodroot Mountain. Tori Amos’s "Mother" evokes all the bittersweet emotion of leaving the nest that I hoped to portray in Bloodroot.

"Thick as Thieves" by Natalie Merchant

There’s more than one Natalie Merchant song on this playlist. I think she’s a brilliant lyricist as well as a beautiful singer, and so much of her music inspires me. In Bloodroot, Myra’s children, Johnny Odom and his twin sister Laura, are taken away from their mother and their home on Bloodroot Mountain and put into foster care. The lines at the beginning of the song, "Remember how it all began/the apple and the fall of man," remind me of Johnny and Laura being cast out of their innocent life in the mountain woods. But the song also gives me a feeling of one world ending and another beginning. Johnny is a troubled character and was maybe the hardest for me to get right, especially his complex relationship with Laura. In their last scene together, I wanted something to shift inside Johnny, but I had a hard time conveying the resonance of the moment. Listening to "Thick as Thieves" these lines struck me: "When he opened up at last/found a cul-de-sac/deep and black/of smoke and ash." I even borrowed some of those words, as Johnny says, "It seemed I could feel some old part of myself dissolving into smoke and ash." Once I was able to write that scene, I knew better who I wanted Johnny to be.

"Thirty-Three" by Smashing Pumpkins

I happen to have been thirty-three at the time last year that I was finishing Bloodroot, but that’s not why the song moves me. The lyrics of "Thirty-Three" inspire me to think again about Johnny Odom and where he is at the conclusion of the book: "I forgive everyone/ I know I’ll make it/I’ll make the effort, love can last forever." I relive the character’s whole history when I hear the song, his time in a children’s home and in prison, his search for his father and for himself, and how he walks out of the story a different man.

"Forgiveness" by Patty Griffin

Another song about forgiveness, but this one brings Johnny’s twin sister Laura to mind, maybe because of the imploring tone. She’s a compassionate character and a guiding light for Johnny, even when he tries to forget about her. Laura doesn’t harbor the same resentment Johnny does for their mother, and her openness has a part in bringing him around. I listen to "Forgiveness" as a song Laura sings to her brother. Aside from what the song says to me about Bloodroot, I love Patty Griffin’s voice with an acoustic guitar.

"Motherland" by Natalie Merchant

"Motherland" not only conjures up Myra’s homesickness after leaving her childhood behind, it makes me think of my own love of Appalachia, where I have lived all my life. "Motherland/Cradle me/Close my eyes, lullaby me to sleep/Keep me safe." Even while Myra is trapped in a ramshackle house by the railroad tracks, and Bloodroot Mountain is just a hump in the distance, her spirit travels back home, as I believe mine always would if I lived anywhere but here. When Myra is finally able to return to the mountain near the end of her journey, Merchant’s lyrics say what she would have felt: "Take one last look behind/Commit this to memory and mind/Don't miss this wasteland, this terrible place/When you leave."

"Falling Slowly" by The Swell Season

If I had to choose my favorite song of all time, it would be "Falling Slowly." While other songs on Bloodroot's soundtrack are about forgiving others, this one is about forgiving oneself. "You have suffered enough/and warred with yourself/It’s time that you won." I picture Myra standing on top of Bloodroot Mountain looking down at the world below, Myra’s childhood friend Doug Cotter burning the book she left behind before he leaves town for good, Johnny’s forehead pressed against the jailhouse glass separating him from Laura. I see these moments from each character’s story and imagine they can forgive themselves and have good lives beyond the pages of Bloodroot.

"Man of the Hour" by Pearl Jam

For me, "Man of the Hour" evokes Bloodroot's epilogue and John Odom, the last voice heard in the book. "Now the man of the hour is taking his final bow/As the curtain comes down/Goodbye for now." I think it’s a song about what a father passes down, and while John’s legacy to Johnny and Laura is a toxic one, I wanted to show a glimmer of hope even for him in the end. Listening to "Man of the Hour" this time last year also made me feel both relieved and sad that writing Bloodroot was over. It was like saying goodbye in a way to the characters I loved. But now that I have some perspective, I can see letting go of my first novel in a more positive light. It’s comforting to know that, for those who read Bloodroot once it’s released on the twelfth of January, the story will start all over again.

Amy Greene and Bloodroot links:

the author's website
the author's book tour schedule

Atlanta Journal-Constitution review
Galley Talk review
Louisville Courier-Journal review
Wilmington Star News review

BookPage essay by the author profile of the author
Knoxville News Sentinel profile of the author
Mighty Mercury interview with the author
The Mountain Press profile of the author
Nashville Scene review
Powell's Blog guest post by the author
The Rumpus review
Well-Read Donkey guest post by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

online "best of 2009" book lists
online "best of the decade" book lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (a yearly reading project)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics & graphic novel highlights)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)

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