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January 28, 2010

Book Notes - Heidi Durrow ("The Girl Who Fell from the Sky")

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

Heidi Durrow accomplishes several things with her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. The story of a young biracial girl's life after a great tragedy is told through the eyes of several narrators, whose stories converge like a gamma knife. An exceptional coming-of-age story, the novel is also a well-wrought mystery. Durrow skillfully builds suspense about the true nature of the tragedy while also illuminating the nature of her characters, especially the young girl Rachel.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky won the 2008 Bellwether Prize, which advocates "serious literary fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships." As the novel's protagonist searches for her own identity as a biracial woman growing up in America, Durrow is not afraid to tackle big issues concerning race and women. For that reason, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky may be the most important book of the year.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Taut prose, a controversial conclusion and the thoughtful reflection on racism and racial identity resonate without treading into political or even overtly specific agenda waters, as the story succeeds as both a modern coming-of-age and relevant social commentary."

In her own words, here is Heidi Durrow's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky:

In my debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, I set out to write a coming-of-age story that's part love story, and part mystery about a biracial girl, Rachel, who is the lone survivor of an accident in which she loses her whole family.

I used to think that I needed total silence to write. No radio; no music. Silence. I wanted to make sure I could hear the muse when she came (which felt like not often enough). But then I realized that if I played a single song over and over again—it "tuned" me to what I really wanted to write. I felt like I was under the song's spell. On some days, I listened to the same song more than 100 times in a row.

Let me just confess: much like my young adult character Rachel, I came to learn more about different kinds of music later in life. I didn't listen to much more than the Bee Gees, the Carpenters, Johnny Mathis, Bob Marley, Wynton Marsalis, and Kenny G until I was well into my third year of college. Make fun if you will, but these artists (and Christmas music – both American and Danish) sustained me.

Thankfully, I branched out after that—I learned to appreciate and love gospel music (Take 6, and Bebe Winans), indie rock (Rosie Thomas), and soul and neo-soul (Goapele), and other music I don't know how to categorize. So when I "tuned" myself to write by listening to a song, I listened to music of all stripes. Elton John's "Daniel" was as important to me in writing this as Nickelback's "Far Away." Here are some songs I listened to over and over again while writing The Girl Who Fell from the Sky:

"Seven Years" by Norah Jones

This is one of my all-time favorite songs and got me in touch with the voice of the young adult narrator.

"A little girl with nothing wrong and she's all alone—
Crooked little smile on her face, tells a tale of grace that's all her own."

Don't you see her? She's spinning in bare feet in a meadow on a sunny day. I imagined Rachel as this girl in the song often to reconnect with her innocence and love-ability. She's a flawed heroine, but at core, she's good.

"Always and Forever" by Roy Hargrove

The chords in this song just kill me. I listened to this song dozens of times in a row and I'd find myself crying as I wrote. It's deep and lush and sentimental in the best way. This song breaks your heart if you listen to it long enough.

"God Bless the Child" Angela McCluskey & Tryptich

I love this version of the song with that bit of rasp in the singer's voice. It's melancholy—and it sounds like she's trying to convince herself of a lesson she was supposed to have learned. I don't mean the "Jesus loves me part" at the end, but that central idea that no matter where (or who) you come from: ultimately, what makes you is what's your own –the you inside.

"Pass Me Over" by Anthony Hamilton

There is no one more soulful than Anthony Hamilton. He's got a big voice that makes you feel like you can be healed. It's not gospel music per se. But it's spiritual and moving. This song tuned me to write emotionally charged scenes when I could hardly stand what the characters were doing.

"Someone to Watch Over Me" by Etta James

"I love me some Etta James," a character in the book exclaims. And I do too! I saw her in concert at the Hollywood Bowl one summer and fell in love. I love that she's got that gravel in her voice when she sings the big loud songs, but her voice is soft cotton when she sings the songs about being sad or lonely. I love Etta James so much she makes an appearance in the book. I can't say more without spoiling it. But why this song of hers? Because it expresses my wish for my characters: that they find someone to watch over them.

"Let's Never Stop Falling in Love" by Pink Martini

Well, yes, I listened to this! It's a love story after all. But what's so perfect about this song is that it makes love sound grown-up. It's old-fashioned romance. That's what I wanted for my characters particularly because they are young adults. Young adult love is usually thought of (and depicted) as love "lite" – not exactly the real thing. But as I recall, it didn't feel that way to me when I was a young adult. It felt real and big and important—all those things are kind of captured in this wonderful song.

"Flight" by To Be Determined

This song is a major through line for the story. Rachel's father plays it for her in the hospital, and teaches it to Brick, the young neighbor boy who is a witness to the accident that has killed Rachel's family. It has no words in the novel except for the ones that Brick sometimes makes up when he plays it. I'm not a musician, but I have an idea of what it might sound like—or at least what it would feel like to listen to. I'm hoping someday someone out there will be inspired by the story to write the tune for me. Any takers?

Heidi Durrow and The Girl Who Fell from the Sky links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events
the author's blog
the author's iMix of songs listened to while writing the book
the author's podcast of lost Danish songs listened to while writing the book
the author's Mixed Chicks Chat podcast
the author's Wikipedia entry
Goodreads author page
audio excerpts from the book
excerpt from the book

APOOO Book Club review
Boston Herald review
Ellen Meeropol review
Just Say Mo review
Library Journal review
Ms. Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review

Honoree Fanonne Jeffers interview with the author
My American Meltingpot interview with the author
The New Voters profile of the author
Portland Examiner interview with the author
Portland Tribune profile of the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

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
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)

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