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April 28, 2010

Book Notes - Travis Nichols ("Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder")

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

Travis Nichols' debut Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder is startlingly original, a road novel that explores and transcends generational differences as well as their similarities.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"It's as though a set of nesting dolls exploded into thousands of puzzle pieces that won't quite fit together anymore. One way it seems like “the truth” and then another detail comes up in another story that changes that truth. Tightly structured, with many repetitive phrases serving as a choral backdrop to the action, the novel often reads like a piece of music that is wonderfully original."

In his own words, here is Travis Nichols' Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder:

"Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder"—The US Heritage Air Force Band

Let's start with a question: Why has no one done a cover of this song? I mean, this old Air Force jam has serious freak folk brilliance, great hip-hop sample bombast, and a Langley School of Music kiddie-creep show quality. And yet these versions only exist in my mind. Why is that?

Anyways, I'm aware that "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" the song is a pretty obvious choice to start the playlist for Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder the novel, but this song really did course through my veins as I wrote. The novel is about a pair of 24-year olds who go to Poland with an 84-year old WW-II veteran they lovingly call The Bombardier. The Bombardier says he wants to see what remains of the places he bombed during the war, but the young couple believes he actually wants to find the secret love of his life, a Polish woman named Luddie who hid him from the Nazis. So off they go on their adventure/love story/generational investigation with this weird martial folk song as a revenant theme. I still find myself humming it every time I see the cover.

"I'll Be Seeing You"—Bing Crosby

Memory is an art. Sometimes it's bad art, sometimes conceptual, sometimes performance, sometimes mimetic, sometimes something altogether new. In the book, all the characters are memory artists of a kind. The Bombardier's generation isn't going to be around much longer, so the facts of Word War II are changing as the memories are transferred from the first-hand generation to the Baby Boomers to Generation X to whatever we are at this moment. This is an awesome responsibility, but I'm hopeful, in no small part because I feel like I get the transmission from the past through songs like this. In addition to the fact that I think all men of a certain age can, if called upon, sing like Bing Crosby, this song takes me to 1944 in a flash. I remember.

"Tezeta (Nostalgia)"—Mulatu Astaqe

Nostalgia songs—like memory/history novels—always risk being super cheesy. That's why I avoided, for example, picking Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time" or Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" for this playlist, despite how often I find myself tunelessly warbling those lyrics. Not cool. And maybe in Ethiopia this song is just like that Don Henley classic, but since I am not Ethiopian, this instrumental track performs a bit of magic on me every time I hear it. Listening, I remember the times I've spent on lazy afternoons remembering. The doubling doubles itself instantly, then quadruples, and then I'm lodged in the memory palimpsest that resists all things Henley.

"I Want to be a Good Woman"—Cat Power

Love is complicated. Heartbreak is simple. It just fucking hurts. This song, which I heard Cat Power play live in one of those great drug year performances, is an x-ray of a heart learning how life and time can conspire against love. One of the things the narrator in the novel has a hard time learning is how people in love can fail each other. People in love can try very sincerely to be good to one another, but more often than not simple, pure love turns into the weird thing the adults in the room call life. This song is the sound of that happening. "I want to be a good woman / and I want you to be a good man / that's why I'm leaving." Ouch.

"Fistful of Love"—Antony and the Johnsons

Ouchy as well, though this one shows how love hurts on the outside. There's something about the ecstasy of violence in Antony's voice that makes me want to go out and get a fat lip. I listened to this while writing the chapter about getting punched in the face with a doorknob.

"Little Birds"—Neutral Milk Hotel

Jeff Mangum's voice is a force of nature. It inspired, terrified, and refreshed me throughout the years of writing this book. I can't overstate how much I love his music, and how much it has affected my life. This song was pretty obscure before the internet, and I first heard it on a burned disc from a devoted friend in Athens. I think you can find it pretty easily now. It's still the only recorded version I've ever heard, and the story my friend told me is that it came from a camcorder filming a birthday party. The party happened after all the In the Aeroplane Over the Sea hype but before Jeff became a full-time private citizen. You can hear how he's still spinning out incredible narratives and exploring the dark parts of his imagination. It's like a rough draft of a whole other NMH album, one that we'll probably never hear. What we can hear, though, and what I'm immensely grateful for, is Jeff's belief and hope that his music and his voice can, by force of imagination, help humans escape the pain they cause one another.

"Over & Over"—Hot Chip

In 2005-2008 the electro-American Apparel-hipster-"Push It" Remix scene in Seattle was really thriving, so my wife and I would go to these great dance nights at Chop Suey that felt like the crest of a little wave of joyous disposable dance pop. This Hot Chip song is a highlight for me of that stuff, and it made me feel how elemental and ecstatic modular repletion and subtle variation can be. I either used such thoughts in a marginally successful or absolutely annoying way in the book.

"Pulses"—Steve Reich

See above (minus the dancing).

"Serve this Royalty"—Cody Chesnutt

This song represents the mid-point on the pure-love/real-life continuum. I don't think anything in the novel really gets here—the characters are all a little too idealistic and naïve to worry about gold chains and platinum rings—but while I was writing I listened to this song with a big smile on my face. You can hear it as a kind of macho-paternalist come-on, but that's not super flattering for either the singer or the object of affection. I recommend avoiding such a listening so you can see the song as I do: a beautiful window into what it's actually like to be in a relationship with a struggling creative type.

Mr. Chesnutt is pleading with his partner to take a chance on his life and his music, and, you know, as you're listening to the tape hiss and the janky production you can tell that this lady is going to be taking a real flying leap. "Leave your mamma's house, make her proud, serve this royalty." Is that really a good decision? But Cody's just laying it all out there so raw—"Believin' in me and my dreams is serving this royalty right" that I can't help but love it. It is in fact the deal with real relationships, especially relationships with writers since there is almost zero possibility of financial security if you sign on that particular dotted line. It's a big risk, and many mammas are not proud.

To be clear, though, I never asked my wife to leave her mamma's house. I believe both of our mammas are proud. Mine regularly tells me she's proud of whatever I do as long as I'm happy (emphasis hers). Anyways, as I was writing this book and listening to this song obsessively, it was my then-girlfriend-now-wife (Monica) who really asked me to leave the metaphorical mamma's house I had built in my mind. As we all know, frustrated writers come in a million different varieties, but the two I have most resembled at various times are 1) The Secret Genius With a Lot of Great Ideas But No Work Ethic, and 2) The Secret Genius With a Pile of Unpublished Manuscripts and a Crappy Job. [ed. note: "Secret Genius" is a joke. Right?] After I felt finished with this book, I was really leaning towards option #2 for the long haul. In my mind, I had done something really cool with this book and I was proud of it, but I was going to just keep putting dead people's lamps and knickknacks on eBay for money. Monica saw what was happening there, and she sat me down a number of times and gave me this kind of Chesnutt-esque pep talk. Or more like an answer song to this one—"I have left my mamma's house. We are proud. Now do your thing. Don't get bitter. Take a chance on the world and try to publish this sucker." I am very grateful to both my wife and Cody Chesnutt for their encouragement.

"In My Way, Yes"—Vic Chesnutt

"Do you think it makes a difference? / I say yes / In my life, yes."

Travis Nichols and Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder links:

the author's website
the author's book tour events
the book's website
excerpt from the book

Publishers Weekly review

Believer articles by the author
Huffington Post essays by the author
The Poetry Foundation articles by the author
Rob McLennan's Blog interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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