July 9, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Erin Keane's Death-Defying Acts is a novel-in-poems about the dark side of circus life told by four of the performers in distinct voices. Keane doesn't just tell the stories, through her poems we feel not only a connection to the characters but also the essence of the characters' lives (and world) transfused into our veins.
Barbara Hamby wrote of the collection:
"Erin Keane's circus is filled with beautiful losers. The tattooed lady, clown, lion tamer, aerialist, Zorada the fortuneteller, and even the lion speak eloquently of life on the outside but inside the heart of a weird art. Who among us has not felt the beast's breath on our necks or seen our bodies covered with stories. These pages tell us what we felt and how we still feel in the dark before sleep."
This collection of poems also tells a story of one summer on the road with a small-time circus — what happens when a new clown disrupts an already fragile emotional ecosystem and when a young girl shrugs off the life her family has built in favor of self-determination, whatever that's supposed to look like.
Music played a huge part in the writing of this book. Some songs, like The Replacements' "I Will Dare" and Madonna's "Erotica," sneak their way into the narrative. Others, like Neutral Milk Hotel's "The Fool" and Arcade Fire's "Keep the Car Running," served as anthems for the overall story as I tried to keep a consistent tone across the different narratives.
There are four main characters: Jack, the new clown who throws the back-stage scene into chaos; Miranda, the sideshow's femme fatale Tattooed Lady; Talia, a 15-year-old aerialist from a circus royalty family; and Céline, the secretive lion tamer. In order to write poems in each of these distinctive voices, I listened to separate playlists for each character to help find my way into their heads. They differ in age, family upbringing, reasons for running away to (or from, as the case may be) the circus, and their poems are as different physically on the page as they are (I hope!) to the ear. Here's a selection of each list:
Jack is a sad sack, an agent of his own bad luck. He tells filthy jokes at inauspicious times and I can't lie, his was the most fun voice to write.
"Wild Billy's Circus Song" - Bruce Springsteen
The sad, honking brass and Bruce's images of every circus on every road echoes Jack's different-show-same-story weary attitude. When Bruce pleads, "Jesus, send some good women to save all your clowns," I can see Jack twist his lips into a rueful smile. He wants everything he can't believe in.
"Thirteen" - Big Star
Like most self-destructive idiots, Jack is also a wild romantic. He'd play this song for Talia and wouldn't understand why she wouldn't care about school dances and summers by the swimming pool. Fool. He'd have better luck with "Paint It Black."
"The Mixture" - The Ike Reilly Assassination
"Girl don't like the mixture in me / the liquid in me / the fiction it frees" Ike Reilly can really write a song about people who enjoy lying to themselves 90 percent of the time, then battering themselves in the forehead with the unvarnished truth. When he's not busy humming Big Star at Talia, he's living an Ike Reilly song for Miranda. "Make you love me / when you're not willing," indeed.
"Unsatisfied" - The Replacements
Jack's favorite songs are also mine.
Miranda writes her story on her skin and longs for the day she can become a permanent attraction.
"Strange Bird" - Bobby Bare, Jr.
A brooding song for a surly girl, the kind you'd watch from across the room (or sideshow tent) but be wary of for reasons you aren't sure you could name. This is her mythology song, what she plays in her head while she's posing in the tent for the marks.
"Stevie Nix" - The Hold Steady
She's had some men. She's had some visions. She's had "Lord, to be 33 forever" tattooed on the finger-gun slope between her index finger and thumb since she decided to fire back.
"Bonnie and Clyde" - Serge Gainsbourg with Brigitte Bardot
Everything sounds dirtier and sexier in French. Miranda sincerely wishes she did not have a weakness for the Gallic touch.
As Jack puts it, Talia's "a wild, bored girl" and she would rather chew her arm off than marry the trapeze artist her father has chosen for her and make more weightless babies to fly in the family air. She's interested in where her feet can take her.
"Rattlesnakes" - Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
Talia would like to be like the girls in this song, but she's not sure how. She's pretty sure she could use a gun, though, if you know where she could find one.
"Golden Years" - David Bowie
Jack plays her this song when she visits his trailer for the first time. She memorizes it on first listen and hums it under her breath when she needs to feel like a badass. It's kind of sweet, actually.
"E-Pro" - Beck
Every girl needs a theme song when she picks up a whip for the first time. If you ever need to crack a whip, try playing this song.
Céline ran away from a small town ending, took up with women after working her way up to the big tent, and has trained very large predators to do her bidding. She'd love a daughter if it didn't mean dragging another girl onto the road.
"Fever" - Little Willie John
A sultry song for a reluctant stripper, selected for her set because it reminded her of one night in juke joint outside of Bogalusa. Céline plays this record late at night when she feels her past slipping away.
"The Lovecats" - The Cure
Like all fearless women, Céline lives with ghosts. When she sticks her head inside the lion's mouth, she feels like she's come home.
"Little Doll" - The Stooges
She has a thing for crazy, pretty girls, but unlike Jack, she thinks she knows how to keep everything from going to hell because of them. It's an illusion I let her keep for a little while.
Erin Keane and Death-Defying Acts links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroineses (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
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 the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists