September 29, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Peter Geye's debut novel Safe from the Sea explores the lives of a father and son and their bonding as adults. With exquisite prose and raw intimacy, Geye recounts each of the men's life stories while unveiling the roots of their estrangement and eventually, their reconciliation.
ForeWord wrote of the book:
"Geye excels at capturing the importance of life's seemingly small moments and at cataloging their beauty. Though his characters sometimes verge on cliches (the gruff sailor, or the yuppie), he successfully veers away from such simplistic depictions, always giving them more complex dimensionality and emotional existences. Perhaps most importantly, Geye shows how love is often revealed in nearly invisible ways. "
I'm a huge music fan, even if I'm not particularly well educated on the topic. I don't play any instruments and I can't carry a tune to save my life. In fact, I'm not allowed to sing if my wife is around.
I had the good fortune to come of age in the heyday of Minnesota music, and I feasted on it. In the late 80s and early 90s I listened almost exclusively to bands like The Replacements, The Jayhawks, Husker Du, Gear Daddies, Trip Shakespeare, and Soul Asylum. As different as those bands are in temperament, one thing they all shared was a commitment to their own aesthetic. I think I knew to admire that even as a rowdy young man.
Though I'm still hip to the bands just mentioned, and though I'll queue them up if the time is right and the beer is flowing, I'm entirely more laid-back and inclined toward twangy tunes now. It's twenty years later, after all, and I've got three kids to replace those rollicking guitar rifts.
Which is not to say that music is not an integral part of my life. It is. Perhaps now more than ever. And especially as it pertains to my writing. In fact, Safe from the Sea might literally be said to have been born from two songs. I'll save those for last.
I should say that I listen to music all the time when I'm working, partly because I often write in coffee shops—a consequence of the kids again—and partly because I find the rhythm and mood of certain songs inspirational. A good song at the right time is like tonic, and the long mournful guitar chords or the steady, brooding vocals that accompany so many of these songs correspond with the melancholy tropes that play throughout Safe from the Sea.
"Catcher Song" Great Lake Swimmers
This heavyhearted, mellow song is full of rich sea imagery, and I love Tony Dekker's voice. I listened to Ongiara a lot during the final revisions of Safe from the Sea. About the time I finished the book I saw GLS at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis. When they finished "Catcher Song," I turned to my brother-in-law and said, "That's what I hope my book sounds like in the reader's head."
"Tangled Up in Blue" Bob Dylan
Favorite song of all time? This one's right up there. Dylan's storytelling is on par with the best, and nowhere is it better than in this classic. My dad is a huge Dylan fan, so I grew up listening to Bob on the 8-track in the Ford Fairmont. They were fine days.
"Midnight Sun" The Pines
Another Minnesota band. Every one of their songs sounds like it was written with Lake Superior in the background. The sense of longing and sadness in this number are heartbreaking. I'll take sadness every day of the week, and the mood this song invokes is very much on a par with the temperament of Safe from the Sea.
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" Gordon Lightfoot
What kind of a liar would I be if this song didn't make the cut? I suspect that the only thing most people know about Great Lakes shipwrecks come from this song. It tells the story of the most famous maritime disaster in Lake Superior history. The Edmund Fitzgerald is consciously absent from Safe from the Sea because it casts such a large shadow, but her story is in every line of the book. And the song is just fantastic. Listen to the lyrics—if you can get past the dirge—they're poetry.
"Am I too Blue for You" Lucinda Williams
A singing voice for the ages, and another song full of melancholy. I used to listen to Lucinda every night while I did research, this during the early days of the book, when it was more of an idea than anything approximating a manuscript. It's at least half her fault that I slept for about four hours a night for the first two years of writing and conceptualizing. I could listen to her sweet crooning all night long.
"Five Cups of Coffee" The Jayhawks
Is it too much to say that The Jayhawks are the original alt-country masters? I'm pretty sure Blue Earth came out before Uncle Tupelo's No Depression. In any case, this song is another of my all time favorites. I started drinking coffee about the time I started writing Safe from the Sea, and I'd work after my wife went to bed, keeping at it until two or three in the morning. Coffee became essential. Almost as essential as the sweet harmonies of this great band.
"Wild Horses" Rolling Stones
One of my favorite songs from one of my favorite bands. The graceless lady Mick sings about in the opening stanza could stand in for either of the men in this book. They've been hard on each other, my protagonists, often brutal. But they work it out. The song's not a paraphrase, but I often found myself listening to it in order to capture their affection for each other. Plus, it's just a gorgeous, lonely old song.
"The Good and the Bad" Ted Hawkins
That could be the alternative title of Safe from the Sea. The tension between my two protagonists—a father and son separated by years of bitterness—is age old and imminently sad, especially considering how much they love each other. Ted Hawkins captures the same sentiment not only in his lyrics, but also in the simple sound of his voice. Who sings better than this guy did?
"Tear Stained Eye" Son Volt
In the same way that Cormac McCarthy is my favorite writer, Son Volt is my favorite band. That is to say, in the same way that McCarthy has never written a line I don't admire, Jay Farrar has never sung a note that didn't make me swoon. Safe from the Sea literally sprang from this song. In the late winter of 1997 I was driving across eastern Colorado with a friend and my brother. It was dawn, I'd been sleeping in the back seat, and I heard this ditty for the first time as I woke. It's a moment that stuck with me for years. When I was trying to conceive of a novel idea, I kept returning to it. The first lines I wrote came right out of the moment: "A disc jockey from a station in Marquette announced the time, seven twenty-five, and an old country music song. The first few chords of a steel guitar moaned before fading to static. He turned the radio off and settled into the hum of the tires on the pavement." The song Noah (the main character) hears is this one, even if he's on the North Shore instead of the Colorado prairie.
"Rondo capriccioso" Mendelssohn
From the category: "One of these songs is not like the others." I mentioned my dearth of musical talent. What I didn't mention is that my wife plays the piano like an angel. When we got married, my parents gave us their old baby grand as a gift. I used to sit in the living room of our first house, listening to her play, thinking to myself, That's what I want to hear when I'm dying. That's literally and truly what I thought. I won't spoil the book for you, but in the same way that "Tear Stained Eye" makes a guest appearance in the book, so does Mendelssohn's opus. I still hope it's what I'm listening to when I die: that song under her hands.
Peter Geye and Safe from the Sea links:
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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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