May 26, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Bill Loehfelm's third novel The Devil She Knows is a taut psychological thriller.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Even Staten Island, which Loehfelm brilliantly sketched in Bloodroot, becomes a character in this one: seedy, brooding, and sometimes deadly. But, finally, it’s still Maureen, as compelling a character as this reviewer expects to see this year, who makes The Devil She Knows a must for crime-fiction lovers."
Any project I'm working on, for seventy to eighty percent of my time spent with it, I'm listening to music. The Devil She Knows has a soundtrack of over 130 songs. When I start a project, one of the first things I do is start its playlist, which I'll keep fluid as I go along, adding and dropping songs throughout – almost like editing a manuscript. Some songs on the list at the beginning fade in importance by the end. Songs added in the last stages of a final rewrite may take on sudden importance, becoming a valuable part of the finishing touches. Sometimes it's the lyrics that inspire, sometimes it's the mood or the rhythm, could be a chord sequence or a guitar solo that sets me off, but each song brings something necessary to the book. I couldn't write without music. Sometimes I wonder if I became a writer because it's a perfect excuse to pump loud music through my headphones for hours on end and call myself productive.
I'm also a drummer, and people ask if playing music influences my writing. There are parallels, for sure. I pride myself on solid tempo and pacing in my work, and I can obsess about getting the right rhythm flowing sentence to sentence. I love the act of building, the feeling of propulsion, and the sense of momentum that comes with creating something. Both writing and playing feel exactly the same to me. Both are maddening when I suck, spitting out awkward, stumbling crap that makes me wonder why I thought I could ever do it in the first place. And when they go well, there's no better high than hitting that perfect pocket and sitting in it for as long as I can hold it. Both are more empowering and liberating than just about anything else I do.
Here's a list of ten songs of special import, they mattered all the way through, to The Devil She Knows, in no particular order. Every one of them, I'm just noticing now as I review the list, has especially good drum work. So there's that.
"Waitress" – Live
Maureen Coughlin, the hero of The Devil She Knows, began life in my imagination years ago as a character in a short story. Since then, though always a waitress, she's appeared with different names, in different places, and at the heart of different stories before maturing into the character she is now. Live's loud reminder that the person bringing your order to the table is, in fact, a human being with wants and needs and thoughts of her own, with a life, has been with her from the beginning. Everybody needs a little change.
"Cornflake Girl" – Tori Amos
My favorite song of hers, though half of Choirgirl Hotel ended up on the playlist. The big, rolling beat of this song (that's George Porter, Jr. from the Meters on bass) seemed to fit the tempo of the story, along with the sense of drama and loneliness, as certainly does the couplet: This is not really happening/Honey, you bet your life it is. Also, this song gave me a spot-on visual of Maureen's hair color. From the same album, "Raspberry Swirl" and "She's Your Cocaine" were important to this book. Were this book a movie, I'd want "Cornflake Girl" playing over the closing credits.
"For Your Life" - Led Zeppelin
The first song I put on the list, and I've never been entirely sure why it's there. Some songs are obvious narrative or emotional matches, other songs just feel right, they sound like I want the story to sound. This is one of those songs. As far as I can tell, the song's about a woman who's been faking it in every way possible and whose facade is crumbling. So, lyrically, it is a fit. Yet, sometimes I think it's all in that mammoth, staggering beat and how Robert Plant sings the lines: "I heard a cry for mercy/from the city of the damned/Uh, oh, baby/. . . damn." One sad and minor character gets her name from that lyric.
"Great Expectations" – Gaslight Anthem
If I had to pick one band that most "sounds like" The Devil She Knows, this is the one. The atmosphere and feel of their songs align with what I wanted in my book. This song is from their '59 Sound album, and this album is the real heart of this playlist. Several other songs from the collection belong here. "The Patient Ferris Wheel" was important, also "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and the album's title track. Their high-energy angst and furious defiance, touched with brave and naïve romanticism, match up well with how Maureen moves through her world. The Gaslight Anthem is her favorite band.
"Saving Grace" – Tom Petty
Another song that speaks of defiance, a critical character trait, for better or for worse, in the book. The chorus could define Maureen's attitude: It's hard to say/who you are these days/but you run on anyway. The simple and steady blues shuffle matches her personality as well. There's a relentlessness that can be captured through repetition, in life and music. It's as if Petty, with his references to lost fathers and spilled drinks, wrote this song just for her.
"Mean Streets" – Van Halen
Not much to say about this one. Raw, loud, dramatic, dark, and nasty -- a lot like most of Maureen's life. Makes it easy to write about running the streets, or running with the devil, for that matter. An undervalued classic. David Lee Roth wasn't much of a storyteller, but he could be vivid.
"Mr. Tinkertrain" – Ozzy Osbourne
Sometimes, when trying to hit a certain note in a story, it helps to hear it somewhere else first and then try to match them up. This song about an evil man comfortable in the warm depths of his own remorseless evil and totally assured of his power in the world really helped bring Frank Sebastian, the book's villain, to life. Plus, Zach Wylde's guitar just sounds like a monster grown way to big for its closet. You can't run, you can't hide, indeed. (Though the Gaslight Anthem's cover of "God's Gonna Cut You Down" makes a good retort to this song.)
"Midnight Show" – The Killers
The sound of someone trying desperately to outrun his own demons and compulsions. I love the sinister story in the lyrics, but mostly it's the furious and frantic drive of the song that matched up well with Maureen's story. I love how, at the end, he turns the lyric If you can keep a secret/I can keep a secret so, so dark, like a terrible lullaby. In general, the Killers' music can drop some really stark, gorgeous imagery on you. They are quickly becoming regulars in the rotation.
"So Hard Done By"– The Tragically Hip
I name this great slow burner about how tough it is to scrape by as a woman in a seedy man's underworld, but I could pick any number of Hip songs for this list. The churning and anthemic track, "The Drop-Off," from World Container, belongs here. The ominous "Locked In the Trunk of a Car" (from the Hip's Fully Completely album), though I came to it late in the manuscript, belongs on this list as well. The Hip enjoys a large and permanent presence on my soundtracks.
"I'm Shipping Up to Boston" – Dropkick Murphys
The Devil She Knows has nothing to do with Boston, or sailors, but as a good and loud, old-fashioned barroom Irish fighting anthem, this song fits the book, which is about a good, old-fashioned barroom Irish fighting girl. I often wrote, especially at the end, with this song on a continuous loop. That probably says a lot about how the book turned out.
"Hollow" – Better Than Ezra
Just a stellar, catchy melancholy-darkened anthem about left-behinds struggling to survive, deftly told in three intertwined stories. I listened to this song A LOT. This is one of those songs that make me love/hate really great songwriters like Kevin Griffin. They get a whole novel's worth of story into three and a half minutes. Fuckers.
Bill Loehfelm and The Devil She Knows links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
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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)
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