May 6, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
John Corey Whaley deftly combines two storylines in his dark and funny debut young adult novel Where Things Come Back.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"In this darkly humorous debut, Whaley weaves two stories into a taut and well-constructed thriller."
In Where Things Come Back, the music-obsessed younger brother of the main character goes missing while his town is perpetually distracted by its search for an extinct bird and, hopefully, a second chance at being something more than a poverty-stricken home to deadbeats and those who've given up on their dreams.
Music plays an important, if somewhat understated role in the story—there are several instances of Cullen Witter, the story's narrator, singing along to a song that reflects some aspect of the story or remembering some lyric his younger brother has written down in a notebook or scrap of paper (as he was prone to do). During the time I was writing this book, I would find myself suddenly connected to certain songs I'd hear play on the radio or randomly pop up on my iPod while driving down the road. I would hear a song and I would know that it was the theme to Where Things Come Back. How did these musicians know my story before I'd finished writing it? I was never much of a listen-to-music-while-writing writer until this book. While writing and revising it, I kept a running playlist for it—listening and re-listening to all of the songs that helped, somehow, to shape the story I wanted to tell.
"The Lord God Bird" Sufjan Stevens
This is the song that started it all…written about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in Arkansas with the combination of a banjo and melodic singing that one may very well hear in a town like Lily. I heard a story on NPR in 2005 about Sufjan writing this song after he'd listened to interviews from townspeople in Brinkley, Arkansas, where the "Lord God Bird" had possibly re-emerged after nearly 60 years of being extinct. The first time I heard this song, I knew that I had to write a story around it. It's almost six years later and I still can't quite believe that it all sprung into my debut novel.
"We Won't Need Legs to Stand" Sufjan Stevens
Aside from the obvious allusions to angels and the afterlife, this song has an eerie quality to it that speaks perfectly to the early parts of the story, which deal with loss and the emerging possibility of change in a otherwise changeless place. "And when we are dead/we all have wings/we won't need legs to stand." There's a particular instance where the main character remembers the chorus to this song, which he'd previously heard playing on his brother's stereo, while at his cousin's funeral. From Sufjan's Seven Swans album, which, in its entirety, could be the soundtrack for this book, this song about passing on, letting go, and changing into something better matches Cullen's story both lyrically and melodically. And, well, it was the perfect song for someone to think of while hallucinating a zombie attack. That isn't a joke either.
"Staring At the Sun" TV On the Radio
There is a certain desperation and chaos in this, one of my favorite songs, that seems to fit the mother character perfectly. The story wouldn't be the same without one moment when the chorus to this song is used to convey what the Witter family is going through with the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Gabriel. There's this fuzzy bass thing going on in this song that, in a way, makes it seem as if you've lost all control as you listen. And then beautifully sung words come into play and you're unable to feel anything but mesmerized.
"Hope There's Someone" Antony And The Johnsons
The lyrics in this song speak clearly for themselves-the hope that there is something else after this life and that second chances do exist…that maybe things do come back. I'm not sure if I listened to this song as I wrote the book or if I discovered it sometime after, but I do know that every time I hear it, I think about the characters and I think about hope and faith. Antony sings with such sadness and passion that a song like this is hard is nearly impossible for one to not be effected by. The lyrics that sticks out in my mind, and speaks of the story I've written: "Oh I'm scared of the middle place/Between life and nowhere/I don't want to be the one/Left in there, left in there."
"Postcards From Italy" Beirut
This song has a sort of whimsical playfulness that I think represents the more fantastical elements of Cullen Witter's story, especially in those moments where he seems to be completely in a world of his own. But it also feels like it might be heard while you're watching old family movies—you know, with kids running all around and laughing and jumping up and down. And though WTCB takes place in small town Arkansas, the other-worldly tone of Beirut's music and lyrics always make me think of Cullen and his brother.
"Trying My Best to Love You" Jenny Lewis
I think this song is the perfect theme to Cullen's adventures in teenage love, something that doesn't come so easy to him. Cullen wants nothing more than to be with Ada Taylor. But, it just so happens, that when he finally has a shot with her, he also has a missing little brother and a world that's falling apart. Every time Jenny Lewis sings "They make it so hard on us baby," I laugh and nearly want to cry at the same time. It's a beautiful song, but also playful and confusing with its sentimentality too. What could be better than that to describe teenagers in love?
"The Leaving Song" Chris Garneau
I can't ever listen to this song without thinking about Cullen Witter searching for his missing little brother. The line "You are all I know" sums it up beautifully. Chris Garneau, at one point, simply repeats the word "Go" over and over, accompanied by accordion (I believe), violin, and piano and it breaks my heart every time I hear it…yet I keep listening to it. I didn't discover this song until well after finishing the first draft of WTCB (years, in fact), but I found myself playing it on repeat as I did revisions last year and I'd hate to think about the process without this song. Maybe it's a love song, but, to me, it's a song about brothers. "Sing, sing, sing/ A leaving song/Like your leaving/Goodbye/Goodbye." I mean, come on. That's too good for any more words.
"Welcome Home" Radical Face
Though the characters are conflicted with the "home" they've been born into, this song fits well into the overall theme of coming to terms with that struggle. I think I was about halfway through my final revisions when I found this song, and I think it's just what I needed. Songs like this, that sort of change the environment around you when you hear them, are exactly why I always rely on music to inspire me and help me figure out what direction to take a story or what tone to set. Without giving anything away about the novel (because, it does have certain mysterious elements to it), I'll say that this song, along with the two by Sufjan Stevens, is probably the most important to me—simply because it came out of nowhere around the time that I realized that I was almost done telling Cullen's story and that it would finally be out there for everyone to read. I've never felt much at home anywhere in a physical sense, but writing this novel and dreaming about the characters and their lives, well that was home for so long to me. And this song takes me back there.
"Adventures In Solitude" The New Pornographers
So, a lot of things are "lost" in my book. There's a woodpecker, of course, that may or may not be back after being lost for decades. And then there's a fifteen-year-old who vanishes without a trace. And then there's the faith of a young Christian missionary who, much to his own chagrin, isn't quite connecting to his mission. With these losses also come solitudes. A whole town wants to find a stupid bird simply because they have nothing else to hope for. And Cullen Witter wants to find his brother—and though he has friends and family, he is isolated in his own thoughts and visions. His adventures, though often accidentally comedic, are also heartbreaking. And Benton Sage, who loses his faith while halfway around the world from his home, may be the loneliest character of all. This is the first song I heard and thought to myself "this was written for my book."
"I See a Darkness" Bonnie "Prince" Billy
I love most of Bonnie "Prince" Billy's eerie, melodic songs, but this one in particular became the unofficial theme song for Gabriel, whose innocence and wise-beyond-his-years persona are threatened when he vanishes out of the lives of his loving family and friends. I remember my editor emailing me and writing that she heard this song and immediately thought of my book. The funny thing was that I already had it on a playlist titled "Where Things Come Back Soundtrack." The line that spoke to both of us, and reminded us of young Gabriel: "You know I have a love / A love for everyone I know." There is an instance in the book when Cullen tells the reader that Gabriel "loved everyone he'd ever met." And then, of course, is the chorus. "Oh no, I see a darkness." The most innocent figure in the story, a character you're supposed to completely fall in love with and does absolutely no wrong, gets taken away without explanation. The "darkness" of Cullen's summer thus begins and I can't think of a better song to illustrate it. Another Bonnie "Prince" Billy song that I love is "The Way I Am."
"Home" Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Now I know this song has become quite popular over the last year or so, as evidenced by the amount of times I've heard it on television and in movie trailers. But, I can't leave it off of this list—there's just no way. I've written a book about a small town in Arkansas and if you can heart his song and not picture a place quite similar to the setting of my story, then you're much more sophisticated that I am. I think this fun yet sincere song says so much not just about the story's setting, but also the recurring struggle of all of the characters to find a place they belong and reconcile their inabilities to find the things and people without which they never can feel at home. "Home is wherever I'm with you" rings so true in this story, where the main character is completely lost without his brother by his side, even in a home and hometown where he'd been for his entire life. It's not the first song one might think when reading WTCB, but I think if you listen closely to the lyrics and let yourself get carried away by the folksy tune, then you'll see exactly why I have to mention it.
"Flume" Bon Iver
When I first heard this song, a son's ode to his mother and the love they share, I instantly thought of Cullen and Gabriel's mother and aunt, two women who must struggle with the possibility of a life without their sons. The first time I heard this song, Peter Gabriel was singing it. And though I love his version nearly as much as Bon Iver's, I have to give credit where credit is due as far as lyrics and melody are concerned. This song, from Bon Iver's amazing For Emma, Forever Ago, will break your heart. And, well, I like my heart being broken sometimes. The song opens with "I am my mother's only one / It's enough." And I can just see Cullen Witter listening to this song as he sits and worries about his family falling apart without his little brother.
John Corey Whaley and Where Things Come Back 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