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June 15, 2011

Book Notes - Lee Martin ("Break the Skin")

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

In his new novel Break the Skin, Lee Martin yet again displays his talent of elegantly depicting his desperate characters' vulnerabilities. Two women's lives are joined by a horrific crime, and Martin compellingly draws their narratives to meet at a satisfying, if not rosy, end.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Martin, whose kidnap novel The Bright Forever (2005) was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, expertly applies shades of James Cain–like noir to a modern story that might have been inspired by one of the Lucinda Williams songs on this book's soundtrack. Black magic, daughters cursed by the loss or absence of their fathers, post traumatic stress syndrome, small-town secrecy and lies, pre-teen voyeurism: Welcome to life 'on the other side of right thinking.'"

In his own words, here is Lee Martin's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Break the Skin:

My new novel, Break the Skin, opens with the arrest of nineteen-year-old, Laney Volk, the sort of girl most folks don't give a second look, the last person anyone would think might be on the other side of the law. But she is, and in her own quiet and yet haunting voice, she reconstructs a suspenseful story of deceit, revenge, and love, at the heart of which are her friends Delilah Dade and Rose MacAdow and the man they each love, a musician named Tweet. The book, then, contains a ready-made playlist comprised of songs that Tweet or other musicians play as well as songs mentioned in passing. I chose each song that appears in the book deliberately, as if providing a soundtrack to help emphasize the turns of the plot and the journeys of its characters. While Laney is telling her story, her boyfriend, Lester, shows up seven hundred miles away, claiming not to know his name or where he's from. A tattoo artist named Miss Baby is so desperate for romance she convinces him that he's her husband, and as time goes on, they actually do fall in love. The novel alternates between Laney's story and Miss Baby's, until finally they intersect when Miss Baby finds out that Lester is wanted for questioning in regards to a murder in Illinois, the same murder that has brought the police to Laney.

"Black Concert T-Shirt" by Watershed

The title of my novel comes from this song by a band that started in Columbus, Ohio, where I've lived the last ten years. I teach in the MFA program at The Ohio State University, and a few years back one of the co-founders of the band was one of our students. Joe Oestreich has gone on to a fine writing and teaching career of his own, and he and his band-mate, Colin Gawel, were kind enough to let me use some lyrics from "Black Concert T-Shirt" as the epigraph of my novel: "My steel toes start kickin'/My new tattoo just ain't stickin/You've got to break the skin/Take the needle just stick it in." This song is power-rock at its best with a hard, driving beat and the sort of edge that I wanted for my novel.

"Goodnight, My Someone," and "Till There Was You" from The Music Man

Laney's one genuine talent is singing. She has a voice that would make, as her mother says, "the angels fall from the sky, struck dumb with envy." Before Laney drops out of high school and ends up working at Walmart where she meets the older and wiser Delilah and Rose, she plays the role of Marian Paroo in The Music Man, and her director encourages her to go to college and study voice. Laney, though, knows she's too shy, too afraid to leave her little town of New Hope. These songs of longing for love and the thankfulness that emerges once someone finds it establish the center of my novel—"a story of love," Miss Baby says, "no matter how roughed up and ugly and stained."

"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin

This classic, by turns delicate and ballsy, is the number Tweet and his band are doing at the South End Tavern the night that Delilah and Rose both fall in love with him, the night that Delilah claims him first. Even Laney feels a little breathless as she watches him play his electric guitar: "I liked the way his wrist curved and how he wore that guitar on his pelvis and how he made it talk." I like to think that this song holds Delilah's swagger, the spells Rose casts for love, and Laney's own secret longing.

"All Jacked Up" by Gretchen Wilson

In some ways, that phrase, "all jacked up," describes Delilah perfectly. She's thirty-five and at the end of a string of bad relationships when she falls for Tweet. For a brief time, it looks like she's found her soul-mate. Then one night over the Memorial Day weekend, she and Laney drive out to a club in Dark Bend where Tweet and his band are playing. Delilah puts on her favorite pink tank top and tucks it into her jeans. She grabs a straw hat with its brim curled up at the sides and a long red feather stuck into its band. A hard country girl, pretty enough and brazen enough to find trouble, which she does that night in Dark Bend where a surprise waits for her.

"Waving My Dick in the Wind" by Ween

What more can I say? It's just the sort of guy Tweet is. . .and when Delilah walks into the club that Memorial Day weekend, there he is getting cozy with Rose. Delilah makes a scene, and Laney has to get her out of that club. Outside Laney tells Delilah she'll take care of her: "Forever and always. I promise." She longs to give Delilah what she wants, a way to get even with Rose. When a sequence of odd and menacing events occurs, Laney allows Delilah to believe that Rose has placed a hex on them, and from that assumption the revenge plot starts to take shape.

"Right in Time" by Lucinda Williams

As hard as Delilah can be, Laney, who knows her best—who holds her at night when she's so frightened she can't fall asleep—understands that beneath that tough exterior is the hurt little girl whose mother left her, who grew up in a series of foster homes, who longs now for a sweet love to take care of her. The music of Lucinda Williams perfectly captures the stories of the women in my novel, not only Laney and Delilah and Rose in Illinois, but also the tattoo artist, Miss Baby, in Texas. All of them fit into this description of Lucinda and her music that Laney provides: "I loved her sad-old, wise-to-the-world ways, and that voice that told you she'd been hurt every way there was for a woman to be hurt, and still she longed for love." In "Right in Time," Lucinda sings, "Not a day goes by I don't think about you/You left your mark on me, it's permanent, a tattoo/Pierce the skin and the blood runs through/Oh, my baby." The women in Break the Skin are marked by desire and the lengths they'll go to in order to claim and protect their love. "You have to understand what happens to people who start to believe they have no choice," Laney says, "people like us."

"Side of the Road" by Lucinda Williams

As the romantic entanglements ensue and the revenge plot takes place, Laney knows she should try to get away from Delilah's influence. Laney's own actions, ones born from her devotion to Delilah, make room for the idea of black magic and retribution, but still Laney thinks they're "only talking big." She's relieved when Delilah says they'd never get away with their plans for revenge, but by that time Laney has made possible a chain of events that she won't be able to stop. Like the woman in "Side of the Road," Laney wonders what her life might be like away from those who love her. The speaker in this Lucinda Williams song says, "If only for a minute or two/I wanna see what it feels like to be without you." Laney gets that wish in the middle part of my novel, as she becomes closer to Rose, but she can never fully turn away from Delilah, and together they move toward their inevitable end. My heart breaks for Laney who could have so much if she would only trust in her talent.

"A Song for You" by Leon Russell

This ballad, recorded perhaps most famously by the Carpenters and also Donny Hathaway, was Laney's parents' song. She sings it for her mother one night in a karaoke bar as a gift and a sign that she'll do what her mother wants. She'll take classes at the community college to prepare for her GED exam. She'll go to college and make something out of her beautiful singing voice. That golden life is waiting for her. . .if she can only get free from the love triangle of Delilah and Rose and Tweet. Laney talks about what singing does for her, how she gets inside the notes and lets them carry her away. "I suppose the tragedy of my life," she says, "was the fact that I was afraid of how much I needed to be someone else." Leon Russell's bluesy, raspy voice on this number holds so much hurt, regret, longing, and tenderness, as do all the women in Break the Skin.

"Moonglow" by Benny Goodman

I actually prefer the duet performed by Tony Bennett and k.d. lang. Their jazzy rendition captures the smoky romances at the heart of Break the Skin and also the fragile beauty that co-exists with the desperate circumstances of these women's lives. Delilah has her collection of wind chimes, Miss Baby gathers fairy figurines and hangs glass bottles from the branches of her mimosa tree to keep the evil spirits away. Laney has that beautiful voice, and Rose believes in casting spells for love. Has she truly used those spells to bring misery to Delilah and Laney, as they believe to be the case? It's a question that will haunt Laney forever after the story has come to its startling and unsettling end.

"The Flame" by Cheap Trick

I remember someone on VH1, probably during one of their "list" shows (something to do with songs from the 80s, I imagine), called this anthem of the broken heart the ultimate stalker song. "Wherever you go, I'll be with you." I think of it as an expression of the undying nature of love, no matter the disappointments that may lie in wait, or the unhappy ends that may come. Break the Skin is on one level a novel of suspense, its revenge plot hatched from thwarted desire. "I should have called an end to it," Laney says. "I should have said we were fools. I should have walked away. I should have called the police. I should have gotten out." On another level, though, it's a novel about the beauty of our hearts' most private and intense yearnings to connect to someone whose company will make us feel less alone. The women in Break the Skin can't ignore their desires and their loneliness. "It was all about wanting to matter to someone," Miss Baby says at the end of the book, "wanting it so badly that you did things you never could have imagined, and you swore they were right, all for the sake of love."

"World Without Tears" by Lucinda Williams

The balance of pain and beauty in Break the Skin is necessary to the stories of the two narrators, Laney and Miss Baby, stories that finally come together in a way that changes each of them forever. A small town in Illinois, ironically named New Hope, and a college town in Texas where a tattoo artist grabs onto a chance to remake her life. "All along, I thought I was the one inventing a story," Miss Baby says, "when really it was already written, cast like a spell, just waiting for me to appear."Although this Lucinda Williams song doesn't get a mention in the book, it's one that I listened to often while writing my novel. The opening stanza speaks of how a world of constant joy would keep misery at bay:

If we lived in a world without tears

How would bruises find

The face to lie upon

How would scars find skin

To etch themselves into

How would broken find the bones

It's a wonderful thought, a world without tears, but an impractical one as well. We know that our misery defines our joy and vice versa, each being obligatory to the other, and that's what Lucinda's song captures so well. I hope I've done the same in Break the Skin. I hope I've created characters who will stay with you for their stories of hope and love, no matter how muddied up with missteps and what Laney calls "the other side of right thinking." "You could be that person you saw sometimes on the news," she says, "that person who'd done something unforgivable and could barely face it. Trust me, I wanted to say. It can happen."

Lee Martin and Break the Skin links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Bright Forever
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for River of Heaven
The Least You Need to Know interview with the author
PowellsBooks.Blog guest posts by the author
Read It Forward guest post by 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 comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
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

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