September 23, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kio Stark's debut novel Follow Me Down is a psychologically intense mystery written in crisp, poetic prose. At only 160 pages the book may be slight, but it (and its protagonist Lucy) will haunt you long after you read the last page.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn wrote of the book:
"A surface description might make it sound like prototypical noir: Lucy, a reluctant investigator, battling her own demons and memories of the past; a sense of pervasive, and at times unexpected, corruption; the weight of history; the looming threat of violence. Stark's interests here are less in revitalizing familiar tropes and more with exploring an entirely different sort of tension. And, in contrast to the more literal tension that runs throughout the novel, Stark's themes here are unexpectedly philosophical: the clash between specificity and mood, between impressions and history, between verifiable facts and information lost to ambiguity."
The only music you hear in my first novel, Follow Me Down, drifts from the radios of parked cars, turning bits of the street into fleetingly intimate, connected spaces. But the book has an internal soundtrack, a secret backdrop I want to share here, the songs I listened to over and over while writing, the music that helped me slide into and stay with the mood and cadences of the novel.
The book centers on Lucy, a woman on the run from herself, who gets a twenty-odd year old letter in the mail addressed to someone else. Inside—because of course, she opens it—is just a photograph, and she is drawn unexpectedly into a seeker's quest to find the man in the photo, to learn the truth of a lost stranger.
In the past I've been unable to write with any music that had lyrics playing. Too many words, narratives competing in my ears. I mostly write at home at the kitchen table or in cafes. In both places, in the past I would listen to rhythmic, repetitive, wordless music. The sound in my ears focuses me, creates a private space in a public place, or at home, transforms a room from serving one function to serving another.
What worked for Follow Me Down surprised me. I listened often to an old standby, Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic, but the secret soundtrack that emerged for the book was full of discernable language and mournful, longing songs. That said, this is all music felt primarily in the body. You can't help but swing and sway a little. There are lyrics, but I didn't experience them as stories, just raw desire and sad heartbeats. The low hum of something sought, of loss anticipated.
"The Canals of our City" by Beirut
I listened to everything I have by Beirut when I was writing Follow Me Down, but since it's a book set in a city with a dirty canal, this song seems most apt. Plaintive and dreamy, it always snapped me into the feeling of the book in a quick, Pavlovian breath.
"Cities" by the Talking Heads
"Find myself a city to live in," that's what Lucy's done. The refrain sounds like David Byrne wants a city to live in the way someone might want a new skin to live in, and Lucy wants both of those. I like the live version of this song. It has a metropolitan energy, you can almost hear the hum of the subway beneath the beat.
"Love and Happiness" by Al Green
This song is pure sex. Pure, sad sex. It's hard to keep your clothes on when Al Green sings anything. The snakey beat, the low horns and the taps of keyboard, the flat harmony of the backup girls echoing the horns. The streets in Follow Me Down are alive with sex at every turn, voracious eyes and sharp come-ons, charged words traded in passing. It's as if that drumbeat and the Reverend's sweet trills were throbbing through every block.
"T.B. Sheets" by Van Morrison
This is a deeply physical song, an anthem of the desire to escape and the magnetism it fights, of addiction and fucked-up love. The heavy baseline roots you to the floor you're standing on and Van Morrison's drunken, mumbling, off-kilter singing fills you with the desire to run. Lucy spends the entire novel in this state of tension.
"Just My Imagination" by the Rolling Stones
Nobody does longing like Mick Jagger, at his best when he's singing lazy and quiet like he does here, and most of the album from which this song comes. So much of what happens in Follow Me Down happens in Lucy's churning, driven imagination, so this track felt especially appropriate.
"Black Hair" by Nick Cave
Nick Cave sang me through many hours of writing this novel, but this song in particular felt tied to Lucy, whose red hair, and the world's responses to it, shapes her experience of the city. The language is repetitive in a wonderfully literary way, like Hemingway, or James Joyce (I'm thinking of The Dead, the snow softly falling, falling softly), the same words and phrases turned hypnotically inside out. This song also brings to my mind sound artist Janet Cardiff's wonderful, elusive, narrative sound-walk designed for Central Park called "Her Long Black Hair." Cardiff's work is one of my abiding inspirations, and I make a habit of stealing her cadences. It also must be said that I am a sucker for the accordion. It's longing incarnate, an instrument whose sound is cheerful sadness, the lullaby of pleasurable pain.
"Archipelago" by Mirah
A ballad of loss and leaving. Mirah's sweet, nimble voice is, like the accordion, a perfect expression of sad pleasure. "Archipelago" is a song of spent love, sweet heartbreak, much more tender than any relationship that exists in the novel. But it's all about the sense of waiting for endings and beginnings, how tied up in each other they are, and things one should have known.
"The Holiday Song" by Frank Black
I particularly love this pre-Pixies version, with Black's raggedy voice and the undermixed instrumentation. He sings as though overcome, words left partially articulated, and there's a gorgeous desperation to both his singing and the mounting energy of the music. Some of the individual words in the song, independent of narrative, felt right: wicked, kissed. And the refrain, "it always comes out that way," sings the gospel of the inexorable, which tends to drive my stories.
"Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating through Space" by Spiritualized
Such a plaintive, lovely song. Over and over, hypnotically, "All I want in life's a little bit of love to take the pain away." As I was writing, I was sort of rooting for Lucy to take some solace in love, but she never would come around to it. Her obsessive quest mimics the fixations of love, but it gives her nothing back in the end.
Kio Stark and Follow Me Down 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