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November 16, 2011

Book Notes - Leora Skolkin-Smith "Hystera"

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Hystera is an unforgettable story of mental illness. Set in the New York City of the 1970s, the book is told in precise language that sears the characters into your consciousness.

Caroline Leavitt wrote of the book:

"Hystera is a haunting, mesmerizing story of madness, longing and identity, set against one of the most fascinating times in NYC history. Skolkin-Smith’s alchemy is to inhabit her characters even as she crafts a riveting story that is nothing short of brilliant."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Leora Skolkin-Smith's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Hystera:

"Leaving on a Jet Plane"

My novel was an emotionally raw event for me. I wanted to portray a mentally ill woman in 1974 through her interior states and delusions. I needed to capture the intensity of her travel through psychosis without sacrificing any painful truths, even if this novel couldn't be a commercially viable venture and might alienate readers. So I needed my "playlist" to keep my spirits up as well as to guide me through memory-- 1974 was an era easily accessed through its pop music, some say, in fact, the 1960's and 70's were the "ultimate peak" of great popular music. Listening to send cues to my memory bank while plunging downward into unfathomably dark places was both difficult and sublime.

To cue anyone's memory about being in a psychiatric hospital in 1974, there is no more sorrowful song I could recall than "I'm Leaving in A Jet Plane". "I'm leaving on a Jet plane," Mary Travers sang in a funereal, but sweetly engaging voice, "I don't know when I'll be back again, Oh, babe I hate to go." Anyone who could get ahold of a guitar played it in the hospital, crooning it in atonal, raw and desperate voices. Patients would gather into the room of whoever was strumming and singing it. Across class and sociopolitical barriers, Peter Paul and Mary were universally loved then-- simple folksingers who also captured the complex feelings of mourning and separation in their music, as well as loss, failure in relationships, and hope for a different life. For me, the lyrics to "I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane" symbolized travel to an emotional unknowns. Risks and departures from the ordinary and familiar. Since my novel was about a young woman who finds herself committed to a mental hospital, it always brought me to these feelings. Her aloneness and incarceration, though it called for an abandonment of those she knew, also promised self reinvention. Strangely, too, "I'm Leaving On A Jet Plane" felt like the era's "feminist song" in the sense that in the 1970's changes in women and their sexuality were traumatic and dramatic-- it took the extreme of traveling away from their lovers and social norms, to become a new kind of female. This became my cue song, whenever I played it. I could enter the 1974 world of Payne Whitney Hospital and in the beginning of writing Hystera, I played it continuously. I felt the images and feelings infuse me, and then the work began from the song's cues.

Later, I found a more personal version of the song from an obscure and unknown young singer, Sophie Baker. One of the vocalists on Zero 7's "Simple Things" in London, her rendition of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" was a more singular and sweeping vocal.

"It's like serendipity calling and coming together through the most natural of sources." Sophie said of her music in 2006, her contemporary album expressed a closer-to-my-heart, plaintive sound.

"Sophie's ideas came together on her reflections of how the world was changing, and how she was trying to situate herself within it", a music journalist wrote of her unusual work. She, herself, described her renditions of older songs this way: "Seagulls were coming into the city, and I kept imagining their view. Everything was upside down." "It's about trying to connect, be it emotionally or romantically". I loved her raspy, austere voice. In the end of the work, it was her voice that, a signpost , expressed that after a long five years, I had finally found the voice of my character, too.

"Just Like a Woman", "I Shall Be Released", "Like a Rolling Stone" and Other Bob Dylan Standards

For the harsh, painful, and aching feelings universally felt inside the psyche of a lonely young woman of any era, I think Bob Dylan is the classic master. "Just Like A Woman", "Just Like A Rolling Stone", and "It Ain't Me, Babe" have become so well-known and replayed so many times, they almost feel cliched. Yet when I heard them again for my novel, they were and fresh and poignant. A testament, perhaps, to Dylan's pop genius.

Poor judgment and self-hate and massive amounts of self-pity. When I needed those colors for my character, I turned, as I always had, to Dylan's "Just Like A Rolling Stone" which is filled with self-recrimination and societal accusations, it was easy to imagine singing to it oneself in utter self-disgust. "You used to joke about everyone who was hanging out, no you don't talk so loud, now you don't talk so proud, how abut having to be scrounging for your last meal? How does it feel?" The "You" was directed at a "Me" but it also captured the feeling that one has been justly banished and has internalized the social judgments, depersonalized "them" into a "You", a medley of society's voices doling out a sentence and just punishment. "Princess on a steeple and all the pretty people thinking they had it made, you better pawn your diamond ring, you better."

It was exactly what one could feel like on a mental ward, especially in 1974 with one's sense of utter failure and doom-- an overwhelming deluge of feelings.

Nina Simone

As my character got better and more grounded, I switched over to Joan Baez singing the same Dylan songs, but with a compassionate tenderness and some self-love. Still, I ended up immersed instead in Nina Simone. Especially her rendition of "I Shall Be Released".

The soft politics of courage Nina Simone embodied, along with her musical style--an integration of gospel, folks and pop songs with classical music (specifically her main influence came from her first inspiration, I was informed through more research, who was Johann Sebastian Bach). Her often syncopated, jazz-like rhythms, her unique low tenor of a voice injected a classical background into her music, and reached for more depth and quality as it did. She had an intuitive understanding on the audience-performer relationship. When my character was ready to "relate" to people again, and to a larger society and purpose, Nina was there as a model of political, social consciousness and an indefatigable drive to connect and survive.

"Who Wants to Live Forever?" David Garrett

I discovered David Garrett's haunting "Who Wants to Live Forever", a beautifully played violin solo with a vocal which builds in intensity and force. As if one has been possessed, it's a suicidal and disturbing song-- perfectly horrible and perfectly beautiful, a mix of lament and passion. A classical violinist virtuous, Garret, like Simone, allows himself to sound out the limits of mixing classical training and music with pop. His music helped me feel the mythic and classical threads in Hystera's imagistic compositions and modernist world, mixing them with the everyday pool of dialects, slang, and lingo.

Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick

For lighter moments, about failed love and relationships, nobody feels as fulfilling to listen to as Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick.

I also played songs that would bring me back to the 70's, to remember failed love affairs. Dionne Warwick's "Walk on By". I felt so bad for my character whom the world seemed to be shunning. "You'll Never Get to Heaven if You Break My Heart", "I Say a Little Prayer for You" it was Stevie Wonder who brought back old wounds. Stevie Wonder songs brought back the bitterness and abandonment again. As did Warwick's "Walk on By" and oddly, sentimentally, and for no particular reason, the theme song from Valley of the Dolls. My former lover, on whom the fictional character was based, happened to have been a jazz musician. So with Stevie Wonder, (who he thought was great) I added some Brazilian salsa. My lover was leaving me to go to Rio De Janeiro to play in the Brazilian symphony. I heard him again in salsa and samba.

Bach's Cello Solos, Gustav Mahler and Chopin, Glenn Gould Playing Bach's "The Goldberg Variations"

For medieval and history, Bach became my central musical guide. I used the metaphor of ancient Alchemy for mental illness, and alchemy was a medieval and, later, a Renaissance science. It felt very "Baroque" and merged with Bach's music. A quasi-religious feeling and obscure spirituality also brought me to Bach, to the grander spiritual scale of his work. Then--both Gustave Mahler and Chopin allowed for melancholy and despair in Hystera, introducing me to profounder, Godless nuances and moods. Mahler, will always be the composer closest to my sensibilities, the reasons are far too numerous to list, but for a sense of the elusive and abstract, Mahler brought an aesthetic to mental dissociative states and sadness. Lastly, Glenn Gould played out the beauty and exquisite self-exile of artistic fanaticism--a madness for perfection and the exclusion of a mundane and trivial outside world, in his repetitive and driven variations of Bach's "The Goldberg Variations".

Barbara Streisand's "I'm the Greatest Star", "Don't Worry, Be Happy", Godspell, "Tin Man" and "Dust in the Wind"

I wrote characters based on people I had met and seen in a mental hospital. Each character reminded me of a popular song, and I listened to these songs, creating each character. Streisand narcissistic, showy "I'm the Greatest Star" for my exhibitionist, Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and the cast of the Broadway production of Godspell for about everyone who kept saying in the hospital to depressed patient, "Fly right, or take it a day at a time" and other empty, annoying cliches. But especially the band America's "Tin Man" and Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" (because there was a girl who barely talked and was suicidal and those lyrics "All we are is dust in the wind") moved me and brought me, as the writer, as well as my main character, into empathy with those who are suicidal, recognizing their harshest fears of being "mere dust and nothin' more."

Janis Joplin

Biographical data tells us that Janis Joplin graduated from high school in 1960 and later went to the University of Texas at Austin, though she did not graduate or complete her courses. The Daily Texan, a campus newspaper, ran a profile of Joplin in a 1962 issue and headlined their article: "She Dares To Be Different." The article began: "She goes barefooted when she feels like it, wears Levi's to class because they're more comfortable, and carries her Autoharp with her everywhere she goes so that in case she gets the urge to break into song it will be handy. Her name is Janis Joplin."

While I was nearing the finish line of this five-year long years of writing Hystera, my character transformed in my imagination, from victim to a singular and brave. No one sings and screams and proclaims her rebellious personhood, (transformed from victimhood to heroine) than Janis Joplin. I hadn't listened to Joplin for years before writing Hystera. But, unexpectedly, listening to her now, those raw screams awakened me into some kind of identification (or, perhaps, a wish-fulfillment for identification) with the "The Queen of Psychedelic Soul" and former member of The Kozmic Blues Band and The Full Tilt Boogie Band. (And, later, Joplin was the singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company.

I yearned have my main character identify with Joplin who, a Wikipedia tidbit informed me: "Primarily a painter while still in school, she (Janis) first began singing blues and folk music with friends. While at Thomas Jefferson High School, she (Janis) stated that she was mostly shunned. As a teen, she became overweight and her skin broke out so badly she was left with deep scars which required dermabrasion. Other kids at high school would routinely taunt her and call her names like "pig," "freak" or "creep"..."

How the "high school creep" and outcast had reinvented herself "Cultivating a rebellious manner," as one journalist described her, Joplin styled herself in part after her female blues heroines and, in part, after the Beat poets. Her first song recorded on tape, at the home of a fellow student in December 1962, was "What Good Can Drinkin' Do".

Was her alchemy and courage something I had missed when growing up? Taken in more by the tabloid presentations of her doomed death by drugs and excess? Would I ever know how to make my own screams art and vision the way she once had? I didn't know the answers and I still don't, but Joplin made me want to try, even if I would fail, just for the thrills of a rioting, rolling journey.

Leora Skolkin-Smith and Hystera links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Caroline Leavitville interview between the author and Jessica Keener
The Center for Fiction essay by the author (on the thirty-year novel)
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Fiction Studio Books essay by the author (on the writer in politics)
ReadySteadyBook interview with the author
Red Room essay by the author (about writing the novel)

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2011" Online Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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