May 24, 2012
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, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Meg Howrey's The Cranes Dance offers an engaging glimpse into the lives of professional ballet dancers, one that only a former dancer like Howrey could pull off so convincingly.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Howrey's engaging new novel exposes the competitive world of professional ballet through Kate Crane, a charmingly sarcastic ballerina at a crossroads. . . . Kate is an ideal guide to an unfamiliar world, from her irreverent explanations of her ballets (Howrey was a professional dancer) to her relatable self-doubt and honesty. Her revelations about family, talent, and what makes us special create a thought-provoking and entertaining read."
I've heard that a dancer's life is one that involves "obscure pains and painful obscurity". Which kind of works for the lives of most writers of literary fiction too. I've also heard that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. So writing about dance? Like sculpting about cuisine? Like painting about perfume? I didn't really mean to write a book about ballet or ballet dancers. This is the world I grew up in and lived for many years, but writing about it made me nervous. I didn't want to screw it up, and screwing it up seemed inevitable. At the very least I'd be playing whack-a-mole with all those popular clichés: Stage moms! Bleeding toes! Eating disorders! Lecherous directors! The boyfriend who doesn't dance and teaches the girl about Life and the deliciousness of sandwiches! Blech.
All clichés break down at the individual. My protagonist, Kate, proved to be the best kind of muse: not ideal, not fluttering overhead on gossamer wings, but tricky and defiant. With the addition of Kate's younger sister Gwen, the novel opened up to things outside the realm of tutus and pointe shoes. Things got messy. Still the writing was often (and unexpectedly) quite fun. So much so that sometimes I felt a little guilty, as if I were munching S'mores made from the conflagration my protagonist was writhing about in. Other times pressing my face up against Kate's was extremely uncomfortable.
I don't listen to music when I'm actually writing, but it's often where I go when I need something to take me out of the haze of sentences. At a certain point, a sort of authorial solipsism takes over and pretty much any song can become a song about your characters, which is convenient. It allows you to daydream about them, see them in different ways, dance them about. Here is some of the music I turned to during the sometimes hilarious and sometimes scorching time I spent working on The Cranes Dance.
"Dark Come Soon" by Tegan and Sara
Tegan and Sara are identical twin sisters. If you didn't know this and were just listening to their songs without seeing them, you might think it was one voice layered multiple times. So of course they made perfect listening for someone writing about a complicated sister relationship. Kate is haunted throughout the book by the specter of her younger sister, Gwen, and sorting through the layers of guilt and love and jealousy and pride between them became a central task of the novel. Tegan and Sara's songs are never maudlin – their songwriting and sense of humor is too sharp, as in this song about hurting, hurting yourself, and hiding from the people who could help you. So what?/ So I conned, I lied/ I lied to me too/So what?
"Since You're Gone" by The Cars
After Gwen's breakdown (and after Kate's boyfriend breaks up with her) Kate moves into Gwen's empty apartment. It's the first time Kate has been without her sister in many years. Finally released from the constant pressure of Gwen's presence and free to expand on her own, what does Kate do? She starts wearing Gwen's clothes, her perfume, piles all her belongings in a heap on Gwen's bed so as not to disturb Gwen's surfaces, and commences to well and truly fall apart. Such a thing requires a good New Wave song and The Cars provided with quite appropriate lyrics.
"Modern Girl" by Sleater-Kinney
If you too need an anthem for disconnection, for appearance vs. reality, for the place where things break down, I refer you to this song. I particularly love the distortion. When the drums kick in it sounds like they locked the drummer in the closet.
"You Rascal You" by Hanni El Khatib
This is an old Sam Theard tune, made famous by Louis Armstrong. Hanni El Khatib has described his music as being for "anyone who has ever been shot or hit by a train." I've never experienced either, but I love this song and this cover. (I did run face first into a wall, when I was very little, but it's probably not the same thing.) The rascal in question can be any intruder, but I always imagined this song playing in Kate's head while she was looking in the mirror. Sometimes the person that you want to go away is yourself.
"Not The Girl You Think You Are" by Crowded House
I always thought this pretty little tune was about self-deception in matters of love, but it could be the exact opposite, and the singer is assuring the girl that she's actually very deserving of the man in question. Either way this song seemed to work both for Kate and for Gwen, neither of whom deal with romantic intimacy in a very direct manner, and who are professionally obligated to pretend to be other people.
"All of This" by Blink 182 (featuring Robert Smith)
Combining pop-punk Blink 182 with The Cure's Robert Smith is a perfect example of how strange bedfellows can really get it on. I could imagine Kate smoking a cigarette to this song, and getting good and broody.
"Girl In The Tower" by Benji Hughes
My friend bought Benji Hughes' album "A Love Extreme" without hearing it, simply because the cover picture of Hughes was so great that he wanted to hear "what kind of music a dude who looks like that made." He was not disappointed, and after he played me one song I bought the record too. So should you. This song is my own little love letter to Kate, my heroine who made me fight for her.
"Lover I Don't Have To Love" by Bright Eyes
This song makes no apologies about the sex it describes. It is as dirty as it is lucid, as seductive as it is destructive. When Kate opens up the door and lets the guy in, somewhere this song is playing.
"Fix You" by Coldplay
I find watching Coldplay perform sort of irritating. I also find watching movies about dancers sort of irritating. I think we are all safe from "Cranes Dance: the Movie" but in my head there is a sort of cinematic montage of a Day In The Inner Life of Kate, and this is the song that goes with it.
The darker Kate's world gets, the more physical demands are placed upon her. She does not have the luxury of being depressed under the covers, so she is high functioning depressed. Aided somewhat by pharmaceuticals. This was the right song and tempo for that.
"Stuck" by The Heavy
I got stuck on The Heavy for a couple of weeks. This quiet song ends the "House That Dirt Built" album. The ways in which Kate feels responsible for her sister – and her guilt over her failure to prevent, control, or even understand her sister's breakdown – are so layered that she can't bring herself to speak of it to her closest friends. She knows they would tell her she's not responsible. She tries to tell herself she's not responsible. But she's stuck.
"NYC" by Interpol
This is for Kate walking home alone from the theater. There may come a time when the thing that once inspired and fed you ceases to do so. At that point you might curse it, mock it, turn away and hide from it. But you'd also give anything to get it back again.
"Down By The Water" by The Drums
At the end of the book Kate and her sister are finally face to face, and I heard this as a kind of helpless love song from Kate to Gwen.
"Cinderella, Op. 87, Act I Introduction" by Sergei Prokofiev
This piece of music is mentioned in the book – Kate hums it in a taxi after a day that has altered (in more ways that one) the course of her life. It wasn't intended to be a Kate-as-Cinderella reference, I just wanted to give Kate something beautiful and grand. We all need something beautiful and grand.
Meg Howrey and The Cranes Dance links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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weekly music & DVD release lists
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