May 31, 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.
Rosie Sultan's debut novel Helen Keller in Love offers a surprising and three-dimensional portrait of the American icon. Going beyond the image common to most readers from The Miracle Worker, Sultan offers a unique glimpse into Keller's personal life and love.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Going well beyond Keller’s Miracle Worker days…Sultan convincingly imagines that this much-admired if oversimplified icon wanted nothing more than to be treated like a woman. "
What music did I listen to while writing Helen Keller in Love? Not a note. But each part of the book does have its own bits of music. In this tale of Helen Keller's secret love affair we see Helen Keller, world-famous and in her thirties, falling in love with her private secretary Peter Fagan, getting secretly engaged, and then fighting for her desire to be married against the wishes of her society, her teacher, and her family.
Since I tell the story from Helen's point of view, the novel doesn't have cues of sound. Instead, it's filled with sensations of touch, vibration, scent—the senses used by Helen Keller in her world. And while there is one scene where Helen Keller ‘listens' to the music of a restaurant's band through the soles of her feet—so keenly attuned was she to the vibrations of music, in fact, that she could tell the difference in the strides of the two waiters who crossed the restaurant's floor, one in sync with the music, one not—for the most part the book does not have songs in it. So I didn't listen to music while I wrote. I needed to maintain that quiet spell.
Instead I listened to—no, I absorbed—all kinds of music whenever I put the manuscript down. After hours of writing I would I hit play on my iPod and my study would be awash in rockin' country tunes. Pop music. Torch songs. Bach's cello suites. Anything that spurred me on to show Helen Keller not as a saint or an icon, but as a human being, with, as she said when she tried to explain her love affair, "a human being's frailties and complexities."
The quest to be deeply, completely human is one of the big themes of the book. That need is, too, at the center of these songs.
"Black Cadillac" by Rosanne Cash
Helen Keller was rarely alone with a man. But when her teacher Annie gets sick with tuberculosis early in the book, Peter Fagan is hired as her secretary, and Helen is entranced by him—but she's also terrified that Annie may die. Some days, when I was writing this part I'd stop, still thinking about Helen Keller and Annie, and put on Rosanne Cash: This song makes me feel Helen's desperation and loss, along with her sense of stepping into the unknown, which is one of the big themes of the book.
When Rosanne Cash sings of her father's death her voice is punchy and aggressive. Plum-colored, it starts out slow, then gets faster till it builds up alongside a horn's crescendo. What can I say? When she sings of her bittersweet feelings of anger and loss, "It's a black heart of pain that I'm wearin/it suits me just fine." What can I say? her voice is so raw it stops my breath. Kind of like Helen Keller, vulnerable in the face of her teacher's illness—and having to find new ways to live.
"Not Ready to Make Nice" by The Dixie Chicks
I didn't listen to this song while I wrote the novel. But I did listen to the cd practically every night for a year while I made dinner in our kitchen. Drove my family nuts. Again? They'd shout. Turn that off! But I'd shush them. This song is killer. Natalie Maines rails against the criticisms and death threats she gets after making critical remarks about then-President Bush. Wow, does this girl take her critics on when she sings, "I'm not ready to make nice/I'm not ready to back down/I'm still mad as hell."
Standing up for what you believe in, taking the criticism, and continuing to speak out anyway are themes of this book. Helen Keller was a real political activist. In the book she protests the United States' entry into World War I, supports women's suffrage, and is an active member of the Socialist Party. Plenty of people question her ability to have opinions on politics because of her disabilities. But she keeps on, anyway.
So themes of speaking up, telling your truth even if people do not—or cannot—accept your views—is a big part of this book. And this tune rocks it.
"Day Dreaming" by Aretha Franklin
As Helen and Peter get more deeply involved as lovers, there's a scene in the book where they just need to get outside. It's a steamy summer day, their work is done, and bam: they just take off up and down the leafy Massachusetts hills on a tandem bike. And me? Imagining them out in the woods I'd close my computer and put on this tune. Honestly, it's so damn sexy.
Like Peter and Helen with their love affair, it starts out slow. Then wham—here comes the trill of the piano like an alarm, just like the thrill of their relationship as it grew. And here's Aretha, belting it out: "I wanna be what he wants, when he wants, and whenever he needs it. And when he's feeling lonesome and love-starved I'll be right there to feed it." Wow. I know it's not politically correct--all that ‘whatever he wants' stuff--but boy, is it hot. This is the ultimate come-on song. And Aretha nails it.
"Empire State of Mind (Part II)" by Alicia Keys
I know. How could I? A pop tune that's a chant for New York? Yup. Because this song kills me. Is there any other song so filled with plain old desire? At a crucial point in the novel, Helen and Peter sneak off to Boston to apply for a marriage license in secret. After they leave Boston City Hall they walk down the streets of Boston, their faces lit with wild happiness, and this song just does it.
The sheer triumph in Alicia Keys' voice when she belts out her lines "I got a pocket full of dreams" and "these streets will make you feel brand new" make me see how Helen may have felt, like her chest was bursting open, a new life tantalizing before her. Themes of breaking away, and giving in to desire, are at the heart of this book. This tune is all about just that.
"Bach's Cello Suites: Suite for Solo Cello No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1008: 1. Prelude"
I'm pretty sure it was Faulkner who said all literature is about the human heart in conflict with itself. That sentiment really resonates for me. And it's a big part of this story. Most of society thought women like Helen Keller shouldn't marry, and her own family kept her away from men. So when I reached the part of the novel where Helen and Peter get socked with a surprise—the New York Times prints an article announcing "Helen Keller to Secretly Wed" Helen's mother reads it, and banishes Peter from Helen's life. Okay, yes. I just about wore my iPod out pressing the play button on Bach's cello suites.
Here, the cello is a human voice, turning and returning on itself, the way Helen might have after her mother banishes Peter. Should Helen go with him, or stay? Leave her family, or leave behind her own desires?
I also listen to these suites at the dentist's office. They distract me from the drill's whine. But after I'd finish my writing for the day sometimes I'd listen to the cello suites not for their distraction, but for their perfect delineation of longing, grief, and desire. Bach's cello sings of nothing if it does not sing the complexities of the human heart. The feeling of loss, or what may be lost, and the human desire to move beyond the things that confine us, is so fine here. It is not to be missed.
Come to think of it, that's the real theme of this book.
"Georgia On My Mind" by Ray Charles
In the years of writing this book I took the train from my place in Boston to New York City to do research at the Helen Keller Archives, near Penn Station. Those archives are jammed with letters from kings, queens, the anarchist Emma Goldman, Mark Twain. But just one file had the name "Peter Fagan." I opened the file. It had one letter. It was from Peter Fagan's daughter, and arrived decades after Helen's love affair with Peter had ended. Miss Keller, the letter began. My father kept a photo of you for many years. Can you tell me why? And at the bottom of the file was a small card from Helen Keller's secretary saying Miss Keller was ill, and could not write back.
All the way back to Boston I kept imagining the moment when, years after her love affair was halted, Helen Keller got this letter. I listened to Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" a lot while writing the book's end, and the lines "Still in peaceful dreams I see/the road leads back to you/No peace/no peace I find. Just an old sweet song/keeps Georgia on my mind," knock. Me. Out. Sung in Ray Charles' scratchy, whiskey-roughened voice those words bring alive for me the things Helen Keller may have taken away from her one known love affair: the remembrance of the things that liberate us, that hurt us, the things we love, the things we can never, really, let go.
Rosie Sultan and Helen Keller in Love links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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