September 5, 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.
Ilie Ruby's The Salt God's Daughter is a complex exploration of the relationships of mothers and daughters, a novel steeped in folklore and vivid imagery.
Caroline Leavitt wrote of the book:
"This is a story as heartbreaking, gritty, magical and real as a waking dream, with a sense of place so immediate, you can feel the ocean's salt spray. To say I loved this book is an understatement."
In my recently published novel, I tell the story of two sisters, Ruthie and Dolly, forced to live in a landscape where the line between myth and reality blurs, and nothing is as it seems. Theirs is a world teeming with the spirits of sea lions, where meteoric rites of passage flare across a shifting horizon, and where true love walks right out of the sea in the form of men. The girls' mother navigates their ever-changing path according to the stars as she searches for love along the Southern California coast. But when they must strike out on their own, they are unaware of how far they have drifted from traditional society and are caught in the riptide of feminism during the 70s and 80s. Deemed "wild girls" as first love beckons, their desires are met with often lovely but sometimes tragic outcomes. I wanted to illuminate the shadows of adolescence and the journey into motherhood, to capture what is most beautiful about the female experience, and also what is most hidden. Their voices, woven with the haunting presence of missing fathers, can be heard throughout this book.
Without music, there simply would have been no book. The story is a reimagining of a folksong my mother taught me to play on the guitar when I was little, when we'd sit on the hood of a green station wagon in a campground, looking up at the stars and listening to her songs from the 60s. While in the midst of writing the novel, a friend made me this soundtrack for the book. Here, I found new seeds of inspiration as I wrote into the dawn, listening to songs from my childhood, as well as new discoveries that captured the essence of my characters. I finished the novel listening to this soundtrack, with photographs from childhood and books of poetry scattered across my desk. Music was indeed the means, the matter, and the muse. The same is true about the ocean.
"We Don't Eat" by James Vincent Morrow
Ah, I'm not sure if there's a song that's more beautiful and haunting than this one, and that more aptly introduces this novel. The gravely quality of Morrow's voice links the indelibility of childhood memories, specifically those of a mother who remains with her daughters, long after she is gone. For me, there is a cyclical quality to this song that elicits images from my 20s, when I lived on the ocean in Long Beach, CA, where the story is set. I'm drawn to tidal patterns, to the absence and return of a mother's lore, awakening the search for love in her daughters. The line "We don't eat until your father's at the table," captures the mixed sentiments of the traditional 50s housewife, and epitomizes the struggle faced by Diana, Ruthie and Dolly's mother—her conflicted feelings about romantic love—her desire for a husband and her need to make it on her own. There's a hint of repudiation, too, a self-awareness of the sentimentality that characterizes the quest for love, the hunger, and also, the need to transcend it.
"This Tornado Loves You" by Neko Case
The narrator imagines her love like a tornado that will destroy anything in its path. The tempo is reflective of Ruthie and Dolly's desire to be swept up in the torrential emotions brought on by first love. The lyrics "I have waited with a glacier's patience… still you are nowhere, nowhere in sight," with its mentions of "the motherless" and "the fatherless" are touchstones, for throughout the book, the objects of love—mothers, daughters, lovers—disappear and reappear.
"Maybe California" by Tori Amos
This song captures the complexities of motherhood—Diana's encroaching vulnerability conflicts with her unrealistic desire to always appear strong for her girls. It's about trying to convince a mother not to give up. "Hey Mrs. See, Please Don't Jump… From one mother to the other/They'll never get over this…/So let's be strong/You and me." The novel is set in a place where rocky cliffs begin and end journeys, where the sky looms as my characters seek safety, protected by, and drawn beyond, the sea. As well, the deep hues and muscular tones of Tori Amos' voice are threaded throughout this landscape. Her songs about rape and restoration are mythic here. They speak to Ruthie's attack in the 80s.
"She Bop" by Cindi Lauper
Cindi Lauper was called a quirky sexual liberator, and this song was highly controversial and led to much speculation about its meaning. For us, it was just a good song to dance to. She captured the spirit of my generation of girls. We listened and watched her on MTV, coveting her side ponytail, her rebelliousness, her pink hair, and her high pitched staccato. There's an iconic defiance and a carefree quality about this song that places me right back in the living room of my best girlfriend in 1984, when "She Bop" was number three on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
"Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Glee
Another Lauper original, re-created by Robert Hazard from the Greg Laswell version, and featured in Season Three of Glee. Having a man sing this almost feels like an apology, or the beginnings of one. The slow tone and deep voice transform that which was upbeat. I'm enamored by the spin on this vintage, which recalls the refusal of generations to adhere to the cautionary tales of our foremothers: "But not me, I want to be the one in the sun." Halfway through the book, Ruthie and Dolly revel in moments of utter abandon and joy, throwing care to the wind, convinced of their resiliency. The thrill of freedom is timeless and beckons.
"Me and a Gun" by Tori Amos
Tori Amos' brave signature memoir, an unflinching retelling of her rape in the back of car, is unmistakably relevant here. It's a song that simultaneously freezes you and envelops you with awareness. As it relates to the book, it captures the irrevocability of Ruthie's virginity after she meets the boy on the bicycle, and experiences the shame that follows. "Yes, I wore a slinky red thing does that mean I should spread?" asks Amos. The song points to the fallacy of the "romantic rape" perpetuated in the 70s and 80s before the movie "The Accused" championed the idea of a no-blame-no-shame culture for women. Perhaps the most striking line here, though, speaks to the way one's mind fixates on details during a trauma: "I haven't seen Barbados so I must get out of this."
"Put this Fire Out" by Toni Childs
The album, "House of Hope" from which this is taken (one song from this album was used in the movie, "Thelma and Louise") is about how Childs dealt with the violence of her past. To me, this song is all about recovery and reversals, vaguely reminiscent in tone of the original folk song I learned about the selkie. The orchestration feels epic to me somehow, and Childs' voice is deep and haunting. I've heard Childs, herself, tell her story of restoration, of finding love late in the game, of living a soul-driven life in Kauai, and then Australia. It reminds me of the discoveries that Ruthie and her daughter, Naida, face on a journey that is wholly tied to magical places.
"Rattlesnakes" by Tori Amos
This song, and "Time" are from the album of covers, "Strange Little Girl," all songs that were originally written and performed by men. Amos reinterpreted the songs from a female point of view, and created a persona for each track. "She looks like Eva Marie Saint in "On the Waterfront"/She says all she needs is therapy/All you need is love." Though a more slow and somber narrative this song is filled with tales of circumstance and self-protection.
"The Soul and the Sea" by Joshua James
Throughout the book, Diana and her daughters ritualistically tune into the romantic fantasies played out on the soap opera General Hospital, which becomes a touchstone for the girls. I can't help but hear the harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel in this song. The melodic pick of the guitar and soft vocals are set against an incongruous landscape, marked by the words, "And I said, Lord what have I done?" While researching the show during the writing of this book, I noted an iconic episode from my characters' childhood. The aforementioned words were actually spoken by Luke Spencer (played by Anthony Geary) after he attacks Laura, who eventually marries him. Production notes about the storyline include a focus on the perpetrator's feelings of remorse, scripted to make him sympathetic. Reportedly this was done to maintain the audience of young girls who had catapulted the popularity of the show.
"Time" by Tori Amos
Mournful, nostalgic, as if whispered on the precipice of change, this song marks a turning point in the story, and Ruthie's refusal to be collusive in her own derailment, a time of unmasking: "It's time that you looked." At this point, Ruthie evaluates her situation with Graham, not based on its promise, but on its effects on her life, and that of her daughter. She hears hollowness in his words as she listens to him. "The wind is making speeches, and the rain sounds like a round of applause," sings Amos.
"Hate and Love" by Jack Savoretti
The ebb and flow of emotion—the yin and yang of the ocean—creates the rhythm of the book. To me, this song embodies adolescent yearnings for that single person (true love) who refuses to leave regardless of your insistence. The duet, marked by alternating melodies that become harmonic, captures the dance of relationships between Ruthie and her daughter, her lover, and her mother. Toward the end of the story, it represents a reprisal, not only as Ruthie comes to terms with her situation with Graham, but also as her daughter, Naida, makes peace with her.
"Trick is To Keep Breathing" by Garbage
A novel of the same name by Janice Galloway inspired this dark, deliberately wary song. It's a battle cry of those who move forward in the face of a judgmental society (not unlike that which is required of the writer). Labels in both literature and life require some form of transcendence. "She's not the kind of girl…" In the story, Ruthie and Dolly, are deemed "bad girls" or "wild girls," and must learn to trust a world that has taught them to be guarded. At its very core, the song captures the process by which my characters cope with difficult periods where little progress or change is seen, for Ruthie, the times spent caring for the people of Wild Acres, and the periods of loneliness spent waiting for Graham in the silence of full moons.
"BMFA" by Martha Wainwright
This song is the anthem of every outraged daughter, and was written as a searing bombardment against the singer's father, famous composer Louden Wainwright. It finds its place in the latter part of the novel, narrated by Ruthie's defiant daughter, Naida, as she fights the desire to be good, and demands to make meaning from her experiences. "You say my time here is some sort of joke/That I've been messing around/Some sort of incubating period." What song better captures the throes of adolescence (and the refusal to be anything less than authentic): "I will not pretend/I will not put on a smile/I will not say I am alright for you when all I wanted was to be good/To do everything in truth…/I wish I was born a man, so I could learn how to stand up for myself…/Like those guys with guitars/I've been watching in bars." Bars play a key role in the book—the desire to get into them and out of them during the many phases of youth.
"1,000 Oceans" by Tori Amos
Amos wrote this song for the child, a boy, she lost in miscarriage. It is about the ache of grief, the knowledge that nothing more could be done. "I'm aware what the rules are/But you know that I will run/You know that I will follow you/. Amos' high-pitched reckoning and her unflinching descriptions capture the desire to follow signs, symbols, and memories that you believe will lead you "home."
"Good Mother" by Jann Arden
This victorious song is a celebration of motherhood. It's all about moving forward, about the ways in which the process of accepting others allows for self-acceptance. I'm partial to how the narrator lists her reasons to be grateful, everything from the love of friends to the color of her hair. "Feet on ground/Heart in hand/Facing forward be yourself." The realization of the mother as human rather than mythic, whole and flawed and yet utterly determined to love her children, is at the heart of The Salt God's Daughter.
Ilie Ruby and The Salt God's Daughter links:
Bermuda Onion guest post by the author
CarolineLeavittville guest post by the author
Hamptons interview with the author
Huffington Post interview with the author
She Knows interview with the author
She Writes posts by the author
Unabashedly Bookish interview with the author
Women's Fiction Writers interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
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