December 21, 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.
Cory Taylor's Me and Mr. Booker is a dark and disturbing coming of age story of a young woman caught between adolescence and adulthood. A regional winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, the novel has been described as Lolita told from the young woman's perspective.
The West Australian wrote of the book:
"Taylor’s take on the oft-explored rite of passage from sweet, open-eyed childhood into the dark sexually charged realms of adolescent turmoil is distinctive and refreshed by the limitless aptitude of middle-aged men for acting like spoilt teenagers. A vibrant, questioning and unpredictable read."
In the opening chapter of Me and Mr. Booker Martha's mother gives a party. Enter the Bookers and the engine of the story starts. To make this real I had to climb back into my own adolescence. I had to remember what it was like to feel that something big is happening all around you if only you knew what it was. It wasn't enough to just picture the room, I had to hear the music that was playing so loudly on my mother's first stereo, blasting out over the sedate neighborhood in which I lived and suffered as a teenager. My playlist covers most of the tunes I turned to when I needed to get into the tone of the book. They are mostly mournful love songs about hopes dashed and hearts broken. As a teenager I was always drawn to a tragic view of love. I didn't believe in happy endings. It seemed smarter to prepare for disappointment.
"A Case of You" - Joni Mitchell
The opening line tells you what to expect. 'Just before our love got lost, you said...' I wanted to be Joni Mitchell when I was sixteen. I wanted to sing and paint and fall in love with desperadoes who would desert me and thereby teach me everything there is to know about men. I wanted to spend my nights in lonely bars and wake up in hotels in Paris pining for California. The allure of heartbreak is very strong for some girls. Clearly Martha in Me and Mr. Booker has a desperate wish to be elsewhere at the start of the book. I had that too. But it wasn't just a physical escape I was after, more like a headlong plunge into ill-advised passions. Joni Mitchell seemed to have survived dozens of them and come out a true artist. I wanted the same to happen to me.
"Since I Fell For You" - Nina Simone
Heartbreak has a particular sound. When I hear Nina Simone's voice I hear all the rich cadences of loss and longing distilled into this pure thing. I had to write Me and Mr. Booker in a barely adult voice, but one that has learned a thing or two about life. The tone I was after was simple and direct and often funny, but underneath there is a quality of weariness that belongs to a much older person. When Nina Simone sings 'love brings such misery and pain, I guess I'll never be the same', it's the bare truth, but it's also an ancient wisdom. When I was growing up in dreary white Australian suburbs I listened to black women singing as a way of dreaming myself into the life of miserable passion.
"Standing in the Shadows of Love" - The Four Tops
This was a song to dance to. My mother was a party animal, much like Martha's mother is in the book. She and I shared a love of Motown because the music made everyone want to grab someone and jive. We had a room in the house where we could roll up the carpet and make a dance floor. Whenever this song came on I'd turn it up loud and sing along. I imagined Martha feeling the same weird excitement I felt whenever I heard the Motown sound. Sexual yearning had a lot to do with it, and something else probably best described as soul. We didn't have soul where I lived so it felt like something forbidden and extremely desirable.
"Fast Car" - Tracy Chapman
There are a few things to say about this song. On a very basic level it made me think about driving in Mr. Booker's car and how it felt for Martha when she was alone with him cruising around the town. The narrator in "Fast Car" has escape in mind at the beginning of the song and deep regrets by the end. The shape of the story always impresses me, because it covers a lot of ground without ever straining. This fed into the novel's structure in ways I still don't really understand. I wanted the sense that some time has passed between the story events and the telling of them. I never specified how much time, but certainly enough for Martha to have understood that Mr. Booker was never going to rescue her.
"Fire and Rain" - James Taylor
Takes me straight back to the time when I was a teenager in mourning for my unlived life. It has a mysterious power to move me even now. It combines a plainness of delivery with a depth of emotion that I still admire, even if my children point out how close it is to easy listening. I don't care. I'm a sucker for the way it describes loss as a permanent affliction. "I always thought that I'd see you again" says it all. Who doesn't succumb to magical thinking when confronted with impermanence and loss.
"Love and Affection" - Joan Armatrading
There's a yearning in all of Joan Armatrading's songs that I responded to very young. I imagined Martha as the same kind of friendless, insecure girl the song describes. She's someone who's longing to be treated with tenderness so she can respond in kind. Despite her outward cynicism she's a believer in the transformative powers of true love. Martha might be going down the wrong road, but she's doing it with a whole heart, and for the right reasons.
"Still Crazy" - Paul Simon
This song gets a mention in the book. It's in one of the scenes where Mr. Booker is driving Martha home late at night and the radio's playing in the car. When I was thinking my way into the character of Mr Booker I was aware of the crossroads he's reached in his life. Old enough to know that love fades and hope diminishes, but crazy enough to believe he might just have stumbled upon a grand passion to save him from the usual fate.
"If You Go Away" - Dusty Springfield
Ne me quitte pas. Everything sounds sadder in French, says Martha at some point in the book. She's right.
"As Far As You're Concerned" - Last Dinosaurs
At the same time as I was writing Me and Mr. Booker my son and his band Last Dinosaurs were touring with their first record, an EP called Back From The Dead and writing their first album, In A Million Years. It seemed like the fate of the book somehow rested on the fate of the band, so abandoning it was not an option, even if time and again my resolve faltered. 'Oh can't you see, hesitation is a thing of the past' became my mantra. I had waited a long time to write Me and Mr. Booker, spent years raising my kids and writing films scripts that were never produced. I learned a lot from those years but I also wasted my time, then here was a bunch of teenagers telling me it had to stop.
Cory Taylor and Me and Mr. Booker links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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