January 22, 2013
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.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Maltman skillfully evokes oppressive smalltown life and the far-reaching consequences of violence."
When author Dean Bakopoulos (author of My American Unhappiness) visited my students, he talked about how he makes up soundtracks to go with his stories and novels-in-progress. The soundtracks provide a way for him to think about the mood and atmosphere of his stories and to imagine a way into his characters' lives during long car drives. I immediately gave this assignment to my students in my fiction writing workshop—five songs for the story they were composing—and to myself.
There's a natural link between creativity and music, another reason that Dean's idea immediately appealed to me. When Einstein would get stuck while working on the theory of relativity, he would go in the other room and play on his piano or violin, and the algorithms in the music may have been what helped him make his famous breakthrough.
I don't get much to write as a teacher at a community college, maybe an hour a day if I'm lucky, so music is a cue to my unconscious. The length of a CD signals my creative mind that it's time to get writing, time to shape stories. I believe the rising and falling movements in music also occur naturally in narrative.
"Into the Night" by Julee Cruise, from the Twin Peaks soundtrack
Little Wolves is a novel of small town murder, a story that also grapples with the human capacity for evil, so the breathy and beautiful voice of Julee Cruise beckoning us into the dark is a natural companion. It's a spare song, the lyrics so abstract your mind rushes to fill in the spaces, but her high, almost childish voice calls you to follow where she's going, even if you don't want to go. I will admit to listening obsessively to the Twin Peaks soundtrack during the final revisions.
"Murder in the Red Barn" by Tom Waits
The raspy growl of Tom Wait's "Murder in the Red Barn" is a must for this list. I will admit that I didn't know the song while writing the novel, but after author John Reimringer (author of Vestments) read an Advanced Reader's Copy of Little Wolves, he brought it to my attention. These lines feel especially important to the story I wrote: "Now the woods will never tell/What sleeps beneath the trees." The woods and buildings tucked back away from the road in my novel also have stories to tell. This song fits here on the list because the story opens with a murder and suicide in the first chapters, a crime that is not as straight-forward as it first appears.
"Coyotes" by Don Edwards
This one should be at the top of my list. This love song for lost wildlife and old heroes, and it rose to prominence again after the documentary Grizzly Man came out. It's so beautiful and melancholy, much like the song of the coyotes themselves. My novel is haunted by coyotes. In the wake of the central act of violence, the murder of the sheriff by a troubled young man who then commits suicide out in a cornfield, three coyotes descend on the town from the woods and no one knows where they came from, but the pastor's wife suspects their presence had something to do with the death of this boy, who was her student. Little Wolves lifts up the family farms we lost during this decade, and it's a novel about those wild edges that exist even in ordinary lives. Even as Don Edward sings about heroes and species that are gone, his lyrics still reminds us of the possibility for beauty and the power of memory.
"Hallelujah" by Rufus Wainwright
An entire book has been written about this one song, originally penned by Leonard Cohen, for good reason. What I love about the song is how it brings together the sacred and the profane, the brokenness with the need to still sing praise. "Your faith was strong but you needed proof" he sings at one point, and this line and many others mirror the lives of my characters. Clara is married to a pastor, but uncertain about her own beliefs. Grizz, a farmer grounded by his work in the fields, only believes in what he can touch with his own hands, but finds he must believe in something else after his son's death.
"Better By You, Better Than Me" by Judas Priest
One of the strangest stories to emerge from the eighties featured a courtroom battle between the heavy metal band Judas Priest and the grieving parents of two boys who committed suicide, supposedly driven to the act by a subliminal message in this song which encouraged them to "do it." (It's also the subject of the documentary, Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance versus Judas Priest.) These fears of back-masking, that the devil might come find a troubled youth through whispers in the music and drive him to do something horrific, echo in the novel. This is a book that asks why people do the things they do, and how do people go on when something terrible has happened?
"After the Storm" by Mumford & Sons
This lovely song is one that I play over and over to get myself to write. It's a quiet song, lesser known than the band's most popular pieces featured on the radio. My novel takes place during a historic drought, but there's a storm brewing. What I admire is the fierceness of the lyrics, the open acknowledgment of death and darkness, but the singer's vow to carry on. Like the best poetry, this song is also rich in imagery, and so even as it speaks harsh truths it offers hope through this repeated refrain: "And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears./And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears./Get over your hill and see what you find there,/With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair."
Symphony Number Nine from the New World, by Antonin Dvorak
I prefer listening to classical while writing, and Antonin Dvorak's Symphony Number Nine from the New World was a favorite choice. It fascinated me that Dvorak spent so much time in tiny Spillville, Iowa of all places when he came to America. The visit of a famous artist to a small town was a theme I originally planned on working with, but in the final drafts there are only passing references. One of the main characters, Grizz, is searching for answers after his son has committed a heinous crime. Along the driveway leading into his farm there are concrete statues, shadowy figures from Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha,that Grizz has shaped with his own hands, an apology for the past, for our treatment of Native Americans. This fragment, how art helps us remember, how art seeks out redemption even if it does not find it, is one my work's main themes. I partly credit the music of Dvorak.
"Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People
"Pumped Up Kicks" occupies an uneasy spot on this playlist for a number of reasons. It's an unsettling song, one that some might interpret as glamorizing the power of the shooter with catchy lyrics, light, happy whistling, and an upbeat tempo all disguising the horror of what happens. I understand why many stations pulled it from the airwaves following the tragedy in Newtown, but in time I hope to hear it again. A few years back the New York Times ran an article featuring recently scholarly studies showing young people are less able to empathize. This loss of empathy—which I don't believe affects the young alone—may be one of the great issues of our times. I believe that art, especially music and fiction, deepen our connection with others. In fiction you step outside of your own limited experience and see the world through the eyes of another. If "Pumped up Kicks" is considered inappropriate by some for the time being, the issues the song raises are not going to go away.
"Life in a Northern Town" by the Dream Academy
Little Wolves takes place in the mid-eighties on the high northern plains, so this song, by one-hit wonders The Dream Academy, fits the mood. There are hints of strangeness and strangers in the song, a magical visit. In my novel, the pastor's wife has come to the small town of Lone Mountain, sensing part of her past is located here.
"Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel
At first, the pastor's wife is troubled that the town where they've come to serve is named for a mountain no one can see. She searches the valley for it, certain when she finds it the place will only disappoint. I love the idea of a hidden mountain—really a hill named by Germans homesick for the Alps—and a place of secrets. Clara has grown up with her father's fairy tales, stories of a giant who lives within a mountain and the wolves the giant sends forth to help those in a time of need, and these are one of a few clues she has about her past. There's a spiritual quality of longing in this song as well, with animals bearing messages from the night, and the suggestion that the "home" the speaker is being called toward exists in the afterlife.
Thomas Maltman and Little Wolves links:
Grand Rapids Herald Review review
Kirkus Reviews review
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Minnesota Reads review
Pioneer Press review
Publishers Weekly review
Stratton Magazine review
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists
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