March 7, 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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Dorothea Lange's iconic photograph "Migrant Mother" is the inspiration for Marisa Silver's new novel Mary Coin, an arresting and compassionate book unafraid to tackle big issues.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Silver has managed the difficult task of fleshing out history without glossing over its ugly truths. With writing that is sensual and rich, she shines a light on the parts of personal history not shared and stops time without destroying the moment."
Although there are no references to music in Mary Coin, unless you count "The Happy Birthday Song" and "Tea for Two", there are pieces of music that I listened to as I worked on the novel, some of them thematically related to the story, others simply suggestive of states of mind and the emotions of certain characters and locales. Although the novel tracks its main characters across the better part of a century, a large part of the story takes place in California during the years of the Great Depression. I steeped myself in folk songs and protest music – Woodie Guthrie was in heavy rotation. But there are contemporary songs that I listened to as well, songs that stirred me up and made me feel wide open -- two things that have to happen in order for me to write.
1. "Orange Crate Art" – Van Dyke Parks with Brian Wilson
Mary Coin works as a migrant farmer and an important part of her story takes place when she works as a picker in an orange grove in the Central Valley. If you've driven past these fields, you know the satisfying geometric beauty of neat rows of crops, and the feeling of plenty that fertile land can inspire. If you've stopped into any of the farming towns, you understand the poverty that undergirds that bounty. Park's song at first appears to be a gentle ode to the great California romance where a "room for two in view of Sonoma" calls to mind the lush and golden hued California Impressionist paintings. The simple, weirdly innocent voice of Brian Wilson only adds to that feeling. But the knowing score ends on a discordant note, a sonic reminder of the steep human price that is paid for all that beauty.
2. "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" - Blind Alfred Reed
A great, angry, protest song written in 1929 smack in the heart of the Depression. The lyrics are plain and frank – there's no need for poetry in the face of imminent starvation. Poetry's for later, for the amber light and lyric associations of retrospection. And this song, which talks about doctors bills for "humbug pills" and taxes is as applicable today as it was in the ‘20s. Ry Cooder, that great musical anthropologist, does a great version.
3. "California Stars" – Wilco with Billy Bragg
I love this song. It's simple. It's direct. It's romantic and hopeful and wistful too. "I'd like to rest my heavy head tonight/On a bed of California stars/I'd like to lay my weary bones tonight/On a bed of California stars." Mary Coin and all the California travelers in her story drag their tired bones and heavy heads up and down the state and endure lot of hardship but also moments of solace and beauty. This song makes me think of hard won grace.
4. "Little Green" – Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell wrote this song about the child she gave up for adoption. Mary Coin is confronted with making a stark choice about one of her children. "Little Green" makes me think of how sometimes it takes the truest kind of love to make the harshest choices. And it makes me think about how complicated parental love is, and how sometimes a literal selflessness is required in order to give a child what he needs.
5. "Hello in There" – John Prine
The novel interweaves three different lives, two of which are tracked across the better part of the last century, taking both Mary Coin and Vera Dare from youth into old age. I loved writing about these women who become aware that their lives are winding down and coming to a close. They have had radically different experiences – Vera is a highly regarded photographer who makes a mark on the world. Mary's face is, literally, that mark, but ironically, she herself is never recognized or regarded. At the end of their lives, each woman understands the ways in which she has and hasn't been seen. It's a reckoning everyone must make as they contemplate what they have known and how they have been known, how very much and how very little they have had.
6. Murder Ballads – Various
There's an English poem from the early 1900s, "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, that plays an important role in the novel. It is a kind of murder ballad of the sort that was often turned into song. Those songs made their way across the ocean and were re-sung and reinterpreted in the south, taking on different shapes and cultural variations. I love these ballads, which are always beautiful songs about horrible things. In the song, "In the Pines," A girl follows a strange man into a forest only to meet a horrible fate. "Banks of the Ohio," has a young man killing his lover because she won't marry him. In fact, a lot of these songs have to do with people killing the ones they love best. There's something about these songs and the form of the ballad in general that is important to me in ways that have a lot to do with what I like about story in general: the peculiar problem of applying graceful form to tough subjects and how closely connected the beautiful and the horrific can be.
7. Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet – Gavin Bryars with Tom Waits
This magisterial orchestral piece is an arrangement of a song by an unknown composer. The song, a found object, as it were, is sung on a continuous loop by a homeless man singing in a scratchy, tremulous voice while Bryars' lush, haunting string orchestrations loop in and out. At one point, Tom Waits adds his own sonorous, graveled growl to the mix, creating a strange and moving duet with the original singer. It's 75 minutes of trance-like beauty and if you surrender to it, the power of this collage overwhelms. This piece of music has everything to do with what I was thinking about when I wrote Mary Coin: What do the found objects buried in the dustbins of history have to teach us about who we were? And what happens when we take those bits and pieces of ephemera and invent around and on top of them? How does that change our sense of our history? How does that change our understanding of who we are now?
8. "Alone But Moving" – Here We Go Magic
All of the characters in this novel are nomads and this is a song about the nomadic life. But, for me, this song has to do with what I feel like when I'm writing. Writing is a kind of nomadic experience for me. I wander in and out of my imagination, in and out of strange places, strange lives. I don't want to settle down. I don't want to be closed in. The feeling I have while I write is destabilizing and I get lost all the time, even while I'm sitting in the chair at my writing desk. And I feel alone too, but in the best way possible. "It's easier to witness/A crowd from up above/It's the movement of labor/It's the labor of love." Exactly.
Marisa Silver and Mary Coin links:
Barnes and Noble Review interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Alone with You
Oregonian interview with the author
Page-turner interview with the author
Santa Cruz Sentinel profile of the author
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)
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