May 24, 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.
Scott Elliott's novel Temple Grove is rooted firmly in Washington state's natural beauty and people, and is a fascinating story of one man's fight to save one of the area's last undisturbed stands of ancient Douglas firs not under federal protection.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Paying homage to Washington State ecology, history, and Native American culture, Elliott (creative writing and English, Whitman Coll.; Coiled in the Heart) joins the ranks of Jim Lynch, Jonathan Evison, Tim Egan, and Annie Dillard. Like these accomplished authors, Elliott shows a reverence for the state’s rugged physical beauty, using poetic language to convey its appeal and connection to each of the novel’s principal characters."
Writing a novel is such an all-encompassing task and the results are often so capacious and beyond what the novelist can keep in his mind at once, that it's often the case that the novelist will make the mistake of saying his novel is not about this or that, does not concern this or that, when the novel itself disagrees. The novel's engagement with the world is wider and deeper than the novelist had thought. This is one of the biggest pleasures in writing, the realization that you've created something beyond your intentions and conscious limitations. You've tapped into the exquisite logic of your subconscious mind.
At first glance, I might have tried to claim that Temple Grove, my novel set on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and a large part of the action of which takes place in the woods, does not brush up against the topic of "music" enough to warrant much commentary about music in the novel. Certainly not as much as, say, A Visit from the Goon Squad or High Fidelity. Upon hearing me say this, my novel hoots in derision and offers evidence to prove me wrong. "How could you say that?" it says, "there's lots of music in me. Plus, I end with a whaling song."
Setting aside music in a novel, stretching a little, you could say that a novel is music. Poetry is music of words meant for performance by the human voice and the novel can trace its lineage back to the oral poetry of Homer. So, taking a little license, we could say that the novel is a long prose song. I know I hope the fiction I write has the same visceral impact and range as a compilation of great songs.
Albums and Songs I Listened to While Writing Temple Grove
Ralph Stanley, Bound to Ride, and especially "Little Birdie" and "Bound to Ride"
Even though the Clinch Mountains are far from the Olympic Mountains of Temple Grove, I find that mountain music is mountain music no matter the American mountains and that the clawhammer banjo sound translates very well from southern to western to pacific northwestern mountains. I listen to this album when I drive through the Blue Mountains close to where I live now in Walla Walla, and I played it a lot while writing Temple Grove. I also think of it as a good soundtrack to the novel. As I hear the plaintive wail of Ralph Stanley's voice asking, "Little Birdie, little birdie, what makes you fly so high?" and the water trickle-and-flowing sound of the banjo I imagine an aerial shot of the rugged snow-capped mountains, conifer graced ridges, and rivers in deep shadowy valleys with white rapids and turquoise pools of the Olympic Mountains. Somehow, the surging pace of many of these songs is suggestive to me of narrative urgency, the lyrics and their high lonesome delivery redolent of a bedrock authenticity.
Will Oldham's The Letting Go, especially "No Bad News" and "Lay and Love"
In the euphoria of finishing the first major draft of Temple Grove and still blind to how false this initial finish line would turn out to be, I listened to these two tracks over and over, my mind racing with fantasies about how well these songs might play over the opening and closing credits (respectively) of the film based on the book. The opening lines of "No Bad News", "Trouble more trouble can it get any more" and the lines that come a little later-- "to be coming and be bringing bad news…" -- could serve as good general advice for how to write the beginning of any work of fiction: load your characters up with trouble, start with trouble. And the drum beat and message of "Lay and Love" seemed perfect for the final credits. I heard the praise and thoughtful regard for another person in the lines "From what I've seen you're magnificent…From what I hear you're generous…From what I know you're terrified…" and imagined satisfied film viewers standing to head for the exits after having been transported to a place where they could contemplate the power of a tenuous and miraculous redemption through the constancy of the mother Trace's love in her raising of and search for her lost son Paul and their trust in one another.
Cold Mountain Soundtrack
Is it possible for me to separate my hopes for Temple Grove from the fact that I listened to this soundtrack after admiring Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and seeing the film and while I was working on Temple Grove? This is more mountain music that is not endemic to the mountains I'm writing about, but the songs here go very well with the region and with the idea of spending lots of time in the woods, having faith in another person against the odds, waiting for a warrior entangled in a vexed cause to come home.
Deadwood Soundtrack and especially "The Hog of the Foresaken" by Michael Hurley
This is another song that qualifies as a soundtrack for the novel and a song I was listening to as I wrote it. There's something about the raw grit and ramshackle grace of "The Hog of the Foresaken" that I hope I conjure in the portions of Temple Grove set in the woods and about the life therein, the world of my fugitive logger Bill, especially when he was in his heyday, and the tall tale past of logging. At certain moments in the song Hurley can't quite hit the high notes he aspires to, but this failure enhances rather than detracts from the song's seeming authenticity, the strange set of beliefs it evokes. If there is a Hog of the Foresaken, might there also be a Rooster of the Damned, a Ram of the Barely Saved?
Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Modest Mouse was formed in Issaquah, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, and is now associated with Portland, Oregon. During the biggest push to write first drafts of Temple Grove, I reveled in the gritty irreverence and clever wordplay of this album, which has come for me to be inextricable from Portland's indie identity. It is still a lens (accurate or not—I'm sensing a chorus of aroused Portlandians with opinions on the matter) through which I see the Rose City.
Spirit of the First People (CD accompanying a book by this title) and especially the two Makah tracks, "T'abba Song" and "Bone Game Song" sung by Helma Swan.
During the last round of revisions, I brought Paul's Makah identity and a Makah worldview into greater prominence in Temple Grove. The two Makah tracks on this University of Washington Press CD accompanying the book transport me to a longhouse by the sea surrounded by the smell of smoke and roasting salmon, the roar and hiss of Pacific surf, the patter of rain. "T'abba Song" is about missing a loved one very badly. Its haunting minor plaint is mostly vocables interrupted at intervals by "aiku aiku"-- "I hurt, I hurt."
Songs and Musicians Mentioned in Temple Grove
Songs can function as another way to define characters. Good News for People Who Love Bad News also features in the novel itself as something my character Paul (a young Olympic National Park enthusiast and environmental activist) is listening to as he hikes into the forest to try to disrupt a logging venture in an old grove of Douglas firs. Along with "Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie, it's one of two tracks I place on Paul's MP3 player alongside a whaling song handed down to him from one of his Makah relatives. Modest Mouse was very popular with my largely Pacific Northwestern students when I arrived at Whitman in 2004, as was Death Cab for Cutie. In 2006 or so I attended a concert put on by Death Cab at Whitman and was struck by how much the students identified with the band. In his choice of music I wanted to place Paul in a generation a bit, while shading him with some of the defiance, edge, and potential danger of Modest Mouse and the evolved openness of Death Cab.
A young Trace and some of her Makah friends sing songs around a fire. Bill Newton, a drunk logger who has earlier that day prevailed in a roadside brawl with Hells Angels, thinks Trace and her friends are singing secret Makah songs, but the next morning he comes to find out they were singing hits from the era (late 80's)-- "The Boys of Summer" and "Material Girl" with some hey-yah's thrown in.
When he is young, Paul is fascinated by Jimi Hendrix and makes his parents take him to try to find the house in Seattle's Central District where Jimmie Hendrix grew up. Paul's fascination when he's young mirrors the fasciation my son Gus has for Jimi Hendrix, which began when he was three years old and we visited the Experience Music Project museum in Seattle. Gus was absolutely transfixed by images of Hendrix smashing his guitar and setting it aflame at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. For a while after this, Gus would say out of the blue and as if to confirm some confidence we shared "Jimi Hendrix smashes his guitar." After he said it, he'd look up at me with eyes alive with the wonderful rebellion of it, delighted that we shared this mythology. I gave this fascination to my character.
A minor character in the novel, a logger named Lincoln Maxie, is from Aberdeen, Washington, original home of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. Lincoln is a graduate of Kurt Cobain Memorial High School (not a real school) whose mascot is The Grunge. This was a fictional flourish I couldn't resist, a guilty pleasure of a line that doesn't, perhaps, jibe with the overall tone of the novel. If I had to choose one Nirvana song to go with Temple Grove, it would be their cover of "In the Pines" which transports this anonymous Appalachian folk song to the great conifers and constant chilly rain of the Pacific Northwest.
"See?" my novel says to me. "Lots of music in, around, and behind my pages. And you didn't even get to 'Dead Flowers' or 'Keep on Rockin' in the Free World.' "
Scott Elliott and Temple Grove links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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