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June 26, 2013

Book Notes - Matt Bell "In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods"

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods

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.

Matt Bell's In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is both fabulous and fantastic in the best of ways. Complex and stunning in its language, I savored every sentence of this exceptional novel, clearly one of the year's best.

NPR wrote of the book:

"It's hard to imagine a book more difficult to pull off, but Bell proves as self-assured as he is audacious. His prose, which manages to be both mournful and propulsive, is undeniable. While he's been compared to authors like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, his style is very much his own, lacking any obvious antecedent. In the House contains passages far scarier than most mainstream horror novels, but Bell writes with a warmth, a humanity that renders the scenes gut-wrenching on an emotional level. Characters in fairy tales are often stand-ins for ideas, props used to illustrate a moral. Bell does a superb job of avoiding this trap, though; he writes about the family with both a clear sense of empathy and an expert novelist's unblinking eye."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Matt Bell's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods:

In an interview, George Saunders once said that, over the course of the years it takes to write a book, writers "manifest" themselves upon the page, not just once, but over and over. I'm not sure I'm using the term in the same way Saunders meant it, but I find it incredibly helpful for describing what I love most about being deep in a writing project, especially one as long as a novel: Every day the writer who sits down at the desk is slightly different than the one who sat down yesterday, thanks to the previous day's events, thanks to the books he or she has read, thanks to the music and the movies and the news and probably food ingested and amount of sunshine enjoyed and so on. And these slight differences accrue over time, and offer opportunities that only occur through this kind of iterative, personal process. In other words, my novel wasn't written by me on any one day, but by a thousand versions of me, working on a thousand different days, manifesting upon the page and then maybe disappearing forever. And the changes that make up those different versions of me can really only come from two places, experiences in life and experiences in art.

The most common art experiences I have are with books and with music, and so every book I've written has had some set of literary and musical inputs without which it probably couldn't exist. In other words, you could look at my lists of books read for the past few years, and there find many of the books that supported and inspired In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods as it grew. Similarly, certain albums represented on the playlist below were in the mix from the very beginning of the work: For instance, I can't imagine writing the early pages of In the House without Ben Frost's By the Throat, which iTunes tells me I bought just three days after I started work on the book. I can remember sitting and listening to that album over and over with headphones on, and finding it one of the most discomfiting listening experiences I'd ever put myself through: It can be both incredibly compelling and fairly unpleasant at the same time, and the great discomfort that album left me with was something that, especially in the early going, I wanted my novel to do to me too, as I wrote it. I was writing in the first person, and I wanted to write in a voice that wasn't mine, that I couldn't know too early—and when the sentences started to give me the same sinking, trapped feeling that By the Throat did—a certain kind of distance or otherness—then that was one of the ways I knew I was getting somewhere, that the predicament I was putting my narrator held some real emotional risk.

iTunes tells me that the song I've listened to the most since the last time I had to restart my library—which means resetting my play counts —is the song "Bear" by The Antlers, with 217 listens. I went back to The Antlers' album Hospice over and over during the years of work on In the House, in part because one of the things music does for me is to jumpstart me emotionally—the same reason I think so many of us listen to sad songs when we know we're supposed to feel sad, but for some reason can't get there on our own—and Hospice was and is one of the surest ways to move me. It's also the album I listened to every time I thought I'd finished a draft, while I read through the manuscript again, one more time, just to be sure. (A side note: My wife and I saw The Antlers play at least three times in the first year I was working on In the House: Twice headlining, and once opening for The National. And then we saw them again a couple years later, when their follow-up Burst Apart released—and while I was still working on the book, as I still would be when their EP Undersea came out. It's taken me nearly their entire recording career to write and publish this novel. There are a couple other bands on this list that were similarly prolific during the same time, and I remember clocking my progress against their productivity.)

Instrumental movie soundtracks often work great for writing too, because they tend to have a built-in level of dramatic movement that can be helpful to be around: Assuming the tracks are in the order they are in the film, they should mirror the structure in some way, and hearing those structures over and over seems like it has to be useful. There are four tracks from soundtracks here, but the one I want to be sure to mention is "Death is the Road to Awe," from Clint Massell's soundtrack for The Fountain. That soundtrack might be the most perfect piece of music to write to I've ever found, and there isn't a week that goes by that I don't put it on. It's also one of the few works that has come over into my new project with me, without any break: As I mentioned above, each new book requires new inputs, and usually that means giving up some of the old book's music, at least during my writing time. But listening to The Fountain soundtrack while writing preceded In the House, and has happily continued beyond it as well.

One more work that deserves special mention: Vic Chesnutt's "Coward" is one of the rawest expressions of emotion I know, and it's a place I go over and over to restock emotionally, to fill myself with big emotion before I try to make the pages fill with the same.

Much of the playlist below is given to instrumental music, and to certain kinds of dronings or repetitions I find particularly conducive to writing, or to bands where the vocals were often mixed in such a way that they were more music than language, where listening to the words seemed optional, almost. For a couple years I listened obsessively to records like Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972, Fredrik's Trilogi, Esben and the Witch's Violet Cries, Fennesz's Black Sea, and Julianna Barwick's The Magic Place; to bands like Stars, Shearwater, Bats for Lashes, and Hammock. A new wave of music came in later in the process, bands and artists like Teeth of the Sea, Barn Owl, Stars of the Lid, Swans, Codes in the Cloud, Daniel Bjarnason, Philip Jeck, Nicolas Jaar. It feels like I constantly listened to Bill Callahan's album Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, which has a deep and mythic weirdness that I couldn't get enough of. Once I got hungry for certain kinds of music, then I needed more and more similar stuff—and it occurs to me now that, in the same way that in the second and third and fourth drafts of the book I was working to make everything in the novel of one piece, to make it all fit, to make it a seamless experience, so my listening needs were revised as well, away from "anything goes as long as I like it" toward "more music just like this."

Toward the end of the book's last major draft, I remember listening to Sonic Youth's "Thème d'Alice" nearly every day—and since it's the final track on its album, I often came out of the other side of its thirteen minutes into blocks of silence where I was working so well I didn't even notice the music had faded away. And that, as much as anything else, is what all this music did for me: Day after day, it kept in the chair long enough to transition from the music coming out of the speakers to the music I was learning to make come off of the page, which I so desperately wanted to make more of, to make louder and better.

I could talk about these bands forever, but as a way of moving toward an ending, I'll offer one more thing I didn't know the music could do: It could become a space of my own that I could carry with me, both a house and an office. I wrote the first draft of In the House in the year I was commuting from Ann Arbor to Bowling Green for grad school, and then while I was flying to New York once a week, and then while I was touring for my first book, How They Were Found. Which meant that I wrote in planes and on public transit, in my shared office at BGSU, in shared space at the Center for Fiction in Manhattan, in hotel rooms and on borrowed futons. And while the best place for me to write was always my own office at home, I somehow discovered that I could plug in my earphones and play the same music I played at home to create a sort of "acoustic office," an auditory space I could take with me, so that no matter where I was I was also at home, so that no matter where I went next, there went with me this musical constant. For several years, these songs weren't just a part of the environment I wrote in: In many ways, they were my truest office. When I went to work, I took them with me, and there I worked inside them. So if you asked me where I wrote In the House, I might answer any number of places, but one of the most honest answers would be that I wrote it inside these fifty songs, inside the fifty albums they represent, and inside others like them.

I made the playlist that accompanies this essay before I started the essay, and I've been listening to it as I write, and one thing I've found is that there's a nostalgia to these songs that isn't for a time, but for an experience. For the past year or so, I've been working on my next novel, a period of work interrupted only by the final revisions for In the House. The new novel has a new voice, a new subject, a different kind of sensibility, is informed by a different set of books and albums, by different interests and experiences drawn from the half of my life that isn't the art half. So maybe I'm not listening to these songs as much anymore: My old obsessions have, in most cases, been replaced with more ordinary levels of appreciation—even as new obsessions have come to take their place. It's so hard to return to the writing of a finished book, especially once you're deep in the next one, but for me these songs and the albums they come from will forever be linked to writing In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, and listening to the again makes me feel lucky to have these fifty reminders, these shortcuts to the feelings of writing this book, of the many days I was lucky enough to manifest some version of myself upon it.


"Fatherhood" by Alexandre Desplat
"Bear" by The Antlers
"Leave The Drummer Out There" by Asobi Seksu
"Light From The Mesa" by Barn Owl
"The Wizard" by Bat For Lashes
"Beast in Peace" by Bear in Heaven
"Híbakúsja" by Ben Frost
"Eid Ma Clack Shaw" by Bill Callahan
"2 Forms of Anger" by Brian Eno
"Dusty Father/Itching Mother" by Canyon Hands
"Death Is The Road To Awe" by Clint Mansell
"Where Dirt Meets Water" by Codes In The Clouds
"Bow to String I. 'Sorrow conquers happiness'" by Daníel Bjarnason
"On the long road home" by The End of the Ocean
"Marching Song" by Esben and the Witch
"I'm A Pilot" by Fanfarlo
"Black Sea" by Fennesz
"Milo" by Fredrik
"Andalusia" by Hammock
"Waves" by Holly Miranda
"Time of the Season" by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
"I Never Learnt To Share" by James Blake
"Envelop" by Julianna Barwick
"Ringed Behemoth" by Lee Noble
"Nothing but Heart" by Low
"I Know Places" by Lykke Li
"Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor" by Moonface
"The Far Road" by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
"Space Is Only Noise If You Can See" by Nicolas Jaar
"Stovepipe Night" by No Heroics, Please
"Fun Funeral" by Oryx + Crake
"Thirtieth/Pilot Reprise" by Philip Jeck
"Wolves" by Phosphorescent
"Rooks" by Shearwater
"Thème d'Alice " by Sonic Youth
"Dead Hearts" by Stars
"The Evil That Never Arrived" by Stars of the Lid
"Guitar Cabinet Stack Way High Is Freedom or Gravity Gives Us Rhythm" by Storm & Stress
"You Fucking People Make Me Sick" by Swans
"Dawning" by Tamaryn
"The Ambassador" by Teeth of the Sea
"Variations VII-IX" by Thirsting Quench and the Captains of Industry
"In The Fog I" by Tim Hecker
"The Marvels Of Modern Civilization" by To Destroy A City
"Coward" by Vic Chesnutt
"Open" by Wailing Whales
"Undertow" by Warpaint
"L Y F" by WU LYF
"Civilian" by Wye Oak
"Not Sold" by Young Brother

Matt Bell and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
NPR review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
Kalamazoo Gazette profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for How They Were Found
Library Journal interview with the author
Nineteenquestions interview with the author
Unbound interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
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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