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June 18, 2013

Book Notes - Richard Melo "Happy Talk"

Happy Talk

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.

Richard Melo's Happy Talk is an ambitious and delightfully absurd novel from the author of Jokerman 8.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Melo is a great spinner of yarns through polyphonic hearsay."

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 Richard Melo's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Happy Talk:

Born at the height of the rock era, I'm one of those novelists -- and there are plenty in my generation -- who channels music into writing. I am not talking about lyrical ideas as much as the infusion of atmosphere and the type of emotional substance that comes across as effortless in music but requires delicacy on the part of the novelist.

It's like a Wes Anderson movie without the movie. Take, for example, the famous scene in Rushmore when the Who's "A Quick One (While He's Away)" plays over an unrelated series of cruel pranks played by the Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman characters. It's an astonishing moment in the movie, and it's the song that makes it. More than that, it's a window inside Anderson's creative process as the scene was built around the song.

You hear a song and set elements of story that play on its moods.

Film directors have the advantage of using soundtracks and scores to create atmosphere, and as a movie fan, I fall for the Wes Anderson technique all the time. Novels inspired by music, on the the other hand, can be so subtle that readers won't even know there is a song playing in the background. I'm not sure readers need to "hear" or even know a novel's underlying soundtrack to appreciate the musical effects of the Wes Anderson technique as applied to novel writing.

Here's more on what I mean, a glimpse into what I do, and the way music acts upon my writing.

"Left of Reckoning," by R.E.M.

Though it's not the story of a band or fans, my first book, Jokerman 8, is a full-on rock novel. It makes references to just about to everything I was listening to in the 12 years it took to write. In 1988, I started creating mix tapes (which eventually became playlists when that technology came along) that cataloged the series of moods that defined the story. Before finishing, I eventually collected several hundred songs.

In the end, Jokerman 8 became a lovingly ineffable book with a choppy, improvised feel. My intent was for reading the novel to mimic the experience of listening to a rock ‘n' roll record of the early 1980s college radio variety -- in particular R.E.M.'s amazing 1984 album, Reckoning. At times, it reads like a box of dishes tumbling down a flight of stairs, which to me is how the album sounds. (See an artsy 41-second clip from the album's fadeout that captures its disorganized mood and was left off the CD release.)

There's a good chance not a single reader made the connection between my novel and Reckoning, but that's not the point. Without R.E.M., Jokerman 8 simply would not exist in the same state. There's even a chance it wouldn't exist at all.

"Happy Talk," by Captain Sensible

The title of Happy Talk, my new novel out this month from Red Lemonade, comes from South Pacific, and though I consider Rodgers and Hammerstein vapid in the extreme (and ripe for parody), I discovered this song via Captain Sensible in the mid-1980s. I've spent years admiring the Captain's rendition. (Check out the music video. It has much parrot face time.)

My Happy Talk novel is set among Americans living in Haiti during the 1950s. By design, it was going to be less a rock novel than a novel posing as a piece of musical theatre. Calling the novel Happy Talk seemed like the right thing to do, as it's also filled with playful banter. At the last minute, I nearly retitled the book "Sweet Touch of Love" after an Allen Toussaint song that not only captures many of the book's moods but also suggests its voodoo soul-switching themes. "Sweet Touch" is a much better song, and Allen Toussaint is the novel's patron saint, and in the end, it could have gone either way.

"Lover," by Les Paul

No other song influenced Happy Talk more than Les Paul's "Lover" is. A sped up, high-pitched, and impossibly intricate guitar instrumental, it might just be the most frenzied song I have ever heard. "Lover" suggests island imagery, love themes, vertigo, and multiple voices speaking all at once. It's the type of song that makes you want to get up and do something. In my case, I it made me want to write a novel. (You can hear the song right now via Youtube. Many of these songs also appear on the Happy Talk Spotify playlist.)

"Magic to Do," Ben Vereen (from Pippin)

Not only is this an extraordinary song, I've always admired this opening number from Pippin because of the joyous way it introduces themes and builds atmosphere and anticipation. Happy Talk's prologue attempts to recreate this song's effect as closely as possible starting from the novel's opening line, "Dry ice fog rolls in from the wings of the stage, accompanied by a piano jazz vamp and murmurs of the backstage chorus ready to take places." (See Ben Vereen performing "Magic to Do.")

"Eli's Comin'," by Laura Nyro

I can't put my finger on why, but Laura Nyro always makes me want to write. She has inspired my favorite parts of nearly everything I've written. Happy Talk's opening sequence with the Nightingale student nurses making their beds and chattering about the return of Culprit Clutch (the novel's anti-hero) plays straight out of this song.

"Sweet Blindness," by Laura Nyro

My writing process involves diving so deeply into the material that it feels more remembered than imagined. As an experiment in this kind of immersion, I started looking for old film clips related to the novel and editing them to the song that inspired specific scenes. This first short film edits together a variety of shots of student nurses from the novel's era, while this song plays in the background. The playfulness of the song and images -- as well as the fluid succession of the faces -- gave character to the scenes with the student nurses. (See my "Student Nurses" film here.)

"S.O.S.," by the Mumps

I like when a period piece gives off the air that it was created in the era it portrays. I worked hard to make Happy Talk seem as authentic as possible. At the same time, I couldn't avoid the influence of a few songs from the 70s and 80s that don't connect to the book's era. Lance Loud and the Mumps were a terrific CBGB-era NYC punk band with a flair for lo-fi theatricality. Listening to this song, I have no idea what it's about, but I like it. I was writing a scene in the book about a hospital patient in plaster casts from head to toe, and somehow this song seemed to connect.

"You're the Top," by Cole Porter

I'm usually not a fan of the practice of including full song lyrics in fiction, but since Happy Talk has a musical theatre vibe, and I wanted to characters to break out in song, I needed to find a way to make it work. The trick, I believe, is to find an original song with lyrics so witty that the words can stand alone. The next step is to rewrite the song line by line while trying to maintain its wit. When two of the novel's more manic characters take the stage, it's their own version of this Cole Porter tune they sing. I'm not a songwriter, but this was about as much writing fun as I've ever had. (You can hear Cole Porter's original on Youtube. The lyrics I rewrote are also published online.)

"Daddy's Song," by Harry Nilsson

There's a thrilling car race down the length of Mexico in the middle of the book. As another film experiment, I cut together vintage scenes from racing and car culture to one of my favorite Harry Nilsson songs. (See the "Auto Races" short film here.)

"Night of the Thumpasaurus People," by Parliament

All too often, Happy Talk's imagery involves large objects spotted in the sky. Late in the novel, talk turns to the Mother Plane from the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, which later inspired Parliament's Mothership Connection, which is brilliant in how interweaves its literal and musical themes. I always imagined that if Happy Talk were a movie, this song would play over the closing credits. All my writerly instincts tell me this is the funky note on which (when all is said and done) the book ends.

Richard Melo and Happy Talk links:

the author's website
the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
short films inspired by the book

Portland Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review

Portland Monthly 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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