July 23, 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.
The stories in Ben Stroud's debut collection Byzantium range from explorations of historical figures to modern life, and all impress with their straightforward prose and imaginative storytelling.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"Stroud’s fecund imagination and his ability to tell tales smack of tremendous writerly promise."
I wrote the stories in Byzantium over the course of seven years—from 2005 to 2012. During that time, my thinking toward music and the writing process shifted. Early on, I needed to listen to music to work. I wasn't too picky, but I preferred either music that was non-vocal or that I wasn't too familiar with. So I stuck with WCBN, the Michigan student radio station, or W???, the classical station out of Detroit. I almost never listened to CDs or MP3s—I needed someone live on the other end, keeping the music going, playing songs I couldn't predict. At one point I donated money to W??? and in return got a conductors baton. During especially difficult times in the writing process, fiddling this baton was a relief. My use of music while writing changed when I moved to Germany for a year to teach. I set up my writing desk in the corner of the apartment, at a window overlooking the courtyard, and bought a cheap radio from Real (a sort of German Wal-Mart). I had expected much from the Germans—but tuning the radio only found station after station of top-40, an American military station that wasn't much better (though it occasionally carried NPR), and other stations of German country music. So I gave up on the radio and haven't listened to music while working since.
Still, in thinking about some key songs to go with this collection, a few stand out.
Song from Children's Games
This song was used as the theme song for a CBC2 show that was canceled early in my writing of the book. (I listened to CBC2 out of Windsor, Ontario, sometimes—that is, until they reformatted and gutted their classical line-up.) It stuck in my head, and eventually became integral to the imagining of "Tayopa": this song put me in mind of Mota and his men traveling north, the long days upon days on the deserted roads. In many ways, this story began with this song and imagining that journey. Though it also began with a college reading of J. Frank Dobie's account of the Tayopa legend.
"Lawrence of Arabia"
This is really cheesey, and borderline (or maybe over the border) orientalist, which is shaming—but in writing "Byzantium" I often had the theme from Lawrence of Arabia in my head, after hearing it on W??? soundtracks show shortly before starting my first true draft of the story. "Byzantium" doesn't spend much time in the desert—at least, not in an Arabian-style desert. But in some ways the call to the exotic, to adventure, is something that moves Eusebios—and it has that darker current for him, as it does in the movie.
"American Boy," Estelle
I first heard this song at an ice cream chain in Wiesbaden. In certain ways it made me homesick, and in other ways it made me think a little more about being an American overseas. "Amy" rose out of this same moment—and a moment of some great distress about the future and where I might fit in the world (though my problems/worries then were quite different from the narrator's). This song is inextricably tied to that moment for me, and in some ways perhaps woven into the story.
Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz
While writing a novel that would eventually fail and become "The Don's Cinnamon" and "The Moor" I went to the symphony with my wife and two friends. One of the works performed that night was Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. I was deep into the writing of the novel, and sitting there I was fixed with an image of my main character, Jackson Hieronymous Burke, sitting alone at such a concert. The image became a central one to my thinking about his character—and found its way into the story "The Moor" when he attends the opera.
Guitars of the Golden Triangle
And here's a whole album of good stuff. I wanted to put in an example of the gems I listened to on WCBN. Half the songs on WCBN are terrible—you want to throw your radio out the window. But the other half are the most wonderful and unexpected things you could hope to find. For that reason, it's truly a great student radio station, and key to the early years I put in on this book. These songs—truck drivers' music from Burma in the 1970s—are incredible, and worth thousands in obscurity cache.
Ben Stroud and Byzantium links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
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Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
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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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