July 16, 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.
Sam Toperoff's novel Lillian & Dash offers a fictionalized retelling of the lives of twentieth century writers Lillian Hellman and Dashielle Hammett and their turbulent relationship.
Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:
"Much has been written about these two writers, playwrights, political activists, drunks and lovers, but nothing better than this novel. Toperoff does not pretend to be an earwitness to every private conversation, bit of pillow talk or fight; instead, he weaves a great story out of the public evidence that swirled around both parties."
My non-fiction novel Lillian and Dash takes Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett through the 'thirties, 'forties, and 'fifties of American life and culture. I myself cover those very same years. Yes, I'm old and so pretty much is my music. Not only the music in the novel itself—and I'll get to that in a while—but the music I listen to as I write this essay. Ben Webster is playing Early Autumn.
My writing approach is as follows. I write every morning in long hand in complete quiet, or as much quiet as I can get. This is my first draft and I pretty much just let it flow until I have a chapter or two. The second draft is the most important, when I transfer those hand written pages into the computer and hopefully transform it into the good stuff, and that's where my music comes in. I know the scenes I'm going to type, so I choose my music before I begin. Since the novel begins at a party in the Brown Derby in Hollywood in the early nineteen-thirties, the beginning of the Big Band era, I chose a Benny Goodman album that featured "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," "Sing, Sing, Sing," and "In a Sentimental Mood." In the first chapter the restaurant is crowded and noisy and Hellman speaks a little Yiddish but at chapter's end they sneak off together to make love. The music seemed perfect. I do have to say, though, when the music is very good, I shouldn't but I stop to listen; that happened repeatedly with Gene Krupa's famous drum solo on "Sing, Sing, Sing."
But to really get the driving feeling of Hollywood in the 'thirties, the heavy drinking of my main characters and breakneck drive for success, nothing touches the Count Basie and the Ellington bands. The best of Basie is "One O'clock Jump" and for me, although "A-Train" rocks, "Riff N' Drill" is all drive.
In the late 'forties McCarthyism rears its disgusting head in America's political and cultural life. Lillian and Dash were certainly not its only victims. They were merely two of many thousands. Among the first to suffer were Paul Robeson, the great singer-actor-athlete, who lost his career because he was deemed "Un-American" and Hazel Scott, a remarkable jazz pianist and singer. I played Robeson"s album Live at Carnegie Hall and especially admire the cuts "Old Man River," "Oh, Freedom," and "Takin' Names." I don't have a Hazel Scott, but the next best thing is another American exile, Nina Simone. She sings a song I once heard Scott sing—"My Baby Just Cares for Me." It brought back good memories.
As Hammett was dying, Hellman wrote much of the text of the opera Candide for her friend Leonard Bernstein. It signaled her comeback in theatre after being forced into exile in France and England. It's among her best work and I played and sang it badly as wrote those scenes.
Finally, since Hammett's death ends my novel, and I truly came to love him, I played the most mournful song I know. Ellington's arranger, Billy Strayhorn, was a gay man whose brilliance when he lived was always overshadowed by that fact. After Strayhorn died, Ellington recorded a memorial album titled …and his mother called him Bill, by way of noting that is not what the insensitive world called him. In this album, when the session is over and the musicians can be heard packing up, Ellington still sits at the piano and plays Strayhorn's haunting "Lotus Blossom." Then, unplanned, the great Johnny Hodges picks up his sax and blows the mournful accompaniment. If the ending of my novel is nearly as heartbreaking, it is a success.
Sam Toperoff and Lillian & Dash links:
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