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August 23, 2013

Book Notes - Anne Sward "Breathless"


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.

Anne Sward's Breathless is a thought provoking and innovatively told novel.

The Irish Examiner wrote of the book:

"This emotional but intriguing third novel by the Swedish author of Polarsommar (Arctic Summer) follows protagonist Lo as she reflects on a pivotal time growing up in rural Sweden in the 1970s."

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

In her own words, here is Anne Sward's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Breathless:

"Say it Right" - Nelly Furtado

As a writer I'm blessed in at least one way: I don't depend on any artificial stimuli (drugs, music, meditation) to get me in a writing mood. I wake up every morning full of faith in what I'm doing, and if possible I get to work immediately (with the "morning brain"). But then … well, it goes steadily downhill from there, and come afternoon I can't even remember why I became a writer in the first place. When words are beginning to let me down, I might need a little something to keep me going, "Say it Right" by Nelly Furtado, for example. It was often played in a loop late afternoons when I was writing my novel Breathless. It was like having a good friend keeping you company in the workspace. Someone you know really well, who doesn't distract you, who's not even expecting you to answer her. Just a soft rhythm and a cool voice in the background, to boost your writing spirit. And as for the title, it's very significant for a novelist. To "say it right," in the business of writing novels, is all about being true to life as you know it. Which sounds simpler than it is, of course. So it's great to have a song like this in your playlist, as a memento.

"Bitte Geh Nicht Fort" - Marlene Dietrich

The first musical reference in Breathless is to an old favorite of mine, Marlene Dietrich. She can really put you under her spell. First and foremost with her voice, of course. Dark, austere, veiled. And her appearance: always elegant, often eccentric – like when she dressed like a man in the 30s, a very bold thing to do. Turning Goebbels down in 1939 when he wanted her to come back to Germany and sing for the Nazis was even bolder of course. I've always thought you can hear traces of her life in her voice, like you might glimpse the life of an author in his or her writing. Writing Breathless I came across Dietrich's version of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" by Jacques Brel (in German "Bitte Geh Nicht Fort"). It touches the theme of my novel and is an interesting variation to Piaf's way of performing it.

"Live Tomorrow" - Laleh

One of my favorite Swedish singers is Laleh Pourkarim, a young woman with Persian roots, always doing her own thing. Her songs "Live Tomorrow," "The End" and "Forgive But Not Forget" have often accompanied me during my writing days. Laleh's music career is also inspiring given the integrity she's always showed, in relation to the business, to critics and trends. From my perspective I can't think of a more important thing for musicians and writers than integrity – personal as well as artistic.

"Back to Black" - Amy Winehouse

I like female singers who have their own character. And I do have a weak spot for dark forceful voices like Amy Winehouse's (too many women sings like babies, I think …) Winehouse died shortly after I completed Breathless, and although her voice now inevitably makes me a bit sad, I can't stop listening to her, finding her way of singing inspiring. With "Back to Black" I know she set a record in Grammy Awards. I just wish she would've gotten many, many more years of using that beautiful contralto voice of hers – and of simply living.

"My Funny Valentine" - Chet Baker

A song I refer to briefly in Breathless is My Funny Valentine, as the main character is taught by her aunt to whistle that tune. For many of us that just might have been our first great musical moment – learning to whistle and click our fingers at the same time. My Funny Valentine is nostalgia, innocence and childhood. A simple tune with simple lyrics, made into a piece of art by Chet Baker when he lifts his trumpet to his mouth. I prefer the instrumental version. So sad. So souly.

"Some Other Time" - Monica Z

A Swedish singer from an earlier generation than Laleh is so well known here she just goes by the name of Monica Z. "Z" for Zetterlund, but also for jazz. I dare to say she's one of the most loved singers we've ever had – because of her voice, but also her very special personality, and I always keep coming back to her. Soon a biographical film called Monica Z will be released here – a difficult genre, let's just hope it will do her justice. In the middle of the 60s Bill Evans came over to Stockholm to work with her, after hearing her personal version of his "Waltz For Debby." Since Sweden is very much in the periphery of everything "going international" is a big thing here – and Monica Zetterlund did. Her most famous songs in Swedish include a celebration of Stockholm, "Sakta Vi Gå Genom Stan" ("Slowly We Walk Through the City") and a lot of interpretations of old Swedish folk songs. From time to time I live in Stockholm in a flat just between the two flats where Monica Zetterlund and Astrid Lindgren were living. They each got a small park dedicated to them, close to where their homes were – a nice gesture of gratitude from the people. Also saying something about the iconic status these two female artists have here.

"The Shoplift" - Soundtrack from The Ice Storm

One of my favorite movies, the modern classic The Ice Storm by Ang Lee, has a soundtrack that I find very suggestive. It's repetitive and a bit ominous and has an openness to it that makes you want to fill it with your own story. The setting in this movie is very different from in my own novel, but it takes place in approximately the same time, so maybe there is some sort of connection there, after all.

"Sweetheart Like You" - Bob Dylan

At thirteen I was the biggest Bob Dylan fan, ever. A most obscure choice for a young girl in that godforsaken little Swedish town where I grew up, where everyone else listened to ABBA and glam rock. I never even heard of Dylan before I saw the rockumentary Don't Look Back, and immediately took the savings from my first spare time job and hitched to the nearest town to buy all his records. Dylan's line "If dogs run free, then why not we" encapsulates the essence of my novel. The same goes for the phrase "What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?" A question equally relevant for my main character as it was for me when I grew up.

"Heartbeat - Nneka

How often do you get to listen to a German-Nigerian female soul-hip-hop-reggae-artist? Not very often, I guess … therefore I was happy to come across Nneka when writing Breathless. There's just something about her I like a lot – an honesty I appreciate in music as well as in literature. Something that strikes me as straightforwardness. Sometimes she's a little raw, sometimes more tender. The title of this song also catches the essence of the type of music that tends to appeal to me: heart and beat.

"Hollow Talk" - Choir of Young Believers

In three words: Obscure. Beautiful. Danish.

"Remember the Name" - Fort Minor

Writing Breathless I was traveling around a lot, living wherever I could rent a room cheap. Brooklyn was one of those places. I would sit by the fire escape in Fort Greene, listening to the coolest music from the coolest guys slowly passing with their cars, windows open, music pumping, heavy beats on full volume. I like rap, rap-core, hip-hop, reggae ... But also softer beats like that of Fort Minor's. Writing a novel is a kind of huge project—long-distance running—it takes several years, usually. It's like being out in deep water where you can't feel the bottom. You mustn't stop swimming only because you are a little exhausted – then you'll sink, and the story will sink with you. Just keep going, and you'll be fine. Fort Minor's album "The Rising Tide" helped me keep afloat during long working hours in the heart of Fort Greene.

"Sodade" - Cesária Évora

I like contrasts. In my own writing (the raw and the beautiful, the dark and the light …) as well as contrasts in the literature and music I choose to read and listen to along the way. So jumping from hip-hop to fado to klezmer to soul to dub-step to tango … is a natural thing for me. Some songs you always come back to, though. Like Cesária Évora's "Sodade" ("Longing").

"Mockingbird" - Eminem

My youngest son had an intense Eminem period when I wrote my latest novel, and since his room is next to my study, you might say I did too. I've probably listened to some Eminem tracks a thousand times while writing this book. It takes a lot of mother's love to endure that. But I have to admit some of them are really good. Like "Mockingbird".

"Wild is the Wind" - Nina Simone

There are so many Simone songs I could have chosen, but "Wild is the Wind" has a title with a certain connection to the main character in Breathless. There's a twist of natural wildness to the story's protagonist – the young girl, later woman, Lo (which in Swedish means "lynx"). And of course the love theme is most relevant for the book, too. "Satisfy this hungriness …" Nina Simone sings, as if it was a line in the novel – never expressed, but intensely felt.

"Der Vorghormia" - Levon Minassian

Even before going to Armenia the traditional Armenian music performed on the "doudouk," an ancient woodwind instrument (made of apricot tree) had won my heart. I was only a teenager when I moved from that little remote town where I was born to Stockholm and became aware of a world of new things, impressions, books, music I'd never heard of before. Like The Doudouk Beyond Borders, an LP with breathtaking Armenian music. I can't imagine a more beautiful sound. It carries the whole sad and grand Armenian history in its tone. I had to be careful to not overdo the doudouk music when writing Breathless. But I sure listened to quite a lot of it.

"Walk on the Wild Side" - Lou Reed

Writing novels is really a walk on the wild side at times – you never quite know where it will bring you. And in this case also a walk down memory lane, a return to my younger years. Lou Reed was a part of that, and just a few opening beats of this song takes me right back.

"Märk hur vår skugga" - Imperiet

An odd combination of the most well known Swedish punk band, called "Imperiet" ("The Empire") performing a song from late19th century, written by our national poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman. Thus is "Märk hur Vår Skugga" ("See How Our Shadow") part of our old musical heritage, but at the same time still alive and kicking today.

Nevermind - Nirvana

In order to write novels that have the potential of touching readers, an author really needs to be in touch with his or her own sensibility. But in the very end of the writing process I find it equally important to mobilize a certain kind of "good" hardness, in order to be able to actually deliver. Killing your darlings for the sake of the novel as a whole. And in the grand finale: cutting the navel string to this baby of yours. Writing is also cathartic. You actually feel relieved when it's over, but naturally also empty and a bit lonely and lost afterwards. To cure the "baby blues" that always hit you after finishing and leaving a long, all-consuming writing project, music is useful. Especially the kind that will blow your brains out, and give you a Nevermind-feeling, in order to soon be able to start fresh again with something completely new.

Anne Sward and Breathless links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Historical Novel Review review
Irish Examiner review
Swedish Book Review review

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)
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Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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