November 12, 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.
Nicola Griffith's Hild is a smart and sweeping historical novel, one that imaginatively tells the story of Saint Hilda of seventh century Britain.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Griffith expertly blends an exploration of seventh-century court life and a detailed character study of Hild as she balances a need for acceptance, love, and friendship and a desire to escape the strict gender roles of her time. While fierce battles and political intrigue feature prominently, so do the fascinating details of everyday life, particularly the lives of women. In short, Griffith triumphs with this intelligent, beautifully written, and meticulously researched novel."
Finding a way into a novel is like wandering in the wood late at night; sometimes what feels like a path is just a gap in the trees. Music is an emotional signpost. But it has to be pointing the right way, otherwise you end up in a bog, at the edge of precipice or floating backwards down the river.
When I write I can play only music as familiar as my heartbeat--stuff I can harmonise with, pound out the beat to, soar upon without fully engaging. Otherwise I listen with the word-making part of my brain and I'm distracted. So these are all old songs. Some are older than me. I always played them in the same order, so my subconscious mind always knew what was coming next. But I started the playlist in different places, depending on what the writing required that day. Hild begins from the perspective of a frightened toddler, goes on to the glory of childhood certainty, then the tension and laugh-out-loud brilliance of first sex, the restless risk-taking of young-adulthood, the exhilaration of political power.
Music is a thing of the whole body, not just the ears. So when I write I can't bear to listen to music through headphones or earbuds. I need real speakers, complete with enormous sub woofer. (Probably also for that reason, I insist on WAV files, not MP3s.) When I think there's no one around I crank it until the house trembles, feel the bass pushing my belly like a hand, the hum of cello like a bottle of bees in my long bones.
I built three playlists: WeirdHild, OtherHild, and MainHild. I swapped from one to the other with Hild's mood. But as I moved into the last third of the first draft, and throughout subsequent rewrites, MainHild vanquished the others utterly.
It's selections from MainHild I'll talk about today.
Jefferson Airplane, "White Rabbit"
Eric Clapton, "Cocaine"
David Bowie, "Letter to Hermione"
The book begins when Hild is three; I had to find a way to give the reader all the information s/he needs without Hild being preternaturally articulate. I chose to drape everything with the cloak of wonder that is childhood when everything is new to us, so new that we think we've discovered it. (Happily, this is also true for adolescence, when the brain is rewiring, so these songs got to serve double duty.) I turned to music that spoke to me of being a little out of sync with the rest of the world. I have very particular memories attached to these songs. Respectively: aged 22, the night before my very first performance with my band, Janes Plane, smoking Nepalese Temple Ball with the band and some of our girlfriends; aged 17, my first coffee in the Students' Union of Leeds University; and aged 16, mooning over my first girlfriend who I knew, even before we'd kissed, would leave me for a man (sigh).
Gomez, "How We Operate"
The Cliks, "Dirty King"
Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen, "Theme from Mission Impossible"
I am wholly in love with the banjo from Gomez. It's haunting and earthy at the same time. I can smell the dirt between the notes. The conversation with the mandolin crosses all kinds of melodic boundaries. It's sui generis. Just what I needed to help me venture into narrative territory I'd never explored before: fourteen hundred years in the past; a child; playing with style that is a cross-breed of Anglo-Saxon and Ancient Welsh poetry. I wanted the prose to be invisible to the reader so that nothing gets in the way, so that s/he is immersed in another time and place. I had to find that style. The music helped--its certainty. Even the title of Madreblu's track, "Certainly." I relied on it to carry me past my own uncertainty: would this work? The Cliks helped, too. There's something about Lucas Silveira's vocals that conveys not only a sense of Darwin-award-worthy Fuck you, watch this! but provokes in me, paradoxically, a particular Ah, I remember what that was like; wait til you grow up fondness, which applied to the band, to me, to Hild. Just what I needed. Clayton and Mullen's immaculate rhythm--they are the best drum and bass team since Sly and Robbie--not only drove me forward with relentless energy, but made me grin like a wolf at the irony. Mission Impossible? Indeed. But, hey, what's life without a challenge?
The Cramps, "Human Fly"
Evanescence, "Bring me to Life"
Groove Armada, "Purple Haze"
Melissa Etheridge, "Chrome Plated Heart"
The Cramps are weirdly fascinating garage punk horror/sf rockabilly. "Human Fly" is sly, and camp, and I'm always surprised that I like it. Evanescence, on the other hand, are utterly WYSIWIG, ovaries-to-the-wall rock. This one, to me, feels drenched in grief, an emotion Hild is familiar with. Groove Armada, of course, has nothing to do with grief. It's an early 21st century ecstasy-and-and-meth-tinged callback to late 60s psychodelia. Brilliant. Melissa Etheridge is a late 80s cri de coeur with lyrics that, well, I'd love to take the tardis back and help her out with them, but perhaps it wouldn't be the same if they were too sleek. Perhaps they're best left as they are: homemade as jam.
Nina Hagen Band, "African Reggae"
Pink Floyd, "Money"
Sinead O'Connor, "I Am Stretched on Your Grave"
No playlist, for me, would be complete without Nina Hagen. This one you most definitely have to listen to standing between chin-high stacks letting that sonic pendulum take the top of your head off. This is the music I turned to when Hild was newly adolescent and astonished at how that changes the world. Pink Floyd is the next stage. It takes me back to the cynicism of fourteen and a hot afternoon when Dave Gilmour's guitar floated on the sticky city air and lifted me away from the urban grind. But it's the drums that really work for me on this one. Just as it's the drums and bass that help Sinead O'Connor's otherworldly voice trail down my spine and set my atavistic brain shivering.
Booker T. & the MG's, "Green Onions"
Wilson Pickett, "Mustang Sally"
Labelle, "Lady Marmalade"
The Police and Henry Mancini, "Every Breath You Take/Theme from Peter Gunn"
Pigeonhed, "Battle Flag"
Lords of Acid, "The Real Thing"
Kate Gibson, "Dance Me to the end of Love"
Jace Everett, "Bad Things"
These are all tracks from compilation albums: a Starbucks thing from the 90s, soundtracks from The Sopranos and Strange Days, and the theme song of True Blood. The first three I used to hear in my teens, at the first queer club I ever went to, squeezed oddly between the more usual disco and punk. I can sing every instrument on "Green Onions," lead and backup vocals on "Mustang Sally," and all the interesting rhythms on "Lady Marmalade"--banging on my desk, of course. The Sopranos mashup just delights me, every time. In the middle of a multi-hour writing marathon it's a refeshing as a nap and a shower, and Pigeonhed is like the huge mug of coffee and giant croissant that powers me into the next lap. Most of the music from Lords of Acid is silly, but this particular track meshes smoothly with what comes before and after. As for Gibson and Everett, these two wormed themselves so far into my music brain that I had to learn how to adapt them both for the ukulele (not having a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon lyre handy, frankly loathing the whistle, and being told by my sweetie that the neighbours would not, most emphatically not, enjoy me learning the drums). But both those tracks are perfect Hild moments.
David Bowie, "Cracked Actor"
Hedningarna, "Täss'on Nainen"
Eurythmics, "Here Comes the Rain Again"
Dusty Springfield, "The Look of Love"
I'm a big fan of the outsider strangeness of early Bowie. I remember listening to this when I didn't have headphones. I would lie flat on my attic bedroom carpet with one speaker pressed to each ear and the floor vibrating beneath me, and sing at the top of my lungs. It spoke to me of how far we'll go when we're labelled or scorned by those around us. Hild has been there. Hedningarna is pure primal Hild. Hild running in the woods like a wolf, air clear as glass and cold enough to crack. Annie Lennox is softer, melancholy, aching for what she can't have yet. And then there's Dusty, singing for something she will never, ever have. It's heart-breaking. But like Hild, you can tell she would rather have loved and lost than never have loved at all.
U2, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (Gun mix)
U2, "Salome" (Zooromancer mix)
U2, "Numb" (Gimme Some More Dignity mix)
U2, "Discotheque" (Hexidecimal mix)
Oakenfold feat. Brittany Murphy, "Faster Kill Pussycat"
Led Zeppelin, "Dazed and Confused"
Led Zeppelin, "Whole Lotta Love"
Jefferson Airplane, "White Rabbit"
I'm married to a die-hard U2 fan, but the only music of theirs I like is their early 90s experimentation. Interestingly, the tracks I kept coming back to for Hild were remixes that emphasised rhythm and conjured an internal whirling, the feel of the club at three a.m., light spinning over the floor and walls as you set your muscles to dance, dance, dance... These songs speak of a kind of spellbound endurance. And then there's the sheer vitality of Brittany Murphy. In the rewrite stage I often began the playlist here, let the music carry me into a rollicking, zesty world of sex for the sheer joy of it. Led Zeppelin's sex is another kind entirely. Before the end of this book, Hild knows both.
And then we're back to the endless rise and build of Jefferson Airplane that ends with a springboard bounce that flings the listener into...well, whatever happens next.
Nicola Griffith and Hild links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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)
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