February 25, 2014
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.
Amy Greene's Long Man is an eloquent and powerful historical novel that explores timeless themes of greed and displacement.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"With searing eloquence, she seems to channel the frustrations of generations of rural poor in this stark indictment of a government hell-bent on destroying a long-standing community. Her stunning insight into a proud and insular people is voiced with cold clarity and burning anger."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Long Man is my second novel, after Bloodroot. Before I ever wrote the first one, I'd been warned by fellow authors how difficult it would be to get the next one right. I'd been told about "Second Novel Syndrome" and " The Sophomore Slump." Or even worse, "The Sophomore Curse." I didn't disregard these warnings, but by the time I'd finished Bloodroot, somehow I didn't think the "curse" would strike me. I felt immune, like I'd discovered so much in the process of bringing my first novel into the world, there was no way the second could be harder. But I write to you now a wizened and humbled woman.
I began Long Man in 2008, while still editing my debut novel with the brilliant Robin Desser. I dashed off a longhand draft in my notebook within a few months, to empty the story and the characters from my head onto paper. The first inkling that I might have a winding road ahead came when I read through that rough draft and realized how much more I wanted for this novel, how much bigger in scope it needed to be, if I meant to do the story I was compelled to tell and the characters I'd already come to love proper justice. I realized that in order to bring my vision to the page I would have to stretch as a writer. I'd have to push myself, and be pushed by Robin, until we were both satisfied. When Long Man took on a life and started to grow, I had no choice but to grow with it.
One important thing I learned while writing my first novel is that music can save me in those moments of struggle. My husband taught me that. He made a soundtrack for Bloodroot, a mix CD that brought me through a creative drought. So this second time around I didn't wait for the well to run dry. From the beginning, I made space each day to put on my headphones, close my eyes and dream to the songs that evoked the images and emotions I sought to capture on paper.
Long Man takes place in the Tennessee Valley during the Great Depression. It's the story of three days in the summer of 1936, as a dam is about to flood a town called Yuneetah, and a three year old girl named Gracie Dodson goes missing. My challenge was to incorporate suspense into this historical novel I'd conceived, to tell against the sprawling backdrop of the Depression an intimate story of a family dealing with tragedy. Having a daughter of my own, one of my most difficult tasks was putting myself in the shoes of a mother, Annie Clyde Dodson, whose child disappears. My first drafts of Long Man suffered because I couldn't bring myself to fully imagine Annie Clyde's situation.
As I wrote those early pages, I listened often to Abigail Washburn's album Song of the Traveling Daughter. Washburn's claw hammer banjo-picking conjures Long Man's East Tennessee setting, while the old-fashioned simplicity of her vocals harkens back to a bygone era in this mountain place where I was born and still live. For me, "Halo" is the album's most inspiring track. Its haunting lyrics stir in me the grief and desperation Annie Clyde feels as she searches her drowning hometown for her little girl, the waters rising higher with each passing hour: "The water is wide/This side I can't stay . . . My halo's bright/follow the way." The sad lullaby "Rockabye Dixie" also speaks to me of Annie Clyde and Gracie: "Me and Dixie, we rolled and dreamed/Time held us alone in this world it seemed/Then morning broke and awoke you from me . . .Come back, Dixie, I'll rock you to sleep. . .Cradle your fading stars in my arms/Oh rockabye, my Dixie child."
While Song of the Traveling Daughter got me through those first drafts of Long Man, The Civil Wars' debut album Barton Hollow carried me to the end. I discovered the Civil Wars a little late, but it turned out to be perfect timing. I was emotionally wrung out, wondering how I was going to push through to the finish line. At that point, I'd been through six intensive revisions over four years. I was having doubts about the book, wondering if it was worth all the labor I'd put in. Barton Hollow helped me to see Long Man with fresh eyes. Each track has a dark and moody sweetness that provokes my imagination. Like Abigail Washburn, The Civil Wars call to mind a strong sense of place with their bluegrass influence while creating their own world with music, as I've tried to create a world with this second novel. I played "Poison and Wine" over and over while attempting to convey in words the contentious but loving relationship of James and Annie Clyde Dodson, to show the reader through a glimpse of their shared history why they're on the verge of separation as the novel opens and why they search for their daughter not together but apart. The lyrics of "Poison and Wine" seem to describe the dynamic of their marriage: "I wish you'd hold me when I turn my back/The less I give the more I get back/I don't have a choice but I'd still choose you . . .I don't love you but I always will."
It's strange but now that Long Man is about to be published, I can't bear to listen to Abigail Washburn's Song of the Traveling Daughter anymore, or Barton Hollow. The same songs that saved me now break me down. It hurts in a way that the journey is over, with all those years I spent battling The Sophomore Curse behind me. The woman who wrote the story of a biblical flood and a missing child while listening to that music is different, irrevocably changed. It's bittersweet, like the words of the one song-- "After the Storm" by Mumford & Sons--that evokes Long Man for me like no other, sends the scenes of the story running through my head like a movie reel, so that I may never listen to it again without crying: "And after the storm/ I look up/On my knees and out of luck, I look up. . .There will come a time, you'll see/ with no more tears/ Get over your hill and see what you find there/With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair."
Growth is a beautiful thing, a necessary thing. But sometimes it comes with sadness and pain, and leaving things you love behind.
Amy Greene and Long Man links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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