February 21, 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.
Michael Grant Jaffe's new novel When Blackness Was a Virtue is a wonderfully dark drama with an unforgettable protagonist.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Many years ago, when I began working on my first novel, I confined myself to a lake house in Western New York during the dead of winter. Most of my neighbors had dispersed—retreating to warmer climates until the summer season returned. It was so quiet that I could hear the lake's icy skin crackling in the darkness. Soon, I realized that I had to tweak my creative process: the stark silence was actually a distraction. My mind began to wander. I found myself listening for movement in the waist-high snowdrifts outside—stray dogs, deer, scavenging foxes. Finally, I discovered relief in music: I was able to concentrate on my writing by playing a rotation of CDs at barely-audible levels.
I'm a creature of habit—if something's working leave it alone—and I followed a similar routine during the writing of my three subsequent novels. In my newest, When Blackness Was a Virtue, I focus on a single father who pushes against moral boundaries while trying to provide for his two young daughters. Not surprisingly, given the book's title, it's my darkest novel. And much of the music I played during my work sessions has a gritty, menacing feel . . .
"Low Desert" by R.E.M.
Any list of my musical influences and inspirations begins with R.E.M. Not long after the publication of my first novel, Dance Real Slow, in 1996, I was invited by my friend Bertis Downs, the band's manager, to give a reading from his porch in Athens, Georgia. It remains one of the highlights of my life. After the evening had ended, Bertis showed me to his guest room and slipped me some contraband: a demo version of the band's forthcoming CD, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Using headphones, I listened to the recording on a continuous loop—straight through the night. Years later, as I was writing my fourth novel, I again found myself hitting the repeat button when listening to the album—especially on the tracks "So Fast, So Numb" and "Low Desert."
"Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan
Admittedly, I was a slow convert to Dylan. It took years of badgering by a friend before I purchased my first Dylan record. Eventually, though, I was rewarded with a eureka-moment appreciation for his music and a title for my new novel: "'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood/When blackness was a virtue, and the road was full of mud."
"Atlantic City" by Bruce Springsteen
The narrator of my novel, Hayes Fanning, is carrying a heavy load. As I wrote some of the book's darker sequences, I'd often listen to Springsteen for source material. I would like to think that Fanning resembles some of the down-on-their-luck characters in Springsteen's songs. At one point, Tourette-struck, I kept repeating a line from "Atlantic City" that seemed to describe Fanning's condition: "Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away/But I got debts that no honest man can pay."
"Golden Slumbers" by The Beatles
As a child, I remember sitting in my aunt and uncle's living room and listening to Abbey Road. It was my induction into the world of rock & roll. There's a scene in my novel where Fanning tries to comfort one of his daughters by singing a verse from "Golden Slumbers."
"Anna Begins" by Counting Crows
It's incredibly difficult to write a love song that doesn't lapse into something syrupy and contrived. As Fanning enters the early stages of a new relationship, I gained inspiration by listening to "Anna Begins" by Counting Crows—a song that keenly captures the awkwardness, excitement, and uncertainty of a budding romance.
"Lonely Ol' Night" by John Mellencamp
Much of this novel was written in Ohio and, well, Mellencamp is the patron saint of Midwest crooners. When "Lonely Ol' Night" was released, in 1985, it was accompanied by a terrific black-and-white video depicting a small-town fair during summertime. Many of the people in the video—wearing frayed denim and work boots—were the types of folks I imagined as Fanning's neighbors.
"I Hear the Bells" by Mike Doughty
Fanning is a big, physical guy—a former college football player—who tries to make ends meet by moonlighting as a collector for a bookie. Illogically, I'd often play "I Hear the Bells" as I wrote about Fanning's travels through his fictional Ohio neighborhood. Maybe it had something to do with Doughty's splendid line, "You snooze, you lose/Well, I have snost and lost."
"Moonlight Mile" by The Rolling Stones
This is one of my favorite songs. It's haunting and ethereal—and it never failed to lead me back into Fanning's world.
"Bad" by U2
Over the course of the novel, Fanning finds the needle on his moral compass moving farther away from True North. He repeatedly attempts to reconcile his actions with their results. He's not a bad man; rather, he discovers himself doing the wrong things for the right reasons. As I imagined his battles (internal and otherwise), I recalled a line from U2: "If I could, I would let it go, this desperation/Dislocation/Separation, condemnation, revelation."
Michael Grant Jaffe and When Blackness Was a Virtue links:
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