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March 14, 2014

Book Notes - Rohan Wilson "The Roving Party"

Silent City

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.

Rohan Wilson's debut novel The Roving Party is a dark and complex retelling of explorer John Batman and one of his late 1820s raids on native Tasmanians, a brutal, important, and eye opening book.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Wilson presents an emotionally harrowing, sometimes brutally violent exploration of cruelty and compassion in a desolate land. Wilson’s psychological insights are electric; the chilling ways in which each member of the roving party must grapple with his sense of humanity makes for particularly fascinating reading. Wilson’s novel will appeal to readers who appreciate intricate plotting, rich character studies, and poetic depictions of nature."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Rohan Wilson's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel, The Roving Party:


Let me just start by saying that underneath this mild, middle-aged exterior there beats the heart of a frustrated rocker. I came to understand music much too late in life to be any good at it. I was seventeen before I bought my first album, which in musical terms is old-age. My friends had all been playing guitar or drums for years. They were all in bands. They got it. Me, I was a reader. I read and wrote and paid no attention to music until it was too late. By the time I realised how much I loved it, I'd missed the boat.

But that's life. Things get set in stone before you even realise it. I already thought of myself as a writer; it had become ingrained in my psyche. Funny how that works. You want it so much to be something that you have to convince yourself that it's not only possible, but that it's the only possible future for you. All other potentialities fade to grey. So here I am, a writer that might have been a rocker. A writer that daydreams about being on stage.

"Dancing in the Dark" by Bruce Springsteen

I was living in Japan when I started writing The Roving Party. The company I worked for, a chain of language schools called NOVA, had just gone belly up. 16,000 staff were put out of work overnight. So there I was with my wife and son, jobless, in a foreign country, and need of a miracle. I actually began work on the book in the middle of the night. I couldn't sleep. The anxiety of the whole situation was immense. I needed a way out. The story of John Batman, a bounty hunter, an explorer, a business man, was going to save me.

A couple of days later this song came up on my iPod. For the first time, I really listened to the lyrics. You can't start a fire without a spark. Even if we're just dancin in the dark. It hit me what he was talking about. The Boss was telling us all that you just had to go for it. Forget the risks. Forget the bullshit. Just go out and take what you want.

It became my theme song.


"Where Boys Fear to Tread" by Smashing Pumpkins

I love Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness with a blow-torch heat. I mean, I had a Zero t-shirt that I wore everyday for years when I was a teen. When I hear this song, the crazy intro that sounds like the band just jamming away at nothing, and then the slow emergence of a pattern out of the chaos, and then the huge hundred-foot wide riff that James Iha starts playing, well, when I hear it I always think of the process of writing. It's just like that. There is chaos, and then, with time, a pattern emerges. We work until we can reveal it. Go and listen to this song and tell me you don't hear it too.


"The Dead Heart" by Midnight Oil

I had to do a lot of reading around Australian Aboriginal history for The Roving Party. I mean, a lot. Dozens of books and articles and manuscripts. I had to learn the ins and outs of Aboriginal Tasmanian culture in the 1830s, as well as the finer points of settler life. The process of settlement went something like this. For 10,000 years, Aboriginal Tasmanians used fire to shape the land. They effectively farmed kangaroo by creating pastures. They learned how to survive off limited resources without destroying those resources. Then the settlers arrived and took those pastures for their sheep and forced the Aborigines to rely on white perishable goods like flour, sugar, tea, and salted meat for their existence. This caused conflict. The conflict was vicious. There were no winners, only losers.

This song tells us about that Aboriginal experience. We carry in our hearts the true country, Peter Garrett sings, and that cannot be stolen. It is a brave, beautiful, powerful song that helped to guide my reading into the Aboriginal past.


"Wake Up" by Rage Against the Machine

This is a song about ignorance. Most of us like to believe that our governments are benign and that they are peaceful. This couldn't be further from the truth. The more you learn about the past, the more you grow into the understanding that governments are cabals generally intent on protecting the wealthiest in any community, no matter the cost. Zach De La Rocha knows that. He wants us to wake up and look around. We live on land alienated from indigenous communities. We live under power structures devoted to repressing those same communities even today.


"Jambi" by Tool

In terms of a sonic landscape for The Roving Party, this song probably comes the closest. Put this on while you are reading the book. I often had it playing while writing. Essentially, the songs describes a man being saved by love. The main character in my novel, Black Bill, believes that he will be saved by love, but what he doesn't realise is that love can't save you -- you have to save yourself. To be fair, most of us never realise that. We want to believe that without love, we are not whole or not complete. Bullshit. We are as whole and complete as we want to be. I only wish Black Bill could have understood that.


"Sirens" by Dizzee Rascal

We eventually left Japan in 2008, so that I could study creative writing in Australia with an eye to getting The Roving Party published. On the way home to Tasmania, we stopped at Melbourne, where we met some friends and went to music festival. It was like the best homecoming celebration you can imagine. All these great bands. Beer. Sunburn. And one of the highlights of the day was Dizzee. Boy, can that bloke put on a show. When he played 'Sirens' I changed from mild-mannered into full freak-out. And who wouldn't? I'd thought I was stuck in Japan forever, but I'd broken free. Now here I was, watching Dizzee strut about in Melbourne with my wife. Life felt good right then, and it only got better after that.


"Keep the Car Running" by Arcade Fire

There is something deeply moving about this song. It plays that old trick, the one where the lyrics and music don't quite match. The lyrics deal with nothing less than the human condition, life, death, and all the parts in between. The music keeps it upbeat though, preventing the whole thing from descending into navel-gazing. Like I said, it's an old trick, but the effect is to make you feel fragile and happy all at once and sometimes it doesn't matter that you can see the puppet master pulling the strings because you are so caught up in the story.

There's a lesson here for writers of all stripes. If you're going to manipulate your reader's emotions (and let's face it, we all do), then make sure what you lay down is effective. If it is, they'll forgive you. But if you try to manipulate their emotions and it doesn't evoke something in them, they will see straight through the deception. That's why we hate cheesy romantic comedies so much. It's not the attempt to manipulate, so much as the failure to do it effectively, that makes us switch off.


Rohan Wilson and The Roving Party links:

the book's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

The Australian review
Chicago Tribune review
Kirkus review
PopMatters review

The Conversation essay by the author


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

Online "Best of 2013" Book Lists
2013 Year-End Online Music Lists

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)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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