January 23, 2015
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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Mark Wisniewski's new novel Watch Me Go is a compelling and gritty work of literary noir.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"Wisniewski is a sure and smart writer, and his philosophy never gets in the way of his story, which is suspenseful and original and wholly unpredictable."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My third novel, Watch Me Go, owes its existence to music. This was the toughest book for me to write and get into print, maybe because it challenges readers to piece together storytelling about love and hatred and racism and horrible luck, so on most every day of the roughly twenty-five years of writing and revising and submitting it to agents, I needed inspiration from something outside of me that was energetic and beautifully complex yet sometimes simply good. Thus: music. Regardless of where I lived during those twenty-five years--Northern California, San Antonio TX, rural Pennsylvania, Midtown Manhattan, Astoria, Queens, Lake Peekskill in upstate New York, Bed-Sty in Brooklyn, and again in Manhattan on the upper west side—music was always blaring. To be less hyperbolic, there were times when I'd wake after midnight with an idea and hop out of bed and close the bedroom door and the door to my office and work with the volume down. But as my wife told me just weeks ago, she was always—even when she appeared to be asleep—hearing whichever CD I'd play repeatedly (sometimes for days) over the clacking of my keyboard's keys.
Let me straight off admit that some of the songs on the playlist below might strike you as pop. My reasoning: Jan and Deesh, Watch Me Go's two narrators, proved, again and again throughout all those years, to be seeking love in places where bad luck thrived, so I needed a drafting-soundtrack that leaned toward sappy—in order to keep their voices from becoming too tough and jaded.
Likely excuse, right?
Another admission: Many of these songs were recorded decades ago, proving I'm not Mr. Young Hipster. But then again, please remember I began drafting this book before some people who'll read this list were born. Old-schoolers like Michael Stipe were cutting-edge back then.
"Nightswimming" by R.E.M.
For years Jan narrated a sexy passage about swimming in the dark with Tug. Now, instead, they run in the dark. But the late-August-crickets-still-chirping-mood of this song has always been welcome.
"After the Dance" by Marvin Gaye
You don't grow up in a segregated Polish-American neighborhood and then write a novel about an urban black guy without having heard some Motown. I happened upon this song a few years ago, after having forgotten about it for decades—and then of course couldn't stop playing it, the louder the better.
"Layla," Derrick and the Dominos
At some point agents began insisting that I develop backstories about the organized crime in Jan's narrative thread. This was a good suggestion because, after all, Jan lives among gamblers who deal with bookies and loan sharks and the kinds people you see in films like Goodfellas. So for a few months there, I aspired to have Jan's narrative blossom with passages similar to those great dubbed-in lines of Goodfellas fame: "We were goodfellas. Wiseguys. But Jimmy and I could never be made because we had Irish blood. To become a member of a crew you've got to be one hundred per cent Italian so they can trace all your relatives back to the old country." And to help me write in that vein, I'd play "Layla" [which graces the soundtrack for the climax of Goodfellas] constantly. And hearing this song again and again did help me develop Watch Me Go's backstories about The Nickster and The Show-Stopper and The Form Monger of the renowned severed arm. But what comes to mind when I hear "Layla" now is not so much the violence in Watch Me Go but the fact that in both Goodfellas and Watch Me Go, the violence occurred because people hated other people's bloodlines. My God, I always think. Why is this country so wacked about ethnicity?
"Your Eyes (Sitar Solo)" by Anoushka Shankar
Sometimes writing Watch Me Go required simply getting in a zone and producing quickly, maybe even kind of magically. At times like this I'd play the first disk of Concert for George, the recorded-live tribute to George Harrison that featured not only Shankar but also Clapton, Petty, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Paul McCartney and others. And Shankar's music, if you ask me, will put you in a zone like no other.
"Fortunate Son" by Bruce Hornsby
My older brother, who by the way taught me how to play the piano, was a doctor who fought AIDS and then succumbed to AIDS himself back when I began writing Watch Me Go. And for a while, when I'd just begun to draft chapters that would become the start of Jan's narrative thread, I had one of those odd, among-siblings intuitions that my brother was going to die. Yet I knew nothing for sure, since, back then—pre-Obamacare—AIDS and the business of health insurance danced a dance I still don't understand. Suffice to say many AIDS victims back then kept secrets, and my brother kept his very worst secret from his wannabe novelist little brother for as long as he could. And of course secrets like that can spark emotions of every stripe between siblings, some of those emotions not upbeat in the least. But every time I'd hear Hornsby's piano in this song, I'd tell myself that, even though Watch Me Go was being rejected, I was damned fortunate.
"Carnival Town" by Norah Jones
When you want to explore a woman's voice, as I did after making Jan a first-person narrator, why not listen to one of the most heavenly female voices recorded?
"Romeo and Juliet (any live version)" by Mark Knopfler
The streetsmart hope in the lyrics "You and me, babe--how bout it," along with the magic you hear when Knopfler lets his fingers loose in front of a large audience, kept me tweaking those crucial dialogue passages between Deesh and Madalynn—and that last, long, heart-to-heart conversation between Jan and Tug—well into many otherwise quiet nights.
"The Water Is Wide" by Karla Bonoff and James Taylor
I'm a big lover of harmony, in music and among people and within nature and just about anywhere, and in this song love how James Taylor lets Karla Bonoff prove she's plenty strong without him, then often sings very quietly, but, still, you recognize him, yet primarily you just want to join the peace of their results. And of course the lyrics in this song were apropos when I was writing Watch Me Go, which is often set on water—Deesh comes to terms on his river, and the shimmering Jan faces every night as she looks out the Corcorans' lakeside summer porch windows will, in all likelihood, never leave her mind.
"You're a Friend of Mine" by Clarence Clemons (with Jackson Browne)
Call this song hokey, but there's a celebratory aspect to it I have never gotten over, and just after Watch Me Go was slated for publication, I found myself lying awake in bed, humming phrases from it spontaneously.
"Beautiful Side of Somewhere" by Jakob Dylan
I didn't adore this song or use it to write by until I heard Jakob Dylan's down-tempo, hyper-sober rendition of it for Nissan Live Sets. I got the impression that, after having performed it otherwise with The Wallflowers zillions of times, he'd matured into realizing that, hell, some messages we send to each other are better when slowed down and pondered over more than usual. Who knows how many drafts of Watch Me Go I had written by then. In any case this version of this song clicked with me, and I found it on You Tube and would rush my cursor to that curled replay arrow as soon as the last notes would play out. The seemingly simple (yet loaded!) guitar work toward the very end lets the melody pull at you more. Pure earnestness there. Risky as hell. To my ear an earnestness that went beyond sentimentality into a soulfulness that wasn't so much Dylan as it was Jakob. I tried to write passages of Watch Me Go that way. Probably this was impossible, but sometimes you wind up ahead by failing just slightly less often than you try.
Mark Wisniewski and Watch Me Go links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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