March 9, 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.
David Arnold's Mosquitoland is one of the most fascinating YA novels I have read in years, a book that tackles weighty issues with poignancy, charm, and humor.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Arnold boldly tackles mental illness and despair, and sexual assault and sexual identity, without ever once losing the bigheartedness of the story. . . In the words of one of Mim's Greyhound seatmates, Mosquitoland has pizazz—lots and lots of it."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Bandcamp.
In a past life, I recorded music for a living. I cocooned myself in an upstairs home studio, and built songs from the ground up. It wasn't always pretty, but sometimes you don't set out to make pretty. You set out to make something real.
While I rarely record music these days, this application of honesty in art is something that I try to carry over into my novels. In the acknowledgments section of my book, Mosquitoland, I thank Elliott Smith for teaching me that "an honest voice is more compelling than a pretty one." I think too many artists focus on creating a technically perfect product, and in so doing, suck the life out of the very art they're trying to perfect. Art should reflect something inside the artist, something human. Anything else is robot art. And what could be more boring?
So. I wrote and recorded nine songs, and compiled them into a record called Say It Out Loud. Some of the songs accompany Mosquitoland. Some of them accompany my second novel (a work in progress). And while I never really set out to write a companion record, it was almost impossible not to write songs that were at least partially inspired by shades of these characters I had, somewhat naively, given permission to set up shop in my brain. Two of the songs were recorded years ago, but contained ideas or lyrics that somehow made their way into my novels on the front end. In that sense, the conception of the record was incredibly organic.
I do hope you enjoy.
"Say It Out Loud"
This is the first track on the record because I felt it truly captured the essence of the protagonist in Mosquitoland, Mim Malone. The song touches on Mim's desperate desire to find her own identity, as well as offer some insight into one of her favorite pastimes: music. It's about fighting to be heard, and the inevitability of occasional invisibility—we all go unnoticed sometimes. One of the song lyrics says, "I'm sick of things the way they are…" In the book, on page 277, Mim says, "And I'm sick of things the way they are, my many oddities, my limited depth perception, as if it's not bad enough I only see half the world, but it always seems to be the wrong half." Mim realizes in this moment that her physical setback (solar retinopathy) is also an illustration of a much larger problem: her own skewed worldview.
"Kids of Appetite"
One element I'm trying to capture in my second novel is a sort of youthful recklessness. Contagious enthusiasm. To put it another way: I would like to write a book the way Arcade Fire performs a song. (BE WARNED: my song does not hold a candle to the luscious magic of Arcade Fire, but I do hope there is a sense of that kind of energy behind it.) It also deals with finding identity, and how this has become exponentially more difficult in a world of filters and catfishing and the mighty cosmos of the internet.
This is the first of two songs I wrote years ago, long before tackling a book. The opening lyrics—"Madeline toll the iron bell, wishing ill by the wishing well"—always stuck with me, and eventually, found their way into a scene in my second novel, where, what do you know, a girl named Mad rings an iron bell. But more than that, the wishing well plays a prominent role in the landscape of the story, which leads me to wonder what the book would look like had I never written this song.
Mim is a fighter. And though she never participates in hand-to-hand combat, I always wondered what she would look like in a brawl. (For the record, I think she would hold her own.) In the verses, I tried to convey this imagery of Mim in a fight. The chorus, however, is a single line: "It's not gonna be that way for me, it's not gonna be…" Whatever the verses suggest about Mim's character, the choruses come right out and say. This also touches on her idea that a bad example can be more valuable than a good one, that she can see someone else act a certain way, or say a certain thing, and decide right then… it's not gonna be that way for her.
Another line from this song—"It's too bad you can only see the sky but not the sun"—hints at the way in which Mim contracts solar retinopathy, but also touches on her frequent inability to see the larger picture. Her character is broken and quite frustrating at times, and while I would have loved to write what Mim should do, it was my responsibility to write what Mim would do.
Often, I write song lyrics based on the mood of a thing, rather than the thing itself. In my second novel, one of the main characters (Vic, a bit of a wallflower) meets a group of kids who, in his own words, "remind me of a gaggle of geese that all turn at the same time, in blind cohesion, and you don't understand the when or the where of those turns, but they do. And you figure it must be a miracle." Vic goes on to compare himself to "the straggler with the broken wing," and part of this song is about him figuring out how to break out of that mindset. But, as the title suggests, it's also music-related. Vic is obsessed with a specific opera, but since he doesn't know what the lyrics mean, he often daydreams about the two sopranos who sing it soaring through the air. "Sing It" is my attempt to capture this mood.
In its earliest drafts, Mosquitoland was about a new kid at school. I moved around a bit as a kid, and those memories—of standing around in the hallways, watching all these other kids live out their history with each other, wondering how anyone was ever expected to write new history—are still incredibly visceral for me. While Mim's story ended up changing pretty drastically, this "new kid" mentality is something I tried to maintain throughout the evolution of the book. "Great Lakes" is about moving, and moving on. It's about saying goodbye to friends and more-than-friends. And it's about the difficulty of trying to write new history.
Even though the scene that inspired this song was ultimately cut, the sentiment remained throughout the novel. In book two, the main characters have a conversation in the rain—one in a jacket, one in a sweater—when one of them describes his love as "thunderous." While not entirely necessary to the story (hence, getting axed), this was one of those scenes that helped me figure out the nature of my characters, and of their relationship with each other. And I liked the phrase thunderous love so much, I ended up using it in a different scene.
"This Can Only Get Better"
This is the second song on the soundtrack that I recorded before writing Mosquitoland. I found myself thinking about it pretty consistently throughout, but especially near the end of Mim's trip. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I'll try to explain in code, using language only someone who has already read the book might understand: there are all sorts of goodbyes, but this song is about those of a liquid variety.
The only instrumental song on the record, I had the idea for this while mixing the first track ("Say It Out Loud"). I was working on the piano part, fooling around with different reverbs and space designers, when I landed on one that made the piano sound like it was recorded in the middle of a bus station. Immediately, it conjured the opening scene of Mosquitoland, and I imagined Mim walking around the Greyhound station, passing an old man or a child tinkering around on a piano. (I've traveled by Greyhound, and while I've never seen a piano in a bus station, let's be honest: it would be a nice improvement.)
David Arnold and Mosquitoland links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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