March 13, 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.
Eddie Joyce's novel Small Mercies is an impressive debut, a stunning portrait of family and loss set in Staten Island.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"This assured debut novel is an insightful psychological tale of family and of love and loss. . . . Joyce gets the quotidian details of this family's life exactly right: the ever-present aromas of pasta and meatballs; the high-school athletic trophies still on display. He also pens a love letter to the forgotten borough of Staten Island, evoking its deep community ties with heartfelt emotion."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
When I write, I usually listen to something I'm aware of but that doesn't distract me: classical music or something like Brian Eno's Music for Airports. For some reason, if I hear lyrics or even words, my writing brain stops functioning. My head is like a swinging door in the kitchen of a restaurant: I can put things out and take things in, just not at the same time. As a result, I don't really listen to songs as I write.
I do take breaks, however. Many, many breaks. (Some days are more breaking than writing.) On these breaks, I either go for long walks or short walks. On the long walks, I bring nothing; I really try to lose myself and just walk. The long walks are usually in response to a fundamental issue in whatever I'm working on: is this voice working? Do I need to scrap this character or storyline? Why in the world did I decide to write a short story set in Kuala Lumpur, where I've never been to and know nothing about?
The short walks are usually destination-oriented: the deli, the coffee shop, the dry cleaners. Just long enough to throw the earphones in and listen to a song or two. The hope here is that I only need a dose of fresh air and maybe some inspiration. On occasion, a short walk has turned into a long walk. I go out to grab a Diet Coke at the corner deli and end up in Queens. But thankfully, that's rare. Most of the time, a shot of caffeine and the right song do the trick.
My novel, Small Mercies, is about a Staten Island family whose youngest son, Bobby, a firefighter, was killed on 9/11. The book takes place roughly ten years later. The main character is Bobby's mother, Gail but other important characters include his widow Tina, his father Michael and his brothers, Peter and Franky.
The songs discussed below are the songs I found myself relying on as I wrote and revised Small Mercies. Some helped when I was writing about specific situations or a particular character. Some embodied my feelings about the book as a whole. A few made me think about writing in general. Finally, a few just fired me up, for whatever reason.
"Bring the Pain" by Method Man
Small Mercies takes place on Staten Island and it would be heresy to write this list without a song (or two) from the Wu. One of the lines is "when you give it to me, give it to me raw." That's sound advice for writers. And "bring the pain" is a pretty good metaphor for writing on a number of levels.
"If I Ever Leave This World Alive" by Flogging Molly
I listened to this song over and over when I was writing Tina's chapter. The singer is basically telling someone he loved what to do now that's he's dead. At the end of the song, one of the verses goes "she says/I'm okay/I'm all right/though you have gone from my life/you say that it would/now everything should/be all right." Lead singer Dave King sings it once quietly and then repeats it. The second time, however, he screams it and the implication, to me anyway, is that everything is not going to be all right. Gets me every time.
"Muzzle of Bees" by Wilco
This song made me think about Gail's relationship with Bobby. It's not the lyrics necessarily although a few resonate ("my head upon your knee, half of it's you, half is me"). It's the overall feel of the music; it's a lovely, low-key song that ends in a somewhat harsh, chaotic manner. It's like nostalgia being ruined by reality, if that makes any sense.
"I Guess the Lord Must Be In New York City" by Harry Nilsson
For a week or so after 9/11, I went back to Staten Island and lived with my parents. One night, I was driving around and this song came on the radio. I'd never heard it before. Obviously, it was written decades before 9/11 but it captures the feeling of New York during those dark days (and months and years) afterwards: heartbroken and haunted but somehow not entirely hopeless.
"Shadowboxin" By GZA the Genius
A recurring idea in the book is that Staten Islanders have a chip on their shoulder because people overlook/make fun of/disrespect Staten Island. In many ways, this is true: Staten Island is the butt of the NYC joke. I mean, no one would ever actually write a book about Staten Island, right? So there I was, writing a book about Staten Island and, simultaneously, I'm imagining future slights. I'm picturing people making cutting comments and saying Staten Island isn't worthy of literature. Sometimes, I just wanted to give these people the finger, Shaolin style. Of course these imaginary critics only existed in my head but there's nothing like a little delusional paranoia to keep you motivated. Anyway, no one captures the ‘go fuck yourself' mentality of Staten Island like the Wu-Tang Clan.
"All These Things That I've Done" by The Killers
While we're on the topic of delusion: this is the song for the trailer for the movie version of Small Mercies. What's that? No, I haven't sold the film rights. And yes, I'm aware that trailers aren't usually five minutes long. Let's move on, before this gets embarrassing.
"No One Knows Nothing Any More" by Billy Bragg
The character that gave me the most difficulty was Michael, Bobby's father. I really had trouble finding the right way to express his reluctant melancholy. I went to see Billy Bragg at Town Hall while I was struggling with Michael's chapter and he played this song. Something about it made me think about Michael. The lyrics are pretty pessimistic but the music is hopeful, even uplifting. There's a sense of someone whose natural inclination is to be happy but whose life has not been free of sorrow. That's Michael. And the song is also about the idea that the world has changed, and not for the better. That's Michael too.
"Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go" by The Pogues
An Irish wake of a song: loud, a little out of control, with an undercurrent of abject sadness. In my head, I had this vision of Bobby's memorial mass set to this song. That scene never made it into the book but the spirit of this song did: the mass bells at the beginning of the song, the dueling screams at the end. It's all in the book.
"One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" by Wilco
First of all, Jane Smiley is mentioned in the title of the song. Doesn't get more literary than that. But mostly, this song just makes me want to write. The first line is "This is how I tell it." That's basically the unwritten first line of every novel, the unspoken prologue of every book, the entire point of a having a writer's name on a book: this is how I tell it. Goddam straight.
Eddie Joyce and Small Mercies links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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