March 2, 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.
Megan Kruse's debut novel Call Me Home is a poignant and impressive book of violence and survival, family and love.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"A powerful story told with ferocity and grace."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
There's a standing joke in my family about how I've ruined Tom Waits for everyone, because of my insistence of playing The Early Years Volume II through a decade of Thanksgivings. "You always do things to death," my brother says. "I can't even listen to Ol' 55 anymore without thinking of turkey." Music is one of my only concessions to ritual and superstition in writing. I have a sense of what the book "sounds" like, and then that music becomes what I listen to while I write. I started writing Call Me Home in 2010, and four years later, I was still listening to the same tracks, to the chagrin of anyone I lived with during that time. It's a dark collection for a dark book, but in all of these songs I see glimpses of radiance, of our need to forge beauty from the hard materials of our lives.
"Snakebit," Mary Gauthier
Call Me Home began as a short story; I think I called it "The Lake." It was the story of a young man, Jackson, who ends up homeless after leaving his abusive father's home, and then gets work on a construction crew, where he falls in love with his married boss. As I started to develop the story into a novel, this song kept ringing in my mind--Mary Gauthier's powerful, forbidding voice, and the question of how we escape the lives we've been born into, the things that we carry in our blood:
The chair that I sit in belonged to my daddy
Carved from the hard wood of a bitter tree
When he was alive he used tell me
Kid I knew when you was born
You'd end up snake bit like me
As the novel developed, it became the story of not only Jackson, but of his sister, Lydia, and his mother, Amy, as they all three fight to make lives outside of the shadow of violence cast by the children's father, Gary. Lydia, thirteen and displaced, becomes tormented by the idea that she may become like her father. This is a theme I've always been interested in--the question of how much control we have over ourselves, how we are shaped by the world and the people around us, and what choices are our own.
"You Are My Sister," Anthony and the Johnsons
Before I expanded the novel to include the voices of Jackson's mother and sister, I would take long walks and listen to this song. In the first draft, Jackson was separated from his sister, and the pull of their connection was fierce and unrelenting. I eventually realized that I needed to create a voice for Lydia--that I needed to make this her story, too. I still think of this song as a love letter from Jackson to Lydia; even as he seems to protect her, she is doing the same for him:
Each night I'd ask for you to watch me as I sleep
I was so afraid of the night
You seemed to move through the places that I feared
You lived inside my world so softly
Protected only by the kindness of your nature
When I wrote this book I wanted to show the dominion of siblings, the way that a brother and sister can create a world between them that keeps alive, and this song is a haunting reminder of that.
"Don't Waste Time," Emily Herring
I co-wrote this song with Texas country singer Emily Herring. The narrative in the song isn't true to the novel's plot, but it is about the experience of domestic violence, the push and pull of wanting to redeem what once felt like love. There's a line, too, Why don't you bring back all you have that's mine, that is one of the simplest ways I can think of to describe the plaintive feeling of being at the end of a long and painful relationship, realizing how much has been taken from you. Besides her skill as a songwriter and player, Herring is also a queer woman playing Texas country, and her experience in a world where she doesn't easily fit the mold feels similar to Jackson's experience as a queer man in the rural West.
"The Biggest Lie," Elliott Smith
Is there any artist who resonates as much with the gritty and dark parts of the Pacific Northwest? His voice conjures the character of Jackson in my novel, and it reminds me of wandering through the rain in Portland, of the fear and ecstasy of being young and in trouble and foolish and brave. There's a line in this song: Oh we're so very precious, you and I/And everything that you do makes me want to die. To me that is the distillation of that time of life, when everything is uncertain, conflicting, and overwhelming.
"The Pharaohs," Neko Case
When I moved back to Seattle after a decade of bouncing between cities and plans, I worried about what it meant, to have returned to the part of the world where I'd begun, as though that meant failure, as though it meant defeat. To comfort myself I would think of the deep woods, the factories, the pitted roads that led up north, scenery that felt like it belonged to me. There was comfort to me in the way Neko Case sang about this part of the country, the "dusty old jewel" of Tacoma where the persona in "Thrive All American" invented her history. Still, it's "The Pharaohs" that I think of most in connection with Call Me Home. I see Amy, the mother in my story who has been swept off of her feet by someone she barely knows, in some of the first lines: You spoke the words, "I love girls in white leather jackets"/That was good enough for love, it was good enough for me. Later in the song I can feel the ache of wanting, the wanting that Amy feels for the man she never really knew, and that Jackson feels for the married man he's trying so desperately not to need.
"Passenger," Emily Wells
Emily Wells is a classical violinist who layers other instruments and sounds to create a kind of otherwordly experience--loops of gorgeous classical sound, hip-hop beats, an almost elegiac voice. So much of my novel is about movement, about searching for home, searching for the path. I think of the mother and daughter weaving their way across the country, and the simultaneous passiveness and action in their move. To be displaced by violence is to be both adrift and driven, to be a passenger at the same time that you are fighting for control.
"Help Me Make it Through the Night," Willie Nelson
There is no song that better describes the conflation of loneliness and desire, intimacy and need that I think so characterizes the human condition, and the way my characters are trying to hold tight to the world and to each other.
"Flowered Dresses," Slaid Cleaves
Slaid Cleaves is another Texas Hill Country musician. I wrote half of this book in Texas, working at a hole-in-the-wall bar called Andy's Lounge in Luling, which is the model for the town of Fannin in my book. Amy, the mother in my novel, is born in Fannin, and swept away by a charismatic man who then brings her out to the Northwest, where she endures years of horrific abuse. There's a line in the chorus of this song: She wore flowered dresses for him. This is Amy to me, so young and hopeful. I can't look at that line and not want to cry.
"Going to a Town," by Rufus Wainwright
Through the character of Jackson, I wanted to tell a story about being queer in rural America, in places where there is no space for queerness, no examples for how to lead your life. In "Going to a Town," Rufus Wainwright sings, Tell me, do you really think you go to hell for having loved?...I'm so tired of America. I remember first hearing Rufus Wainwright when I was sixteen, desperately unhappy, trying to imagine the kind of life I might build one day. In this 2007 song, Wainwright speaks of a bigger disillusionment with our country, and it resonates with me in my own novel--the exhaustion of living in places where there is no place for your identity, and the weary desolation of endured violence.
"You Were Born to Be Loved," Lucinda Williams
There's a nod to this song in the novel, as Jackson and his mother tell Lydia, the younger of the two children, that she was born so they could love her. I want to live in a world where everyone can believe those lines: You weren't born to suffer/And you weren't born for nothing/You were born to be loved.
"Killing the Blues," Alison Krauss & Robert Plant
People often ask me why I write about such sad things, about fracture. It doesn't feel that way to me. I think it's our whole task on earth, to bridge our separateness, and to consider how we choose our lives. Risks of intimacy, bonds of family, and the notion of what is right and wrong—I'm interested in when the "moral" choice, the "right" choice, isn't the choice that's right in your heart: The idea that you can love someone who pays you for sex. The idea that abandoning your child might be a gift. The idea that the people you love may be horrible to you, and sometimes that won't stop you from loving them.
And so this book, too, is about making who we are beautiful, about the liberation and beauty that come from being exactly who you are, flawed and full of sorrows and regrets and triumphs that come together to make your story. It's about, to come the long way round to this song, killing the blues by acknowledging their power.
"I Dream a Highway Back to You," Gillian Welch
In some ways, this song is the one that I think of as the most resonant to the novel. Amy is casting her mind back through time and trying to understand the path that brought her to where she is; Lydia and Jackson are dreaming toward each other. This is a fifteen minute lullaby, a tribute to longing, and I think of that dreamed highway holding this family together across distance and decisions, dreaming the world ahead of them.
Megan Kruse and Call Me Home links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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