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May 19, 2015

Book Notes - Kirsty Logan "The Gracekeepers"

The Gracekeepers

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, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeepers is an exceptional debut, a vividly original fairy tale of a novel.

The Scotsman wrote of the book:

"Everything about this book is beautiful; the language is as poetic and diaphanous as nature and the many characters who contribute to the story are utterly authentic in this magic realist world. Every one of them stays with you, leaving you craving more about their back stories and their fates. Logan has a uniquely light touch on the theme of fluidity of gender and, above all, it all seems driven by humanity. This is a delicious piece of work from a supremely talented young writer."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kirsty Logan's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel The Gracekeepers:

"We're All in This Together" – Gabby Young & Other Animals

From the song:
"And the souls were left resting
As they gathered up the crowd
No one was left guessing
No one was proud"

From the book:
"After that night's performance, the circus crew felt the storm finally stirring to life. With glitter in their blood, coals in their chests, choking on their secrets; they raised anchor and sailed into the night. Soon they lost sight of land. The first drops of rain fell."

I started writing The Gracekeepers in a tiny rented flat in a Scottish fishing village. It rained almost constantly: a light smirr that purred on the window when I was inside and left a glittering veil on my hair when I was outside. It was early October and I was always cold; after waking I'd pull on all my jumpers, put coffee on the stove, and huddle over the electric heater until I got the feeling back in my hands so I could type. In the week I spent in the village, there were two storms. The flat's window faced the harbour, which was basically a high stone wall against which the waves raged and sucked. The harbour was closed when the storms came, and it was easy to see why: anyone standing anywhere near that wall would have been swept out to sea. So I stayed inside, wrapped in my layers of clothing, watching the grey sky darken to black and making up a storm.

When I'm writing I play a handful of songs over and over until I don't really hear them any more. This one I listened to while sitting at the kitchen table where I wrote, and leaning on the stone windowsill feeling the chill seep into my legs, and sipping coffee while hopefully pushing buttons on my phone even though I knew there was no signal.

When I left the village I bought an antique brass compass, which I thought was a good sign because the main character in the book is called North. This became a superstition: every morning before beginning my writing, I had to make sure the compass pointed north. I did this every single day of the six months it took to finish the first draft.

"Oh Sailor" – Mr Little Jeans

From the song:
"When you feel like you're out there on your own
Know there is someone watching over you
When out at sea feels nothing like a home
Oh sailor we will blow the wind right"

From the book:
"As the little boat sailed away, back to the main ship anchored at the edge of the graceyard, Callanish felt that one end of a fine thread was tied to the boat's stern and the other to her ribs. With every beat of the oars she felt something over her heart stretch, and stretch, until it might break."

A few months after I started writing the book, my four-year relationship ended. I was midway through another writing retreat, this one at a 17th century castle in a woodland estate near Edinburgh. I went back home to Glasgow for one night to do a reading, and while I was there my girlfriend and I broke up. It was sudden, but also a long time coming.

It was January, and on my way back to the castle, snow started falling. I knew when the retreat was over I'd have to move out of the flat I shared with my now ex-girlfriend and back in with my mum. I didn't have anywhere else to go. I was lonely. I was angry. I was frantic and heart-hurt and terrified and determined to live a good life – a better life, the very best life – to show my girlfriend what she was missing. I spent the next two weeks tramping through the snowy woods or curled under a yellow woollen blanket in the library or hunched over my laptop. Every evening I spent hours in the deep Victorian bath, reading poetry books and listening to the rain fall on the skylight (you may have noticed a rainy theme; I live in Scotland, so.) By the time the retreat was over, I wasn't angry any more. Heartbreak is never fun, but it does help when you start to heal in a silent, snowy castle.

I listened to this song over and over, I think because it's about being lonely and lost, but is also beautiful and happy with its clink-clunk bells and uplifting chorus of voices. I wanted to do something similar with the book, and with my life: a story of learning to embrace isolation, to accept it, before you can begin a new life with companionship.

"Wakes" – Nina Nastasia

From the song:
"You misunderstood
If what you want from me
Is to give thanks for this empty tenderness"

From the book:
"No matter what she felt, the show must go on. She said the words, she performed the actions, she took her payment. But she only mimed grief. She didn't mean it. How could she? She didn't know this man, beyond his stitched-shut face and his wife's too-tight wedding ring. Sometimes she pretended that she was saying the words of the service about her mother. This helped, and on the darkest days she'd had to leave long pauses for fear that her voice would crack."

A year before I wrote this book, my dad died suddenly. He was 58 and I still don't know how or why he died. I wish I had some wise words to provide here about grief, but I don't. I still miss him. I will always miss him. Perhaps that's all there is to say about grief: it gets better, but it never gets completely better. Halfway through writing the book, my granddad (also my last living grandparent) died. A month later my boss died, in circumstances which seemed, to me at least, uncomfortably similar to my dad's death. This was always going to be a book about grief, so I was prepared to think about it in my imaginary life. I hadn't expected it to be touched by so much loss in my real life.

I listened to this song on a loop while writing the first funeral scene, or Resting as they're called in the book. There are several such scenes, as the other main character, Callanish, works as a gracekeeper – something between a hermit and an undertaker, who prepares dead bodies and puts them to rest in a floating, isolated graveyard on the equator. I was on another writing retreat, to another tiny seaside town – much of this book was written by water, which makes sense when you think that in Scotland you're never more than 40 miles from the sea. Of the ten cottages, mine was the only occupied one. It was winter and no one else wanted to rent a damp cottage in a damp town in a damp month. Every morning after my coffee I'd put on my coat and hat and gloves and scarf, and anything else I could find to keep out the biting wind, and walk down the path to the beach. The sand was always wet, the water underneath sucking at my boots with every step. I'd cup my hands around my eyes so I couldn't see any land at all, and stare out to sea. Callanish is alone in her graceyard, with no one else living for miles around, and it wasn't difficult for me to pretend that I was equally alone.

"Paris is Burning" – St Vincent

From the song:
"Dance poor people, dance and drown
Dance fair Paris to the ground"

From the book:
"Cash knew that this night would be like every other. The clowns would draw on masks, wrap their limbs in costumes, tuck and pad their torsos strategically so that the audience got their gleeful little genderfuck. Then they'd pretty-up their coracle for the after-show, make it all mysterious for the clam girls: layers of coloured fabric, strange bones, abandoned objects they'd found while skin-diving. When landlockers bunked up with a circus performer, they expected something special. They had all the slow-witted farm-boys they wanted on their grubby home islands – now they wanted exotic animals in unlocked cages. They wanted to blink glitter for at least a week after. They wanted a secret to keep from their future husbands."

Back at my mother's house, where I was now temporarily living, I got stuck back into my first draft. I had two tasks every day: to write, and to find somewhere to live. In the book, the three clowns initially seem to be the antagonists. But it's not as simple as that. I wanted to move past a binary: not just girl or boy, not just gay or straight, not just land or sea. The clowns aren't good and they're not bad. In many ways, looking outside the binary is good. I wanted the clowns to be sinister, threatening: a source of chaos. I listened to this song as I wrote their chapters, loving the way they twist and leer as the world burns. I'd revel in their gleeful smashing of accepted rules – but then I'd break off to look at flats and mortgages. It felt strange to be writing about anarchy and chaos, to imagine I was living in a world of people constantly on the move, while I was trying to anchor myself. At the same time, I found it easy to connect with them and their peripatetic lives. I didn't belong anywhere. Like all the characters in the book, I was trying to make a home – whatever and wherever that was.

"Papi Pacify" – FKA twigs

From the song:
"Never tell me no
Whisper you’re the one to fix it too
Even if you won't"

From the book:
"When people are cruel it's often said that they have no hearts, only cold spaces or lumps of ice in their chests. This was never true of Avalon. She had no heart, everyone knew, but there was nothing cold about her. In her chest burned an enormous coal, white-hot, brighter than the north star. North knew the truth about Avalon: she was made of fire, and she would burn them all."

There's a character in the book called Avalon. She's the ringmaster's wife, and she's sultry and furious basically all of the time. I loved writing her. She's the true antagonist: the spark that sets the whole thing alight. By the time I was writing Avalon's chapters, I had bought a flat. To get into her mindset I listened to this song over and over while sitting at my new kitchen table – which was actually my granddad's old kitchen table, one of the many pieces of furniture I inherited after he died. I lived alone and so I could write all night, headphones on, lit in the glow of my laptop. I'd been dating an assortment of women, and to be honest I felt pretty sultry and furious about it all. Then I met one woman who made all the others disappear. She moved in, and I was giddy with love basically all the time. I didn't write all night any more. For a while I barely wrote at all. But then she wanted to know about this book I was writing. From then on, every time I finished a chapter I'd read it aloud to her. For months, we shared a secret: we were both the only real inhabitants of this imaginary world I'd created.

"Heartbeats" – José Gonzalez

From the song:
"One night to be confused
One night to speed up truth
We had a promise made
Four hands and then away"

From the book:
"North had wanted Callanish to see the bear, to meet her family, but it was too dark. Instead she took the gracekeeper's hand and pressed it to the bear's broad back. At first she flinched, but then she let North's hand hold her own. The bear's snuffles caught from one breath to the next, but he did not wake. They kept their hands pressed to the bear's fur, feeling his heart beat strong and steady. Callanish smelled of warm breezes and saltwater. North breathed in deep, holding the scent inside her."

By the time I was writing the sections where the two main characters in the book meet, I was starting my new life with my soon-to-be wife. I was at an artists' retreat on the banks of Loch Long (this means 'ship lake', as 'long' is Gaelic for 'ship'). It was a testing ground for torpedoes during WW2 and is full of wrecks hidden beneath the water. The residences are made of converted shipping containers and overlook a little duck pond, and there are Highland cows wandering around – one morning I woke to find one peering through my window. I'd listened to this song before and always found it sad, a song of loss. But now when I listened, it felt like a love song. I played it over and over as I wrote about North and Callanish meeting: two strangers who recognise something familiar in one another. I wrote a lot that week. My girlfriend and I had adopted a puppy the week before, and I was keen to get my work done, get home and see them both.

Later, long after The Gracekeepers was finished and sold and edited, the six months it took to write the first draft took on a new clarity. I saw that I'd written a book about love and grief, while listening to songs about love and grief, while falling in love and – at least partly – out of my grief.

Kirsty Logan and The Gracekeepers links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Guardian review
Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Scotsman review

Weekend Edition interview with the author

BBC Radio 2 interview with the author
The List interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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

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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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