June 2, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Colin Winnette's Haints Stay is a brutally dark and haunting novel of two killers, a noir Western that sits proudly among modern classics like Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers and Rudy Wurlitzer's The Drop Edge of Yonder.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"Life is nasty, brutish, and short in this noir-tinged Western about a pair of coldblooded killers out on the trail... Winnette portrays his serial killers with an odd grace and punctuates his circular narrative with murders, revenge killings, a shooting spree, and a heroic arc for wannabe gunslinger Bird that is broadly, darkly humorous."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My new book, Haints Stay, is set in a pretty bleak "Western" world, featuring characters for whom very little goes well. So, the music I was listening to when I was writing it was some combination of atmospheric, dark, and sad. I was also listening to a lot of Randy Newman, because I always listen to a lot of Randy Newman.
Haints Stay is more interested in representations of the West than in the "actual" West, so I watched Westerns as research and listened to a lot of soundtracks. I liked this approach because I knew (and know) nothing about the "actual" West and can't really write to songs with lyrics.
"Prospectors Arrive" and "Open Spaces" and "Oil" by Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood soundtrack)
These songs stretch things out. I don't think of Daniel Day-Lewis, but I do think of the alkali deposits on the Sunday ranch. I picture the sun baking rocks. These were in regular rotation when I was writing the book. They're evocative without being pushy. They let you roam, but remind you to be careful, because it's not necessarily safe out there.
"Engine of Ruin" by Earth
I read an interview with Brian Evenson where he mentions listening to Earth sometimes when he writes. He actually made a long list of music he sometimes listens to, but when I sat down with that list and played each group one by one, Earth hit me the hardest and has since stayed with me. This is one of their softer, hookier songs, and maybe that's why I keep looping back to it. Because I am a little soft, and I am very impressionable.
"High Noon" by Tex Ritter (High Noon soundtrack)
High Noon is such a strange movie. The plot is nightmarish: a man from your past is coming to kill you, and though you are in a town full of people (which you cannot leave) no one will help you. You are alone in a crowd and death is on a slow, steady train headed your way. But then there's a jaunty song playing in the background. It's the first thing we hear, actually: this song accompanies a clip of the killers circling up on a hill. I guess the movie is supposed to be about the power of love or something, but every element is so distinct and loud that it feels sort of like a fever dream to watch it. In a great way. The silliness of this song and the inarguable terror of Gary Cooper's situation left a big impression on me. That blend of silliness and severity is something I wanted to cultivate in Haints Stay. So I listened to this song a lot. The song gets bonus points for the use of "craven" and "his'n."
"Able-Bodied Seamen" by Jonny Greenwood (The Master soundtrack)
Tension, a driving (if meandering) bass line, this song is a solid accompaniment to scenes where a lot of strange things are happening in rapid succession. It can be a little hard to think while it's on, but if you somehow synch up with its momentum it can knock loose all kinds of weird little things. I really wish that Joaquin Phoenix quote wasn't in there, though.
"Too Weak to Ramble" by Dr. Dog
So, if I'm going to talk about music and writing, I'm going to have to admit that, more often than not, I try make myself sad before I start writing. Some part of me feels like I'm not focusing if I'm not sad. I don't know what that's about. I don't recommend it. This song puts me in a melancholy mood that makes me comfortable pushing off into a story. It's just one of those things.
"Ride to Death" and "The Grave" by Carter Burwell (True Grit soundtrack)
These True Grit songs played a major part in a lot of the later scenes in Haints Stay. I just looped them. Burwell has done more than 15 movies with the Coen brothers and he always finds a way of getting in under the skin of their movies. "Ride to Death" is one of several variations on Mattie Ross's "theme," based on the hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." These instrumental variations are woven into the background of the movie, sad at times and celebratory at others, until Iris DeMent tears into her version of the song in the last seconds of the last scene, a moment that always makes me cry.
"Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon" by Earth
The other side of Earth. Hard not to think of evil things when this is on.
"God's Song" by Randy Newman (Live in London version)
Damn right I'm putting Randy Newman on this playlist. I might even do it twice. This song is one of Newman's best. Sad, funny, profound, even a little cruel. The Live in London version is the best one yet, because this song gets better and better as Newman gets older and older and his voice begins to sag and sting. He chokes it out here, and it is that much more painful. Randy Newman is a national treasure and a brilliant songwriter. I've learned more about writing stories from his music than I did from any writing class I ever took.
"What Are Those Things (With Big Black Wings)" by Charlie Louvin
Taken literally, the lyrics in this song are terrifying. And, like "High Noon," it's a song about begging someone not to abandon you. Only, in this one, it's too late. It's a sad song, but there's also something sort of ludicrous about the feel of the song, so starched and upright, with that angelic caterwauling in the background. Louvin kills this song, just sings the shit out of it. Bonus points for the line "…who put that leavin' in your eyes?" Also, bonus points to those of you who give the Tony Ferraro version of this song a listen (http://tonyferraro.bandcamp.com/album/part-time-lovers). Tony is a musician living (last I heard) in Denton, TX. He recorded some covers back in 2013 and made my life that much richer by bringing this song into it.
"Western Suite" by Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre isn't for everyone, but I love this stuff. It's pleasant and evocative, mid-heavy jazz. It's calming and lets your mind wander. It's like a little fire in a cabin somewhere.
"Landfill" by Daughter
Like the Dr. Dog, this is a song that just breaks me down and gets me thinking about the hardest parts of living.
"Open" by The Necks
This song/album is incredible. Just a meditative experience to listen to. Somehow both ignorable and something you can get completely lost in. I pray I can some day write a book that evolves/unfolds the way this song/album does. Good for reading, writing, driving, swimming, sleeping, or just sitting.
"My Life is Good" by Randy Newman
It took a lot of restraint on my part to include songs by artists other than Randy Newman on this list. This one isn't necessarily his best, but it is one of my favorites. What does it have to do with Haints Stay? The relationship is complicated. I certainly don't write to Randy Newman (often). But this song is so excellently painful and hilarious and strange, I think about it almost daily. I'm interested in the emotional bundling he achieves. How can something be so many different things at once? His satirical powers are in full effect, and his self-skewering too. I think his anger at the path his career has taken leaks in—not without a pretty substantial wink, but it's one of those moments where the kidding/not kidding line gets blurry. There is something so heartbreaking and funny and honest about Randy Newman insisting, over and over again, "My life is good." This is something the characters of Bird and Mary do in the book. They insist on a way of being or a line of thinking that they're not entirely convinced of (at least not at first). They try out thoughts by owning them entirely. There's something niggling at them, though. They can't get their hands around a sense of self or the situation that they're in, and that's painful. I think there's an inherent dissonance to "identity" or "self" in this book. These characters aren't quite what their world wants them to be, nor are they quite what they want themselves to be. They're living somewhere in the cracks of all that.
"Naked If I Want To" by Moby Grape (Cat Power version)
Either version of this song is good, but the Cat Power one has her trademark siren's sadness, calling me out and shaking me down. It is on heavy rotation when I'm looking to feel. Short. Simple. Sad. Good.
"Spectral Dusk" by Evening Hymns
Haints Stay is so bleak at times. I was always looking for ways to remind myself and any potential reader that things kept on being beautiful, in spite of how horrible and painful the lives of these characters can be. It's terribly sad and annoying to think about how beautiful the world is, and how incredible our bodies and minds are, when everything is so shitty and people are just the worst.
"Old Black" by Earth
This is classic showdown music. There were a lot of gunfights to write and a lot of characters pushed to the far edges of their humanity. This song helped me slow things down and do what needed to be done.
"dlp 1.2" by William Basinski
The Disintegration Loops is some of the best writing music out there. I like to wake up and write to this before I've had my coffee, before the sun's even risen if I can stand it. I use the time to write whatever and follow every strange impulse that comes. If you're ever in a writing rut, give that a try. It almost always knocks loose something strange or unexpected. I started doing this however long ago because I read that Zachary Schomburg does this because he hears that Heather Christle does this. I think it's something we should keep going.
Colin Winnette and Haints Stay links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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