July 31, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Deborah Reed's Olivay is an unsettling and compelling literary thriller.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
The idea for my novel, Olivay, began during the Boston Marathon bombing when a man who thought he was having a one night stand with a woman wound up being stuck in her apartment while the city went on lockdown. He started live-tweeting this situation from the woman’s apartment, and I believe these tweets were picked up by the Huffington Post, which is where I first read about it. Long after the lockdown was over, I couldn’t stop imagining two strangers, meant to be lovers for only one night, forced to remain in each other’s company while a terrorist was on the loose and the city under siege. I thought about who they were, what kind of pasts they were bringing into that closed space. In an already precarious situation, I knew they would have to be fractured and frail souls, each in their own way, and beautiful too, given the chance. So I tried to give the people who became Olivay and Henry, a chance—each deserving of the other, each with terrible secrets they didn’t want to reveal. Like the line from the poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, “I want to write about love in the face of disaster,” I began thinking about terror and terrorism in all its forms—World Wars, the Holocaust, terrorist attacks, homicide, the endless ways human beings inflict pain on one another, all the way down to the 24 hour news cycle accosting the senses with its constant pin pricks of bad news, and finally to the tiny terrors two people in a relationship inflict on one another. I wondered about the place where we find one another in harmony, how we ever manage to get there, what a miracle it seems to be, given all the terror, to offer another person grace and peace. I wondered what would happen if Olivay began to fall in love with Henry at the same rate she suspected he had something to do with the terrorist attack. I wondered if he were actually capable of doing that kind of harm, and if so, what had brought him to that point? It took me less than a year to write the manuscript.
As for the act of writing itself, I always listen to music when I work, which many writers find insane. But I’m comforted and inspired by the storied songs and rhythms rather than distracted, and I always end up including music in my novels in one way or another. In Olivay, several songs are mentioned, and there is even a crucial line her mother tells her about the whole of life being contained in a song: “listen to the rise and fall of it, the violence and forgiveness, the suspense in tension, not knowing how it could end, and therein lies the beauty.”
"Warm Love" by Van Morrison
Van Morrison was a favorite of Olivay’s and her late husband, Will. I listened to this song a lot while writing her character, sitting with her and her grief, which had hit her so unexpectedly and devastatingly hard, not least of which was due to the media hounding her after Will’s death, which was captured on cell phones and turned into viral videos. My hope for Olivay all along was that she would come to find love in the midst of so much madness—warm love. And, as Van Morrison sings, that it would be “everpresent everywhere.”
"Ooh Child" by Richie Havens
Another song favored by Olivay and Will, and when it appears in the novel she is listening to it for the first time since his death, finding inspiration instead of pain. “She [Olivay] had forgotten that music hadn’t always stirred a gloomy, forlorn ache in her chest.” This is the morning after she has slept with Henry and she begins to wake up to the possibility of a new life. She’s an architect who hasn’t worked in a year, but it is while this song is playing that she begins to sketch again, imagining a room spilling with light—“Someday when the world is much brighter,” Richie Havens sings.
"Broken Fingers" by Sam Baker
Singer/songwriter Sam Baker was himself a victim of a terrorist attack in Peru in 1986. The song, "Broken Fingers," is so achingly beautiful; a tribute to the young boy who was sitting across from him when the bomb went off on the luggage rack above their heads. The boy and his parents died in the blast. Sam Baker survived but his recovery was long and painful and the fingers on his right hand are permanently twisted. He plays guitar nonetheless, with his left. Like Olivay in my novel, Sam Baker was forever changed by violence and cruelty, and yet hope is never too far away, hovering right there along the edges.
"Just Breathe (Live from Austin City Limits)" by Pearl Jam
I didn’t realize until after I had finished the novel that I was listening to several different songs on repeat that included something about breathing. It can’t be a coincidence since a good part of the novel plays out in the smoky haze of a bomb explosion on the west side of Los Angeles, and fires set in the dry canyons on the east. Of course there is also Olivay trying to catch her breath, as well, from the rush of so many feelings overcoming her during the three-day lockdown with Henry. The claustrophobic feel of breathlessness runs throughout Olivay.
"Breathe Me" by Sia
A haunting melody I could listen to on repeat for all of eternity. It so perfectly contains the nuance and pain of Olivay. The first word in the song is “help”, followed by, “be my friend, hold me, wrap me up, unfold me, I am small, and needy, warm me up, and breathe me. Ouch. I have lost myself again.” I mean it hurts me just to lay those lines down here. Olivay confesses to Henry within minutes of meeting him that she never “wants to feel helpless again.” Of course, for the better part of the novel she will be rendered nearly powerless. It was excruciating to write those scenes.
"Avant Gardner" by Courtney Barnett
This song is about having a life-threatening asthma attack while gardening. The woman’s breath is lost and an ambulance is called, and in the midst of keeping the life in her, she is keenly aware of the person saving her, which is also what is happening to Olivay as Henry makes sure she is all right after the bomb explosion blows her windows out and her body is full of glass shards and debris, her knee deeply in need of stitches.
And then the lyric, “Should’ve stayed in bed today, I much prefer the mundane.” There is a line in Olivay about people leading mundane lives, and to top it off Olivay has spent the better part of six months in her bed after Will’s death. “My hands are shaky. My knees are weak. I can’t seem to stand. On my own two feet,” Courtney Barnett sings, and this is exactly what happens to Olivay in the blast, literally and figuratively. Her leg is injured so badly that she can barely stand, hands shaking from the shock. She begins to lose her emotional grip over time as well, making it harder to stand on her metaphorical two feet, too.
"Something So Strong" by Crowded House
Another example of the subconscious at work? Has to be. Both the title of the song and the name of the band. Olivay and Henry are thrown together for three days in her small apartment with no real escape, which makes for a crowded house, while the tensions, both sexual and life-threatening, grow stronger and stronger.
"My Silver Lining" by First Aid Kit
Well, now it just sounds like I’m making this up. First Aid Kit? True, though. I listened to this song constantly while writing Olivay.
“… my worries as big as the moon, having no idea who or what or where I am. Something good comes with the bad. A song's never just sad. There's hope, there's a silver lining. Show me my silver lining.”
I think those lyrics speak for themselves.
"This Is The Last Time" by The National
These opening lines so define what happens as Olivay and Henry’s pasts slowly unfold. “Oh, when I lift you up you feel like a hundred times yourself. I wish everybody knew what's so great about you.”
Olivay and Henry recognize one another’s worth in spite of what they see outwardly and obviously in one another, but it is especially Olivay who is taking a chance here as it looks more and more like Henry had something to do with the terrorist attack. It is she who must look past a crime beyond comprehension and into the core of Henry’s soul toward something of forgiveness. These chapters were the most difficult to write, posing the question of whether redemption in the face of atrocity is ever a true possibility. And when Olivay begins to take matters into her own hands Henry must also decide who Olivay truly is beyond her actions as the novel takes an even darker turn.
"Give Me Love" by George Harrison
By the novel’s end the ultimate question becomes who is worthy of love? Who is worthy of grace and absolution? All of us? None of us? Only a chosen few?
The story circles back to all the ways human beings terrorize each other, and questions if or how one can ever truly find the sweet spot of love and light with another human being before it’s too late.
“Please take hold of my hand, that I might understand you,” George Harrison sings. “Help me cope, with this heavy load. Trying to touch and reach you, with heart and soul.”
Deborah Reed and Olivay links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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