May 10, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Lynn Steger Strong's debut novel Hold Still is a compelling debut that cleverly illustrates familial love and all its ramifications.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"What keeps the pages turning is the desperate, botched attempts at familial love between family members, none of whom seem to know quite what they want, bringing to mind the Tolstoy quote, 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Here, the mercurial rendering of this particular unhappy family makes it a heart-wrenching read in its very own way."
I tend to listen to the same album or song compulsively, obsessively for months. My husband, finds this almost impossibly offensive, but he humors me and always has an album in the wings every three or so months when I'm ready to switch. I listen to an album so much that its rhythms get inside of me, that I can block it out when the writing gets exciting, that I can dip back into it, when the writing falls away and know exactly where I am.
I am not particularly good with a metaphor or an image. With regard to word choice, I'm most interested in the ways in which words' sounds and combinations, the cadence that's created, do something to the brain that is both recognizable and not. I can read a book in a day or never finish it depending on whether I can get inside it's rhythms. I never listen to music when I read; the only time I'm not listening to music when I write is in the last two or three drafts of something, when I'm reading all of it out loud to make sure that I'm okay with my rhythms.
Jason Isbell, "Go It Alone," I listened to this album for many months of the time in which I was writing this book. I like to listen to high energy, well-written, felt music, and nearly everyone of Jason Isbell's songs fits the bill for this. Jason Isbell tells stories in 3 and a half minute songs that some of us need whole novels to tell. He tells them without any context or setup, but with delivering, time and again, handfuls of the perfect, precise, surprising but also familiar, phrases that are basically the reason that I write.
Rilo Kiley, "Portions for Foxes," my book is about a mother and a daughter, but it is also about female relationships more generally: friends, students, rivals. We all have that friend that has been all those things. My friend that taught me as much about friendship as she did about womanhood and motherhood and sisterhood and daughterhood used to listen to this song in our apartment when we lived together in Taipei. She would pound her fists into the air and stomp her feet and dance and dance in our tiny always sticky hot apartment as I mostly stood and watched in awe. I listened to this song whenever I wrote the chapters when my main character's best friend is in the room. I wanted a fearless woman, who, of course, is also not fearless. But I wanted a woman, just like my friend, who wasn't afraid to lead with fearlessness.
Anders Osborne, "Lucky One," my husband and I used to live in New Orleans. Every Tuesday we went to the Chickie Wah Wah in mid-city and listened to Anders Osborne play. He is pretty well-known now, but then he was still enough of a local artist that he played this twenty-ish person gig every Tuesday night. He's a former addict and I was (and am often) writing an addict then. You could see how full he was with life and pain and passion. How hard it must be to live day to day with all of that inside. It felt like music was the one place he let himself fully inhabit all the feeling he was capable of feeling. And it was gorgeous, heartbreaking, such a wonder to behold. This song is also especially, unapologetically sentimental, which I also am. Part of writing this book was teaching myself to accept that part of myself. Part of listening to this song so many times as I wrote this book was learning how sentimental does not have to detract from the nuance and quality of the work.
Ray LaMontagne, "New York City's Killing Me," neither of our children slept for the entirety of my novel writing process. The act of getting our older daughter to sleep sometimes took two hours when she was very small. And then we found her love for Ray. I don't remember if it was on purpose. I'd read before, that kids can have a sort of Pavlovian response to certain songs. Our daughter, for whatever reason—though nursing hardly ever worked, though begging, reading, singing, rocking failed most of the time—would and did sleep more soundly than she ever had to this song on repeat. When I work at home, it is in the living room right next to our girls' room. I'd put her down for naps or at night and I sat and wrote and listened to Ray sing and sing about how the City in which we live (and which I love) made him want to die.
Little Daylight, "Love Stories," "I was lost in A LOVE STORY/I didn't notice you were right there/And I learned to prefer not to fall/So I never was ready to hear your call". I think we are all largely re-writing the same stories over and over; this song takes on the same project I took on in HOLD STILL: how we fail at loving one another, even when we're so convinced of the value of the endeavor, even when we're trying so very hard to get it right.
Sublime, "Badfish," I wrote, in my novel, a fucked up teenage girl. I was, briefly in my adolescence, a fucked up teenage girl. For a certain age, at a certain time, in certain parts of the country, especially those close to the ocean, there are few greater fucked up teenage anthems than Sublime. There is also lots of swimming in my novel, and I have always been partial to "Badfish".
Fleetwood Mac, "Landslide," "I've been afraid of changing, because I built my life around you." I read somewhere that this song is about Stevie and her dad; my book is about a mother and a daughter, but the mother also has a complicated, perhaps irrevocably formative relationship with her dad. Much of writing this book was trying to figure out what we do with the love that people heap upon us. How it's formative in ways that the givers aren't aware of when they're offering it, how we are constantly re-learning to live and to love, but are always informed in some way by those early forms.
Wood Brothers, "Postcards From Hell," I know a man who sings the blues / yeah he plays just what he feels / keeps a letter in the pocket of his coat/but he never breaks the seal / set up in a bar room corner / playin' for tips and beer / people carryin' on and drinkin' / you gotta strain to hear: The way these guys play any kind of string instrument can break my heart regardless of the lyrics. But add to that this sort of hopeful melancholy, an interest and investment in the real life consequences of our vague and gorgeous-from-far-away ideas of the world. We saw them play at a tiny venue in New York a few years ago and a good portion of this room of plaid-flannel-clad young men had tears in their eyes by the end.
Ani DiFranco, "Not a Pretty Girl," because sometimes we are clichés of ourselves and I'm okay with that.
Alanis, "You Oughta Know." Every girl at any age at all, probably every boy as well, needs to drive in a car with the windows down and at least three girlfriends and scream/sing/cry this song at the top of her lungs. There's a story here, but it doesn't matter; it's the cadence, the feeling, the rhythm, all wrapped inside a feeling that is so clearly feminine, but surer, fuller, angrier than many of us have ever been allowed to be out loud.
Lucius, "Wildewoman," I basically always want in some way to be talking to, raising, thinking about, teaching, sitting with, or writing about intense complicated surprising interesting women. This song is a sort of anthem for the lot of them.
Jason Isbell, "Something More Than Free," we saw him in concert recently, and I was sitting, listening, watching this whole theater worth of people feeling, like I felt sure they don't get to but want to everyday. At one point Jason Isbell said to the crowd: you might sob while I sing this song, but don't be afraid to dance and sob. That's what I want to say in every book I write: shit is hard and sad and often much more complicated than we think it is, but don't be afraid to dance and sob.
Lynn Steger Strong and Hold Still links:
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)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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