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June 7, 2016

Book Notes - Alexis M. Smith "Marrow Island"

Marrow Island

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

Alexis M. Smith's novel Marrow Island is an engrossing literary eco-thriller.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"A compelling, complex meditation on both the power and the vulnerability of the natural world."


In her own words, here is Alexis M. Smith's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Marrow Island:


I'm one of those writers who listens to music while she writes. Usually pretty emo stuff, I'll admit. Sometimes it's wordless, like Rachel's and Goldmund and Peter Broderick. Sometimes it's got lyrics you can't ignore. When I'm working on something big, a song list develops as the project progresses. I tend to listen to the same songs in the same order when I first sit down to write. It's a way of imprinting; I want to recreate a specific headspace, and the songs help me get there. Marrow Island is full of images of the natural world and so, it happened, were most of the songs that arrived on the playlist.



"Red Tide" - Neko Case

She's the only musician mentioned by name in the book, and she's my not-so-secret muse. The entire Middle Cyclone album could be the soundtrack of Marrow Island. (Hear the trochees echoing each other in those titles?) I love the woman as force-of-nature trope on this record, and the triumph of nature in this song particularly; that's the understory of my novel, too.

"Sun Breaking Through" - Message to Bears

Message to Bears has been my writing companion for some time. Ambient sound, evoking nature, beats like a pulse…it's the music version of what it feels like to go into that trance-like writing state where time just disappears.

"That Part of Me" - Fort Union

Fort Union is a Seattle-turned-Portland band that I happened upon on Bandcamp one day when I was just starting the first chapters (the ones that stuck) of Marrow Island. I listened to this song every time I sat down to write, before anything else. There's regret and heartache and a longing for some lost, wild, ephemeral feeling. (Aside: Frontman Jace Krause and bandmate Ryan Lynch own a food cart together on Hawthorne Blvd. which serves up variations of my favorite breakfast food, the egg sandwich; it's appropriately called Fried Egg I'm in Love.)

"Nits" - This is the Kit

This is the Kit is (was) my secret favorite band that no one has heard of. Bashed Out came out as I was finishing Marrow Island edits and I've probably listened to the record once a day since. ‘Nits' is a beautiful, strange song about sheep grazing on a hillside, but it's also about how small we are, in the scheme of things. There are hints of “living off the fat of the land,” here, and an Eames's Powers of Ten-like shift in perspective. Which jives with what I tried to do in Marrow Island. Look out: the piano solo will break your heart.

"106 to 101" - Missing Vwls

Along with Middle Cyclone, Hood Canal by Missing Vwls could be the official soundtrack of Marrow Island. The songs are all named after places and geographic features of the southern Puget Sound, the same body of water that supports the San Juan Islands, the real island group in of which my fictional islands (Orwell and Marrow) are a part. The man behind Missing Vwls, Ian King, is himself a writer, which makes sense, as these songs (though wordless) are rich with narrative and atmosphere, perfect company for novel-writing.

"Baby Birch" - Joanna Newsom

I was on the Oregon Book Awards tour, driving on a wooded rural highway, between Ashland and Klamath Falls, Oregon, in the middle of a spring thunderstorm, near sunset. Alone, but for the community radio playing this song. A herd of mule deer materialized in the mist before me, spread out across the highway and into the trees, where a forest fire had burned some summers before. My car idled in the road for a long time, windows rolled down, the scent of pines drifting in, lonely, but not alone, the doe I had nearly struck staring me down. Driving away, I could finally visualize the last scenes of the novel.

"The Herald" - Rachel Grimes

This song arrived very near the end of edits but it's killer. The sum of so much, fittingly. Modernist piano and saxophone! It's the surprise arrangement that strikes deepest, like those rare moments when your subconscious (or “the muse,” or “the geniuses in the walls,”) slips through and delivers something essential you didn't even know how to ask for.


Alexis M. Smith and Marrow Island links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Library Journal review
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review
Publishers Weekly review

Fiction Advocate interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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