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August 3, 2016

Book Notes - Ali Shaw "The Trees"

The Trees

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.

Ali Shaw's new novel The Trees is a masterfully told literary ecothriller.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"An ecological sermon, bildungsroman, mystery, fairy tale, and horror story all combined into a novel about an improbable journey . . . A big, unclassifiable novel; it's worth the effort to enter a world that is never what it appears."

In his own words, here is Ali Shaw's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Trees:

I always listen to music while I write, and have playlist after playlist set up for doing just that. Sometimes the playlists are simply labelled, "writing music," and consist of a lot of ambient or gentle post-rock tracks: music that flows slower than the words do and doesn't intrude on them with too many lyrics. Other times the playlists are built around a particular setting or, more rarely, a character. I find myself assembling little soundtracks for each location and scene, and in these I'm more likely to include actual songs, especially ones that reflect the emotion found in a crucial place or person.

What follows are tracks I've listened to while working on The Trees, as well as some old stalwarts that have influenced the rest of my writing.

Julianna Barwick, "The Harbinger" (from Nepenthe)

Sometimes actually settling down to work is the hardest thing about writing. Once enough real-life has been fended off – be it the cleaning up, the emails or the phone calls or the bill-paying, the getting your daughter to nursery or back, the sudden overwhelming need to check the news websites for the umpteenth time that day – you sit down at your desk and your thoughts are dodging all over the place. You're like a driver getting into a bumper car, mistakenly thinking that you're going for a peaceful country drive. This is when music such as Julianna Barwick's can help. Turning something so perfectly serene up to maximum volume is a very fine way to focus the mind.

Godspeed You Black Emperor, "Mladic" (from Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!)

If the above technique doesn't help you concentrate, maybe the all-out sonic assault will. I love this track because it takes its time about beginning. Six minutes and twenty four seconds have passed before the guitars strike the first crunching chord of the melody that will carry you through the next quarter of an hour. But in that time everything else has been assembling, circling sounds have been dragged together, readying for the furious noise you know is to come. It's the aural equivalent of a tornado forming.

PJ Harvey, "White Chalk" (from White Chalk)

"White chalk south against time/White chalk cutting down the sea at Lyme/I walk the valleys by the Cerne/on a path cut fifteen hundred years ago."

Midway through the writing of my second novel, a tragedy hit our family and left both my wife and I homesick for Dorset, the part of southwest England where we grew up. In the subsequent weeks we spent a lot of time down there, helping to sort things out, and I often found myself listening to PJ Harvey's White Chalk album. It was recorded in Dorset, where PJ Harvey is also from, and although the places referenced in its title track (quoted above) were familiar, the entire record seemed soaked in the atmosphere of the countryside we loved so much. Perhaps I'm just projecting, superimposing memory and emotion onto landscape, but there's a bewitched stillness to be found in parts of Dorset's white chalk downland, something simultaneously comforting and eerie. "All those places where I recall/the memories that grip me and pin me down," as PJ Harvey puts it elsewhere on the record. Whatever that feeling's origin, I held onto it – and White Chalk – when I resumed work on the novel. In turn both the story and the tone of the book shifted away from what I'd originally intended, becoming far more about loss and enchanted landscapes.

Four Tet, "Morning Side" (from Morning/Evening)

This is the sort of music that keeps you flowing. It's slow and mesmeric and never intrusive, but it has an insistent rhythm. I find the vocal sample, from Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar, all the more enchanting because I don't know Hindi. When you're trying to assemble just the right words, you don't always want any extra ones flying out of your speakers. Songs in other languages avoid that problem, while still bringing that emotional weight that only the human voice can carry.

Josh T. Pearson, "Sweetheart I Ain't Your Christ" (from Last of the Country Gentlemen)

I played this a lot when writing about the main character in The Trees. A melancholy song about a failing relationship, its lyrics full of self-deprecation, I think my character Adrien could have used this record in his life (although I fear he would have mostly listened to the kind of fist-pumping rock that would do him no good at all). La Blogothèque have a live version of this track that I listened to just as much as the album one. In it, a long song gets dispersed even further, interrupted now and then by the shouts and motor noises of the Parisian streets in which it's recorded. The ordinariness of the city backwaters and the accompanying video of bemused and indifferent passers-by makes Pearson look and sound even more isolated, yet somehow even more defiant.

Jon Hopkins, "Immunity" (from Immunity)

I love writing to this because the various electric clunks and clicks laid over the melody sound like an invitation to clatter the keyboard in time with them. King Creosote features on this track, singing something plaintive and hard to make out, a sort of sonic version of one of the half-formed ideas you tend to reach for to explore as you write.

Sigur Ros, "Svefn-G-Englar" (from Agaetis Byrjun)

This track showed up in almost every playlist I made for my first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet, and has found its way into so many more playlists since then. It's everything I look for in music to write to, played with a slow gravity that focuses the mind and delivered with the kind of yearning that's at the heart of so much good fiction. If mountains could sing songs about starlight, they'd do it just like this.

The War on Drugs, "In Reverse" (from Lost in the Dream)

All writing, however disguised it might be by fiction, is intrinsically personal. It's therefore inevitable that those songs that come to define certain periods in your life start to enter into your writing life also. I'd been enjoying Lost in the Dream for a while before I started actively writing to it, perhaps assuming initially that it would command too much of my attention to let me focus. Mostly I'd been playing it in the car on my days off from working on the edits of The Trees, days in which I'd look after my two-year-old and take her to various farms and museums – or take her an hour up the road to visit my ninety-nine year old grandmother. Those were some strange days. I was sleep-deprived but also sleepless, and I was struggling with anxiety. Parenting was enjoyable but incredibly challenging – I didn't seem to have any of the right instincts for it – and I was entirely out of confidence as far as writing went. Back then I didn't expect to produce anything more, once all the edits were signed off. About the only thing I was looking forward to was giving up. Anyway, I'd get in the car with my little girl and we'd drive to the old folks' home listening to Lost in the Dream. We'd meet my dad there too, then spend a few hours with four generations of our family in one small room. My grandmother's health was deteriorating fast, my daughter had everything ahead of her, my dad was nervous for his mother and nervous – I could tell – about what was going on inside my head. And I'd have bits of this record ebbing in and out of my thoughts, becoming the soundtrack to our visits. When I think back to moments such as my grandmother swapping sunhats with my little girl, my daughter's comically tiny atop her thinning white hair, my grandmother's comically enormous as my daughter ran circles of the sun terrace, with the brim of the hat flopping down around her ears, I think of songs like "In Reverse," and involuntarily start to hum them.

In November, we listened to this record as we drove to my grandmother's funeral. By then I had decided not to give up, even thought the edits were finished, and in fact had begun working on something new. I often listen to In Reverse as I write, the lyrics too familiar now to be a distraction. And the memories from all those days, which almost by accident got bound up in my mind with this song, are helping to fill up the pages – all heavily disguised, of course, as fiction.

Ali Shaw and The Trees links:

the author's website

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Herald Scotland review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Deborah Kalb interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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