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September 20, 2016

Book Notes - Brendan Kiely "The Last True Love Story"

The Last True Love Story

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.

Brendan Kiely's The Last True Love Story is a compelling and poignant YA road trip novel.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Readers will be swept up in Kiely's musical prose as Teddy learns about love, romance, forgiveness, and reconciliation."

In his own words, here is Brendan Kiely's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Last True Love Story:

Remember that old Starship song, "We Built this City?" I feel like I built The Last True Love Story on rock ‘n' roll too. The novel is a dual love story, one of contemporary teens learning what it feels like to get free and fall in love, and one of love near the end, a grandfather with Alzheimer's trying to hold onto the memories of his deceased wife before the disease wipes them all away. The trio set out on a road trip from LA to upstate New York, and as is the case on any great road trip, music is the fuel that keeps them going. But even more, music is the thread that ties the two love stories together. Corrina is a young rocker who can play an impressive catalogue of music from the grandfather's Vietnam era. Not only is she the driver, the music she plays and sings weaves the mysteries of the past and the pressures of the present into one rocking story. I don't listen to music when I write, but I listen to music whenever I'm walking or cooking or tackling tasks around the house, and these are a few of the songs that inspired me while I was writing The Last True Love Story.

"Can't Find My Way Home" by Blind Faith
The novel begins with the narrator promising his grandfather he'd help him never forget his deceased wife. They're both well intentioned, but Teddy is naïve enough to believe he can actually do it, or at least try. Gpa, however, as I imagine him, recognizes the inevitable. And this song was a kind of mantra I imagined running through Gpa's mind. The song kind of floats on a melancholy vibe—the kind of vibe I think of when someone is accepting the inexorable—but it is also sweet enough to suggest some possibility. It's exactly the tone I was hoping to suggest in the relationship between Teddy and his grandfather in the novel.

"Dog Days are Over" by Florence and the Machine
The first time I heard this song I felt Florence Welch's voice send chills across my skin, and then lift something buried deep with me up and out and gave it wings to fly—especially as it hits the 3 minute mark and the whole song kind of ascends. I listened to the song over and over while working on the book, because for me, Teddy hearing Corrina sing is like that first time I heard Florence Welch sing this song.

"Rock and Roll" by the Velvet Underground
I love the Velvet Underground, and no playlist I ever make escapes at least one track of their moody, grin-cocked-in-the-corner-of-the-mouth sound. This one seemed perfect when I was thinking about Corrina. She's a rocker, but stuck in sunny LA, when her mood and attitude seems so much more New York—which of course is where she wants to go and why she hightails it out of town with Teddy and his grandfather.

"Bell Bottom Blues" by Derek and the Dominos
Even though this song is about young love, and even though half the novel is about young love, when I listen to the song, I can't get the wailing refrain of not wanting to "fade away" out of my mind. I listen to Derek and the Dominoes on vinyl all the time—one of my favorites—but one day when I was listening to this, the refrain struck me as the perfect kind of fear haunting Gpa's mind. He doesn't want to fade away—or let the things he loves most in life fade away from him.

"Cannonball" by The Breeders
While I use many songs to help me think of the mood and atmosphere of the characters and the way they interact with each other, the driving heart of this novel is still a quixotic, rambling road trip, and every time I hear this song, I think of being on the road and throwing my hands up in a kind of teenage "I don't give a damn; don't hem me in" kind of way. Despite the moments of quiet intimacy in the book, it has to move and cover thousands of miles of road, and this song helped me think about that charging rhythm, like when you're driving through the low, flat grasslands of west Texas, and you hit a small rise, one that's just enough to give you a bit of a drop in your gut if you're driving fast enough. I wanted those moments in the book—just like listening to this song on the road, as I have many, many, times.

"The Weight" (Aretha Franklin 1969 version)
This is the ultimate road trip song for me. I love the version by The Band, but for me, Aretha Franklin's version, with Duane Allman on guitar, lifts the song from the picaresque to something more mythic. This was important to me because chapter-by-chapter The Last True Love Story is an homage to the Odyssey. Gpa wants to get home to his beloved Ithaca (NY), but part of what hinders him from getting there, aside from the 4,000 miles between LA and Ithaca, is the disease that plagues his mind. In fact, I think of Teddy, Corrina and Gpa as a kind of tripartite Odysseus—and I kept circling back to Aretha's version of the song to help inspire me tell their story.

"Stand Up" by Hindi Zahra
When I'm stuck in a scene and I can't figure out what to do, where to go, or what people are saying to each other, I often go for a walk to clear the mind. "Stand Up" does what the title suggests, from the first plucking of the guitar, it makes me want to get up and get on the move. But as the song continues and Hindi Zahra's voice enters, it's like I'm split in two—my feet stay on the ground, walking quickly, almost skipping, but my head seems to disconnect, float and bob in the breeze. It's the perfect song for me as a writer. All I need is a short walk, 10-15 minutes, listening to this song first, and I'm quickly back at the keyboard pushing through the scene.

"Dark End of the Street" by James Carr
For me, so much of young love is that feeling of doing something we want to do but think we're not supposed to do, and Carr's slow-swinging R&B classic is one of those songs that seems to pull two people together, like that moment when you are dancing and you finally lean in close enough to kiss. I wanted Teddy and Corrina to have this kind of slow dance that keeps getting interrupted, until, finally, when Corrina sings this very song as a kind of lullaby to Gpa, Teddy and Corrina are left alone in the quiet without any more distractions.

"Because the Night" by Patti Smith
This song has always stood out as a lovers anthem—the kind of song that makes me think of folks in love, putting the rest of the world at their backs and racing forward into the unknown. It's an American rock anthem, and for me, a kind of anthem for the book too. Despite his disease, Gpa is determined to love Gma all the way to the end; and despite everything wrong Teddy and Corrina are doing, they're racing ahead, hoping their good intentions will protect them from the likely, even inevitable, disaster.

"Noble Heart" by PHOX
I always knew this story would be about falling in love, trying to make love last forever, and also about those times when you know you need to let go. Monica Martin's whispery voice pulls you into that melancholy feeling when you have to let go, and then swells and takes off occasionally. There have been times in my own life, at train stations, or airports, or even on the last day of school, where I had the warm feeling that I loved people around me, but I knew I might not see them again. I needed to sit in that kind of feeling to write a couple of the scenes in the novel, and I'd listen to this song on my headphones to step down into that feeling and let the emotions lap up around me.

"Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes
From the first whistles at the beginning of this rollicking, road trip-as-carnival song, it's hard not to want to spring from your seat and swing in circles with someone you love. This song is the other anthem for the book. The Last True Love Story is an homage to the Odyssey, because it is a story about trying to get home—but what would Odysseus's journey be if his beloved Ithaca was gone? There's a moment when he shouts to his weary crew members, "Ithaca is here, with us!" That's the cue I take for my novel, and the cue I hear echoed in this song. "Home is whenever I'm with you." That's true for the ragtag family that races across the country in my novel, and it's true too, even when for some, they can only remain together in memory.

Brendan Kiely and The Last True Love Story links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
School Library Journal review

BookPage interview with the author
Slice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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