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February 17, 2017

Book Notes - Bren McClain "One Good Mama Bone"

One Good Mama Bone

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.

Bren McClain's novel One Good Mama Bone is a poignant and heartrending debut.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"McClain’s first novel resists predictability and instead weaves together questions about poverty, class, violence, and religion. . . . A thought-provoking story about families and the animals who sustain them."

In her own words, here is Bren McClain's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel One Good Mama Bone:

My novel, One Good Mama Bone, chronicles Sarah Creamer's quest to find her "mama bone," after being left to care for her husband's illegitimate son. It's what became of a failed other novel I wrote, a book I think of now as "on the nose." And therein lies the reason for its failure. I heard writer Randall Kenan say one time that when you write a story based on something that really happened, "you have to get the journalism out of the way."

The something that really happened was a secret a former neighbor of mine told me one hot June afternoon in Atlanta, GA about a night when he was six years old and his mother woke him and summoned him to the kitchen where their next-door neighbor lay on their table. She was having a baby, and he was made to watch his own mother do something horrible. He told me he was telling me, knowing I was a writer. When I began to write it, I did so, just as had told it to me, "on the nose." In fact, I kicked off the book with the scene, named the mother Sarah Creamer, and wrote it all the way through. Nobody liked it. Sarah was a monster, most said. But I loved her. It wasn't until a brilliant editor told me, "We don't see that love you have. Show us Sarah's magnificence" that I realized I had to change what happened that night, have Sarah deliver a baby who would become this six-year-old boy and cast Sarah as the hero she did not yet know herself to be.

Music always accompanied me as I wrote and always with large headphones and CDs in a Walkman. Nothing digital – I am old school! And when I found a song I liked – that is, provided the right emotional escort -- I put it on repeat, many times listening to the same song for a full day.

"Why" - Annie Lenox
This was my "go to" song early in the writing. It carries a mournful undergirding, full of regret, which is exactly how I originally cast Sarah. The lyrics also played into the overall feeling, beginning with how the song kicks off – "How many times do I have to try to tell you, That I'm sorry for the things I've done" and the chorus continually asking "why?"

The Piano Soundtrack – Michael Nyman
When I began my rewrite, I didn't want any more lyrics, I wanted only instrumentals, letting the music carry it all. I listened only to soundtracks, and this was the first one. I was attracted to the story the music was telling, a story of bondage and being freed from it. That's exactly what Sarah faced, the emotional bondage her mother loaded her with when her mother told Sarah at age six, "You ain't got you one good mama bone in you, girl." Sarah had to find a way to free herself, to tell herself a brand new narrative. That was the whole impetus for the writing the story, the moment when Sarah freed herself to claim her "mama bone."

"Deep in Thought" from Million Dollar Baby soundtrack - Clint Eastwood
The simple, stark piano keys in the beginning put me in a contemplative mood. How was Sarah going to feed her child with no money and the farm about to be foreclosed on? I could see Sarah sitting in the dark at the kitchen table, the woodstove in front of her with no food being cooked, the flour bin behind her empty, her boy in bed asleep with nothing in his belly but a half a pear. This, in my mind, was where Sarah prepared for the journey ahead.

"Soldiers' Burial" from Merry Christmas soundtrack – Philippe Rombi
Hearing this particular song on the soundtrack is when I knew for sure that Sarah would find a way to claim her "mama bone." The song begins with a bagpipe solo, and, since I was never a big fan of that instrument, I almost skipped ahead, but then the song brings in a piano and strings, and there is there is this triumphant feeling, and all I can say is I could see light and joy. I knew then that Sarah would find her way. I didn't know how yet, but I let myself feel that release of happiness.

"Gracie's Theme" – Paul Cardall
Once I heard Paul Cardall's music, I bought every CD he'd made and soaked up every song. I found them to carry, like my characters, a real yearning at their base. This song in particular, "Gracie's Theme," reminded me of goodness in this world, reminded me of grace. Sarah faces many hardships over the course of the novel, but I like to think I leavened that with moments of goodness, kindness. I think of her friendship with Mildred and with Ike.

"A Broken Heart" - Paul Cardall
With it rich orchestra of strings, this song evokes a real mourning in me. It made me think of all that was broken in my characters – Sarah in not believing she would be a good mother, Luther in not believing he was good enough in general, Ike that he was not masculine enough, Little LC that his daddy didn't love him. I cried many times when listening to this. I ached just thinking about their heartache. It made me want to do everything I could to save them.

"Water Shows the Hidden Heart" - Enya
I had tried to listen to the CD, Amarantine several times when I bought it in 2005. It contains both songs with lyrics and instrumentals. But I did not connect with one song on it and never played it again, until one day, nearing the end of my writing One Good Mama Bone, I picked up the CD and put it in my Walkman. For some reason, the last song played first and contained lyrics but not in English. It was in a language I had never heard. It sounded like an invocation, a prayer, and drew me in. I would learn that this was the "loxiam" language, which Enya herself created when she could not find any words in English to express her feelings. I felt my soul rise up. And I knew then why I had turned away from lyrics in English. They were "on the nose."

Bren McClain and One Good Mama Bone links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Historical Novel Society review
Kirkus Reviews review

Deborah Kalb interview with the author
Deep South Magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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