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February 1, 2017

Book Notes - Steve Himmer "Scratch"


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.

Steve Himmer's Scratch is a masterfully told and genre-defying literary horror novel.

Roy Kesey wrote of the book:

"Steve Himmer's particular genius involves giving the minds of his characters room to roam. His take on literary horror might usefully be compared to that of Benjamin Percy or William Gay, but its roots reach back much further, through Shirley Jackson to Hawthorne and Poe. This book, this gift to us, is an absolutely essential reminder that every story starts at the edge of the forest."

In his own words, here is Steve Himmer's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Scratch:

Scratch grew from a feeling I always get deep in a forest: an awareness of deep time and its passage, and my own insignificance in it. It's an existential tension between horror and comfort that comes when we acknowledge how small we are in the shadow of something much larger. Writing the novel, I thought a lot about nostalgia and solastalgia and the way places change and change us along with them. So the music I've collected below tries to tap into that sense of time's weight and the unease of being in a place that isn't quite the place we think we remember or thought we were. It's in-between music for what I hope is an in-between novel.

Lissa Schneckenburger, "The Huntsman's Chorus," 2013

The melancholy echo of a fiddle is one of my favorite sounds, especially the way a strong player like Schneckenburger can harness that sadness and yoke it to a rhythm I can't resist dancing to at least in some small, secret toe-tapping way. I don't know if there's an instrument that better captures the tension between sadness and joy that seems to be at the heart of life and certainly at the heart of my novel.

The Waterboys, "Fisherman's Blues," 1988

The plaintive desire to be somewhere or someone else is something my characters always seem to relate to, and Martin, the protagonist of Scratch, is no exception. But what I've always liked about this Waterboys song is that it's a humble wish not to idly relax in paradise but to do work: to set out on a fishing boat, or to drive a train. Work that carries with it a sense of escape, at least from the other work you've been doing.

Lau, "Ghosts," 2015

Lau are one of my favorite bands these days. They're trad but decidedly modern, willing to experiment and expand the tunes they play and the instruments they're played on. This song in particular explores those intersections musically and lyrically, too; it's the kind of song that can sneak past you if you aren't paying attention to what it actually does. It tends to gets stuck in my head fairly often and I'd like to create a similar feeling with Scratch's tangled landscape of folklore and wild animals and powerlines and people.

RM Hubbert, "Bolt," 2013

Hubbert's earthy, forceful guitar under the intimate vocal aching with palpable loss and regret bring such a balance of elements here. That's the kind of balance, or near-balance, my characters seem to be struggling toward and perhaps the kind I'm struggling toward, too, as I write them.

Dar Williams, "Southern California Wants To Be Western New York," 1996

This one feels almost a bit too literal, a song about one place and its inhabitants wishing to be another, but that's the heart of the novel. And sometimes saying things straight is the best way to say them. That may be especially true about longings: if you can't put a clear name to it, longing might get distorted or it might turn on you, a risk my characters certainly run.

Peter Mulvey, "Shirt," 2004

The way we find ourselves in one dream instead of another, anchored by the objects that accumulate around us, is at the heart of Scratch. At least for my character Martin who daydreams about the specific pieces he's going to build into a house when he finally has one of his own. I've never heard that particular kind of totemic memory captured so well as in Mulvey's song. (But in a shout out to shirt songs, Mark Eitzel's "Blue and Grey Shirt" and Poi Dog Pondering's "Spending the Day in the Shirt That You Wore" are also up there on my list.)

Cowboy Junkies, "A Horse In The Country," 1992

Another great song about longing, and the dream of "some day" climbing onto your horse and riding away. And the Cowboy Junkies are so buoyant on this track — in a way that sounds stubborn and insistent rather than coming easy — you can even believe the woman whose story it tells is actually going to do it.

Robin Holcomb, "So Straight and Slow," 1990

This is a late night song for me, a song that sounds like the feeling of being the only creature awake and with some other place on your mind. Holcomb is so good at evoking landscapes and the lives lived in them, and never by being literal and reductive: even without the vocals I think her songs would hit me the very same way and call to mind the same vistas and desires.

Grasscut, "Curlews," 2015

This one feels late at night, too, but in a more jubilant way — like the pleasure of flying through a forest or over a landscape and making the absolute most of being right where you are, when you are. Which is what my characters all seem to be aiming for one way or another.

Hanna Tuulikki, "At Sing Two Birds," 2013

I'm really excited about Hanna Tuulikki's music or vocal art or whatever it's best to call it. I hope to eventually be near enough to attend one of her site-specific performances like Away With The Birds. This tune, though, "At Sing Two Birds," captures the kind of blending of voices I heard in the story of Scratch — the desire for it, at least, if not the realization. It's two things that don't seem to fit, two different songs, brought together and balanced into a surprising whole.

Weather For The Blind

It's exciting to share this one without knowing quite what anyone will hear when they click on the link. It's spontaneous music produced by atmospheric and tidal conditions at a beach near New Orleans. I thought often, while working on Scratch, about site-specific visual art and sound art, like this Croatian seawall-as-instrument and this instrument built into a forest. I also thought about projects that engage with time, like Jem Finer's Longplayer. I'd love to find ways to make my writing do some of these things, be specific to places and ecosystems, and to unfold across time — projects like Katie Paterson's Future Library, to which I can only dream of being asked to contribute, are so inspiring. In the meantime, I can still take the novel into the woods and read it to whatever animals are listening.

Steve Himmer and Scratch links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review
Outlandish Lit review
This Is Horror review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Bee-Loud Glade
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Fram
Monkeybicycle essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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