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August 7, 2017

Book Notes - Sarah Schmidt "See What I Have Done"

See What I Have Done

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.

Sarah Schmidt's brilliant debut novel See What I Have Done is a haunting re-imagining of the Lizzie Borden murders.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A dazzling debut novel that is as unsettling as the summer heat that permeates the crime scene . . . an unusually intimate portrait. There are books about murder and there are books about imploding families; this is the rare novel that seamlessly weaves the two together, asking as many questions as it answers."

In her own words, here is Sarah Schmidt's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel See What I Have Done:

I keep forgetting just how much music plays a huge part in my writing, especially for See What I Have Done. I'm pretty picky: I don't particularly like writing in silence but I can't stand noise in the background just for the sake of it. The music I write along to can't have lyrics, although I sometimes make exceptions. And the music I choose has to reflect a mood or feeling I'm trying to communicate in some way because that's essentially all I'll listen to until I'm done with the project.

Preparing this list was a joy. I could go on and on, but I'm going to try and stick to basics and talk about key songs that either influenced me or a character or played a specific and significant role in the writing and creation of See What I Have Done.

'Song of Joy' and 'Stagger Lee', Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds

The first time I heard Murder Ballads as a teenager I was terrified. It remains one of my favourite albums. It is uncomfortable listening but I am in awe of the way the songs are constructed, these perfect epic short stories that are at times strangely beautiful, maddening, very poetic and often comedic. And the music! Bloody hell. I find it all physically and mentally intense. There are two tracks in particular which influenced See What I Have Done in terms of tone and sensibility.

The first is "Song of Joy." It's like being dropped into the middle of a nightmare. The narration of this song, the way crime is depicted, is very bare boned, creepy, and matter of fact and that's what makes it so menacing and intense. I think sometimes when people write about gruesome crime or the discovery of bodies it can be very sensationalised to the point that it doesn't serve a purpose other than shock value. I don't like it.

The second is "Stagger Lee." This song is quite different from "Song of Joy": it's over the top and gruesome and has a sick comedic bent to it. But it is a wonderful character portrait. In both songs there is a particular kind of violence wherein the men involved wear it like a badge of honour. My character, Benjamin, is one of these men but he isn't a carbon copy of Stagger Lee. He is his own creation, his own person. To be honest, I'd sort of forgotten Stagger Lee existed until Benjamin came to me and started telling me his story, started humming a tune. The tune he hummed turned out to be the bass line of Stagger Lee. Every time he walked somewhere, made a decision, did anything, the bass line would kick in and for me I knew that meant his presence in the book was going to be generally unnerving. Musically the song became a short cut to a certain feeling, a certain understanding.

"I've Written A Letter To Daddy" – Bette Davis

I love Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and I love Bette Davis performance: it comes close to crossing so many lines but manages to stay the right side of over the top. Her performance of this song is gaudy, histrionic, and actually quite sad. It's absolutely amazing.

Over the years when I'd talk to people about the manuscript I was writing they would ask about the relationship between Lizzie and her sister, Emma, and to save time I'd tell them, 'They are kind of like Jane and Blanche but not as glamorous.'

Lizzie famously never spoke for herself during her trial but I'd like to think that if she had maybe she'd belt out "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" to demonstrate not only how she would endear herself to her father, Andrew, and get back in his good graces but show just how much of a good daughter she really could be.

"Danny Boy" – Sinead O'Connor

I have lost count the amount of times I've heard this song throughout my life. I've always thought it was overly sentimental and simply brushed it off as a pretty stock standard Irish ballad done to death about the pipes, the pipes and something something something.

I was writing Bridget, the Borden's Irish maid, when I was told my grandma, Rose, had only weeks to live and that I needed to go and say my final goodbyes.

While I was with my grandma I couldn't help but think of Bridget's final goodbyes with her family and friends, the uncertainty she might have felt leaving home at nineteen knowing full well she'd never see them again. I could empathise.

Rose died a few short weeks later. Three of her favourite songs were played at the funeral. The last was "Danny Boy." I had no idea she loved it so much and it was during the service that I finally listened to the lyrics. It's quite the piece of literature. That bloody stock standard Irish ballad made me weep. I also knew it was the type of song Bridget would love.

This is how "Danny Boy" came to live in See What I Have Done. My favourite version is by Sinead O'Connor, specifically the performance she gives on an early 90s TV show (I'm not sure the name of the show but the performance coincides with the release of the film In the Name of the Father). Sinead's voice is absolutely haunting and her vibrato feels like the end of a long walk through a dream, a nightmare, something unbelievable. While Danny Boy isn't mentioned once in the book, its DNA is in almost everything related to Bridget: her wake, her memories, her longing for home, her love, and it is Sinead's voice I hear whenever a tune is sung in my book.

Solo Piano – Philip Glass

While I've pointed to songs that have influenced me and this book in some way, it is this album that has most significance to me: I listened to Solo Piano on a loop every day I wrote and edited the book for eleven years. Some days it would only be two or three songs from the album. It was rare I'd listen to anything else during the writing process. I am a creature of habit. I love working with repetition and I think this is how I work best.

You'd think after eleven years I'd have something insightful to say about Solo Piano but I don't. I can only be obvious: it's beautiful. The thing I love most about it is the single mindedness of mood and tone. Like most of Glass' work it is minimalist and repetitive yet builds momentum and branches off into spaces that aren't expected (well not to me at least).

"Mad Rush" is my favourite. I listened to it a lot when I wrote from Emma's perspective (and sometimes Lizzie). At times it made me feel sad and isolated, like something was missing but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. But then that rush of piano kicks in and it's like the most beautiful thunder, that sense that something is both beginning and ending at the same time. That is something I tried to capture for parts of the novel.

I no longer listen to Solo Piano since finishing the novel. I'm not sure I ever will again.

"Laura Palmer's Theme" – Angelo Badalamenti

The only song I added to my Solo Piano loop was this corker from Badalamenti. I never tire of hearing it.

Twin Peaks has been a major influence in my life. When I was younger, I particularly loved the music. I tried to figure out exactly how it was able to make me feel scared or sad, happy or on edge. When I started work on See What I Have Done I knew I wanted it to be set in a claustrophobic house, knew I wanted people to feel uncomfortable and anxious. I naturally thought of Twin Peaks and its music. It's hard to imagine the show without Angelo Badalamenti's music. It's absolutely something else.

"Laura Palmer's Theme" is my favourite and a wonderful example of that buzzing, unsettling atmosphere clawing to the surface before hinting at something more peaceful, something like the sun. I chose to write along with this song because it was an instant reminder of what I wanted to achieve with my book and the more I listened to it, the more I began feeling differently toward it. It moved from its wonderful, full bodied soap opera-ish feeling to something that made me feel nervous, terrified and utterly sad. And it was perfect for Lizzie. When I was writing her character I'd think about her ability to keep things from herself and others, the way she lived within fantasy and reality, was both child and adult. When the ‘sun' phase of the song arrives I think of it as a moment of real horror.

Without giving too many book spoilers, for me the most obvious and purposeful use of this song can be found in the final paragraphs. The text and song almost align and when I read the ending now, particularly the paragraph that begins, 'Birdsong was loud in my ear,' all I hear is Badalamenti's sun opening up and can think of nothing but someone's relief and release that comes at the expense of someone's life.

"Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" – Nursery Rhyme

I love nursery rhymes. They are weird, fucked up murder ballads for children. One of my favourites is "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" because it essentially details the way in which Bloody Queen Mary killed people wrapped up in a sugary-sweet ditty and I like that duality (again with the evil bubbling under the surface!). It's a tune my friends and I would sing in the playground and as an adult I still hum it to myself every now and then. It's very catchy.

In an early version of the book, Lizzie sang the rhyme to herself instead of the prayer she eventually mutters ad nauseam. In the end, I decided to get rid of "Mary, Mary" because it was a bit too on the nose and I liked the idea of the prayer more. But if it pleases you to do so, when you see the prayer just hum the rhyme and you'll get the same effect.

Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

The Australian review
Entertainment Weekly review
Kirkus review
Observer review
Publishers Weekly review
Sydney Morning Herald review
USA Today review

ABA interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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