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May 4, 2018

William Boyle's Playlist for His Novel "The Lonely Witness"

The Lonely Witness

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

William Boyle's novel The Lonely Witness is a vivid character-driven work of crime fiction.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Powered by brilliantly realized characters, a richly described and grittily realistic backdrop, and subtle yet powerful imagery, this is crime fiction at its best: immersive, intense, and darkly illuminating."

In his own words, here is William Boyle's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Lonely Witness:

The Lonely Witness is a paranoid thriller. The songs that burned through my mind really set the tone for the action; I also can’t help but imagine how these songs would interact with certain scenes, float behind characters, deepen meaning. The book is set in and around the Gravesend and Bensonhurst sections of Brooklyn in February 2017, one month into the new reality of this country. I started writing it that same month. I grew up in those neighborhoods and am still back there often to visit my mom and grandma, but I’ve lived in the south for the past decade. I was back last February pretty often because my grandmother, eighty-nine at the time, wasn’t doing well; her dementia was getting worse. The book had been knocking at the door, so to speak, for a while; I knew I wanted to return to Amy Falconetti, a minor character from my first novel, Gravesend. Amy used to be a bartender and a record collector, a rockabilly girl. She loved Social Distortion, The Cramps, The Gun Club. Music stills plays a part in her life, though she’s sold all of her records and relies on some cassette tapes she dubbed back in high school that she listens to on a battered old Walkman as she walks the streets. We meet Amy here in the throes of a crisis: a crime witnessed, her alcoholic wreck of a father back in her life, her ex-girlfriend Alessandra returning from L.A., her past lives crashing into her quiet new life. One of many things I loved about Twin Peaks: The Return is the way the Roadhouse functioned essentially as David Lynch bringing his own playlist to life. Isn’t that what we all really want? Isn’t that the purpose of this? So, here’s what the Roadhouse of my dreams looks like:

1. Bernard Herrmann, “Prelude and Rooftop”Vertigo is one of my all-time favorite movies (I know I’m far from alone there) and a huge influence on the book. I love the way this track from Herrmann’s score jumps out at you and sets the pace for the whole thing. I wanted the same kind of tension in my opening: a city, a pursuit, a mystery.

2. Sharon Van Etten, “A Crime” – To me, no one sounds like Sharon Van Etten: that voice full of yearning and regret and pain, yet hope somehow bleeds through. This song, in particular, was one that really informed what I was doing. Feels a lot like it could be about Amy and Alessandra’s relationship, too.

3. Cat Power, “Lived in Bars” – Almost every night during the few months that I urgently worked on this book, I fell asleep listening to Cat Power. I wasn’t sleeping well at the time, and I’d drift in and out of sleep, bend in and out of Cat Power-driven dreams. This song reminds me so much of Amy, of one of her past lives as a bartender, as someone—in one incarnation—wholly alive after hours.

4. Elliott Smith, “I Don’t Think I’m Ever Gonna Figure It Out” – The book is really about identity and the pervading sense that nothing will ever really make sense. Elliott Smith reminds me of long subway rides with headphones on, staring out scratched glass at rooftops and windows, feeling lost and alone in the city.

5. Nina Simone, “Lonesome Cities” – At International Bar, Amy gets drunk for the first time in a long while and plays Nina Simone on the jukebox. This song feels so right for her and for her story. I think it’s one of the songs she punches in.

6. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, “Come Undone” – So much of what I’m picking here is about tone. This feels like a walking-in-the-city song, and there’s plenty of walking and wandering and following in this book.

7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “I Need You” – I was wrapped up in Skeleton Tree, maybe my favorite record by one of my biggest heroes, when I started working on The Lonely Witness. I saw One More Time with Feeling somewhere along the way, and it cast a big shadow over the book, especially in terms of understanding the way things can change so quickly, what it’s like to feel lost, what it’s like to have to perform an identity.

8. The Shangri-Las, “Out in the Streets” – A song about identity and loss and change. The Shangri-Las are Queens girls like Amy. In a lot of ways, I think I want this book to sound like a Shangri-Las record. That Shadow Morton production, you know? Goddamnit, you know.

9. Ramones, “Outsider” – Another one for Queens girl Amy, one that stresses her life on the margins.

10. Johnny Thunders, “In Cold Blood” – This feels like the perfect city song in some ways, and it’s sure perfect for Amy and Alessandra. “Well, no one here gets out alive / Living here, it’s suicide.” I also really love this live version.

11. Angel Olsen, “Free” – Angel Olsen is another patron saint of this book. I was listening to My Woman a lot while I was working on it, but this one, from Half Way Home, feels right for Amy. It could be her thinking about Alessandra or about God or her pathetic old man, yearning to believe in something but not really believing in anything.

12. The Jim Carroll Band, “I Want the Angel” – Every time I make a playlist, it’s difficult to not just fill it up with Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, the Ramones, Jim Carroll, Johnny Thunders, the bands and artists that remind me the most of the New York I grew up in, those artists whose songs feel like the New York that lives in my imagination and that certainly shaped my view of the city. Catholic Boy could probably just be the soundtrack to everything I write. The last few lines here were one of the epigraphs during the early stages of the book: “I want the angel / that never chooses / and don’t come running back every time she loses / I want the angel that never loses.”

13. The Gun Club, “Mother of Earth” – A relic from Amy’s past life. When she sees a bartender in a Fire of Love T-shirt, I imagine that she thinks back to this one from Miami, no doubt a favorite of hers.

14. Jackie Shane, “Any Other Way” – Numero Group put out a box set of transgender soul singer Jackie Shane’s work in the fall of 2017. At the time, I was deep into revisions on The Lonely Witness. Jackie Shane was one of those discoveries I’m always hungry for. This, the title track, is a cover of a William Bell song. Well worth it to read this New York Times piece and then rush out and buy the collection. Jackie Shane is someone I think Amy would really admire. The book ends several months before the box set is released, and I sure hope Amy gets back to collecting records and finds her way to it.

15. Lucinda Williams, “Foolishness” – Lucinda’s right at the top of my all-time greats list, and I think this run of records in the last decade has been pretty phenomenal. They keep revealing themselves to me and getting better, as is so often the case with the best of the best. Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone is a masterpiece, and this is the greatest track from it, the kind of driving, incantatory anthem that Lucinda excels at. It feels triumphant. I’ve been obsessed with it lately, and it reminds me of Amy, of her resilience, of her rugged (and ragged) individualism. I worry about her, and I hope the world doesn’t beat her down too bad.

16. Screaming Trees, “More or Less” – Something about the very beginning of this song feels so spot on for the anxious raspiness of the story. And Mark Lanegan’s voice seems to be coming across a great distance or slipping out from a deep, dark hole. Amy would’ve loved these guys back when she was in high school; she’s got Screaming Trees tapes, no doubt.

17. Ronnie Spector, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” – There’s a scene near the end of the book—I won’t say what happens—where I picture a big swooping De Palma crane shot and this Ronnie Spector cover of Johnny Thunders kicking in as the camera pulls back. I’ve loved this song for a long time. I’m not ashamed to admit that the first time I heard it was the Guns N’ Roses cover on The Spaghetti Incident? I was in eighth grade. Guns N’ Roses was my favorite band. That album introduced me to The New York Dolls, The Stooges, The Dead Boys, Misfits, T. Rex, and—most importantly—Johnny Thunders’s best solo song. Thunders is buried right near where Amy is from in Queens. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much his ghost is present in the city that I write about. When I was in high school, my best friend Anthony and I went to visit his grave. It was the only time I’d ever gone to Queens for anything other than a Mets game.

18. L7, “One More Thing” – Amy puts L7’s Bricks are Heavy into the tape player in her car at the end, and this isn’t the first song she hears, but it’s coming soon. “One more thing that I can’t take / One more thing and I’m gonna break.” Freeze frame. Roll credits.

William Boyle and The Lonely Witness links:

the author's website

Booklist review
BookPage review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Death Don't Have No Mercy
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Gravesend
Under the Radar interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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