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March 13, 2008

Book Notes - Jeffrey Ford ("The Shadow Year")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

The Shadow Year is a suspense novel in the best sense of the word. Jeffrey Ford's talent lay in building up the tension in this book and in creating a cast of characters we can all relate to (especially the children).

In his own words, here is Jeffrey Ford's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Shadow Year:

The Shadow Year is a fictional reminiscence of a strange year in the life of a boy, growing up in suburban Long Island during the late 60’s. It is about his neighborhood and his family, and the insinuation of true evil into his small world. A child from his class at school has disappeared, a peeping tom has been noticed at the night windows of the neighborhood, and a gaunt stranger dressed entirely in white, driving a long white car, cruises the streets of town at night. The protagonist and his older brother, Jim, and younger sister, Mary, decide to investigate these dark happenings. Jim has built, in the basement, on a train board without trains, Botch Town, a facsimile of their street and the school around the corner with its attendant woods and lake, out of cast off items. He’s peopled it with clay replicas of the neighbors. Then the boys realize that their young sister, who’s somewhat “off,” and whom parents and school can’t figure out whether she is simple or a genius of sorts, begins to predict events by placing the clay figures on the board at spots they will soon be in real life. With the use of the board and their sister’s mysterious abilities, the children track the movements of potential suspects and victims, becoming embroiled in a cat and mouse game with a deadly adversary. The narrative has undertones of horror and fantasy and mystery, but is also, and most importantly, an evocation of that time and place and the people who lived there.

I hadn’t thought about what type of music might make up the soundtrack of the novel, so to speak, until I was contacted by Largehearted Boy, but once the question was put to me some choices immediately became clear. Much of the novel is based on my own childhood, growing up in a neighborhood very like the one in the book, although the story is very definitely fiction. I remember when my siblings and I were the age of the characters, a time when there was a real revolution going on in popular music, namely the rock and roll era of The Beatles and The Stones and the rise of Motown. We were aware of this musical phenomenon, or as aware as we could be, listening to the AM stations on crappy transistor radios. What loomed equally as large for us was the music of our parents, that which they played on the victrola as well as what they played themselves. So here are five songs you might have heard during The Shadow Year.

“Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells

The first time my brother and I heard “Crimson and Clover,” we couldn’t freakin believe it. The weird repetition of the title phrase in that psychedelic reverb was a metaphor for the off-kilter world we slowly sensed blossoming around us. Eventually, we bought the 45 record and played the life out of it. Still when I hear it, I’m thrown back to that time period and sense that excitement of “You mean this is possible?.” I had a similar experience the first time I saw color television. It was Star Trek, and the neighbor kid whose family owned the set turned the color to max and Kirk’s orange shirt glowed like it was radioactive. There were more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …

“Time of the Season” by The Zombies

A very haunting song that portended some darkness we could never really figure out but knew was there beneath the beat and lyrics. It was my sister’s favorite song, and just knowing this told me there was more going on behind her shy, retiring demeanor than I had the wherewithal to gauge. This experience was a hallmark of childhood for me – sensing something deeper than my current knowledge of the world could explain. I still play this song every now and then, and it still reminds me that there are unseen forces both physical and metaphysical at work all around me. Who’s your Daddy?

“Until the Real Thing Comes Along” by The Ink Spots

My parents played their records on the weekends and would dance in the living room to them. The Kingston Trio, The Weavers, The Mills Brothers, and especially The Ink Spots got spun every Saturday night. The folks would have a few drinks and cut the rug. I remember one time when the living room was being painted and there were sheets of newspaper covering the hardwood floor. My parents danced to “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” and when my father would spin my mother in slow turns the newspaper would lift up off the floor around them like in a dream. “If that isn’t love, it will have to do, until the real thing comes along.”

“Shanty Town” by ?

I’m not sure who this song was written by, but it was a fast little number about a run down shack by the old railroad track, a place that had generated dreams and memories that kept call, call, calling you back. In those days a lot more people played musical instruments it seems, and a lot less people watched television at night. A couple of times a week my mother would get out her guitar and play songs and sing in the living room. Sometimes, my grandfather would come from next door with his mandolin and the guy across the street would bring his harmonica and they’d all jam out on the front porch for the neighbors. “Shanty Town,” “Apple Blossom Time,” “Goodnight Irene,” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” were some of the regular tunes that filled the firefly nights of mid-summer.

The Hours by Phillip Glass

This is obviously not a piece of music from the time period of the book, but I listened to it relentlessly while writing The Shadow Year. When I write novels I play a CD of what I call head music. It can’t have words and it has to be to a large extent innocuous and mellifluous. For other novels I’ve relied heavily upon the works of Harold Budd – The Pavilion of Dreams, The Pearl, Distant Thunder, etc. I’m not listening to them as I would the music I listen to for pleasure, like Lester Young or Ella Fitzgerald or Thelonius Monk, but it creates a background for me that filters the noise of our house and puts me in a contemplative state. I play the same CD for the entirety of the writing of a novel. When it ends, I lean down and press the button on the CD player and start it going again. When I get home from my teaching job at night and need to get to work writing, I find that playing the familiar music for that novel allows me to drop into the fictional world very quickly. One time my older son borrowed my CD player for a little party he was having and didn’t return it. I entered my office, sat down and started writing, and about an hour into my session realized the player was gone. The whole time I was writing, though, I swear I heard the score for The Hours playing.

Jeffrey Ford and The Shadow Year links:

the author's blog
the book's page at the publisher
an excerpt from the book

Book Chase review
Worlds of Wonder review

Bibliophile Stalker interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)