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September 12, 2008

Book Notes - Amy Shearn ("How Far Is the Ocean from Here")

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

With her novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here, Amy Shearn has drawn comparisons to a young Alice Hoffman. With this stunning debut, Shearn proves herself a writer to watch in the future.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"Shearn's mesmerizing language and dramatic flair make this first novel a standout."

In her own words, here is Amy Shearn's Book Notes essay for her debut novel, How Far Is the Ocean from Here:

There is only one song that appears in HFITOFH, and that is Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” For some reason I think of it as being the version that was concurrent with that movie that came about her in 1993. In the book, it plays on the radio somewhere, and also goes through Susannah’s head. I’ve always liked the plaintiveness of the lyrics. What’s love got to do with it? Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken? And I also like the idea of a powerful voice like Tina Turner’s neutralized by becoming quiet, tinny gas station background music. It seems unfair and strange in a way that appeals to me.

Then there are the songs that I listened to while working on the book. I don’t often listen to music while writing, but a few albums and songs seemed to speak to a certain mood I was trying to invoke.

Rachel’s, The Sea and the Bells

During the first stages of revising, when I literally had the thing all printed out and spread across my apartment floor, trying to make some sense of it all, I played this record on repeat for a couple days straight. The mournful fabric of sound, textured with found recordings, sounds to me like something uncovered from a shipwreck, or discovered in a mysterious warehouse. Some sentences in HFITOFH were inspired by or patterned after lines from Moby Dick and other books, so the patchwork approach of these songs really appealed to me.

Boxhead Ensemble, Dutch Harbor

There is a vague, perhaps secret, sea-faring theme to HFITOFH, despite its being set in the desert. Perhaps this is why I was also drawn, while revising, to this eerie record, which sounds sort of like deconstructed Americana or something.

Hallways of Always, “Feast of A Thousand Beasts”

William Elliott Whitmore, a friend of mine from Iowa City, made this record with Erase Errata’s Jenny Hoysten. While writing the book, I would listen to the first song on their album over and over again on my iPod, taking the subway home from work, feeling moody and wistful. I love the droning bellow of what sounds like a foghorn, and Will and Jenny’s gorgeous voices, and the lyrics: “We can’t do this anymore/we can’t bring ourselves to change/for hunters we once were/and hunters we shall remain.” I think the characters in my book are all dangerously hungry for love, and this song seems to me to be about something like that.

Jenny Lewis, “You Are What You Love”

But I’m making everything sound awfully mournful and serious. Here’s an upbeat song I also listened to a lot, mostly while revising the book. One line in particular stuck in my head: “But you are what you love, Tim / and not what loves you back” – one of the characters is named Tim, and I always get the funny feeling that Jenny Lewis is singing directly to him.

Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize”

I don’t even know if I really like this song. But one day I was listening to it, actually, back when I was in grad school I think, before I even started writing HFITOFH, and had this weird revelation: something in the pure, bald sincerity of the song really struck me. “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face? Do you realize that we’re floating in space?” Why be coy, I thought? Why not just be messy and emotional and say what one means? I try to remind myself of this while writing. Just say it. Just be sincere. Just be direct. It’s hard for me to remember to do this.

Devendra Banhart, “Heard Somebody Say”

When I picture HFITOFH as a movie (though maybe this is embarrassing to admit), I always see Susannah standing on a street corner in Chicago, momentarily overwhelmed by the life of the city, and I hear this song. The lyrics aren’t exactly relevant, but there is something about the song that sounds resolved to me, and like forces are coming together in a vaguely hopeful way.

The Sandpipers, “Lonely Rider”

My husband found this song on a little yellow 78 record at an antique store. It’s everything an old Western song should be – you can practically see the cowpokes ambling along a dusty main street on their tired-out horses – and as the title suggests, it’s about a lonely rider. My web designer and I loved the idea of making a video for my website that would be a stretch of desert highway seen through a windshield, with this song playing on the radio. Haven’t actually made the video yet, but maybe someday I will.

Amy Shearn and How Far Is the Ocean from Here links:

the author's website
the author's band
the author's books blog
the author's Facebook profile
the author's GoodReads profile
the author's collage blog
the book's page at the publisher

A 'n' E Vibe review review
Boston Globe review
Dallas Morning News review
Kansas City Star review
Mainstream Fiction review
Mother Words: Mothers Who Write review
New West review
O Magazine review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
Two-Legged Version review of the book
Unprintable Version review of the book
Washington Post review

Gotham Writers' Workshop profile of the author
Nervous Breakdown blog posts by the author
The Page 99 Test for the book
University of Minnesota Alumni Stories interview with the author
Zulkey 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)