February 12, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
I have long admired Peter Straub's writing. His new novel, A Dark Matter, showcases his talent for storytelling. His character-driven drama is skillfully told through the eyes of several narrators, its secrets unfolded layer by layer with perfect pacing.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Brilliant in its orchestration and provocative in its speculations, this novel ranks as one of the finest tales of modern horror."
For various reasons I will not go into here, A Dark Matter, my new novel, took a lot longer to write than my books usually do. From mid-2005 to mid-2007, anyhow, I pushed my characters around and around on a stage set I called Madison, Wisconsin, finally to be rewarded by a breakthrough into deeper engagement that led me into a lengthy period of absorbed and nearly always satisfying work. After the usual cutting and trimming and general housekeeping, I submitted a seven-hundred page manuscript to my publisher in November, 2008. It was a really good novel, I thought. There followed a silence of puzzling length. After something like three weeks had passed, my inbox at last produced an email from the editor. Amazingly to me, not to mention infuriatingly, even unhingingly, she made it clear to me that I had screwed up very thoroughly and required, if not reality therapy, at least a refresher course in How Thrillers Work. (Of course, she was much more tactful than that.) Once I had recovered and calmed down, over a series of long conversations and emails that lasted perhaps ten days we worked out our differences and managed to reach the best possible conclusion, a compromise that made us both happy.
The revisions we had agreed upon called for extensive rewriting. I had to change the viewpoint from third- to first-person and to recast the first hundred and fifty pages into a sort of introduction, plus a lot of other heavy lifting. About two months after I had launched into these changes, a brutal corporate reshuffle whisked away my editor and replaced her with another, who of course never saw my original manuscript and had no idea of the delicate negotiations that preceded my revisions. I submitted the new manuscript and was sent back to the woodshed. Along the way, while following the second editor's quite sensible recommendations, I decided to make everything tauter and more economical by deleting far more material than either editor had advised. The entire editorial process lasted from December 2008 to May 2009.
The music I will list accompanied the period from roughly September 2007 through November 2008, when I was working at full stretch, and from that December through the months of revising and rewriting. In both of those periods, I listened to music constantly, downloading my CDs into iTunes and playing them back through earphones, so that I would be able to hear nothing else, not even the telephone. I'm a jazz fan, and I listen mainly to entire recordings, what we used to call "albums," as though they contained photographs. Toward the end, I played my way through some complete box sets, so that I would have a consistent sound always running through my head.
First, from the happy, "creative" period:
Ahmad Jamal Trio, After Fajr and The Legendary Okeh and Epic Recordings: These trio records are incredibly precise and thought-out, every nuance nailed down and perfectly in place. Also, they swing liked hell, in the good old way, and that tight rhythmic pulse, combined with the precision of the patterns Jamal set in place, created a kind of utter joy, a bliss I found entirely helpful.
Dave Brubeck Quartet, Jazz impressions of Japan, Jazz at the College of the Pacific, Vol. 2, and "Gone With the Wind" from the album of the same name: All the Brubeck Quartet records are old friends of mine, dating back to the 50s, but I listened to the first two listed here because one was newly released, (the Vol. 2) and I did not have the other completely memorized. Both of these had plenty of great solos by the alto player Paul Desmond, my favorite musician, especially on "The City is Crying" from the Japan album and "Crazy Rhythm" from the new released concert record. A great Desmond solo is like great writing, expressive in an almost narrative or essayistic manner, with connected phrases and long, developing melodic lines of breathtaking inventiveness. Inspiring stuff, filled with wit, feeling, sudden flights, intimate whispers and passionate raptures. The "Gone With the Wind" solo is an all-time favorite of mine, with an almost off-hand grace and poise that deepen into the miraculous as he follows his thoughts to their joyous conclusion. I listen to it over and over.
From the period of intense revision, which through very driven, also had its own particular, intensely focused form of happiness:
Miles Davis Quintet, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel: 6 CDS, containing every note played over two nights and seven sets at a Chicago jazz club in December, 1965. Raw, open, surging music by Davis's last great quintet, with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, all incredible musicians who were reinventing jazz music from the ground up. Davis gave his men all the freedom they wanted to explode rhythm and harmony from the inside out, with the result that he often sounds like the most conventional musician on the stand. These may be the greatest recordings Wayne Shorter would or will ever make, urgent, radical, unconfined and totally inspired moment to moment.
The Keith Jarrett solo concerts, especially Vienna Concert, La Scala, Bremen/Lausanne, and Paris Concert. I never thought I'd like these, but one day when I was bored and curious I ordered Vienna Concert, and as soon as it started unspooling into my head, I was hooked. One guy, a piano, an otherwise empty stage, no preconceptions or prepared program, just a man improvising from start to finish and depending on his instincts and purity of intention, his willingness to take great risks backed up by his faith in his ability to work his way out of blind alleys. This music was just what I needed. I played Vienna Concert for two days straight, over and over, before it occurred to me that Jarrett had made a lot of these live solo records, and that I could own all of them. As it turned out, even in the recordings I never listened to twice, like about half the Sun Bear concerts from a tour of Japan, I usually found a combination of spontaneity and fecundity that felt as though it could be translated directly into writing.
Peter Straub and A Dark Matter links:
A.V. Club review
Alternative Worlds review
The Barnes & Noble Review review
Blood of the Muse review
The Book Smugglers review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Dead in the South review
Jenn's Bookshelves review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out New York review
Washington Post review
Zombo's Closet of Horror review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists