May 27, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Scott Sparling's debut novel Wire to Wire is frenetic and action-packed, truly a literary page-turner.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Sparling's debut is well crafted and thrilling, tying together an obvious love for both Michigan and railroads with an expert sense of timing and plot. The world he has created is both overwhelming and exhilarating, thanks in no small part to a large ensemble of memorable characters and a relentless pace. Indeed, hardly a page goes by without some sort of fantastic calamity throwing Slater and company into further turmoil—when the most peaceful passages of the story are speed-addled, that's saying something—but it's done so well that hopping off this runaway train would never cross a reader's mind."
Writing a playlist for Wire to Wire is almost like reverse engineering – so much of the book grew out of the music I was listening to at the time. I remember, for example, exactly where I was when I decided to quit my job and write a book: at a Prince concert in Washington state. Can you hear the Purple One change my life in the Tacoma Dome? – "I know, I know times are changing / it's time we all reached out for something new / that means you too."
Now that I'm looking back at the end result, what's interesting to me is the way music enters the narrative. Early on, it leaks out of a window "as if the house could not quite contain what it held." It drifts up through floorboards or plays from an unseen car radio. How it gets switched on matters in a way I hadn't realized until now.
One song that's not in Wire to Wire is "Wire to Wire" by Razorlight. Nothing against it, but I didn't know it existed until I Googled my book. (Yeah, I do that.) A decent song, I guess, but a little too much light and not enough Razor for my taste.
Exit 0 by Steve Earle & the Dukes
I was in Seattle, working on the first draft, when Exit 0 came out, and every note of Earle's album told me something about Harp Maitland, one of the main characters—the one who rides freights. "And the Rain Came Down," gives us a stubborn down-and-out farmer who stands up to the bank, telling them, "You ain't taking my land." Then there's the narrator of "I Ain't Ever Satisfied." Born by the railroad track. Has an empty feeling. Is given a chance at heaven, but tells St. Peter, "I'll just be moving along." And "It's All Up To You" could play over any scene of Harp on the road. Strong. Restless. Alone. I knew all that about Harp—but hearing Earle made it clear and gave me something to measure against.
Finally, there's "Sweet Little 66"—a tricked out '66 Chevy, built by union labor in Deetroit, Michigan, mister. It's just pure pride, happiness, and exhilaration all the way through, and it's what I listen to before I do a reading to get in the mood.
"2+2=?" by Bob Seger
I grew up in Michigan, so Seger provided the soundtrack to a lot of my life. When I started writing fiction, I wanted to explore something else. But in the end, you can't set a story in Northern Michigan in the 1970s and not include Seger, any more than you could leave out the Great Lakes. The first song I played the day Tin House called and accepted Wire to Wire was "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man." When I was done, there were bits of speaker cone on the floor. And the last :38 of "Night Moves"—where Seger repeats the phrase "I remember" over and over—sums up the whole freaking book. But "2+2=?" has a special place for me. It was the first rock antiwar song. It was the first Seger song I fell in love with and it crystallized my decision to become a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. Even now, it has a defiant power like nothing else I've heard—which is why it plays at a crucial moment near the end of the book.
"Coyote" by Joni Mitchell
None of the characters in this book would listen to Joni Mitchell. But in the first verse of "Coyote," Joni completely caught what I was trying to put on paper: how close you can come to someone you love "and still feel so alone / and still feel related / like stations in some relay." For a while, I actually renamed the manuscript "Stations in Some Relay." When that looked dull, I tried changing it to "Sta Shuns Inso Mrelay" (influenced by the typography treatment on a Talking Heads album, rendered as SP EAK IN GI N TO NGU ES) What can I say? You have to be crazy to write a book.
Another Joni Mitchell influence was the first verse of "Come in from the Cold," with its story of chaperoned dances where you had to keep your distance, "so with just a touch of our fingertips / we could make our circuitry explode." Cue the prologue of Wire to Wire.
"Chelsea Hotel '78" by Alejandro Escovedo
Originally, the story opened on an unspecified sidewalk in NYC. Tony Perez at Tin House, whose insights improved so many aspects of the book, suggested anchoring it on a real intersection. I chose the corner of 7th and 23rd as a reference/ homage to Escovedo's song—and the whole album, Real Animal, which I love. Alejandro Escovedo also does a killer version of Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog," which comes drifting through a doorway toward the end of the book, just as the rot that's been covered over starts to percolate out.
"Soul Kitchen" by The Doors
When I was choosing music for Lane—the wounded, glue-sniffing woman at the apex of the love triangle—I chose Hendrix. But it could have been The Doors. Listen to Morrison repeat "Learn to forget" three times in "Soul Kitchen." I first heard that lyric when I was young and wanted to remember everything. Now I know what forgetting is for. Lane's problem is she can't, and neither can Slater.
"Boxcars" by Joe Ely
There are songs about trains, and songs that are trains. The genius of "Boxcars" is that it's not set on the train. The narrator is already off, watching the train roll, and you know he'd rather be riding. That said, it's the guitar solo at the end that kills me. The studio version is best, I think. There were times during the writing when I had to remember what it was like to be riding freight, and the guitar always did it for me. Still does.
"Oh, My Girl" by Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter
The book is set in the '70s, so Lane listens to Hendrix when she gets high. If it were set now, she'd be listening to the trancy, psych-rock-alt country of Jesse Sykes. Just like I did during hundreds of hours of writing and editing in my tree house. "Oh, My Girl" hits especially deep with its casual, doomed description of "the world's fuckery." Fact: when you're sitting in a tree, and it's dark, and Jesse Sykes is on repeat for hours, you could be anywhere.
"Shelter from the Storm" by Bob Dylan
Shelter is what Slater thinks Lane offers. (From his internal monologue: "She held a tarp in the shitstorm.") But it doesn't work out that way.
"Beautifully Broken" by John Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks
JDG's music is loud, sharp-edged and so completely honest it's heartbreaking. I played his album, It's Not As Bad As It Looks, during the entire last pass through the manuscript, so in that sense it forms a bookend with Steve Earle's Exit 0. If books had credits, "Beautifully Broken" could play over this one, especially since the people in the song are "not beautifully broken, just broken, that's all." And "My Lucky Day" is an exuberant song built on the slimmest of omens—a narrator who finds three shiny dimes in a Motel 6 dresser. There's even a train that passes through "three or four or five or six or seven—hell, sometimes eleven times a day." It's the song I want playing the moment I see Wire to Wire in Powell's for the first time. Screw waiting—I want it playing right now.
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" by the Beatles
Last on the list and the first post-Wire to Wire song for me. During rewriting, you focus on what's not working—and I did a lot of rewriting. When Tin House finally gave me the printed book, I was scared to read it. All I remembered was the bad stuff. One afternoon, in the student coffeehouse at Willamette University, I opened up the book I had spent 20 years writing. And I liked it. The hypnotic, repetitive part of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was playing. The sun was slanting in. And in those moments, everything – the book, the day, life – felt right, and charmed, and almost freaking perfect, and the closing chords kept repeating and building and repeating, almost like waves, almost like it would never—
Scott Sparling and Wire to Wire links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
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Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists