July 14, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Set in New Hampshire's mountain country, Ann Joslin Williams' debut novel Down from Cascom Mountain is filled with subtle prose and perfectly paced. Williams' skill at weaving her characters' live together is estimable.
Kevin Brockmeier wrote of the book:
"There seems to be no element of these people and this landscape to which Williams is a stranger. She sees straight to the heart of her characters, and it is a pleasure to witness them yearning and grieving and loving their way through these pages, one living human presence after another, the mountain and the forest rising up around them in all their mystery and specificity. "
I grew up playing guitar, writing songs and eventually singing in bars. When my focus shifted to writing fiction, music gradually took a backseat for me, but continued to thrive in the lives of fictional characters. The main characters in Down from Cascom Mountain are highly influenced by music. Mary and her new husband, a well-known musician and recording engineer, plan to open a full service recording studio. Mary, a singer songwriter herself, hopes to join her husband in the business and revive her career as a singer once more. Tobin, the troubled boy who lives nearby, was a child prodigy on the piano until his disturbed mother derailed him from the desire to play. And the young people who work at the neighboring lodge are avid musicians, often meeting in the "boot room"—the basement of the lodge—to perform for guests and entertain themselves. Callie, sixteen, doesn't play, but has a keen appreciation for her friends' talents. While listening she envisions images. This is often how music works for me. It can call up vivid images and emotion. I prefer song lyrics that rely on sharp, vivid descriptions and details.
When I was working on early drafts of Down from Cascom Mountain I drove from San Francisco to New Hampshire and back over a dozen times. There's nothing like solo time in the car, listening to music, to get me highly focused on what's going in my work. Since much of my novel explores the darker areas of grief and loss, I found myself drawn to melancholy melodies and compositions. Rest assured, I like to put on rock and roll and jump around the kitchen, but most of my "sound track" for this novel is blue. Though, melancholy doesn't just tap into sadness for me, it also evokes a sense of magic and mystery.
1) "Requiem" by Eliza Gilkyson
The vocal harmonies are layered, gorgeous and build as if taking you up a ladder to heaven. I imagine my character Mary Walker overwhelmed with images of the day her husband fell to his death mixed with memories of happier times. The song evokes a sense of great loss, mixed with hope and a strong pull toward finding a way through tragedy. "In the dark night of the soul/bring some comfort to us all/oh mother mary come and carry us in your embrace/that our sorrows may be faced."
2) "Handy Man" by James Taylor
This cover of the Otis Blackwell tune is mentioned as Mary and Michael drive the mountain road headed for her childhood home: "Her mother had always told her to marry a handyman, meaning a man good with tools. A man who could fix things." Michael says he'll be her handyman and fumbles the lyrics. It's a moment of levity, before heartbreak.
3) Favourite Cello Concertos by Jacqueline Du Pré
Mary recalls the night Michael proposed to her. He'd prepared dinner and had Jacqueline Du Pré on the stereo. There's nothing like the cello to go straight to the heart.
4) "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" by Lucinda Williams
Vivid, specific details. This song influenced a short story "I Never Will" in my collection The Woman in the Woods as well as images in Down from Cascom Mountain. Gravel roads lead to Cascom Mountain. As a child Tobin peers out the back window of his mother's car as they drive by a young Mary walking the road. Lucinda Williams' lyrics: "Child in the backseat, about four or five years/Lookin' out the window/Little bit of dirt mixed with tears/Car wheels on a gravel road."
5) "Another Night" as performed by Alison Krauss & Union Station
This song, written by Hobo Jack Adkins, is one the crew play in the "boot room" of the lodge It's an upbeat and popular bluegrass tune with classical bluegrass duet singing on the choruses. A great song to showcase the crew's talent both instrumentally and vocally.
6) "One Morning in May" as performed by James Taylor
This traditional ballad tells the story of a young couple--a maiden and a soldier who woos her with his fiddle playing. As it turns out he's married. The song isn't mentioned by title in my novel, but Callie describes the song and her interpretation is more romantic, influenced by her feelings for Ben, and also indicative of her susceptibility for falling for the wrong guys. When Mary joins the crew on the piano and sings this song with them, Callie recognizes it as a pivotal moment in Mary's healing.
7) "Out of the Woods" as performed by Nickel Creek
Written by Sinéad Lohan, this song is a great example of what the young crew at Cascom Mountain Lodge might play. Rich harmonies, melancholy melody and lyrics full of longing. More fuel for Callie's romantic notions. "I wish you out of the woods/And into the picture with me/I wish you over the moon./Come out of the question and be."
8) "Sweet Little Duck" by Kathleen Edwards
I admire Edwards' songwriting. Great lyrics that tell stories with vivid details. The lyrics are surprising and never go for the easy or obvious rhyme or image. This song is quirky and sung with a voice edgy and unsure with emotion. Disconsolate, lonely, the narrator reflects on a lover who has her heart. At the end the instruments move toward discord, then end on a single note drawn out on the violin. This song speaks to the loneliness of my characters who long for someone to love them back.
9) "A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell
Blue is one of my all time favorite albums, every song a gem. Also, one of my favorite movies is Truly Madly Deeply in which a woman mourns the death of her husband until he shows up as a cello-playing ghost (note the cello again), and they sing "A Case of You" together, laughing when they hit that one really high note. Both the song and the movie evoke a mood for me that influenced aspects I thought about while writing my novel--lovers, loss, grief, and music shared.
10) "Witches" by The Cowboy Junkies
This haunting song about a woman who turns from her oblivious lover to join the witches in the hills is reminiscent of nights Callie and Marlee sneak out to secretly spy on other people living on the mountain. Callie thinks, "The air was lovely, silky, and they ran swiftly, barely a sound as if their feet didn't touch down. They were witches, riding the currents, invisible."
11) "On My Way to You" by John Reischman and the Jaybirds
My friend Gregory Spatz, the musician and author of several books including the novel Fiddler's Dream, plays fiddle in this band. Greg read many drafts of my novel and offered editorial and musical advice. I listened to the Jaybirds on those long trips across country, so it's more than apt to include a song from this wonderful group. Written and sung by Trisha Gagnon, the narrator of this song longs for her home and partner while evoking the sensuous details of a landscape she knows so well.
Landscape plays a powerful role in Down from Cascom Mountain, informing the way my characters navigate life and view the world. One night, sitting atop Mary's roof, Tobin hears the distant music coming from the lodge: "A waft of fiddle music rose, then fell. And then a faint voice singing; they were playing at the lodge. The air currents determined how loud or soft the music could be heard. And also the valleys and hills, like waves rolling, letting sound rise over the top, then carrying it down, making it disappear into troughs. The forests, too--coniferous, deciduous--in their thicknesses, their leaves or needles, decided what range of tones would be revealed, as if corralling the music, releasing it in increments."
Ann Joslin Williams and Down from Cascom Mountain 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)
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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)
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