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July 5, 2011

Book Notes - Constance Squires ("Along the Watchtower")

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

Constance Squire's debut novel Along the Watchtower is an affecting coming of age story, one where music is as intrinsic to the plot as any of the characters.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"A unique, compelling perspective on the dynamics of a military family, springing from the experience of someone who has been there."

In her own words, here is Constance Squires's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Along the Watchtower:

Along the Watchtower is about an Army brat named Lucinda Collins and her family, following them through two moves, one to Grafenwoehr, West Germany, and one to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It's set in the 80's, ending when Major Collins comes back to Fort Sill from the first Gulf War in 1991. The family disintegrates and reconfigures itself over the course of the novel while Lucinda, the point-of-view character, falls in love, sees ghosts, goes to punk rock shows and concentration camps, watches a runaway tank pummel a school and keeps her parents from killing each other.

Music is a major part of the book, providing Lucinda with predictability and security. Her world is very unstable. She's living thirty kilometers from the Iron Curtain at the Czech border, the Cold War is a real and present danger, but more ominous still, her family, the only reliable unit of stability she's ever known, is coming apart. Her friends move away; her boyfriend moves away. People die. She moves away. She feels acutely the lack of a home and longs to anchor herself. In the absence of a safe place, of an external environment that is stable and constant, music becomes her safe place. A song is like a room, and it is the same each time you enter it, every note in place like furniture, wherever your body is physically located when you hear it. And so she moves into songs, in a way, roots herself there. She goes through a lot of music over the course of the book, but these are some of the biggies.

1. "The Man I Used to Be" by Jellyfish

This song isn't mentioned in Along the Watchtower because it speaks so directly to the subject of the book, but it was important to me, one of the earliest intimations I had that there was story material in the fact that I grew up with a father who was in the Army. I had never really considered his subjectivity before this song. My little sister, in high school at the time, played it for me one day in her room. "Just wait," she said. "You'll see." We listened to it and just stared at each other. The song is told in first person in the voice of a father who was a soldier. He's talking to his son. As the title suggests, he's a ghost. Or at least that's how I understood it, I guess the song could be seen as sentimental, but to me the regret and pain voiced by the narrator is unvarnished and takes you straight into the irrevocability of loss—no take backs, no do overs.

2. "Peace Frog" by the Doors

The epigraph to the book comes from "Peace Frog": "Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind." I've known Doors music well since a thorough teenage immersion in their stuff. When I was in 10th grade I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, I knew all the albums, even Jim's spoken-word stuff, and was once wooed with the showing of an ENTIRE PHOTO ALBUM of Morrison's grave in Paris. That was somebody's appraisal of what might do it for me. And it was accurate. But until recently, I didn't listen to them much anymore. Sometimes I even felt like I hated the Doors, mainly because teaching creative writing I've read a ton of REALLY bad imitations of Morrison's poetry. Enough with the crawling king snake! "L.A." is not the only adjective! But I heard "Peace Frog" in the car after I finished this book and that line hit me as the perfect epigraph because it unites so much of what the book is about. Lucinda sees a Nazi ghost and there's the sense that she sees him because of her "fragile eggshell mind"—she's young, empathetic, and epileptic, which throws off a kind of weird spiritual/intellectual spark that interacts with the world in unexpected ways. Then, it's a rock lyric, and rock is the pathway for Lucinda. There's such energy in the contrast between the jaunty, carnivalesque music and the lyrics that sing about blood in the streets. Up to my ankles, knees, thighs—it's got the playful sensibilities of a song for toddlers, all the while describing gore, like "Ring Around the Rosy." I can't believe Morrison won the day after all these years, but it seems right.

3. "Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult

I wanted the musical references in the book to work even if the reader doesn't know the music so I wanted the words on the page to be evocative of the attitude in the song. The first musical reference in the book is in the first scene when Lucinda sings "Godzilla" in an awkward attempt to break the ice with her new neighbors in Germany. I tried lots of different songs here. I had to fight the impulse to give Lucinda more rarefied taste, to air my love of more alternative music, but that felt phony and I knew that Lucinda, at this stage in her musical development, would know what was in the air on the radio. Also, I was trying hard to set up the Cold War setting on as many levels as possible, and Godzilla is pretty well-known as a big anthropomorphic metaphor for the atomic bomb—I wanted that association there, vibrating at a low level, the central fear of the Cold War right from the get-go.

4. "All Along the Watchtower" by Bob Dylan

The book takes its title from this song because of the way it describes life behind the walls of an armed fort. As Nately explains to Lucinda when she asks about the lyrics, the soldiers stand guard in the watchtower and the women and children come and go inside the walls. It sounds like it could have been written about life on one of these American Army bases in Germany during the Cold War, especially the ones close to the border, as Grafenwoehr, the setting for my novel, was. So the song evoked place and sound to me. When people ask me the title, almost everybody gets the Dylan/Hendrix reference, but not everybody gets how it describes the setting. But I was talking to a German the other day and when I told him my title, he gave a brisk nod and said, "Watchtower—ya. the Iron Curtain. Sehr gut." It's a great song and the line about not talking falsely because the hour's getting late—here, here. Or hear, hear. Or, in this case, both.

5. Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü

Lucinda is blown away by this album and keeps trying to translate the name of the band. The umlauts make her think it must be German. "it's like Norwegian or Swedish or something," as Nately, the young GI who becomes her rock mentor, informs her. Norwegian, and it means "do you remember" a phrase that seems auspicious for fiction, the opening volley of so many stories. Hüsker Dü had a strong narrative drive, one of the reasons I loved them—Zen Arcade is, in fact, a concept album. There's a song on it called "Chartered Trip" about a guy who joins the Army to see the world and I thought of it when I was writing about Nately. When Lucinda gets interested in them, Nately is impressed—she's evolving.

6. "Bark at the Moon" by Ozzy Osbourne

I'm really not a big metal fan, but it kept showing up in this book for some reason. It's so medieval, I guess, like Germany, and I remember stumbling through a metal phase in junior high in Germany that was really just fashion. This song appears in a scene when Lucinda is on a 9th grade school fieldtrip to Dachau. The guy who plays it on the bus always plays it, but usually with a little more fire. The real evil of Dachau flattens the Ozzy song, makes it seem like the bit of pop fluff it basically is.

7. "Strawberry Letter 23" by the Brothers Johnson

A gun shot rings out, and Lucinda's childhood is over. This song is playing. It's the happiest song I know, a buttery, golden sound-and-image spread of sweetness. The lyrics are truly trippy, free-associative, the images making no denotative sense but perfect emotional sense. Here's a bit of it:

In the garden - I see west

Purple shower, bells and tea

Orange birds and river cousins dressed in green

Pretty music I hear - so happy

And loud - blue flower echo

From a cherry cloud

Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue

Playgrounds will laugh

if you try to ask

Is it cool?, is it cool?

I wanted a stark demarcation between the moment before the gunshot and the moment after and I hope this song does that job. It's one that really works on the page—even if you have no idea what this song sounds like, the title telescopes sweetness. If you're ever having a bad day, drive around and listen to this until you feel better. It won't take long.

8. The Velvet Underground

This is the default virginity soundtrack after Lucinda is forced to realize that the logistics of sex won't permit her to get up and change the tape after every song, a reality she concedes to with some reluctance. I don't specify a song, but my Freudian mind was picturing the Warhol banana on the cover of "The Velvet Underground and Nico." It's not a very long album, but my scene tastefully fades to black before that can become an issue.

9. "Wichita Lineman"

The sadness and irrevocable loneliness in this song was perfect for the sad, private mystery of Lucinda's parents' feelings for each other. The Tucumcari Diner story is Lucinda's origin myth, so to put this song on the jukebox there and to make it a song that both parents remember shows, I hope, the weight that this backstory carries in Lucinda's imagination. I heard someone say that this song is about a psycho killer and that made me so mad. I don't believe that at all! "I hear you singing in the wires. I can hear you through the lines" is not about a stalker listening in, it's much more concrete and literal, if you ask me--about some lonely lineman up on a telephone pole in bitter cold hearing the voices crackle through the wire and imagining the warm, safe places where they're coming from. That image is very much how I felt about Lucinda—she's out there alone and the homes that other people experience are something she imagines and longs for.

10. "Eminence Front" by The Who

I love that fizzing, percolating opening, the way it starts building right away. There's such tension and foreshadowing, so that when the song opens out, your whole body KNOWS that's going to happen—so satisfying, like a good plot. The song just bursts open like a dam, and Townsend's voice flings itself around petulantly with a vivid adolescent moral outrage. Along the Watchtower started life as a collection of short stories and when I was asked if I could turn it into a novel I was trying to fathom how to do it. Hearing this song, which I associate with my childhood in Germany, I felt the structure that pulls the song forward and believed that I could figure out a way to make the stories into a novel if I could find that kind of unifying momentum. As long as the song was playing it seemed easy, a matter of riding a power surge across the page. I think I had Lucinda make an all-"Eminence Front" tape because it was something I thought about doing myself. When I wrote the scene where Lucinda takes revenge on the woman her father is having an affair with, I knew this was the song she'd be listening to. It's so fierce—and neither time nor those 80's synthesizers can take that away.

11. "Nazi Punks Fuck Off"

This Dead Kennedy's classic shows up in a scene in which an American hardcore group, whom I've called the Subplots, plays this at a club in Nürnberg to teach a lesson to Toxic, an idiot that Lucinda caught a ride with to the show. Its overt use in the scene is pretty self-explanatory—Toxic thinks he's a Neo-Nazi and wrongly assumes he'll find lots of likeminded folks at this club. After Toxic gets into a big fight in the mosh pit, the band kicks into "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" by way of schooling him. In my mind, though, that gig comes from a time I saw Black Flag play in Norman, Oklahoma around 1985. As happens to Lucinda in this scene, I was nearly crushed at the front of the stage and pulled to safety by the lead singer. The character of the lead singer in my scene doesn't much resemble Henry Rollins except for those black shorts and the vista they afford as seen from below by Lucinda, but when this plays in my head, it's Rollins.

Constance Squires and Along the Watchtower links:

the author's website

Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review

Acreage interview with the author
Look at OKC profile of the author
Sound of the City guest post ("Ten Crucial Fourth of July Jams") by the author

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 (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
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