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April 18, 2013

Book Notes - Amy Brill "The Movement of Stars"

The Movement of Stars

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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Vividly told and meticulously researched, Amy Brill's The Movement of Stars is one of the year's finest debut novels.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Probing yet accessible, beautifully written and richly characterized: fine work from a writer to watch."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Amy Brill's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Movement of Stars:

"A Hundred Years Ago" – Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd

Every day at sea is an eternity when love is left behind. As Isaac writes to Hannah in the book: "Your lesson—that time and distance are the same thing, at sea?...I understand this. Not only in my mind. But in my self. The longer I am away from my home, the farther I feel from it."

"The Creator Has a Master Plan" – Brooklyn Funk Essentials

The era in which I got the idea for the novel is wrapped up with my life in Brooklyn. I was in my mid-twenties, the same age as my protagonist—and, like her, I was looking for meaning in life, waiting for something important to happen, often at night, though not so much in the sky. I hoped to find my soulmate, to find my voice, to tell great stories and find great adventure. I looked far and wide—Bali, Australia, Greece, Israel, Thailand, Mexico, seeking faith in a future that would deliver all that I yearned for. This song captures that moment in time.

"You Learn" – Alanis Morrisette

I recommend biting off more than you can chew to anyone. Back in those days (mid 90s) the idea seemed romantic, unreachable, gleaming in the distance: a novel. In those days we were all screaming and sweating and striving. Grrl rock and spoken word, underground sets in a NYC neighborhood in which meat was still packed. We saw jam bands at Wetlands and Tramps, we danced at bob and at the Prospect Park bandshell, we said and did inappropriate things to and with the wrong people. And some of us moved to Cape Cod for the summer, to work in a bookstore and be a "writer." That summer an idea came my way that took fifteen years to come to fruition. Feel free. I did.

"Mr. Big Stuff" - Jean Knight

As characters and themes began to take shape in my pages, I invented a mentor for my character whose interest would turn salacious. I probably overwrote Hannah's rage and despair as she realizes that her mind is second to her body in terms of how the (male) world regards her. But those feelings were truthful to my own experience with men whose interest in my "career" or my "work" or my job application or my pitch boiled down to an interest in something else entirely. I, at least, had recourse. I could quit the job (I did), or pitch my articles elsewhere (obviously). But my character had few options. Her devastation is real because her circumstances were so limited. Mr. Big Stuff, tell me… Who do you think you are?

"Grey Funeral Line" - Jolie Holland

The melancholy and longing of separated lovers is a deep and resonant theme of the book. I was profoundly moved by the letters I read that passed between husbands and wives, young lovers, mothers and sons thousands of miles and years apart. That distance was devastating at a time when life was so fragile. Parents, children, lovers died regularly. This song captures the vulnerability and loneliness of life at sea and back home that runs through the book, and through the whole history of seafaring men and the families they left behind.

"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" – U2

Reckoning with faith is another theme that runs through my book, and through my life. In Hannah's case, she struggles to reconcile her religious faith with her divergent feelings and desires. When I consider faith in my own life I tend to think more about the dueling forces of ego and vulnerability, confidence and disquiet. I think, too, of the long road to true love, the deepening that happens when one creates a family, the ceaseless tide of need and offer, pull and push, take and give. This song tends to gather and briefly reconcile all of those feelings for me. How I love it.

"Astral Weeks" – Van Morrison

As I crept further into my thirties, I began applying for—and to my surprise, being accepted to—artist residencies. I spent months in magical locales, surrounded by nature and other artists, and these experiences contributed greatly to the development of my work. They gave me unencumbered space in which to walk and dream, make connections and read as much as I could hold. They gave me other artists to talk to, who—bless them!—told me things I needed to hear, even when I didn't want to hear them. The spiritualism of this song—the whole album, really—it's impressionistic, rough-hewn, abstract beauty—stirs a melancholy wonder that I equate with artistic growth and my own maturing sense of what art—and love—require of the participant.

"Haul on the Bowline" – A. L. Lloyd

Life aboard a whaleship* was never pretty or easy, but in the 18th and first few decades of the 19th century, ships were owned and crewed mostly by local men for whom an 18-month or two-year whaling voyage was a right of passage and a viable career path. By midcentury, though, the brutal, hazardous, business of whalehunting got even worse: four-year journeys to distant whaling grounds, crews comprised of anyone an agent could press into service. A haul, indeed.

*If you must know: This is how a whaleship operated: The ship would leave an Eastern port, usually Nantucket or New Bedford, and travel east across the Atlantic, often stopping at the Azores (then called the "Western Islands") to stock up on supplies or crew members, and from there proceed south, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to whaling grounds that could be as far off as the Pacific or the Arctic. Once a whale was sighted by the watch ("Thar' she blows!"), they'd lower the boats, row out to the whale, waiting for it to ascend, then harpooning it with a line attached to the blade, and holding on for dear life while the whale descended and swam for its life; when the whale came up for air, the crew would harpoon it to death, and float it back to the boat, where they would carve it up and boil the blubber in a tryworks on board, filling thousands of barrels of oil on each journey.

"First Day of My Life" – Bright Eyes

If these things take forever I especially am slow. This song was on a compilation my girlfriends made as a gift for my bridal shower. I was 37 years old, and I had been certain that I'd never meet the one. Then I did. It had been a crazy year. Iberia lost a backpack full of research for my novel on a flight home from Spain, where I'd been on residency. Devastated, I ignored my manuscript for months, sure I'd never be able to write Hannah without my journals and notes about the real woman who inspired her. About six months after I first heard this song about fresh starts and new beginnings, I was married …and newly pregnant. Talk about the first day of the rest of your life. That's when I realized that I couldn't leave my book behind. As it turned out, losing my research was the best thing that ever happened to my book. It freed me to leave the facts behind, and tell the story I wanted to tell, even if it meant starting all over again.

"Burn Thru" – Abigail Washburn

Hey I'm trying so hard

To see the light

To see the light

To see it burn thru

This song came out around the time I finished writing The Movement of Stars. The two preceding years had been the hardest of my life. As a new mother I was struggling to swim up to the surface of what felt like a deep, dark sea of work and responsibility and overwhelming love. I was heavy with longing and guilt, sure that I wasn't a good enough mother, or writer, or wife. For fifteen years, I'd been waiting for the day that I could say I was finished with my novel. That I'd done my best, that I'd worked as hard as I could, that I'd told the story I set out to tell. That I understood my character and all her perplexing, conflicted desires and beliefs. That day came about a month after City of Refuge, the album this song is on, was released. This is the song that speaks to that time for me, as it speaks to Hannah's determination to find that bright object in the night sky that would change her life. I still cry when I hear it.

"Our Gallant Ship" – The Revels, The Revels Children

Three times around went our gallant ship, and she sunk to the bottom of the sea.

Amy Brill and The Movement of Stars links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review review
Publishers Weekly review
USA Today review

BookPage essay by the author
Brooklyn Daily Eagle interview with the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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