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May 7, 2013

Book Notes - Elanor Dymott "Every Contact Leaves A Trace"

Every Contact Leaves A Trace

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.

Elanor Dymott's debut novel Every Contact Leaves A Trace is an impressive dark and tense literary thriller.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"Dymott has written a story that is shaped by the nebulous nature of knowledge, especially as it is found in the upper echelons of institutional learning. She repeatedly reminds readers that they don't have the facts. This is a cunning, sharp first novel that revels in keeping one in the dark."

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 Elanor Dymott's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Every Contact Leaves A Trace:

This is a novel about the damage that's done when cherished people or cherished possessions are lost or taken away. It's about our desire for their return; the spaces that are left behind; and it's about grief and how we feel it. I built up this playlist over the time I was writing my book and I'd always write with it on. It falls into two groups and I've taken a few tracks from each.

The first group relates to the book in a plottish way. These tracks also provided routes to the distillation of particular feelings, which they'd create in me within half a second. I once read an interview with a writer who said that any writer who 'uses' music in this way is cheating. Writers, he said, should write in silence; they shouldn't rely on music to create atmosphere. I'd say that's a proscription that's easily set aside. For one thing, writing is kind of all about cheating – pulling the wool over people's eyes, your own and everyone else's. And for another, writers should do whatever it takes, noisy or silent. Writing to music is something I do all the time and I'll do it until it stops working for me.

"Have You Seen the Bright Lily Grow" (lyrics Ben Jonson, music Robert Johnson) performed by Sting and Edin Karamazov (from Songs from the Labyrinth)

For a long time this was the only track on the playlist. It's my novel in a song and it gave me the first of my epigraphs. I copied out the words on the wall above my desk and they started showing up in other places, such as the Robert Browning poems I was using in the book. My story grew around its images and all of them ended up in the novel. I had to turn Jonson's swan into a heron but I did manage the beaver, and because there was snow, 'before the soil hath smutched it,' I put in some snow and I made someone smutch it.

I remember British early-music enthusiasts being a bit edgy when this album was released. What was a pop star doing messing around with the seventeenth century? But they were pop stars, then, the guys who toured with these songs. And I like the way Sting's voice yearns. There's a gentle straightahead melancholy rasp to it, almost like he's keening. When I hear this song it's my Alex in his Epilogue. He wakes up in New York at 4am and just for a split second, he's forgotten that Rachel is dead. When the lute's rising phrase turns and falls, he remembers.

"As Time Goes By," by Herman Hupfeld (performed by Dooley Wilson and Elliot Carpenter on the soundtrack for the film Casablanca)

Rachel and Cissy sing, 'As Time Goes By' at the Casablanca Ball that's held in Worcester College in my novel. I knew that something significant would happen at the Ball and that it would lead, years later, to Rachel's murder, and I wanted to put my characters in costume and see what they did. Tickets for Oxford's college Balls were always beyond my student budget but I played with a couple of bands so I got in for free. They were lavish in the '90s: hog roasts and dinners, cocktail bars and beer tents, champagne and chocolates and trays of cigarettes all over the place. There were dodgems and Ferris Wheels and magicians and there was dancing, until the survivors' photo was taken at dawn and breakfast laid out on a dew-cast lawn.

I went to a Worcester College Commemoration Ball that had Casablanca as its theme, and that's why I put it in my book. I think there was a firepit by the lake with a hookah, and Rick's Bar serving martinis all night, and I'm pretty sure there was a Ferris Wheel and a fortune teller's tent. Two decades on, my memory of the night was always going to be unclear, and now I've put it in the novel it's difficult to remember which bits actually happened and which I made up. But I know for sure that someone sang this song, somewhere, at some point.

Minutia by Max de Wardener (from Where I Am Today)

By the midwinter following Rachel's murder, Alex has had a breakdown. When Harry invites him back to Oxford he accepts, wanting to hear whatever he can tell him about Rachel. The snow begins to fall as his train pulls out of Paddington and Alex falls asleep with the sun on his face. When he opens his eyes it's slanting across a white landscape and everything kind of disintegrates and shifts in and out of that whiteness, disappearing, reappearing. 'Minutia' is what that journey sounds like, looks like, and I hear the soft slither of metal on track in the glass lines grafting against each other. At the last there's silence: an empty space where the brightness of the light moves across the snow and makes sure nothing is clear, nothing can be certain or made out.

"How it Felt ( to kiss you)" by Mara Carlyle (from Floreat)

A cat purrs at the start of this track, and carries on purring while this complete expression of bliss unfolds and grows and envelops you in what I think of as a real transformation of lived experience into sound. For me, this piece of music captures every level of what it is to be kissed for the first time by someone I'm in love with. It's somehow an actual kiss, rather than a piece of music. It's physical sensation made aural, and because of the complexity of the texture that's woven, slowly and incrementally, every part of a kiss is touched on: the sensations that start somewhere below your stomach and move up your chest and down your back and into your fingertips and your ears and your lips and your tongue so that you feel as though your body has become a solar system and you are spinning through the air and yet you are the tiniest grain of sand in the middle of an ocean.

It's the track that plays when Alex and Rachel climb into the secret garden on Midsummer Night and lie down on the grass. It's the sound of how he feels when they kiss for the very first time.

"In a Silent Way" by Joe Zawinul, performed by Weather Report (from 8:30)

This live recording is kind of ghostly. To me it sounds like the sound of loneliness. I was given it by a musician in the early and uncertain stages of what was only ever going to be a doomed love affair. That's the type of vulnerability it captures, I think: the feeling of the loss of a thing you haven't even had yet. But it also sounds like the way you feel when, even though you know something won't work out, can't happen, you still long for it in a hopeless sort of a way. Rachel gives Alex such a brief respite from his loneliness, and I guess this track is how he felt in the years that passed until she loved him back.

"Tessa in the Bath" by Alberto Iglesias (from the soundtrack to The Constant Gardener)

I think about the Meirelles film of le Carré's novel a lot: the way it opens with dialogue but no visual because of the effect of the sun; the shifting light throughout; the impassioned, impetuous love affair that becomes a marriage; the quiet and steady man, broken by the brutal murder of a woman who has already made his life unrecognisable just by loving him. All those things made their way into my book. This track accompanies the scene where Justin slightly ineptly takes home-movie footage of Tessa having a bath towards the end of her pregnancy, not long before their child dies at birth. In the beginning they laugh, they're in love and easy with each other, and the first part of the track has that happiness.

"Infra" by Max Richter (from Infra)

In the summer of 2011 I was working on the edit of the book and had been asked to put in more about how Alex was feeling. I'd been talking with a composer friend and had played him the Tessa in the Bath track and told him the story behind it, and what it meant within my narrative. He said, 'You have to listen to Infra.' Richter's album is expanded from his ballet score (inspired by T S Eliot's "The Wasteland.") The track and its voiceover sound to me like a recording of a moon landing, and I think that's how Alex feels after Rachel's death: he's drifting in the stars, lost and high-up and away. Without her, there's nothing on earth to come back for.

Linnet, singing (from The Sound of Birdsong)

This is what Rachel and Alex would have heard one afternoon when they took a picnic to an Oxfordshire meadow and lay in the sun together, not talking, just listening. In the background you can hear bees. It's the sound of summer; of everything being alright. I'd always finish a writing session with this track, so that when I switched off my computer I knew I was leaving the two of them lying there in that meadow, alive and content.

The second group of tracks gave me focus or encouragement or energy or distraction or incentive during parts of the writing process (feeling like it was beyond me but wanting to tell this story; sorting out a mess in the plot; copy editing; tracking changes; checking continuity) that were painful or difficult or dull.

"Eight Lines" by Steve Reich from the album Shaker Loops

"Eight Lines" has a stealth start. Suddenly it's begun and it's as though you've almost missed the opening – you're there in the eye of a storm or at the halfway point around the field running the race of your life and you've no idea how you got there. Or perhaps instead you're falling, fast, from the top of a building you never meant to jump off but you did, somehow. Or maybe you were pushed. Whichever it was you can't say, 'Wait! Wait, can we start again? I missed it.' It's a fasten-your-seatbelt track: once it's started you have to hold on and let go at the same time. Last month my second novel abandoned me for a while and someone told me, 'You just need to hold your nerve.' Writing my first novel to this track made holding my nerve not just possible, but also necessary (in a chicken/ egg way.) The rhythmic play that goes on in "Eight Lines" keeps the brain busy; the part of the brain, that is, which might otherwise inhibit. There's a freedom and an abandon everywhere in this music, while of course at the same time there isn't any. 'Don't play outside,' jazz musicians teach their students, 'until you can play inside.' In "Eight Lines," Reich is inside and outside and everywhere and nowhere.

"O Socii, Durate!" by Adrian Willaert (from Le Chant de Virgile (Van Nevel, Huelgas-Ensemble))

Willaert sets a scene from early on in the Aeneid (Book 1, 198-208) when Aeneas and his men are blown off-course en route to find their promised destiny. Storm-weathered and sick with distress, he's trying to persuade his fellow travellers to carry on with their voyage despite the loss of more than half their fleet, and the deaths of their friends. It's about the going getting tough, and needing to pull your finger out. 'You've lost so much and been so brave. Endure! Live for a happier day.' Writing this novel was a struggle. When it felt like a no-hoper, it was good to have someone like Aeneas telling me to get a grip.

"Forever Now" by Level 42

This helped with concentration for the copyedit, and checking continuity. Alex's grief pushes him into leaving London for good. On the morning of his flight to New York, he stands on his balcony before locking up his apartment for the last time and thinks about how he'll feel as the plane comes into land; how at that point in a flight he always feels an intense awareness of being, 'neither here nor there.' He says, 'I suspect that is how I shall always feel now that Rachel has gone: forever suspended, forever now.' A composer friend had used the phrase, 'Forever Now' as the title for a melancholy jazz ballad he'd written. When I asked about the phrase's source he introduced me to Level 42. I laughed a lot when I heard the song because it seemed an absurd juxtaposition of vibes, but there was something nice about finding it in Alex's melancholy. And I like how its lyrics express the way a heavy loss can make someone unable to take anything other than a day-to-day approach to living.

"For The Rest Of My Life" by Dorinda Clark-Cole (from Live from Houston, The Rose of Gospel)

I added this to my playlist in summer 2010 during a frenetic few weeks of writing the second half of my book. I was spending a lot of my downtime with a musician, comparing notes on what we were working on, and finding common ground between writing and composing. He took apart his compositions and explained them, showing me how some of them started with a single chord or riff he'd borrowed from someone else and reconstructed as something new. He talked about improvising, and performing, and what he had in mind when he stood on the bandstand. 'Always make a statement,' he said. 'Don't stand up unless you've got something to say. And if you do have something to say, sound like you mean it. Make sure everyone hears it.'

He introduced me to a load of recordings that summer which really opened up my ears. He put Bach's Wachet Auf on my Spotify account, and he put Dorinda Clark-Cole there too. He told me he used to listen to this track every morning, standing on a crowded tube platform. It kept him calm, he said, at the beginning of the day. I played it a lot that summer to keep me going with the book, to make myself believe it could work, and it was the first song I played when my agent called to say the bidding had begun.

"Elande No. 1 (F#)" by Lee Konitz and Dan Tepfer (from Duos with Lee)

A couple of minutes before the engineer pressed the record button, Konitz and Tepfer decided to make up a series of short pieces, one for every key, and this is the first. It's the sound of the two of them following the music where it takes them, and I think that's a good model for how to write a book. I was mid-novel when I saw Konitz play London's Pizza Express Dean Street, and I bought this album at the end of his gig. I knew some of Konitz's recordings (Motion, Subconscious-Lee) and had spent happy hours watching Youtube footage of him playing with Bill Evans. But seeing him play live was really something else, and he was funny, too. I went with a good friend who is a writer. While we walked across London to Soho, she explained how she moves scenes around and draws out storyboards of a play when she's revising it, to find the hidden scenes which are referred to but which don't happen on stage. Our conversation made things happen differently with the book, and work better, and that shift is associated with this gig for me.

The other reason it's on my playlist is because it sounds to me like an early summer morning in New York. I'd never been, but I'd fantasised about it for years. I decided my best chance was to make Alex Petersen go there at the end of the book. If he goes, I thought, then I might get to go too. This track was what I imagined it might be like to walk through Washington Square in summer. When I finally got there in summer 2012, I took a detour through Washington Square on my way to meet with my editor at W W Norton, and I discovered I was right: it is exactly like this track, the way the sun dapples through the leaves and on the water.

Elanor Dymott and Every Contact Leaves A Trace links:

the author's website

Daily Mail review
Guardian review
Independent review
Independent review
NPR review
Scotsman review

The Pen Muse 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

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