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May 3, 2013

Book Notes - Michele Forbes "Ghost Moth"

Ghost Moth

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.

Michele Forbes' Ghost Moth is a powerful debut novel, one that brings to life 20th century Ireland with lyrical precision, from the people to the landscape to the country itself.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Readers will revel in the skillful writing . . . complex plot . . . strong characterization . . . lyrical descriptions . . . Genre fans (Irish-history buffs, family-story readers, historical-fiction enthusiasts) will enjoy this novel, while its stylistic richness and narrative intricacy will also please readers of literary fiction. Highly recommended.

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 Michele Forbes's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, Ghost Moth:

I can't listen to any music as I'm actually writing. I need a quiet space. I've even been known to kick the dog out of the room if he begins to snore. Before I start to write I switch off my phone and unplug the doorbell. These are two crucial precautions. The lovely Seventh-day Adventist ladies, who seem to worry no end about my spiritual demise, may call, or yet another tradesman offering to cut my overgrown hedge or cobblelock my driveway, or indeed my mobile phone provider may ring to have a chat about service improvements and quality offers. I can only assume that these callers have my bodily and spiritual interests genuinely at heart, but it doesn't help to get the words on the page. On top of that I have a "time-share" system going with my writing: the room in which I write is also the room in which my teenage son keeps his drum kit, piano and electric guitar, and the one and only place where his band can practice. So if I don't hit those computer keys fast enough and get out of there, I'll find myself caught up in the middle of a lean cover version of "Teddy Picker" by the Arctic Monkeys or "Houdini" by Foster the People. Music has always played a vital part in my creative life. In my work as an actress I have performed in many new plays that utilized original scores and this can mean being lucky enough to end up working together with musicians on stage. I listened to music mostly when I was driving over the period in which I worked on Ghost Moth. It was a great way for ideas to casually and creatively knit together for me, for images and words to link in new way and just to let the subconscious do its work. The music I've chosen here either appears in Ghost Moth as an integral part of the story, played its part in inspiring me to write the novel in the first place, or just kept me going.

1. Peggy Lee "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard"

This is the song my mother taught me when I was a child. I had always assumed that my mother and I were the only two people in the world who knew the song but when I was older I found out, of course, that it was from the album Sea Shells recorded by Peggy Lee in 1958. Peggy Lee has such a sexy command to her vocal delivery but in her rendition of this song she brings out a poignant simplicity, which works beautifully with the delicate harp plucking of Stella Castellucci. So it reminds me of my early childhood in Belfast and of my mother, and always brings a smile to my face. I think it also captures perfectly the testy relationship between nine-year-old Elsa Bedford and her nemesis Isabel Stewart in Ghost Moth whose playground feuds act as a kind of microscopic parallel to the wider political arena in Belfast in 1969, the time in which part of the book is set. And you can hear my rendition of "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard"—a recording of me singing it when I was about five years old—on the sound track of my book trailer for Ghost Moth. Not quite Peggy Lee, but still…

2. Agnes Baltsa and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, conducted by James Levine, 1988, "Habanera" from Carmen

Carmen features in Ghost Moth as a whole subplot and brings together Katherine, George and Tom in a passionate and ill-fated ménage á trois as we step back twenty years in time from the beginning of the novel to 1949. Katherine is part of an amateur musical society who is performing Carmen in Belfast and Tom McKinley is the tailor who fashions a lavish costume for her, as though he has sewn every ounce of love he has for her into it. The opera perfectly echoed the darker complexities of love and jealousies within the novel. The world of amateur musical theatre was great fun for me to work with as characters very quickly jumped off the page all insisting that I deal with their petty grievances and histrionics. Also the standard of musicality in the amateur opera group I was able to imagine as deliciously mediocre and that was also great fun as a writer. I do have to make an admission though and confess that Carmen was always one of my least favourite operas. There's something almost cheesy about its flamboyance and it never really captivated me as much as say "La Boheme." However, having listened to Agnes Baltsa singing "Habanera" during the writing of Ghost Moth I have been completely won over. Baltsa's voice has a robust sirenic quality to it and with the wonderful Metropolitan Opera Chorus backing her it's all very rousing stuff. I would like, however, to put a word in for The Muppets version of "Habanera" which if you've never watched you must.

3. Arvo Pärt "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten"

This exquisite composition transfixes me every time I listen to it. It was written in memory of the renowned English composer who died in 1976 and it has an "other worldly" beauty to it, which is uniquely Pärt. I associate it with the journey that protagonist Katherine Bedford has in Ghost Moth and the difficult emotional choices she must make. To me it expresses the unadulterated sense of bliss, particularly in regard to the experience of having children, that Katherine acknowledges in her life. Those soaring high strings emerging from the solitary pealing bell and then the long, sustaining bass drone coming through are extraordinary. Then comes the slowly cascading phrases, step by step, which take us down to an emotional truth: that all the things we value in life are transient, and will inevitably slip away from us. The simplicity of the piece is compelling. It's as though Arvo Pärt, by paying acute attention to the world, is able to distill things down to their very essence, to what really matters—love and life.

4. Avishai Cohen "Remembering" from the album At Home 2005

I first heard Avishai Cohen on The John Kelly Ensemble radio show when I was driving to collect my children from school. This was before Ghost Moth had been picked up by Bellevue Literary Press in New York and I was still working on the final draft. "Remembering" was the track John Kelly chose to play, with the amazing Sam Barsh on piano, and I haven't stopped listening to Avishai Cohen since. The track, with its elegant repeated phrasing and its simple insistent melody, has a hypnotic quality to it and the way Sam Barsh rolls onto a note or holds it back is truly sensuous. There is the contained undertow of Cohen's bass and then it all spills out only to be brought back again. This gave me a sense of how to connect images and words through the story, how to work with repetition and to understand the importance of stillness and silence between phrases in the narrative without actually letting go of the main thread. It also reminded me of the importance of what is unsaid as much as what is said. This track for me is aptly named as one of the major pulses of the narrative of Ghost Moth is to do with memory and remembering.

5. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald "Indian Love Call" from the 1936 film Rose Marie

I have a great affection for this song as I remember my mother and my uncle John singing it together in our kitchen. They were recording it on a big old sky blue reel-to-reel recorder so that they could send the tape over to relations in America. It was quite an event and seemed to go on for hours and there were lots of people in our house at the time recording their "hellos" and bits of gossip and all the news they wanted to send across the Atlantic. I remember neighbors leaning cautiously into the microphone of the reel-to-reel as though it was something terrifying and alive. I also remember my mother giving out yards to me for skipping around the kitchen while she and my uncle John were trying to sing. The song is fantastically saccharine and romantic and I use it in Ghost Moth where Tom McKinley walks Katherine Bedford home after the night at the Café Royal and as he sings to her he creates a songline through east Belfast. I haven't seen the movie Rose Marie in years but I can still recall the grand slant of Nelson Eddie's chin as clearly as if it were yesterday.

6. J. S.Bach "Erbarme Dich" from St. Matthew Passion, the 1978 recording with Julia Hamari

This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever. I couldn't imagine doing anything creative without this track, in fact I couldn't imagine living without this track. I heard it first in a New York bookstore many years ago on my first visit to the US and although I have listened to other recordings of the piece Julia Hamari's remains the most moving. So it's always there for me and will always be a part of whatever I am working on. In relation to Ghost Moth it connects for me into the sense of separation and loss in the story and also deeply expresses the sense of a love that endures.

7. Carlos Gardel "Volver," Orquesta del Tango de Buenos Aires, 1935

This is a slight cheat. There is no tango or tango dancing in Ghost Moth. However, at a church hall close to where I live in Dublin I discovered tango during the time I was working on an early draft of the novel. I found that the sentiments, which the tango expressed, began to bleed into what I was writing. To the dancers of the Golden age of Tango nothing mattered more than the person who was in their arms, and in the movement of the dance there was always the heart to heart connection between the dancers. Tango was about respecting your partner and being totally in tune with them. And so too with the characters in the novel. I adore watching true tango dancers move, how they can be totally at one when they dance, how the ability to focus on the other person is more important than being technically adept at the steps. This version of "Volver" beautifully demonstrates through the conversation between strings and accordion how tenderly and passionately love can be offered and reciprocated.

8. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros "Home" Cover by Jorge & Alexa Narvaez 2010

This cover version on YouTube lifts my heart no end and makes me want to carry on. Beautiful to watch and, when you feel you can't write, it can put you right back there. Again, it connects into the themes of Ghost Moth—love, family, home. Just fantastic.

9. "Song (Three Voices): On Behalf Of" Music from Phaedra composed by Ellen Cranitch, based on the music by Rameau, 2010, Rough Magic Theatre Company.

This is from the musical score of a modern Irish interpretation of Racine's Phaedra in which I performed. The score was based on the music of Rameau. The composer Ellen Cranitch worked with the similarities found between baroque music and Irish traditional music looking at the shapes of the melodies and the rhythms that were used. I was performing in this play while I was writing Ghost Moth. At one point in the play, after all the family drama has played out, I sit quietly at a table with my back to the audience and every night I would find ideas beginning to flood in about what would happen next in Ghost Moth. I would then find that when I sat down to write the following morning that Ellen Cranitch's score would start going around and around in my head. Although there are no obvious thematic crossovers in the two pieces of work they are inextricably linked in my mind.

10. Joe Brown " I'll See You in My Dreams"

Joe Brown's version of the Isham Jones classic is simply stupendous. Recorded as the finale to A Concert For George—the tribute celebration for George Harrison—it is unbelievably moving. There's something exceptional about the simple sound of the ukulele coupled with the direct unsentimentality of Joe Brown's voice that brings it beyond sadness into something hopeful and celebratory. The song is a perfect accompaniment to Ghost Moth in that the novel, at its simplest, is about missing someone and that is what this song expresses so beautifully. It is a love prayer from the one who's left behind. The song has been covered by many different artists over the years, among them Django Rheinhardt, Louis Armstrong and Mario Lanza but I can't imagine a better version than this one by Joe Brown.

Michele Forbes and Ghost Moth links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Booklist review
Boston Globe review

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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