January 10, 2014
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.
James Scott's The Kept is as masterfully written a debut novel as I have read in years, a book that has already earned him numerous comparisons to Cormac McCarthy.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"Scott is both compassionate moralist and master storyteller in this outstanding debut."
When I was in college, I wrote an essay on the murder ballad. I loved the tales of vengeance and passion, wronged men fleeing for their lives and tough women on the road. As the idea for The Kept took hold, and I began to write, I thought of the story less in the shape of the books I'd read and more like a song, something Johnny Cash or Nick Cave would sing as if the wounds were all theirs.
The Kept took eight and a half years to write, or thirteen, depending on when you start and stop counting. Early on, when I was just getting started, I used some of those old ballads, but I soon realized that vengeance was a good starting place, but the book revealed itself to be largely about family, and secrets, and gender, and on and on and each layer required different feelings on my part, and therefore different music.
The story is set in 1897 and opens with a midwife named Elspeth Howell discovering the dead bodies of her children. I needed to put myself in that emotional darkness while giving myself the illusion of the temporal space as well. So a lot of what I listened to would be considered depressing. Banjoes helped. What's more mournful than a lonely banjo? It's like seeing a Muppet cry. What I put in my ears during those first drafts had two requirements: it had to sound human and it had to be sad.
Lord, this is haunting. Ward mis-hits a key very early on, and it humanizes the whole performance in an incredible way. Several times I would be writing and lulled into the gorgeous piano and I would literally jump when he starts to sing. This might be the song I listened to more than any other while writing The Kept. That means a lot.
Bob Dylan, "Billy 1"
When I was at the Millay Colony finishing my first full draft, I listened to this 70 or 80 times. It doesn't have a ton of words, as the first minute and thirty-five seconds the harmonica, the two guitars, and the bass form a spell that got my fingers moving over the keys. By the time Dylan started singing, I was long gone.
Sufjan Stevens, "The Dress Looks Nice On You"
This is such a melancholy song, with a tone that was perfect for the wintery stillness of the book. The guitar is so clean and pristine and then all of a sudden there's that hard-picked banjo that flips the song on its ear. Somewhere a Muppet cries and Stevens sings, "I can see a lot of life in you," time and time again, so that the meaning becomes twisted into a threat.
Bright Eyes, "Landlocked Blues"/ "Poison Oak"
In spite of all of the things people give him shit for, I think that Conor Oberst is a wonderful lyricist. Too many people are guarded out of fear of embarrassment, but Oberst lets it fly and I find that really admirable. When I would get clogged up with my own garbage, or when I would be afraid to write a scene because I wasn't going to be able to pull it off, I'd throw on some Bright Eyes (especially the slower, more melancholy tracks) and get myself some courage. So, yes, I listened to him/them a lot.
(Strange side-note: I watched Obama's first election with Oberst and the rest of his band in their hotel room in Boston. I told him a little bit about the book at that time, which gives me a little perspective on exactly how damn long it all took.)
Panda Bear, "Bros"
It's difficult to describe the emotional impact Person Pitch had on me. A response to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, one of my other very favorite albums of all-time, what struck me about Pitch, and "Bros" in particular, is how Noah Lennox stitched together something so personal from samples and found material. It felt very much like it came not only from one hand, but from one room. I have the same feeling listening to it as I used to going to my grandparents house as a child and looking through all of my dad's things from when he was a kid—his toys, his books, his school papers. That combination of intrusion, nostalgia, and intense inspection remains a great engine for my writing.
Phosphorescent, "The Mermaid Parade"
This song sounds a little sunnier (and hornier) than most of this list, but the heartbreak is palpable every time Matthew Houck invokes Amanda's name, especially when he sings, "But god damn it Amanda,/ Oh, god damn it all." And those crystal-clear guitars. Something about the way they speak to each other, one to the left, the other to the right, fits perfectly to me. Most often, I needed the music to feel uncomfortable, for it to push me to a place I wasn't already in and keep me there. This song, on the other hand, comforts me to no end. I think maybe because it sounds very classic-rock, and I don't mean that in a pejorative way. Sometimes I need songs like this to keep my head above water.
I can barely listen to this without crying. A portrait of someone who had such high hopes and has just been demolished by the world, ("And now they are through with me") Bradford Cox's perfect mesh or mood, lyrics, and vocals immediately put me into the black haze that the book required. This one doesn't have any of the aforementioned banjos, and doesn't readily call to mind the 1890s, but when something can decimate me like this, it doesn't matter.
Editing was a different story. I needed to get out of my head a little bit, and so I listened to very methodical, usually electronic music. I don't know what it was about it—maybe divorcing myself somehow from the emotions so I could look at it more clinically? Maybe. Maybe?
It all started with—
Aphex Twin, "Windowlicker"
Something about this song inspired a Pavlovian response in me to edit. I had no idea—zero—why this was, but for some reason I watched the video with some people at Millay in the middle of winter, and thankfully I had it on my computer and used it endlessly. With this playing in my headphones, I wrote index cards for each scene in the book and tacked them to the walls of my studio. I listened to it over two hundred times in the span of three or four days. It's six minutes long.
DJ Shadow, "Stem/Longstem/Transmission 2"
I'm sure there are albums I've heard more in my life (A guess: Born in the U.S.A. tops the list) but the album I've listened to most (on purpose, I mean) may just be DJ Shadow's Endtroducing… I never get sick of it. And it still affects me. For me, editing is a little like trying to see one of those old Magic Eye 3-D pictures where you have to let your eyes go slack and lose focus before refocusing. Somehow Shadow's jittery beats and grandeur gave me the right combination of distraction and focus.
LCD Soundsystem, "Dance Yourself Clean"
I got a review copy of This Is Happening before I went to the Millay Colony and it just hit me right. I would pace around the studio with my iPod in my pocket and think and think and then go running and think over the same things. While editing, I can figure out what's gone wrong, but finding the proper scene to fix that problem while leading properly into the rest of the story and staying true to the characters without losing the balance of surprise and inevitability all at once can be a tall order. The way James Murphy builds this song until it explodes three minutes in helped me fake a sense of precision and rhythm when I was actually lost in the woods.
That residency was a wonderful time for me in a lot of ways even though I basically listened to three songs for a month. That's normal, right?
I don't care if it helped birth all of the awful dubstep that we then had to hear in commercials and blasting out of clothing stores, Untrue is an incredible album that was years ahead of everything else. There's something elusive about it, something spectral, and that discomfort worked for me. The repeated "Tell me I belong" in "Archangel" breaks my heart every time. Outside of the murder ballad start, I listened to Untrue (along with Person Pitch) in every facet of writing The Kept.
Radiohead, "Worry Wort"
See "Mermaid Parade" above. These songs feel like a warm bath to me. I have a playlist called "Feel Better," and these songs are up first. Sometimes I just repeat the two of them for a while. Again, this is normal, right? Someone please say yes.
Clams Casino, "Palace"
I went to VCCA knowing I had a big edit, and I was so damn sick of the book, sick of my own voice, and I needed outsized, overwhelming inspiration. "Palace" has such an incredible majesty to it. It's ridiculous and amazing. I would go running in the August Virginia heat and listen to this track over and over. One hundred and three times, to be exact. I wrote that down.
William Basinksi, "d/lp 1.1"
Just as "Helicopter" is the antidote to "Mermaid Parade," this is the antidote to "Palace." Sometimes I need to balance things out because I can't corral myself enough to form coherent thoughts. If you don't know the story of The Disintegration Loops, please read up on it. Haunting and gorgeous.
And at the end, there was one.
Moonface, "Heartbreaking Bravery"
The most difficult thing for me to write was the ending. I just didn't hit it right the first time (or second or third or fourth…I have thirty or forty vastly different endings here and there), and my editor and I had a really productive conversation about it while walking around Saratoga Springs, New York. As time went on, and I finally got to tackle the ending again, some of what we'd discussed had been lost to time. I think the shadowy version of it was better, though, as I usually run into trouble if I walk into the room with too clear of an idea. The pressure I put on myself to finish this thing I'd been working on for so long was enormous, and I decided I needed one key to unlock that ending. I listened far and wide for a song that would help me capture the feeling I wanted. The search went on for weeks, helped along, I'm sure, by the fear of what would happen if I found it and I managed to finish the book.
This song opened everything up. From those paired piano notes to the anxious guitars protesting behind them to the tribal beat, it worked. It finds an uneasy peace, something gorgeous but still skittish. Above it all, Spencer Krug's voice, that strange, quavering, fragile and yet powerful instrument, fit perfectly. "I've got the blood," he sings, "but not the blood lust you need."
James Scott and The Kept links:
Baggot, Asher and Bode interview with the author
Fiction Advocate interview with the author
HTMLGIANT post by the author
Interview Magazine interview with the author
Other People podcast
Three Guys One Book guest post by the author
The Writer's Job interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
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