September 17, 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.
Winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize, Sarah Yaw's debut You Are Free to Go is a poignant account of both prison life and those bound to the incarcerated.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Writing and music are intertwined for me. Anticipating the publication of my first novel, You Are Free to Go, in which the death of an imprisoned father reverberates both within and outside the prison walls, I have started listening to my father's music a lot. When I was a girl, he played bass with Lou Reed, Don Cherry, The Everyman Band, and others. I spent my young life falling asleep near bass drums and amplifiers, listening to music on the edges of punk, rock and roll, and jazz.
Revisiting my father's music this spring, I discovered something about myself as a writer: I draw heavily on music for lessons in craft. The music I grew up on, full of dissonance and chaos, adventure and improvisation, made me a writer who thrives on dynamic— that irresistible tension and release—and seeks to create narratives that, like improvisational music, ask the reader to surrender and go with it. The music that influenced me the most was instrumental, but when I listen to it, I hear story. An emotive melody, like a strong narrative voice, tells its own tale and fills in the gaps that words just can't fill. So, here's a list of music, some cuts influential to my writing style, some directly related to my novel's characters, but all full of the push and pull, hold and release, build and let go that I long for in a book and a piece of music.
At the beginning of drafting this novel, I listened to this Count Basie album on a drive to, of all places, Red Bank, NJ. I remember driving south on Rt. 81 gripped by the tight jump of this composition and thinking, "I want to write like that." Nothing unnecessary, everything tight. When I felt astray in the writing of the book, I'd often return to it as a reminder to stay tight, but not so tight that the work didn't swing.
You Are Free to Go starts with the death of a beloved father who, due to his incarceration, has never lived with his daughter. Losing a father is devastating, but losing one that a daughter has never had easy access to is among the saddest things I can imagine. This cut is for fathers like Jorge, good men who did bad things, who suffered lifetimes away from their children.
A friend of mine recently organized the first musical performance in decades in Auburn Correctional Facility. At the end, a prisoner thanked the performer and said, "I haven't heard live music in twenty-eight years." My friend, who had just read Man's Search for Meaning, in which the Nazis bring the prisoners their instruments so they can perform for each other each day, said, "I think we can do a little better than the Nazis." I have always loved this Johnny Cash album. You can hear the energy of a room full of people starved of live music crackling through the audience and through his performance.
"I got a very good friend who says he can't believe the love I give
Is not enough to end your fears."
Those lines cut me open. No matter how good she is, Ellen, a character in my book, can never win back her mother's love and affection after a tragic loss. This quest for approval is a prison of its own. But this song is full of redemption and liberation, as is (I hope) You Are Free to Go.
When I listen to this song, I see three innocent girls looking for love wherever they may find it, believing—because what else do they know?—that love and life are not dangerous. My characters learn differently, but the time they spend together as young teens marks and saves each of them in a crucial way.
Here's the album of my father's that I can't stop listening to as I anticipate reading reviews and sharing my very private work with the world. What I hear when I listen to this (and so much of the amazing music of my childhood) is how much story is told without words. This is voice, and, for me, it matters most.
Sarah Yaw and You Are Free to Go links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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