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January 11, 2018

Book Notes - Christopher J. Yates "Grist Mill Road"

Grist Mill Road

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Christopher J. Yates's novel Grist Mill Road is a dark and propulsive thriller.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Mesmerizing and impossible to put down, this novel demands full attention, full empathy, and full responsibility; in return it offers poignant insight into human fragility and resilience."

In his own words, here is Christopher J. Yates's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Grist Mill Road:

The story of Grist Mill Road begins in the year 1982. Three teenage friends are running wild in the mountains of upstate New York, when one of them commits a terrible, violent crime with shocking consequences. The plot of the novel shifts between the background to this crime in 1982 and New York City in 2008 and, after we find out what really happened up in those mountains all those years ago, the three former friends come together again, leading to even more devastating results.

I put together this soundtrack for my novel at least a year before I finished Grist Mill Road. Music engages a different-but-parallel part of the brain from writing. As I compiled this playlist I felt like I could see my story from a fascinating new angle. But then again, I used to like making numerous mixtapes on C60 cassettes as a teenager, so perhaps I'm just a playlist kinda guy.

"Girl With One Eye" by Florence and the Machine
Let's kick off with an almost too obvious track. One of the narrators of Grist Mill Road is Hannah, who loses her eye in 1982 after her friend Matthew ties her to a tree and shoots at her forty-nine times with a BB gun, a horrible, graphic crime that occupies the first chapter of the novel. This is a song about revenge, which fits neatly with one of the themes of my novel, and you can hear an almost pure sense of malevolence in Florence Welch's screech as this track rises to its venomous, spiteful crescendo.

"Cookin'" by Clifford Brown
I'm pretty certain the title of this track, penned by jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson, doesn't refer to making the Sunday gravy, but rather the sense of a jazz ensemble showing off its chops. However, I'm going to take the too-literal approach. Forward wind to 2008 and Patrick, my second narrator is a talented home cook and keen food blogger who feels haunted by his role in what happened up in the mountains in 1982. Clifford Brown is easily my favorite trumpeter—if he hadn't died tragically young, I swear you wouldn't hear Miles Davis mentioned all that much unless people spoke regularly about who was the second best jazz trumpeter to have ever lived. But I'm getting distracted, back to food…

"Eggs and Sausage" by Tom Waits
Now this really is a song about food (not, as with so many ‘food songs', a thinly veiled metaphor for sex). Or should I say, the greatest song about food ever? Although, is there much competition? "Food Glorious Food"? (Cute, but no cigar.) Jack Johnson's "Banana Pancakes"? (Please, save me from his syrup.) Rihanna's "Birthday Cake"? (See "thinly veiled metaphors for sex".) In my novel, after Patrick gets fired from his job, his food obsession/blogging increases, and making dinner for his wife every night serves almost to justify his existence. While Patrick cooks, thinking all the time about the the man who cost him his job, he becomes more and more obsessed with his favorite kitchen knife, "checking the deathly sharpness of its edge until he can almost hear a high-pitched ringing in his ears."

"Don't You Want Me?" by The Human League
Half of Grist Mill Road is set in the early Eighties—or, as it will come to be known in the future, Stranger Things. My three narrators were all at school together in that decade, sexual tension is in the air, British bands were ruling the airwaves… This Human League track is a stone cold classic and came out in the year in which the earlier sections of my novel are set, 1982. Is one of my narrators infatuated with one of the other two? Is that feeling reciprocated? "Don't, don't you want me? You know I don't believe you when you say that you don't need me." From little acorns mighty feelings of vengeance grow.

"Tainted Love" by Soft Cell
Sticking with the 1982 theme, this was the greatest single released that year, no question, no argument, no competition. (Don't you dare come near me with your "Eye of the Tiger" bullshit.) Also, as it happens, Hannah (the girl with one eye) ends up married to Patrick (who witnessed the shooting incident). How? Why? Sounds pretty much like a tainted sort of love, no? All is explained in the novel.

"Into My Arms" by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
OK, everything has sounded pretty dark so far, but Grist Mill Road is also an unlikely (tainted) love story. And has there ever been a more unlikely opening to a love song than Nick Cave's opening salvo: "I don't believe in an interventionist God / But I know, darling, that you do." Whatever Patrick did or didn't do wrong up in the mountains as a child, in 2008 he is completely, guiltily besotted with Hannah. And if anyone knows a more beautiful and strange love song than this, one of Cave's innumerable masterpieces, then please send me the link right now.

"Just" by Radiohead
Radiohead's lyrics don't always make for easy interpretation, which is only one of the things that makes them unique. To me this is a song about depression or anxiety—"You do it to yourself, you do, and that's what really hurts…"—which is something Patrick suffers from in the novel. From the second verse, the following words could be the refrain of depression personified: "One day I'll get to you, and teach you how to get to purest hell."

"Go Square Go" by Glasvegas
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe there's ever been another song about a schoolyard fight. My two male narrators, Patrick and Matthew, meet and make friends as a result of a lunchtime skirmish after the school bully, known as McMeathead, challenges skinny Patrick to face him behind the bleachers. This incredible, foot-stomping track rises to an anthemic, uplifting, perfectly breathtaking refrain: "Here we, here we, here we, here we, here we, here we fucking go-ohhhhh!" It's enough to make you want to strap on a pair of boxing gloves and get the shit beaten out of you.

"One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" by John Lee Hooker
Matthew's father is an awful, abusive human being. His favorite way to get drunk, which he does often before taking out his manifold inadequacies on his son, is to sit in a bar and hit up the jukebox with the song, "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." He uses this track as a drinking race challenge to fellow barflies—can the other patrons down said tipples, lined up on the bar counter, before he can? Of course, being an awful human being, Matthew's father chooses the white-washing George Thorogood version. Being a slightly less awful human being, I refuse to include that half-assed version on my playlist. The John Lee Hooker recording is the only way to go.

"Feeling Good" by Muse
Grist Mill Road opens with the epigraph, "Scent of the pine, you know how I feel," taken from lyrics to the song "Feelin' Good" (originally written for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd). If I could somehow make music play when the reader comes to the final page of my novel, this is the song I would choose. There have been so many great versions of this track, but I like the Muse version here for its uplifting, tub-thumping qualities. I think of my novel as a tragedy with a happy ending, and this is the song I imagine playing as Grist Mill Road comes to its tragi-happy conclusion—electric piano, clashing cymbals, falsetto wailing… there's even a megaphone, for chrissakes. Rapturous stuff.

Christopher J. Yates and Grist Mill Road links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for Black Chalk
Literary Hub essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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