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June 5, 2018

Adrienne Celt's Playlist for Her Novel "Invitation to a Bonfire"

Invitation to a Bonfire

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

Adrienne Celt's second novel Invitation to a Bonfire is a compelling literary thriller focused on obsession.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Trembling with atmosphere, Celt's second novel follows a young Russian émigré as she becomes embroiled in a sinister love triangle with a brilliant novelist and his exceptional wife... An ominous snowball of a novel (very) loosely based on the Nabokov marriage, with a slow-burning first half and a second half that hurtles toward inevitable catastrophe... Rich and moody."

In her own words, here is Adrienne Celt's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Invitation to a Bonfire:

I was in high school a million years ago, I wrote while listening to music all the time. (If you could call it writing. It was more like a cross between frantic journaling and Tina Belcher Erotic Friend Fiction, but I digress.) At night I’d curl up in my bedroom, usually in front of a space heater, and put on some Tori Amos or Simon and Garfunkel while I tried to make stories come to life. I cringe now to think about how loud I played those gentle alt-rock CDs while the rest of the house was sleeping; occasionally my mom came upstairs and asked me to turn it down, but she was always so nice about it, so apologetic. In reply to which I was usually a brat, claiming that I needed it that loud (a position I now correctly recognize as insane).

These days I rarely listen to any music at all when I’m working—maybe a bit of classical or jazz in a pinch, but certainly nothing with lyrics. I find it distracting; I guess I got that kind of writing out of my system back when I was younger and hungry for influences, still a sponge always soaking things up. But that isn’t to say that music doesn’t influence my work, it just happens more indirectly, now. I save all my favorite songs for car rides, or for walking the dog, any time when I can sing along loudly and let the music seep into my bones.

As a result, the music I associate with my second novel Invitation to a Bonfire is a little schizophrenic in taste and type; these songs feel intimately connected to the characters and situations in the book, but mostly in the sense that they give you a window into my mind’s interior as I was composing the novel.

John Cage, "Concerto for Saxophone (Quartet Version), Movement 1" from Saxophone

Every time I hear this concerto, it throws me a little off-balance, reminding me how modern and eerie classical (or in this case, “classical”) music can be. When I was in grade school, I briefly considered playing the saxophone instead of the flute, because Bill Clinton played it—or, more accurately, because the theme song for the Animaniacs talked about Bill Clinton playing it—and that remains my resting mental image of sax music: jazzy, grounded, and familiar. Cage’s concerto, however, is otherworldly, as though the music was being played by a previously undiscovered, even alien instrument (I just mistyped the word “instrument” as “unstrument” and that might be an appropriate word for how it sounds). It’s beautiful, like a Bach composition, and peculiar, like something by Björk.

My novel, Invitation to a Bonfire, is inspired by the marriage of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, and so it has a necessarily historical feel, placed in the early 1900s, up to 1931. But the book’s concerns are deeply contemporary—or perhaps you might say timeless. How do we construct our identities, and are they fixed at any age? What is the value of art, and can an artist exist separately from the public perception of their work? What is the cost of frustrated female ambition? What is the price of a marriage bond, made or broken? I listened to Cage’s concerto a lot in the period when I was writing this book, I can see how the mood of the piece came to bear on the story: my protagonists, Zoya, Lev, and Vera, are unsettled people who can move through the world without ever quite seeming to fit there or feeling at home. Like Cage, they use ordinary tools to make something new, and a little bit frightening.

Thao & Mirah, “Hallelujah” from Thao & Mirah

I started listening to Mirah’s music in college, when everyone I knew was obsessed with Kill Rock Stars and K Records. Her work has a fairy-tale quality, but not so much the happily-ever-after part of the story as the moment when you leave on a journey, and have a lot of beautiful struggle ahead. This song, on a collaborative album with Thao Nguyen, is both hopeful and frantic (“You wake up hungry in this world you’ve made/So much so how can you be turned away?”) and it feels suitable for Zoya’s young life, when she’s struggling to survive but wants to believe she’ll find a place in the world. She may or may not be right.

Beyoncé, “Daddy Lessons”

It is the greatest hubris in my heart that I believe I could perform a passable karaoke version of this song. As a result, I have listened to and sung along with it innumerable times in the safety and isolation of my car. It’s also a fitting tribute to Zoya’s relationship with all the father figures in her life, men who urge her to be strong and faithful, but also punish her for the way she tries to fulfill those wishes.

"My Heart's In the Highlands" – by Arvo Pärt, performed by Else Torp & Christopher Bowers

A song about the yearning for home that erupts inside you the moment you abandon that home forever. Zoya, Lev, and Vera are all émigrés, and all of them in their own ways are stuck in a past that can no longer accommodate them.

Personally, I turn to this song whenever I feel stuck and frustrated, frequently listening to it on repeat while lying on the floor of my studio. I try to accompany Else Torp sometimes, less because I want to hear my own voice layered over hers, and more because the lyrics seem to offer passage into some world she’s inhabiting that is closed to me. This, too, is relevant to my characters, Zoya in particular. She’s a striver, and a joiner, and she rarely ever feels at peace.

Joanna Newsom, “Time, As A Symptom” from Divers

At the same time that most people I know were obsessed with Hamilton (never fear, I became obsessed a couple of months later), I was listening to Divers on repeat, having caught the NPR First Listen and purchased the album immediately. All of Newsom’s music is textured and intelligent, but Divers opened up a whole universe to me, at a stressful time when I badly needed just such an escape. Listening to it now still feels like accessing a memory that came from outside my experience, something estranged but also familiar. If that sounds too heady for you, it’s also just really, really beautiful.

In Invitation to a Bonfire, Zoya begins as a young girl who has lost her whole family, as well as her framework for goodness and morality. Everything she loves has been blown to smithereens, and it doesn’t get much better from there. (Well, actually it does, but she endures subsequent smithereens-like experiences throughout the story.) Many times I’ve driven home through the desert listening to Newson sing about bravery in the face of relentless time. And many times, I have thought of Zoya as I went.

Frank Ocean, "Ivy" from Blond

Now we’re getting to the romantic bits. Invitation to a Bonfire is, in some sense, a love story, though the love is complicated, and comes in the form of a triangle. There is sex and there is yearning, both of which pull the characters in uncomfortable directions; it pushes them around in a young-love kind of way, even when they’re adults in full command of their power. All that headiness. All that hard breathing.

This song is probably my favorite on Frank Ocean’s Blond, and a big part of that lies in its ability to make romance both heady and complicated, both nostalgic and immediate. The whole album, and this song in particular, has a lot to say about how vital love can be to a person even once it’s lost, and that is part of this book’s DNA, too.

Tom Waits, “What’s He Building?” from Mule Variations

Without giving anything specific away, there are a number of moments in the book when Zoya is called upon to be sneaky, to pry and discover. As she does so, though, she always has the feeling of being watched at the same time: a Spy vs. Spy feeling, if you will. This Tom Waits song, from one of my favorite Waits albums, plays with the same sense of mutual distrust and imminent destruction. It’s almost Lynchian, in the sense that something ostensibly wholesome—a neighborhood full of children, families—is infiltrated by a malign force (What’s he building in there?), but by the end you aren’t sure if it’s the man or the neighborhood that poses the biggest threat.

"I Want You" - Elvis Costello and The Attractions, from Blood and Chocolate

I remember slinking around record stores looking for Elvis Costello B-sides, in the brief period of my life when I was old enough to be buying a lot of music but young enough that record stores were still a big thing. There is no way around the fact that this song is incredibly disturbing, one of several Elvis Costello songs I both like and mistrust for its casual association between adoration and violence. But well, when the shoe fits? It fits. Let’s just say that the relationships between Zoya and Lev, Lev and Vera, Vera and Zoya, are nothing if not hungry for blood.

"When the Chips are Down" - Anaïs Mitchell, featuring The Haden Triplets, from Hadestown

A song about what you’re willing to do when your back’s against a wall. What you’re really willing to stand for, when no one else is standing for you. Basically Zoya’s personal anthem.

Beethoven’s Quartet in A Major, OP. 132, third movement

My husband and I went to a chamber orchestra performance that included this quartet on Valentine’s Day, and afterwards, my husband told me that the third movement of this piece is something he’d like to have played at his funeral. Previously, over drinks (though not the same night), he’d made me promise that if either of us died, the survivor would get an “intense tattoo” to commemorate the death. I guess we have really macabre dates. However, I’ve listened to this quartet a number of times over the past year or two, and I see his point. The movement’s charisma is dark, but grateful: it was written after Beethoven suffered a period of terrible illness. I believe this piece would be in Lev and Vera’s repertoire of favorites, and I think that, when Lev inevitably played a recording of it for Zoya, the third movement is the one she would have identified with, the one that would’ve confirmed, for her, their connection.

Adrienne Celt and Invitation to a Bonfire links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

The Millions interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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