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November 4, 2021

Peter Ho Davies' Playlist for His Book "The Art of Revision"

The Art of Revision by Peter Ho Davies

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, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Peter Ho Davies' The Art of Revision is another indispensable entry in Graywolf's "The Art of..." series. Davies approaches revision in unique and powerful angles, this is a book every writer (and editor) needs to read.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"[A] terrific guide to revising fiction. . . . Full of spirit and sound advice, this survey will be a boon to writers."

In his own words, here is Peter Ho Davies' Book Notes music playlist for his book The Art of Revision:

My book The Art of Revision is about the craft of writing, but it begins and is framed by an episode of memoir, a scene from my childhood in Britain when I witnessed my father break up a racist assault. It's a moment I've revisited over the years in various guises in my fiction. I grew up in the town of Coventry during the '70s and '80s, a troubled city in economic decline, and the soundtrack of those years was provided by hometown band The Specials. Their great hit "Ghost Town," written by Jerry Dammers (who went to my high school a decade before me) perfectly captures the haunted despair of those times, though the band's own multi-racial line-up and anti-racist message offered a precious glimmer of hope.

Revision, as I argue in the book, is an invisible art, one that covers its tracks. We know final drafts, but rarely glimpse what comes before them. That's lead me to try and find various analogs for revision, sometimes in film and TV where every remake or sequel, every reboot and retcon is a form of revision, albeit often revision by another hand. Cover versions fall into this category, too, and I often play examples to classes by way of illustration. My favorite is probably Cat Power's coolly mournful, acoustic rendition of "Satisfaction," so different from the Stones' strutting classic, which I also love, but can never hear in quite the same way since hearing Power's version. Her eliding of the famous chorus dryly deflates the machismo of the original and reminds me of the effectiveness of cutting. Cat Power has a whole album of brilliant covers, any of which might make good examples, but "Satisfaction" seems the most apt since the experience of revision for so many writers is one a deferred, delayed satisfaction. It could be the reviser's anthem!

Another track I often cite to students and myself (it gets a shout-out in my latest novel A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself) is Wilco's "I am trying to break your heart," a weirdly beautiful, lurching number that culminates for me in the frank, almost tortured declaration of that title line, one I've adopted as a mantra of sorts for my own fiction. (Jeff Tweedy who wrote the song, is himself the author of a terrific book of smart, down-to-earth writing advice: How to Write One Song). Just recently, I came across a fabulous cover of the track by JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound - a brassy, funkily joyous rendition that turns the original inside out and for me illustrates the incredible elasticity of revision. The words stay the same, yet the tone, the feeling, the meaning of the song have all been modified.

One more "cover" though in this case it's a version of the same song by the same artist. Bruce Springsteen has done this several times over the years - his acoustic versions of "Born in the USA" stand in stark contrast to the original - but my favorite pairing might be his original of "Atlantic City" and the version he performed in Dublin on his Seeger Sessions tour. The former, a brooding, bruising lament, is a hometown song for my wife who grew up near AC, the latter a shocking, rocking update, reflective perhaps of some of the ways the city has changed over the years.

There are many other alternate recordings (Coldplay's two versions of "Lost!" and "Lost?") and covers (fellow Welshman Tom Jones' winkingly hammy version of Prince's "Kiss") I have a soft spot for, but to end I figured I'd offer an original song about revision, Paul Simon's "Rewrite" - a cheerfully wistful number about the yearning to revise our own lives.

Peter Ho Davies is the author of three novels, including A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, and two story collections. The winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award and the PEN/Malamud Prize, he teaches at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor.

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