Sunday, August 24, 2008

Poor Professor Pynchon had only good intentions

By Kevin Guilfoile

The song was about half-way through when a thought occurred--or maybe it was more like a feeling.

It's the start of the unofficial last week of summer and I suspect it's going to be rather quiet around here. It's a perfect time to introduce one of those half-baked notions that's probably interesting to no one but me.

I was driving somewhere in my car with the most recent album by the great Chicago musician and songwriter Andrew Bird on my iPod. Specifically, I was listening to a song called Imitosis:

And as I was listening, I had a vivid sensation: I would really like to write a story that's like an Andrew Bird song.

But after the thought had come and gone, I realized I had no idea what it meant. Bird's songs aren't really narratives. Clearly I was talking about tone. About style. But how does that tone and style translate from three-minute songs, which are immediate and sensual, to stories, which are immersive and intellectual. (As opposed to blog posts which, if this one is any guide, are pretentious and obtuse. Just stay with me a minute.)

I've spent more time thinking about this than I'd like to admit, and part of that is the fact that a central theme to my upcoming novel is the relationship different forms of art have to each other (and the relationship between art and nature and science, as well). And I know from talking with other writers that many of them also spend a lot of time thinking about the connection between music and literature.

I'll probably never get around to writing that story, but I'm curious if any of you think much about the relationship between music and literature. Are there novelists who remind you of certain musical artists or songwriters (or vice versa)? What music do you listen to when you write? Or do you hear a certain type of music when you read?

Have you ever wanted to write a story that was just like a specific song?


I'm doing some guest-blogging over at and have a post up over there about why newspaper and television reports always mention the Jaws of Life when covering an accident. It's not directly related to the stuff we usually write about here, but if you like reading about marketing and media, you might find it mildly interesting.


Sara Paretsky said...

It's funny, but I was thinking the same thing yesterday. I was listening to a group called Blackbird playing a piece which ought to be watched instead of just heard--they apparently had a friend who's a ballet choreographer show them how to go in motion with the piece, so they race around the performance space playing notes on different instruments as they pass one another, and the melody and rhythmic line get picked up and transferred hand to hand. As I listened to them describe the process, it made me yearn to create story like that--and I can't say exactly what I mean, except the freedom, perhaps, letting the imagination soar, and having the chance to bring in many arts to make a piece whole.

Dana King said...

I had an idea about a year ago that an excellent crime novel could be written based on several Delbert McClinton songs. I'll probably never have the time, and getting the rights might be a bear, but I still think there's a book--probably several--in his songs.

Johnny Cash's MURDER collection (from the three-disk set LOVE, GOD, MURDER) also has some great songs I'd live to capture the tone of.

Pete said...

Music is a huge influence on my writing. I have probably half a dozen stories that were either directly inspired by specific songs, including Sinatra's rendition of "Moonlight Serenade" (which also plays a key role in the story), Pinetop Seven's "Quit These Hills", and Silver Jews' "Smith & Jones Forever." And pretty soon I'm going to start writing a novella based on Morphine's swansong album "The Night." I don't listen to music as avidly as I used to, but all of it is firmly embedded in my brain.

Maryann Mercer said...

When I write, the music I listen to has to be instrumental. Otherwise I end up singing along and forget the business at hand. It can be blues, jazz or pop, sometimes even classical---and sometimes I DO hum, but that's diffrent, right? When I read "The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie and Literary Society" I heard WWII songs in my head. When I read books set in Chicago, I usually hear the blues. If I could write a book about any song, Sweet Caroline by Diamond or Night Moves by Seger might tempt me.

Libby Hellmann said...

The biggest challenge I've ever attempted was trying to translate the way The Blues make me feel into prose. That was really the inspiration for CHICAGO BLUES, btw. I don't know if we accomplished it -- the difference between the sensibility of the music, and the cerebral quality of the prose still seems like a chasm I can never cross. But it was fun trying.

woodstock said...

I think the best music, and the most intriguing stories always should leave you wondering what came next. Leonard Cohen's SUZANNE has drafted dozens of scenarios in my head about who she is, who is the person speaking in the song, why is all this imagery meaningful?

Did Rick survive WWII? Was Isla ever happy after they parted?

And so on. Who is the mysterious ELISE Beethoven wrote his iconic piano piece for? How meticulously would JS Bach have worked to come up with the closing movement of the 2nd Brandenberg concerto?

Kevin - if you ever work out your book, let us know! I think it would be fascinating reading!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks Woodstock.

Actually the book is done. I don't have a pub date yet, but I'm just finishing up a revision this week. I suspect it will be out next year sometime. It's called THE THOUSAND.

Peter Jurmu - Creative Byline said...

Have you seen Before Sunset? At its outset, Ethan Hawke, who has recently published a novel, is doing an interview for journalists in a Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. One of them asks him what he wants his next book to be about, and he responds with the idea of an entire novel taking place over the course of a pop song: a man sits at a table in a cafe, watching his daughter spin to music, and suddenly he's transported back to the first time he ever heard that song, which was when he was sixteen and watching his high school sweetheart--long gone, of course--spin to the same song on top of the car. And the whole thing would be, presumably, a celebration of the rush of senses accompanying an unintended memory.

An interesting idea, but not the only way you can integrate music into your work. I recently began a novel (that I'm doing in orbit around my nine-to-five at a web-based manuscript revision/submission company called Creative Byline) building to a tragic denouement, so I'm pulling pensive, tonal energy--if that makes sense--from The National, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins' B-sides disc ("Judas-O"), Broken Social Scene, etc. I'm not explicitly writing ABOUT the music, or changing the structure of my writing to reflect the time structure (or signature?) of music, as Hawke was describing, but the emotions embodied in that music, which I think are universal, are particularly similar to the ones I'm exploring in the novel, and so the two have kind of a rapport in my daydreams.


Michael Dymmoch said...

Andrew Bird is awesome! But I can't think when I'm listening to any music with lyrics. However, "Behind Blue Eyes" (The Who) did inspire the killer in The Feline Friendship.

Neil Jordan's The Dream of A Beast sounds kind of like what you're talking about, though it's more like poetry than music. It was a difficult read, but an experience I'll probably repeat.

Connie said...

Thank you thank you thank you thank you for introducing me to Andrew Bird. I live on the other end of the state and had never heard of him.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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