Friday, September 17, 2010
The Melody is Familiar
ROBERTA: I doubt that today's guest needs much of an introduction other than: We're thrilled to have her here! Laura Lippman has just published her 18th novel, I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE. Her books and stories have won Edgar, Anthony, Agatha, Shamus, Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe, and Barry awards. Wow!
We posted this essay a couple of weeks ago and we're afraid it got lost in the shuffle. We wanted to be sure every one of the JRW readers got a chance to see it...so take it away Laura!
LAURA: Even before the iPod era began, several novelists started creating playlists for their books, even offering them in CD format. I've not been one of them. It feels almost like sacrilege to say this, but -- music is not really that important to what I write. Don't get me wrong, I like music, although I also rather enjoy being free, at middle age, from the tyranny of keeping up. (That said, I had to explain to my oh-so-hip husband just who this Lady Gaga was.) On the rare occasions that I have music playing while I write, I end up blocking it out. Sometimes, I make a private playlist for the work-in-progress and use those songs in workout sessions to keep the characters with me. For Every Secret Thing, for example, that song was “Cherish,” because it's a song that a young girl in 1975 would have considered romantic. (Yes, it's an oldie by '75, but did you know it was re-recorded by David Cassidy in 1971?) For The Power of Three, I listened a lot to a Barenaked Ladies song “Call and Answer.” Again, I could imagine a character being enamored of that song, finding many layers of meaning. Ditto, Jason Mraz's “You and Me Both.” These aren't songs I necessarily adore, although “Call and Answer” is pretty haunting. But they are the songs of my characters' lives.
In my own life, I have noticed that certain songs are virtual time machines. All I have to do is hear them and I am transported back to a certain time and place. Again, they don't tend to be songs I love, quite the opposite. I've been listening to Elvis Costello for - damn - thirty-some years now, so his songs run through my life. No, I am thrust back into the past by songs that were on the radio back in the day when you listened to what the radio played and liked it. I was in the middle of a break-up when Stevie Wonder released “I Just Called to Say I Love You” and, to this day, I can see myself lying beneath my Laura Ashley bedspread and yearning to shoot the clock radio that had just awakened me with this chirpy ballad, when my on love life was on the rocks. “Don't You Want Me, Baby,” by contrast, is a wonderful memory: It was always on the radio the summer I began a long-distance romance. I would hear it on Interstate 35 as I drove south toward San Antonio. Heading home, I always seemed to hear the cover of “So In Love” and I can almost pinpoint the spot on the highway - outside Temple, Texas, near that barbecue restaurant with a giant cow on top - where I first heard it and thought, “Oh, this is so how I feel!”
But I lived a relatively mundane life, with ordinary highs and lows. While I was writing I'd Know You Anywhere, I began to think about what would happen if popular songs catapulted a person back to much more difficult memories. In this novel, the main character was kidnapped at the age of 15 and held hostage for six weeks. The bulk of the time was spent in her captor's pick-up truck and although he insisted on listening to country music, she was allowed to pick the radio station at fifteen-minute intervals. What would she have had heard? I went to MTV.com and began watching videos from the era. I researched the Billboard charts. I was often surprised by the lyrics, the messages I had missed when I first heard those songs back in 1985. I used them as headings in the book, providing their chart history, but no other information. I'm not even sure I should be giving this explanation now, but so it goes.
In My House
Who's Zoomin' Who?
Crazy For You
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Of those songs, every one but the last one, James Taylor's cover of the Buddy Holly ditty, made the Billboard Hot 100. A couple are simplistic dance tunes - Who's Zoomin' Who? Holiday - but the others strike me as creepy on different levels. “In My House” is a teasing, taunting song, or perhaps it seems that way to me because I still remember the Mary Jane Girls video that accompanied it. “Crazy for You” could be the name of a thousand pop songs, some of which are sweet, but some of which are downright stalker-ish. And, finally, “Voices Carry,” which is clearly about an abusive relationship. It has always seemed implicit to me that people do hear what's going on in that downtown apartment, but have chosen not to interfere. And then there's the end: “He said shut up” - well, there's another essay entirely in how I react when anyone tells me to be quiet.
As noted, the final song didn't track, but it was a hit in the so-called “Adult Contemporary” category. It might have been on the radio stations that my character chose, but it would have seemed mocking, even cruel, given her circumstances. Yet hearing it thirty years later - well, that's the journey of the book in some ways. As much as anything, this novel celebrates the quotidian, the most ordinary moments in a family's life, including what I call the “scarlet promise” of the neon sign at Rita's custard stands: ICE*CUSTARD*HAPPINESS. Is happiness ever that simple? I'd like to think that it can be.
Meanwhile, I'm now spending a lot of time back in the late 70s and early 80s, looking for a new soundtrack.
ROBERTA: Thanks Laura, and your new book is amazing! And just think, when the movie is made, you have the soundtrack all worked out... Now, questions? Comments? Playlists that bring back memories?