Saturday, August 14, 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 is about to publish 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!
Thanks for visiting Jungle Red Writers--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 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.

Careless Whisper

In My House

Who's Zoomin' Who?


Crazy For You

Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Voices Carry


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, can't wait to get my hands on that book! And just think, when the movie is made, you have the soundtrack all worked out... Now, questions? Comments? Playlists that bring back memories?


  1. Hi Laura,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. Spending time in the 1970s listening for good music -- except for that disco part -- great place to be.

    I play guitar and am totally into music -- you should see the tabs and sheet music in piles around my computer - but I never thought of merging my two passions, music and writing together -

    What a great idea for a book!!

  2. Hi Laura,

    I've read nearly all of your books, and they show me just how far I still have to go.

    Jan probably plays guitar better than I do, but I have a list of over 200 songs to use as possible titles down the road, and most of my published stories have used them. I'm still revising an often rejected novel about a dead rock star, too.

    I'm a little surprised you missed the ultimate stalker song from the eighties: Every Breath You Take.

    Looking forward to your new release.

  3. Wow, Laura
    What an amount of research! That's why your books are so good. My music's just in my head and I'm not always sure what it is.
    Loved the Ice*Custard*Happiness! I

  4. "Voices Carry" is one of those songs that takes me to a specific, terrible time and place, but I didn't realize it was as long ago as 1985. Can't wait to read this book!

  5. LAura, so wonderful of you to coe visit! I'm running running running to catch up--I'm in DC teaching at MWA University and just got back. (We missed you, Laura..and you were not far from our thoughts..people are sitting on go for the new book.)

    THe tyranny of keeping up--so funny! I worked at Rolling Stone magazine for a few years--in the seventies-and I always promised myself I would stay au courant. Sneered at those who were out of touch with the newest music.

    Huh. Now I look at the top ten--and I often have NO IDEA.

    And I'll see your husband and raise you--we were at a wedding reception a while ago, and my husband said: Oh, that song sounds familiar. What is it?

    And I just paused, and realized he wasn't kidding.

    I said: Honey, it's Satisfaction.

    He had no idea.

  6. I was away Saturday, too, so I wasn't able to post a timely comment.

    Each book of mine has a playlist, but I can't use it while revising. Only while in first draft.

    However, before I dive into the copy for revisions, I listen to one or two of the key songs to drop my mind back into the right atmosphere.

    Mp3s have helped immensely in that. Being able to buy just one song instead of an entire CD for one - maybe two? - songs is great. Like being able to buy 45s again.

  7. It happened just this morning: Hall & Oates "Your Kiss Is On My List." It was 1981, I had my first car, it was spring, almost college graduation and that silly song was everywhere. I immediately took inventory -- So, here I am, shopping at Harris Teeter for the family vacation, very tired, having a bad hair day. What would my younger self think?

    And she thought: "Very different than I ever imagined. But also much better."

  8. Hi, Laura. I really enjoyed your post. In the first books in my Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mystery series, Kendra's ring tone on her cell phone was "It's My Life" by Bon Jovi--to make a statement about her having to take control of her own life. I'll look forward to I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE.

  9. Hi Laura,
    Enjoyed your post. Music is a time cruncher. It can bring a smile or tears depending on where the lyrics take you back to. I sometimes think of putting in music that my heroine was listening to such as: I Ain't Blue by Bonnie Riatt,Don't Be Sad by Traffic and Baby Please Don't Go by Michael Doucet and Beausoleil. But I'm afraid nobody will know the songs and it will lose the meaning, so I don't include them.

    On another note (excuse the slight pun) I didn't see any postings for the challenge. Weren't we suppose to write what we did on the comments page?

  10. Laura, I love your books, my fav is Every Secret Thing. Ditto your comments on using music/titles/lyrics to evoke a certain time-place-feeling. I'm a musician and often do this in my books as well, tho in my case it's usually jazz or classical.

    Coincidentally, I'm now reading Oliver Sachs' Musicophelia. Fascinating study on how the brain processes music.