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 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, 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?


  1. Laura, so lovely to see you here! Congratulations on your wild success..and fun to be on the MWA board with you!

    Oh, music is such a time machine.
    I cannot hear Judy Collins or Joni MItchell songs from my college days without almost bursting in to tears--Someday Soon, remember that? Oh. And the Joni song, what's the title--Wish I had a river, I could sail away on..
    Any Leonard Cohen--Suzanne?--has the same effect.

    I --honestly, no exaggeraton--broke off an engagement after hearing "That's the Way I Always Heard it Should be" by Carly Simon.
    And whew, thank you Carly.

    I can't have music when I write. Quiet quiet quiet. Although once I had to write during a concert rehearsal at Tanglewood--yeah, deadline--and it was quite wonderful.

  2. I think music works so well for parachuting us into our fictional worlds because music goes straight to the emotion center of the brain.

    A few years ago, I spent way too much time in hospitals. I always took a CD player in with me to drown out all those noises. I even conditioned myself to fall asleep to Norah Jones's first album "Come Away with Me."

    But, as the years have passed, the feelings prompted by the music have changed.

    Now, when I hear those first few notes of "Don't Know Why," I become terribly sad. Instantly, not only do I remember how sick, frightened and helpless I was then, but I feel it now. Even though all those miserable treatments worked.

    So, even though that wonderful album helped me so much, I can't listen to it anymore.

    Sorry 'bout that. I realize that here at JRW we're a lot more chipper. But that anecdote certainly demonstrates the power of music.

    Anyway, a question ... Do you find that, when you use a song for a work, that when you hear the song again after you've completed the work, that the song drops you back into the world of that particular story no matter how much time has passed? And if you're working now on something else?

  3. One of my pals asked me to create a playlist for a girls getaway weekend we're having next month. Music DEFINITELY takes you back. last night I saw the Kids Are Alright. Didn't love it, but there's a good scene where two people who don't exactly love each other bond because they both know the words to a Joni Mitchell song.
    But I digress...I just received my signed copy of I'd know you...from Mystery Lover's Bookshop - one of the best bookstores on the planet - and I'm looking forward to starting it tonight. I have a question for Laura, if she's still out have you managed to defy the categorization that plagues a lot of female mystery writers?

  4. I don't like to have music on when I write. Too distracting--the rhythms competing with the rhythm of the prose and I'm a lyrics person, love a song with good ones, hate stupid ones, so I start listening and then I'm not working at all.

    But, there really is a soundtrack for our lives, and for our character's lives as well and it's cool to think about, even when it isn't a central feature of the character.

  5. I'm with you Hank and Barb, can't write with music on. Or any noise at all.

    And Rhonda, oh no, we don't mean to always be chipper here! thanks for your story--I think that's exactly the kind of thing Laura was going for in her book!