On Sunday, I attended the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was quite a treat to be surrounded by so many books and authors. To celebrate books so close to home. The amount of panels and signings were overwhelming. Unmanageable really. So, like everything in my life these days, I had to choose carefully how to spend my time.
I decided to attend a talk with memoirist Mary Karr and the author and music critic Nelson George who were there to discuss music and literature. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of their work — soon to be remedied because I actually felt real fear that Mary Karr would smack me or eat me alive if I didn’t read her books, no real basis for that, just a feeling — but the topic interested me more than any other on the schedule.
Among the many things discussed, there were musings on the rhythm and movement of cities, how each place has a specific music history, and the way musical styles influence writing styles. For example, George feels that Karr’s writing sounds like whisky and honky-tonk. When he writes, he is attracted to a style that is concise but forcefully expressive, like James Brown.
Karr told a story about waiting for a singer to show up to a recording session for a record she is working on. When the singer did arrive, four hours late, she nailed the song in one take and left everybody in the room so overcome with emotion, they were sobbing.
Both Karr and George think that this rush of feeling, this immediacy, is what writers try to capture when they write.
Since music is important to the story I am telling right now, since I’m working with two singing fools in my novel, poor Adelaine and Luna, this discussion sent my brain into overdrive. I apologize, in advance, for the brain dump that comes next.
As many of you know, I love musical theater. But I know that a lot of people do not. They dislike the idea of telling a narrative through music and spectacle. I argue that musicals are not always about the big happy-clappy-snappy numbers. They rarely follow that show within a show structure anymore. The musicals I love are the shows that allow characters to speak and then step out into an actual and metaphorical spotlight and express their feelings through song.
I want to write a book that feels like that kind of musical. A story that steps away in those big moments and assaults you with the emotion, the way a powerful ballad does.
I don’t think it’s possible to take the feeling of live music and trap it inside the pages of a book. How could it ever feel the way a real voice or instrument feels? It can’t be possible to tame the beat and measure it in words instead of notes.
But, in the same way that cities have their own music histories, I think that people have their own music histories. Music must flow through a life the way it moves through a space. Without getting too heady, too out-there (too late for that?) I think there must be a way to make music run through a character and come out in a way that feels a little bit like a recording, at least, of a song.
So I’m going to try to get my story sorta song right. I’ll most likely fail. But, it seems I can only do one thing at a time these days (try as I might to do a thousand.) And this is time well spent.