Music of the Write: “Haunted” by Poe

I recently finished reading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. If you haven’t read it before but enjoy writing and reading horror, literary analysis, family drama, dysfunctional romance, mythology or surrealism — you might want to pick up a copy. Just be aware: It’s a job.

House of Leaves is ergodic fiction, which means that it’s written in a way other than the traditional way, where you read page one and keep turning pages until you reach the end. Instead, it’s told in the form of letters, manuscripts, asides, footnotes, poems and extensive appendices and exhibits tucked in the back of the book. Prep yourself with three bookmarks so you can track where you are as you jump back and forth between the multiple storylines explored.

Is all that work worth it? At some points I’d say “no.” There’s parts that were hard (for my end-of-the-day brain, anyway) to navigate, and I have to admit I merely skimmed the pages and pages of “Pelican Poems” in the appendix. But the story lines — one about a family whose house has an invisible labyrinth within it that changes as you explore it, one about how that family’s house is the subject of a documentary that doesn’t actually exist but was being analyzed and written up by an old blind man before he died, and one about the tattoo artist/apprentice trying to preserve the old man’s manuscript while running from his own demons — are equally fascinating, even though they occasionally dip into what I call “late-1990s cishet male angst.” Think High Fidelity but 80 times longer and without confusingly charming John Cusack.

Close to finishing the book, a friend introduced me to Poe’s Haunted album, which was entirely based on the book. Turns out that the artist is Danielewski’s sister, which means she had a leg up on creating what I think is not just a fantastic concept album, but also a great guide for understanding the book. Think SparksNotes but song in a way that Fiona Apple and/or the Cranberries would have done it.

Anyway, I haven’t listened to the album while writing (yet — there are some tracks like “Dear Johnny” and “Spanish Doll” that could end up in a project playlist or two), but it got me thinking about how a writer’s work can inspire other artists to create. Film adaptations tend to be the first thing to enter our heads, but an album? Now that’s a labyrinth I could get lost in for a while…

Poe’s full album is available on YouTube, but be a good sport and buy it from iTunes if you can. Support artists!

Writespiration: The Top 5 Tracks of NaNoWriMo 2020

This year for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) I’ve been working on my book about a woman who joins a train robbery gang to avoid having to marry an undertaker’s son. Of course, in the words of Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “it’s a lot more nuanced than that,” with key intersectional feminist themes, critiques of wealth hoarding, etc. It also comes with an ever-growing 60-song-plus playlist, though I keep gravitating toward five key tracks that fit the characters, story and message. Here they are:

“Giant” by ZZ Ward

I trekked through a Chicago blizzard to see ZZ Ward play the House of Blues in 2018, and not once have I regretted my it. This track dropped earlier this year when I first started thinking about Lucinda “Lucky” Ellis, and it helped form how she perceives her new-found power once she leaves life as a rancher’s invisible daughter to become a force that baffles the marshals and locomotive companies.

“Song for Bob” by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

I listened to the entire soundtrack from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for years before finally seeing the film this summer. Regardless of your feelings about the film (it took me four sittings to finish, but I found a weird peace in it during our crazy COVID times), the fact is that Lucky Ellis was born from that movie — particularly the musing of what would happen if one person on one of the trains that Jesse James robbed had stood up and said “Take me with you.” “Song for Bob” has been on repeat since then as I try to paint the picture of the Higgs Boys’ camp on the page using Times New Roman size 12.

“Rooted” by Ciara and Ester Dean

To know Ciara and Ester Dean’s “Rooted” is to know Ester Roth, the HBIC (head bandit in charge) of the gang that eventually adopts Lucky as their own. Ester is a modern humanist in the body of an 1870s descendent of free Black people living in the West. If that sounds far fetched, do some research: A quarter of cowboys on the Western side of the continent were Black.

“Pretty Waste” by BONES UK

What’s a playlist for one of my projects without a sardonic needle drop? BONES UK’s work has a special place in my heart as one of my top favorite sludge bands these days, but “Pretty Waste” is a fitting soundtrack for both train robberies and bodice rippings — both of which take a prominent place in Lucky’s story.

“Run Baby Run” by 2Wei and Ali Christenhusz

Another writing playlist staple: If it’s not the theme to season one of True Detective, it’s a 2Wei track (and usually more than one at that). This time it’s a toss-up between this piece from their album Emergence, which has echoed through the theater of the mind while plotting out train robbery action scenes, and their take on “Hit the Road, Jack.”

There’s plenty more music, and the list keeps growing. Check the full playlist out here, and follow it to get updates on when I add more (which is pretty much every other day).

Writespiration: “Sunny” by Boney M.

Like all the other post-Emo kids who follow everything My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way has done since his band broke up (and reunited — briefly, anyway, before COVID), I spent the last week binging The Umbrella Academy season 2. It’s not a perfect show; it won’t be heralded as part of the golden age of post-millennium TV. But I’m a sucker for soundtrack dissonance, and every single episode delivers — so much so that Vulture declared the show as the killer of the “sardonic needle drop.”

In that way, whenever The Umbrella Academy does in fact use music that fits a scene perfectly, it stands out. That’s the case with Boney M.’s “Sunny,” used in the S2E3 opener that recaps what Klaus — aka Seance in the comics — has been doing while seeing ghosts and leveraging his dead brother’s invisible presence in 1960s America. The song is peppy and builds up with key changes and orchestration enhancements so well that now when I hear it (which I have numerous times since watching that episode), I can imagine exactly where in Klaus’ journey we are.

Tonight I watched a documentary on Disney Plus called Howard. It looks at the life of Howard Ashman, who wrote Little Shop of Horrors and penned the lyrics to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. I was enamored by his adamance that every song needs to have a reason to be in a movie or show. “Part of Your World” is the “I Want” song that introduces you to exactly what Ariel desires — to become human. The song’s lyrics are part of the storytelling device, and they’re blatantly placed in front of you as something the character is saying.

Now look at shows like The Umbrella Academy, where the characters sometimes dance, sometimes fight to songs that already exist and come with their own history, both to the world and to us in our own heads.

“Sunny” has a perfect place in The Umbrella Academy because it’s deliciously anachronistic. The album it was on came out in 1976, while the scene it accompanies runs from 1961 to 1963: But that would just be like our hippy dippy protagonist Klaus, who’s riding high on attention and the start of the free love movement and not thinking “Gee, did Boney M. even exist yet?” The anachronisms of all the song choices this season make sense, as those song choices match the fact the Hargreeves family has traveled back in time from 2019 and could easily be hearing these songs in the memories while the world of 1963 twists and shouts around them.

So how’s this all “Writespiration?” In only one project so far I have mentioned what my characters are listening to: whether it’s the engineer blasting A Tribe Called Quest inside his soundproof lab; a federal agent turning her car on to Elton John blasting out of the Bose speakers; or Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) singing “Wild World” at the denouement. After seeing how The Umbrella Academy uses music to push the story forward in a way very different than how Howard Ashman did, I’m interested in adopting more of that into my writing. When I was singing along to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” at the bowling alley when I was 9, I didn’t expect to see it played behind a bloodbath between two civil rights activists and two Swedish time traveling assassins, but here we are — how many other ways can songs we have personal history with be used to characterize a scene?

Music of the Write: “Appetite” by Casey Edwards and Ali Edwards

Spotify threw this one into “My Weekly Discovery” a couple weeks ago as I worked on Camp NaNoWriMo planning, and it seems like the music streaming service might know my work-in-progress better than I do.

Now that I’m committing to my house exorcist mystery, “Appetite” is a fitting theme for how Agatha succumbs to obsession while shadowing Handel and Maeve’s work driving demons from suburban homes. It sounds like something Billie Eilish would record after she graduated from college, joined a coven and opened a unisex haberdashery with a backroom full of spell and potion ingredients (actually — that’s not a half-bad story idea).

Music of the Write: “The Night Window” by Thomas Newman

If, like me, you’ve thought back to what life was like this time last month before an official pandemic required us to self-isolate, here’s what I was doing: I went to see the last movie I would see in theaters for a while, 1917. I know, about two months later than the rest of the cinephile world — but it was well worth it, as I can’t imagine seeing the film on a smaller screen and being as captivated by it. I was so tense and emotionally invested that the guy I was with at one point put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was OK.

The truth was, I was more than OK: I was euphorically swept up by every artistic detail of the movie, as graphic and grueling as it could be.

Thomas Newman’s entire score is fantastic, but one song in particular has fueled my writing as of late. “The Night Window” comes early on the album and escalates to a heart-stopping swell. I lost track of how many times I repeated it last week while working on the next installment of Axiom’s backstory, and it’s earned a permanent place in my “Random Writing Music” playlist.

Music of the write: “Vampire Money” by My Chemical Romance

If there was ever a way for an emo band to scream itself into silence for a decade, “Vampire Money” is it. As the final track on Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, the song acts as a farewell from My Chemical Romance — one that would seem permanent (if you don’t count the B-sides they released separately over the next year) until this year when they announced their reunion tour.

“Vampire Money” was nowhere near my favorite song on the album when. I was working on my screenplay for an Adaptation of Literature for Film class I took shortly after the album came out. But in the years since, I’ve been possessed with its David Bowie references, head-banging beat and guitar solo that begs to be taken on its back. And now it’s on constant rotation in a number of my writing project playlists for its adrenaline-coaxing quality.

Music of the Write: “Brand New City” by Mitski

I’m late to the Mitski party, but “Brand New City” came on my Spotify radio, and it struck a nerve in my writing — so much so that I added it to my “untitled fantasy bounty hunter story” playlist. But here’s the thing: I interpreted the lyrics differently than I’m sure they were written.

“My brain is rotting in places / I think my heart is ready to die…Honey whatcha take, whatcha take, honey look at me, tell me what you took, what you took…”

On the third listen — this time detached from the project I was thinking of — I realized that “whatcha take” refers to drugs: What drug did you take? What’s in your system? Do we need to pump your stomach?

But the first two times I heard it, I was in such a headspace with this potential fantasy story (as well as my current Dungeons & Dragons character, the undying warlock Axiom Thorne) that I heard them as “What did you take from me that’s making me fall apart now?” It’s a little Dorian Grey: The narrator is disintegrating, and she’s quite convinced that some asshole stole the Grimmoire or relic that has sustained her for so long.

Again, probably not Mitski’s intended meaning, but it fits this potential project…

Music of the Write: “Shutter Island” by Jessie Reyez

I saw Vogue included Jessie Reyez in their list of “Bright Young Things: 2020 Rising Stars” and was reminded of how important her debut single, “Shutter Island,” has been to formulating a number of characters.

“For a second I forgot I was a bad bitch. Begging you to stay became a habit” — that’s Axiom (whom you’ve met), as well as Pru to some extent, and a new character I haven’t published here yet. Of course, I realize that it’s also me: A fact I’m grappling with while also reflecting on a number of other things about my love, professional and creative life at the moment…

Music of the Write: Top 5 Songs of 2019

Short entry this week to make room for my longer piece next week. This year I listened to a lot of music, discovered myriad new artists, and wrote a ton while doing both. Check out the top songs I found helped the words fall out this year:

*Note that these are songs I found this year, not necessarily released in 2019.

1. “Blood // Water” by grandson.

Call this the biggest find of the year: Jordan Edward Benjamin, aka “grandson.” “Blood // Water” isn’t my favorite of the political chainsaw rock-tronic he produces, but it resulted in the final action scene of Nobody’s Hero and acts as soundtrack to our Dungeons & Dragons Byssia campaign.

2. “Prophet” by King Princess

To be fair, King Princess’ entire Cheap Queen album was a lifesaver this year. While Lizzo’s music is killer for an explosive breakup, King Princess explores the other kind: those that fizzle out so slowly that no one notices until something extraneous happens that puts things into perspective. “Prophet” made this list because I recently added it to the playlist for a book I’ve struggled to write for seven years now — maybe 2020 will be the year I find inspiration thanks to Mikaela Mullaney Straus.

3. “Succession Main Theme” by Nicholas Britell

Find me one writer who didn’t become obsessed with Britell’s score for HBO’s dynastic drama. Seriously, I fell in love with Succession‘s theme before I saw a single episode of the show. With string blasts akin to Junkie XL’s “The Red Capes Are Coming” from Batman vs. Superman, the show’s theme is the perfect march for a pissed-off protagonist or acid-minded enemy (both of which you’ll find in the Roy family).

4. “All for Us” by Zendaya

Another HBO show find, this one pairing Labrinth with Zendaya for the song that ends Euphoria‘s first season. That show is a treasure trove of tune, including one of the first major uses of Billie Eilish and “Bubblin’,” an Anderson .paak bop that almost made this list. But “All for Us” comes packed with genre-crossing drama: soundboard aesthetics, Zendaya’s silky-to-raw vocal range, and a heart-stopping choir that carries everything on its shoulders.

5. “Honky Cat” by Elton John

“Honky Cat” was always a song that existed, but not one that I put much thought behind until hearing it in a new light in June as part of Rocketman. Everything about it is Elton, who was one of the first voices I recognized on the radio (my favorite song at age 4 was “Crocodile Rock”), and since then has been an enticing enigma of a person who finds a way to surprise me every year when I find another song from his library. Last year’s Elton Discovery was “All the Girls Love Alice,” and 2017 was “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore.” With seats at his Chicago show in June, who knows what 2020 will bring?

Honorable mentions: “bellyache” by Billie Eilish, “The Chain” by The Highwomen, “Every Time I Hear That Song” by Brandi Carlile, “Pretty and Afraid” by Jidenna, “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey, “I Love Me” by Nikki Lynette, “Standards” by Leslie Odom Jr.

What songs inspired you this year?

Excerpt: The Gladstone Gala

The Mornays knew how to show up in style, with Darin in bespoke Tom Ford and Lilah in a crimson Dior evening gown that strategically hugged in some places and flowed in others. Around her neck glistened a spectacular diamond necklace that was so heavy it had once bruised her collarbone. Lilah contended the twice-weekly Pilates and calcium supplements she was taking had solved that problem.

They walked the red carpet, which was attended by a cadre of camera-wielding local press, and smiled and waved like they told all their clients to do at these kinds of things. Pru suspected that’s why they loved the Gala so much: It was their turn to be the show. Pru didn’t care as much, but this evening was different. She was going to be the show whether she wanted to be or not, so she might as well lean into it.

When she stepped out of the black town car she had hired, she heard a gasp from Amy Charles, the fashion columnist for Centropolis Weekly.

“Pru, who are you wearing?” she yelled.

“The last person who asked me that,” Pru snapped back.

In truth, she was wearing Foster Updike’s first red carpet fashion, and if the crowd reaction and her own style sense told her anything, he could have a fallback career if engineering for a vigilante was no longer an option. Using the long black train of her gala dress from three years previous, he had created a hostess coat that fanned out behind her and showed off the stunning metallic black leggings underneath. It magnetically snapped together in the front to hide her chest plate, and its sleeves covered the utility arm-guards she knew she’d need.

But when she turned around, everyone got the real show. On the back of the coat’s skirt was the brilliant turquoise Nightfire flame that seemed to glow in the light. In reality, it sort of did — Foster had coated the blue fabric (sourced from another year’s dress) with a flexible phosphorescent finish that created a holographic effect. If anyone was still unclear who she was in the PR world, this would set them straight.

When she got to the entrance of the gala hall, Lilah raised an eyebrow, made a comment about not knowing 1950s fashion was back in vogue, and eventually threw her hands up with an admission that “It’s your money and your body, so dress how you want.” Her father said nothing but at least acknowledged her with a nod before escorting her mother toward their other guests.

Dinner at the gala always seemed to take forever, and this year was no exception. It especially didn’t help that the Gladstone Foundation’s event planning team received a barrage of complaints from attendees after last year when it decided the salade nicoise would already be plated and waiting for each guest when they entered the dining room. The logic was sound — Pru had seen how so many of the guests had stumbled in from the cocktail reception in search of bread baskets and more booze — but their donors, many of whom distrusted any kind of produce they couldn’t ensure was organic-grown, weren’t pleased at the prospect of eating anything they suspected of being room temperature (unless it was a draught of scotch).

So this year, each course came out in the hands of white-jacketed waiters, and at what seemed like a glacial pace. Pru kept glancing at her phone to check the time, at one point incurring her mother’s hand pushing it down into her lap.

“The work is here, Pru,” she whispered.

He wasn’t yet, but he would be in three hours, Pru thought.

Darin still hadn’t spoken, though smiling for the cameras and cordially offering one arm to his wife and the other to his daughter hadn’t taken much verbal commitment. Throughout dinner he pushed his salad around his plate, hoping no one — meaning everyone — would notice that for the fourth year in a row, the Gladstone Gala planning team had forgotten his biological intolerance for eggs and psychological intolerance for olives that weren’t soaked in gin or vodka.

Once the little sandcastles of chocolate mouse and raspberry sauce had been delivered to the tables, the dancing started and, more importantly, the open bar resumed operation. Knowing his audience was mostly older donors wealthy enough to pay people to make them feel young, the DJ stuck to playing electro-swing that balanced swelling horns and deep base. A few overly tan, freshly Touch-of-Grayed men entrenched in mid- to late-life crises swung their 20- and 30-something wives around the dance floor, pulling foxtrot and bossanova moves while their partners peppered in body rolls and a bit of grinding here and there. Darin and Lilah Mornay avoided the dancing entirely, preferring Tanqueray to the tango.

Pru, meanwhile, had excused herself to the ladies’ room, where she knew there was a couch she could crash on to reset her mind in the moments before Flashbang was due to arrive. Unfortunately, the pink velvet settee she remembered from galas before was already claimed by an unconscious woman with what looked to be a Cosmopolitan soaking the front of her dress.

“It’s not even nine o’clock,” Pru said in disbelief.

“She saw her ex-husband making out with his new girlfriend in the back hall and decided to drown her sorrows,” said a tall woman reapplying her lipstick in the mirror. “Don’t worry: We already called a medic.”

The Gladstone Gala wasn’t the Gladstone Gala without at least four people needing medical attention. The first time Pru had attended, Portia Abrams and Kaitlyn Ducker’s rivalry hit a fever pitch and resulted in acrylic-nailed slaps being thrown, blood spattering on Yves Saint Laurent gowns, and a clump of hair extensions flying into Lilah Mornay’s martini glass. Portia still had a scar on her wrist that she covered with a thick diamond bracelet purchased with the settlement money.

On cue, two women wearing navy blue t-shirts and carrying medical bags entered the bathroom and immediately started taking the unconscious woman’s vitals. They lifted her up and she groaned, muttering something about a dirty bastard who could never get it up.

“Ma’am, we’re going to get you some help,” one of the medics said. “Can you stand?”

As they started to leave the bathroom, the drunk woman starting to talk louder now about her limp-dick ex-husband and his Playboy Bunny bitch. Pru and the tall woman with fresh lipstick could hear her shouting through the door and both started laughing.

“And to think this thing is a charity event,” Pru muttered, mostly to herself.

“Lifestyles of the rich and generous,” the woman said. “Maybe they think being philanthropists is enough to excuse the rest of their behavior.”

“You should have been here last year,” Pru said, inspecting the couch for potential vomit. It was clean, so she plopped down and swung her feet out, stretching her legs. “Paulie Ferguson literally pushed the DJ off the stage and did a 20-minute set of deep-cut B-52 tracks.”

“Sounds entertaining.”

“Truth be told, it was better than what the DJ was playing,” Pru shrugged. “If they had let him get to ‘Love Shack,’ it might actually have been a fun party.”

“That’s saying something,” the woman said, taking a seat in one of the straight-backed armchairs across from the couch. Something about the woman seemed so familiar to Pru, but she couldn’t place it—then again, upscale fashion, professionally applied makeup, and hairspray-shellacked updos made it hard to recognize pretty much anyone in the room. “You don’t seem the type to be at these kinds of things,” she continued. “Is it the people watching that brings you here?”

“I prefer the term ‘social observation,’ and it’s more a survival tactic than my idea of a fun Saturday night out.”

“What, did your husband drag you here or something?”

“Parents,” Pru said. “They come every year because so many of their clients are here. On top of having their own plus-ones, every year they get asked by at least eight people or companies to come as their guests. It’s a whole political strategy meeting for them to decide who’s going with whom. Now that I’m with the firm, they have a third player to throw in the game.”

“Lucky you,” the woman smirked. “Who are your parents?”

“Darin and Lilah Mornay,” Pru said, unsure of why. She didn’t like disclosing her lineage to strangers in case they were disdainful of the Mornays’ work or, worse, big fans.

“How did I not recognize you?!” the woman half-shrieked, throwing a hand dramatically to her forehead. “I can’t believe this coincidence. I’ve been trying to reach you for three weeks!”

Fuck, Pru thought. Instead, she just smiled in a way that said “Fuck.”

“I won’t talk shop tonight,” the woman said. “But my name is Constance Lin, and I’m with the Centropolis Sentinel. They sent me here to cover the gala, but I usually cover the Crime and Vigilante beat.”

Now Pru knew where she had seen this woman before. She was the one who had brought up Flashbang’s memo at the press conference three weeks ago. She had also been the one to ambush her outside the FVA with questions about Opal’s background.

“I want to talk about Flashbang’s last appearance,” Constance said, her voice quickening. Pru tried to detect the smell of alcohol on her breath — her demeanor was so different from when she was in the press pool. “Any chance we could get out of here and talk about it?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be covering the gala?” Pru said, eyeing the large clock hanging on the opposite wall. There were fewer than five minutes before Flashbang was due to meet her in the sculpture garden. “You probably shouldn’t abandon your assignment.”

“This is more important,” Constance said. “The gala is a couple ‘graphs on rich people and how much money they raised as an excuse to guzzle champagne and punch each other out on the dance floor.”

“Fair enough,” Pru said, unable to argue with the reporter’s assessment after she herself had just confirmed most of it through sardonic nostalgia. “But I can’t leave yet, so let’s plan on talking next week sometime. I’ll give you my card.”

Her fingers reflexively slipped a card out of one of her hostess coat’s pockets and handed it to Constance.

“Call me when you get out of here and leave me a message,” she said. “We’ll set something up for Tuesday or Wednesday, Candace.”

“It’s Constance,” the reporter called after her as Pru bolted from the bathroom and went to blend in with the drinking, dancing, check-signing throng.