Alone he is a solo for piano that never comes to an end,
a small plane that keeps flying away from the earth.
He is the last line of a poem that continues off the page
and down to a river to drag there in the cool flow,
questioning the still pools with its silver hook.
––from "Going Out for Cigarettes," Billy Collins
This is the first post in a series of personal "notes from the author" as we head toward the publication of my newest novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, from Black Opal Books in September of this year. In my books I have frequently written about artists and the drive to produce creative work. A confluence of passion and obsession, and at times sacrifice, that cuts deep to the bone and may be as ruinous as it is successful. In previous novels I have written about sculptors (Loose Threads), and classical cellists and photographers (Exposures). In the process of writing each book I learned something about our fierce and brilliant, if fragile, humanity. In my new novel I delve into the performance world of country music, telling the story of the Stone twins, Andi and Marley Stone, and their rise from the singing kid stars on collapsible fairground stages across the west to complex seasoned performers taking the stage at the Country Music Awards.
In researching this book, I delved into the professional and technical aspects of songwriting and vocal performance, the thrill and disappointments of a life on stage, and the ways music like a balm may bring healing to the human heart. I held an image in my mind of an out-of-luck family living on the road; of an eccentric and erratic single mother hellbent to survive. Donna Stone lived on caffeine, her wits, and sheer ambition. She relentlessly promoted the musical talent of her girls –– yet Donna would stop at nothing to protect her daughters from harm. This idea grew to become a story of the bond between sisters, a mother's fierce love, and the dark power of secrets.
A story of love and what might break it.
In my novel, writing and composing country music lyrics anchor the life of one sister in particular. The synergy––even the synesthesia between words and music––and the transformational power of lyric vocals was very much on my mind as I developed the characters of Andi and Marley Stone.
A few months back, as some of you may have read, I spoke with New York Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt –– This is You, Cruel Beautiful World –– on her blog about SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, exploring the interconnected power of music and writing. [Link: carolineleavittville.blogspot.com/Burgess] Here is what I wrote about music and writing:
Debussy was said to have painted music, Sibelius heard compositions as a symphony of color. As I worked on my country music novel, SO LONG AS WE'RE TOGETHER, I realized I was beginning to hear unspoken words within the music, not just the music of words. Language has always possessed musicality—and naturally and effortlessly transforms into the lyric, the song—but for me it was a unique experience to think about songwriting, melody, and a novel's narrative all from the point of view of a musician. What story does a line of notes tell when there are as yet no lyrics, when the song says nothing at all?
When words do partner with a melody there is a dance between meaning and feeling. We understand words, however we feel music. What becomes important? What is said, or left unsaid? Conveyed through language or simply through the notes of the song?
I determined to make a deliberate effort in my narrative to infuse in the landscape, scenes, and in dialog, echoes of the musical performances of my country music duo, Marley and Andi Stone. I felt the twin sisters' music was as much a character in their story as the lake in the novel, or Donna, their mother. That for some characters, what they seek speaks their piece in the world. Marley leaves heartbreak at the keyboard, finds hope in an inspired melody. Andi defines a world for herself by singing it into being. Donna pushes back a hard and disappointing life listening to the jubilation in the notes and verses of others. I considered the novel's narrative as a musical composition between all the parts of the story and an original melody took root in the pages, from the opening note to the last.
Many writers read their work aloud in draft to catch a lagging clause or repetitive word, dull sections, or run-on sentences. I read this entire novel aloud, by scene and section, and in a series of chapters at a time. Multiple times. Listening to the narrative was quite literal for me. I paced my small study as I read, attuned to the music in the words. The lake country as well as country music defined the Stone girls and I listened for that thread on every page. My hope is that when you read this novel, it will sing for you too.
I'm so looking forward to sharing this novel with you. Until then, here's to that "last line of a poem that continues off the page."
May the music of your own words carry you through.