In a conversation I had with my mother and older brother, my brother talked about the books that had the biggest impact on him when he was growing up. Since I read a lot as a child as well, and since my entire professional life has revolved around books, they looked expectantly at me to see what books I would name that influenced me as a teenager. I quickly riffled through my memory banks, recalling the endless mystery novels and the summer I plowed through almost every Louisa May Alcott book, but finally I said, “I think Elton John and Bruce Springsteen had a bigger effect on how I viewed life.”
I can indulge my love of both books and music in a variety of books. When I read a book that either revolves around music, such as Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, or uses particular pieces of music to set a mood or emphasize a certain time period, I often note the songs or compositions that intrigue me and that I want to listen to. This happened when I read Kate Atkinson’s mind- and time-bending Life After Life. During a section that takes place in London during the Blitz, a group of air raid wardens decide, improbably, to have a small recital one evening. Among their little group is a German refugee, a violinist. He plays Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor. Atkinson does not describe the actual music, but the scene by itself was enough to make me want to hear it. The words and phrases she did use—“sublime,” “something so spare about the music,” “a moment of pure, profound silence, as if the world had stopped breathing”—were such that I put the book aside and immediately looked up the piece on YouTube. I found a wonderful recording of it and have saved the first movement, Adagio. I play it frequently, particularly when I feel the need for the pure and profound.
A few of my students use music in their books. One current student uses it to provide insight into King, the protagonist of her novel. The ringtone on his phone is “If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Dixie,”a song by Hank Williams Jr. As King is driving in one scene, he listens to Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog.” (The author helpfully provides some of the lyrics.) A former student, Pat McDermott, recently published a book that features Irish music, The Rosewood Whistle. Her main character finds his way back to the music he loves both by falling in love with a woman and through the rosewood whistle of the title. In her descriptions of the music, Pat does an excellent job recreating the sound—a hard thing to do with words. After she read one particular scene in class, I suggested to the students we should all hop a plane to Dublin and go find ourselves a pub where they played Irish music.
Frequently, on this website and in my classes, I use song lyrics as a writing prompt. We all have favorite songs that leave images, of certain characters, of events, even complete stories, in our minds. But pulling two or three lines of lyrics to use as prompts is not easy. Often, you need most of the song, and even then, it’s not just the lyrics that create those pictures in our minds, but the music and the way the song is song. For example, I could write a book based on the Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” but it has as much do to with my emotional response, which started to form when I first heard the song some forty years ago, as it does with the soulful lyrics.
And there are pieces of music that have no lyrics yet create such moods, inspire such images, that a writer can’t help but turn to her notebook (or a painter to the canvas, a dancer to the studio).
If you are like me, with a fondness for both books and music, a few books you might want to read are A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, and The Commitments by Roddy Doyle. Or just google books and music. You will find many, many lists of many, many books. I have already added four to my to-be-read list.