Saturday, April 10, 2010


I write fiction to music...always have.

Of course that's not particularly unusual in itself. Was a time I did what a number of authors tend to do: create a kind of soundtrack or mix for a book, then listen to that self-generated tape or CD while drafting a novel. George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly and John Connolly, among others, have actually bound such discs into their books, or released them in tandem with advance readers copies of their resulting novels.

Others post their playlists for particular novels on their Web sites.

My own tendency has been to microfocus on a single artist, or album. Sometimes, even a single song. Then I weave the music, song titles, lyrics or even the performers (albeit in fictionalized guise) into the novels the music helped to inspire.

HEAD GAMES was dedicated to Tom Russell and Andrew Hardin because the character Hector Lassiter was inspired by Tom Russell's cover of "Tramps & Hawkers," an old Celtic air given a Tex-Mex spin by songwriter Jim Ringer. That song, essentially, inspired not just Hector, but the short story "The Last Interview," that introduced Hector. Here, the Jim Ringer spin on the old Scottish tune is performed by folk singer Todd Crowley:

When it came time to write HEAD GAMES, I pretty much wrote the novel to a steady diet of selected Tom Russell's albums: THE ROSE OF THE SAN JOAQUIN, BORDERLAND, SONGS OF THE WEST, HOTWALKER and INDIANS COWBOYS HORSES DOGS. The title track of the latter, "Tonight We Ride," is essentially a perfect candidate for a HEAD GAMES theme song.

The other primary disc played throughout the composition of HEAD GAMES was Andrew Hardin's BLUE ACOUSTIC. Hear some here.

The second novel, TOROS & TORSOS, was written to a string of oldies which are named, song for song, throughout the book: Jo Stafford, Billie goes on. But there was a particular song I listened to over and over — so much so that I essentially trashed the CD. That tune was Bryan Ferry's cover of the torch song, "Where or When." The lyrics of the song, essentially, summarize the central plot element of that novel:

PRINT THE LEGEND was a different beast. If HEAD GAMES was informed by Americana music, and TOROS & TORSOS by standards and torch songs, PRINT was conceived to be more operatic...written to a battery of classical compositions for violin, mostly performed by Lara St. John.

LASSITER #4, due out in Winter of 2011, is entitled ONE TRUE SENTENCE.

I wrote this one immediately after finishing TOROS & TORSOS, and conceived it as a kind of companion book. Where TOROS sprawled across space and time (Key West in 1935, Spain in '37, Hollywood in 1947 and Cuba in 1959), ONE TRUE SENTENCE is confined to one week in Paris in February, 1924. Think A MOVEABLE FEAST re-imagined as a noir love story.

It's the last novel in which Ernest Hemingway figures. Again, as in TOROS, Hem is functioning as Hector's sidekick. ONE TRUE SENTENCE effectively completes the Hemingway trilogy that informs the opening movements of the Lassiter series. After OTS, it is a Hemingway-free zone.

Because the novel is centered around the Lost Generation — a generation shaped by an infatuation with the void and living oft-times hedonistic lives with no eye to consequences — I found myself drawn to a particular album while writing the novel. I listened exclusively to that album in the winter months I spent writing the first draft of OTS.

That album is by singer-songwriter Melissa McClelland, and is entitled THUMBELINA'S ONE NIGHT STAND. It's a smart, seductive, engaging collection of songs...informed by suicide. And, if, like HEAD GAMES before it, ONE TRUE SENTENCE has a "theme song," it's this tune from Melissa's album:

If you want to sample a little Melissa in a decidedly noir vein, try this one from THUMBELINA:

So, a question for those writers among you:

Do you write to music? If so, who are your musical muses?


  1. Hey Craig--Make mine a blues muse. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter, etc...

  2. I have a difficult time writing to music. I don't know how one can absorb the mood and yet not be distracted, particularly by lyrics.

  3. Exile on Main Street, Lotsa Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, (especially The Black Rider), Neko Case, Mike Ness, Gillian Welch, Patsy Cline, Otis Redding and (ahem) ABBA

  4. Good post! I hate any sound when I'm writing. I'm easily distracted so music is a no no for me!

  5. Naomi and Paul: There do seem to be these two schools; the ones who write exclusively to music and those who don't. I've interviewed a few writers who fall in the middle in the sense they write only to soundtracks or classical music — nothing with lyrics for the reason you point to, N. I think I'm probably affected or shaped by my journalism background: i.e., writing in commotion, in proximity to lots of other people writing, with TVs running, and with an emergency scanner a foot from my ear.

    Jed: So odd, of all the Waits albums, I've tended to write mostly to Alice and The Black Rider, too. Interesting in that they both started as music written for the stage. But this ABBA business...

  6. I've been inspired by music, but like someone already mentioned, I don't do well with music plus lyrics. The more familiar the song, the more likely I am to start singing along with it, which kind of defeats the purpose of having mood-music on in the first place.

    So I try to find instrumental music that will do the trick. Soundtracks are my first resource.

  7. Interesting, Sam. I deliberately listen to too-familiar music because I don't have a tendency to focus on it, I think. Listening to new stuff would potentially draw my attention from the page.

  8. Craig, I cant listen to anything & put words on paper or a computer screen. Gotta have complete silence, even talking distracts me. However, as far as setting a feel or mood before hand, is another story. I love Jim White, Tom Waits, Johnny Duhan, Slaid Cleaves, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Russell and Leonard Cohen. Oh, and any great blues riff, like something out of "Devil in a Blue Dress".