Handsomely Rewarded

Months ago, Elder Daughter observed that I don’t listen to music. She was right: I haven’t listened to music regularly in over a year—and even then, it was old music, stuff I had on CD years before I even owned an iPod. It’s been years since I heard something new and wonderful that I absolutely had to have. Years since I cranked the volume and sang, when I had the house to myself, revelling in the all-important “melody or harmony?” quandary.

That changed, last month.

We started on “True Detective” about three weeks after its debut. Before Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey even opened their mouths—before the long, tracking shots of Louisiana swamp and refinery smoke and flat, straight highways eased, or oozed, across the screen—there was the theme music. “Hmmm,” I thought, the first time I heard it. “WOW,” I thought, the second. Well before we got to the third episode, I’d already bought two Handsome Family albums. And I was lost in a way I hadn’t been in years and years and years.

I almost didn’t start writing this blog entry tonight, because I forgot my earbuds at home. I’ve pushed on, though, because the earbuds hardly matter: the songs are right there, circling, fading, repeating in a way that’s miraculously un-annoying. (If there’s an opposite of “earworm”, these songs are it.) “Blooming Peaches.” “Winterhaven.” “If the World Should End in Fire.” “Glow Worm” and “Eels.” I listen to these and the rest over and over. More importantly: I listen to them while I’m writing.

I used to depend on music, while I wrote—for mood and inspiration; for dedication, since earphones meant that I couldn’t leap up and do the dishes or decide I absolutely had to learn how to pluck my eyebrows. And the music ended up becoming an indelible part of the process. I can’t listen to REM’s Automatic for the People now without remembering my fourth-year Montreal apartment, and what I was writing there: the words that would become A Telling of Stars. (The shonyn section, especially. I hear “Find the River”, now, and there I am, with the shonyn by their river, as time loops and folds and blurs.)

The soundtrack to The Silences of Home was Enya. Yes. All about Enya, and nearing the end—because that’s when I remember sitting with headphones on, hunched over paper, humming and writing at the same time.

Initially, the writing of The Pattern Scars seemed as if it would be completely music-free. I wrote it on the streetcar; I didn’t yet have an iPod; I didn’t even think about trying to work bands or synthesizers or soundtracks into the process. And anyway, that music would have been nothing new. Nothing inspiring.

Two years after I started the book, I downloaded some of the soundtrack to the first Narnia movie. I remembered liking the music, if not, particularly, the film—and I was right: it was wonderful music. Sweeping, orchestral, epic fantasy music. (Kudos, Harry Gregson-Williams.) I decided to listen to it when I was nearly done the book—mere chapters away from the end. It was a heady, frightening thing, knowing I was almost done. I put the girls to bed and went out onto the porch. I sat on a lawn chair with a ghetto blaster beside me. (Still no iPod.) I’d threaded an extension cord through the railing posts and along the side of the house, where the plug was. I blasted Gregson-Williams. A glass of white wine sat beside me, beading and misty. And I wrote and wrote, from 11 p.m. until 2:30 a.m., when I wrote the last words, and a period, and started to cry.

The Door in the Mountain had no soundtrack, cinematic or otherwise. I wrote some of it sitting beside Peter’s hospital bed as he shook off being nearly dead from necrotising fasciitis. I wrote some of it on the Island, with strange top 40 tunes blaring from the yacht club bar’s speakers. I wrote most of it in this very pub (where “Walk Like an Egyptian” is now playing.)

Now, two-thirds of the way through the sequel, I’ve seen the Handsome Family light. (And yes, “True Detective” fans: the light is winning.) I’m a writer possessed. I’m in a labyrinth under a mountain, and there’s blood and longing, cold beauty and terrible darkness—and while I can only hope that my words actually touch these things and make them semi-real, the music already has. It’s chilling. It’s impossibly, relentlessly beautiful. It’s discordant at just the right moments. And all the songs are stories; all of them are goddamn pieces of literature, only better, because they’re goddamn SONGS: music and words, gutting me in three-minute increments.

Thank you, Handsome Family. My world was already going to end in fire; now it’s going to sound spectacular.

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Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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