Sometimes, I think I'd give it all up -- the books, the short stories, the contract, the nominations, everything I've accomplished as a writer -- if I could only write one "Tempted." Or a "Once in a Lifetime." Or even half of a "Back on the Chain Gang." Hell, even one-eighth of a slab of gouda like "Viva Las Vegas." Crank that sucker up, man -- it rocks!
I believe in the power of the written word to reach out and touch people. I have to. It's my job. And I've been touched so many ways by so many different writers.
No, no -- not like that! I don't mean groped! (Though there was that time Mary Higgins Clark got a little frisky after a few too many Bouchercon "pick me ups"....)
But here's the thing about short stories and books: For them to touch you, move you, make you feel something, you've gotta read the damn things. Usually all the way through to the end! Geez!
A song, on the other hand, can grab you anwhere, anytime, instantly. One chorus, one bar, one note of "Sex Machine" and you're grinning and shaking your money maker...even if you're French!
(Just kidding there, folks. Please, don't try "The Hustle." It only messes with you in a "Dear God...why is it still in my head? Make it stooooooooop!" sort of way. Kinda makes you wonder if they play it every morning for the prisoners down in Gitmo.)
I got to thinking about all this -- not "The Hustle," necessarily, but the power of music -- a while back when I thought of a blog post (now lost to the ever-shifting sands of the Interwebs) by the lovely and talented Louise Ure. Louise was writing about great story-songs, and I certainly have my faves. (To name but a few, because I can't resist: Steely Dan's "Cousin Dupree," Madness' "Shut Up" and "Cardiac Arrest," " The Sugarcubes' "Motorcrash" and that great love story for the ages, The Kinks' "Lola").
But darn those musicians. They get all the chicks and they can stir your soul WHILE MAKING NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. I mean "Brilliant Mistake" is a beautiful piece of poetry with some very clever lines indeed, but it doesn't exactly hang together as a narrative. The mood of the music and Elvis Costello's delivery -- that's what makes it work.
(Man, I'm really dating myself with these examples, aren't I? Please, someone, drag us into the 21st century with some analysis of a Lady Gaga song, would you?)
For me, writing is such a struggle I can't even listen to music while I'm working. My brain can't multi-task like that: one half humming along to Neko Case (Hey! I did it! I referenced a musician who isn't eligible to join AARP!) while the other agonizes over the best way to describe a horse or a guy picking up a gun or an elf eating ice cream or whatever the hell it is I'm trying to get on paper. I do sometimes have to put on earphones and crank the mp3 player up to 11 -- I have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, you know. But it's always the same track: a 45-minute-long collection of soothing, tuneless New Age noodlings with no vocals or melody or hooks to mess with my head. I may as well be listening to 45 minutes of static.
I tried to change that once. Fitzgerald liked to write drunk. Hunter S. Thompson liked to write (and everything else) buzzed on booze and goofballs and Drano and I don't even know what. And me, I wrote much of The Crack in the Lens, the fourth "Holmes on the Range" mystery, under the influence of Bernard Herrmann.
I was going for something darker and moodier than previous entries in the series, so I listened obsessively to Herrmann's scores for North by Northwest and Cape Fear and Psycho. I wanted to capture in words the obsession and madness Herrmann brought to life with his music for Vertigo. I wanted to steal a little of the sweaty panic of On Dangerous Ground. Hell, even Herrmann's score for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is beautifully wistful and sad, and I tried to soak up that vibe and get it on the page.
Did I succeed? Probably not. The Crack in the Lens might be the grittiest "Holmes on the Range" novel, but it's still a "Holmes on the Range" novel. I wanted Herrmann, but my narrator was more at home with "Yakety Sax."
Still, I'm hoping one day a reader tells me that when he or she got to the part where [SPOILER ALERT!] Big Red watches the bad guy's private library of books burn up and fly into the sky as swirling embers and ash [END SPOILER ALERT!] the picture it brought to mind was [SUPER SPOILER ALERT!] the last three shots of Citizen Kane. Because that's what I was aiming for.
Sure, I'll never whip up a "Viva Las Vegas." But if I've created something that's worthy of music -- worthy of a Bernard Herrmann score, for instance -- truly that would be sweet music to my ears.