In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
These days, I do a lot of my writing at my local Barnes and Noble. Coffee is easily accessible, I am surrounded by books, and it requires me to get dressed and deal with the day like a grown person. And it works well with my preference to write to music. It’s February as I’m writing this, so the piped-in music is generic multi-generational pop instead of the seasonal weirdness they played in December. But I’m not noodling to the generic multi-generational pop—I’m under my headphones, blasting ATB’s “Two Worlds,” from 2000. Sixteen years old. Ancient! Everybody knows trance music died after 2009, so get off my lawn, you damn kids.
There was an article that came out last year, saying most people stop listening to new music in their early 30s. Makes sense, really; a lot of folks end up with offspring at that point, and then you’re stuck with nothing but Barney and the Wiggles for heaven only knows how many years. Maybe I escaped that fate because my parenthood came so much later, and I was less invested in providing socially sanctioned infant-level music. The Kid preferred the Beatles and Lunch Money, because that’s what we fed her.
Among other things. When The Kid was very small, music was my sanity. With everything they tell you about parenting, they do not, I think, sufficiently communicate that sometimes your grasp of reality gets really and truly tenuous. Music can be both a ground and an escape. So even if she’d asked for Barney? Too bad, kiddo. Mommy needs the loud thumpy stuff.
When I myself was very small, my favorite song was “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which I’m pretty sure was the B-side of one of the Show ’N Tell records I had when I was little. (A Show ’N Tell, for those of you who had yet to exist in the ‘70s, was a GE creation that played 45s of stories as it automatically advanced a film strip. The film strips were too short, and had very little repeat viewing value—but the thing sported a for-real four-speed record player. A toy encouraging small children to plunder and destroy their parents’ record collection. Genius.) It’s possible I should find my song choice embarrassing, but there’s no point in repentance, since the situation did not improve. My next favorites were “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” and “Bend It” (which I swear was the B-side of “Winchester Cathedral,” although Google is not backing me up on this).
And then “Scales and Arpeggios” from The Aristocats. I’d play that one over and over and over. One day the record came out of the sleeve in pieces, and I was inconsolable. Now that I’m a parent myself, I’m a bit suspicious of how this came about—and more sympathetic to the idea that the rest of the household was less enchanted by repetition than I was.
Being able to sing along was always a big draw. My dad adored The Carpenters, and Karen Carpenter’s range was perfect for me. (I can still warble a decent “Rainy Days and Mondays.”) And maybe that’s what’s earned me the reputation for having no taste in music: my priorities are not really related to genre. If I can sing along to it, I love it. If I can dance to it, I love it. If it hits just the right weird atmospheric tone, I love it.
Despite cheerfully embracing pretty much any genre out there, I do have preferences. For instance: despite an early and extensive exposure to classical music, I am left unmoved by most Mozart. (The exception to this is the Requiem, which gives me absolute chills—but I sang it in college, so it fits one of my criteria.) And although I love deep house and trance (which didn’t really die in 2009, despite persistent rumors to the contrary), I don’t care for a lot of mainstream dance. Dubstep, trap, all that Skrillex-y stuff tends to get on my nerves. My favorite dance/electronic music hits both the “I can dance to it” and “weird atmosphere” requirements (see: any mix by Nick Warren).
How did I get from “Scales and Arpeggios” to this?
It’s funny, because in a lot of ways I’m a music snob. I had a decent musical education. I’ve got a good ear. I’m not a bad singer—I even sang at a wedding once, and nobody threw cake. And when people say “Pop music today just rips off the old stuff! These kids aren’t doing anything new! And what’s with the auto-tune?” I know what they mean. But I can’t endorse that statement. Popular music has always “ripped off” older music. This is a feature, not a bug. When you get right down to it, nobody’s done anything musically “new” in centuries. But every combination has the opportunity to enchant and entrance in new ways.
(Also, auto-tune is totally an instrument, if it’s used properly. No, really.)
These days, music gets associated with what I’m writing. My current work-in-progress is spending a lot of time asking for “Einstein on the Beach.” I have this fantasy of some stranger someday reading the book and thinking “Wow, this is very Philip Glass, isn’t it?” Mind you, I’m not actually sure what that means from a literary perspective, but that reader for sure would be a kindred spirit.
Music and writing are strange bedfellows. Music, for me, conjures vivid images and emotional landscapes. Writing is an imperfect translation of those landscapes. Sometimes I think I should just describe my characters and hand my editor a mix tape. The rest will fall logically into place.
And I think I’ll spend the rest of my afternoon contemplating how efficiently that would take care of my deadlines—as long as I got the mix tape right.
Top image from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She currently works as a software engineer, and lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, her daughter, and various cats. Massachusetts has been her home her whole life, and while she’s sure there are other lovely places to live, she’s quite happy there. The Cold Between is her first novel.