“These are the songs I loved to listen to as I wrote:
Sia, “Breathe Me”
Alexi Murdoch, “All of My Days”
Ingrid Michaelson, “Far Away”
Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2U”
The Waterboys, “Fisherman’s Blues”
Carole King, “You’ve Got a Friend”
Black-Eyed Peas, “I Got a Feeling”
Simon & Garfunkel, “Homeward Bound”
David Torn, “Lars & Margo”
Patty Griffin, “Heavenly Day”
Mumford and Sons, “The Cave”
Amy Winehouse, “You Know I’m No Good”
Alexi Murdoch, “All My Days”
This is the perfect writing song. I find it trance-inducing. It gets under my skin, pulling me to a place where currents run deep. The lyrics – about loneliness, loss, the relentless forward motion of time, and finally hope – are reinforced by the hypnotic quality of Murdoch’s voice and the gentle but insistent rhythm of the melody. I have to be careful not to listen to it too much. I’d hate to get sick of it.
The Civil Wars, “Poison and Wine”
The first time I heard this song, I was captivated by its precise language, complicated emotion, and stunningly bittersweet harmonies. “Your hands can heal, your hands can bruise … I don’t love you but I always will” – I think you can hear in this song the passion and the discord that led Joy Williams and John Paul White to combust. It’s almost too intense to bear.
Amy Winehouse, “Rehab”
I was living in London for the summer, holed up in my Bloomsbury “flat”” for the weekend, writing the final scene of my novel Orphan Train, when I got the news that Amy Winehouse had been found dead of an overdose an hour earlier in Camden, two miles from where I was sitting. This song – which I’ve always loved for its sly, subversive humor and childlike simplicity (and sick beat, as Taylor Swift says) – now evokes for me the gritty sophistication of that city and the end of my own writing journey.
Bob Dylan, “Don’t Think Twice”
The snappy pacing and feisty lyrics of this song, enhanced by Dylan’s sardonic voice, create a perfect storm of conflicting emotions and passive aggression: “I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind / You could have done better but I don’t mind / You just kinda wasted my precious time / But don’t think twice, it’s all right.” Subtle ambivalence is my favorite thing ever. I’d be happy to do in 300 pages what Dylan did in these 32 lines.
Damien Rice, “Blower’s Daughter”
Everything is stripped away in this song; it is elemental and slow motion, the way it actually feels when you are obsessed with someone. I love how anger creeps in, how Rice seems to try to talk himself out of his fixation in the almost whispered voices of the Furies: “Did I say that I loathe you? / Did I say that I want to / Leave it all behind?” And that the mantra “I can’t take my mind off of you” turns into “I can’t take my mind / my mind my mind” – ending “’Til I find somebody new.”
Ingrid Michaelson, “Far Away”
This sweet and earnest song reminds me of my sister Clara, who lives on the coast of Maine with her carpenter husband and red-headed babies – “on an island in the blue bay.” This song perfectly captures the city-mouse fantasy of country-mouse living – “I want to go far away. / To a new life on a new shoreline. / Where the water is blue and the people are new.” I wrote my novel The Way Life Should Be (which is also, not coincidentally, the Maine state slogan) about this very idea.
Richard and Linda Thompson, “Dimming of the Day”
Could anything be more gorgeous than Richard Thompson’s guitar in this haunting song? Maybe the soulful harmonies. I was never lucky enough to see Richard and Linda Thompson in concert – they broke up in 1982 – but I’ve listened to their albums over and over. Richard’s solo songs are darker and harder; I prefer the raw emotion of their collaborations. The longing and heartbreak here are almost overwhelming.
John Prine and Iris Dement, “In Spite of Ourselves”
The ideal love song – warm-hearted, silly, surprising, earthy, and catchy as a children’s tune. It sounds like they’re singing this on a rural front porch in Arkansas, Prine’s husky alto contrasting with Dement’s artless gospel-infused soprano. You can hear Johnny Cash in there too. I love how Prine manages to balance on the knife edge of sentimentality without falling over: “In spite of ourselves / We’ll end up sittin’ on a rainbow / Against all odds / Honey, we’re the big door prize. / We’re gonna spite our noses / Right off of our faces / There won’t be nothin’ but big old hearts / Dancin’ in our eyes.”
As I wrote the novel I wove the stories together so that they contained echoes of, and references to, each other. Vivian’s grandmother gives her a Claddagh necklace in one section, and then pages later Molly comments on the necklace in the present-day story. Vivian later notes the charms around Molly’s neck. I didn’t want the references to be too literal or overt. But the necklaces became a way to connect my characters literally through touch and figuratively through a shared depth of feeling.