The music of Eleanor

If you imagine the Witt family as a boat, then they are like Quint's fishing boat from the final act of Jaws: the hull has been breached, they're taking on water, they're coming apart in the waves. Eleanor, all of fourteen, is left treading water amidst the wreckage, doing her damnedest to hold everything—and everyone—together. This of course is too much to ask of any teenager, and it's at this moment that the boundaries of Eleanor's reality begin to fray. She slips in and out of her own reality, until she is torn, violently, from time itself. 

Music has been as influential to the mood of my writing as film has been instructive in the building blocks of visual storytelling. These two mediums, so different from my own chosen path of the novel, nevertheless have combined over the years to guide my hand. As a result, much of Eleanor was written, over the years, to the tune of a careful selection of music.

I thought it might be fun to share some of the songs that have been most important to me during the writing of this book. If you're a Spotify user (and if I did this correctly), you can listen to these songs in an Eleanor-themed playlist.

“End Credits,” Contact (Original Soundtrack), Alan Silvestri
Carl Sagan wrote many books in his lifetime, but only a single novel. That book, Contact, was a very early and very powerful influence upon Eleanor and me. (Eleanor’s title character, in fact, is named for Sagan’s own Eleanor Arroway.) It’s a novel that’s full of practical wonders, of dreamers and realists, battling for a shared understanding of the world. Many years after Sagan’s novel was published, it became a lovely film full of hope and ambition. It’s perhaps my favorite film, one I love more for its naked earnestness and unspoiled optimism; composer Alan Silvestri’s work on the film echoes those emotions as the characters struggle to find their place in a vastly changed world. “End Credits” is a medley, of sorts, collecting many of the film’s most powerful moments; the entire score returns me to that place of wide-eyed wonder, and my novel’s throughline of hopefulness, necessary among so many dark events, is fueled by Silvestri’s delicate work here. 

“Elevator Beat,” Vanilla Sky (Original Soundtrack), Nancy Wilson
Nancy Wilson, one half of the rock band Heart, was for a time married to the filmmaker Cameron Crowe. During those years, she often contributed musically to Crowe’s films, with often beautiful results. (Her score for Elizabethtown is elegant in ways that the film itself is not.) “Elevator Beat” is a simple acoustic melody that unfolds during one of Vanilla Sky’s most revelatory scenes, an elevator ride through a lifetime of memories. It’s tragic and redemptive, and it loops really, really well; I’d often write for an hour listening only to this song, again and again. 

“Death is the Road to Awe,” The Fountain (Original Soundtrack), Clint Mansell & Kronos Quartet
Darren Aronofsky’s extremely underrated film The Fountain has a lot going for it—seriously, if you’ve never seen it, you’re missing a very personal, very ambitious masterpiece—but its greatest strength may be Clint Mansell’s score. It’s both epic and intimate, rich with strings and thunderous percussion, and traces the film’s journey through tragedy to an almost otherworldly redemption. There’s a current of desperation in the score, and it’s impossible not to be dragged beneath its waves. “Death is the Road to Awe” is one of the more bombastic pieces in this playlist, and it became my go-to piece for some of Eleanor’s more visceral, dramatic moments. 

“Rather Lovely Thing,” The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Original Soundtrack), Nick Cave/Warren Ellis
“Rather Lovely Thing,” the opening track of Nick Cave’s and Warren Ellis’s score for Andrew Dominik’s film, does a masterful job of setting the tone for an unusual Western, one that seems to sidestep all the expected mannerisms of the genre to deliver something sensitive and scruffy. The song is dirge-like, with a haunting, steady percussion and a weeping violin, but touches of fragility echo in the intermittent tinkles of the piano keys. For a novel like Eleanor, songs like this one were invaluable in establishing the novel’s broad strokes; it’s a novel about grief and the incredible weight of our own regrets, after all, even if it is punctuated now and then by moments of violence or beauty. 

"Unfaithful - Piano Variation," Unfaithful (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
When Eleanor finds herself adrift in a strange, out-of-time void, she learns to speak in an entirely new way: through bursts and ripples of color, that, while soundless, are as melodic as an orchestral arrangement. The watery piano of Jan Kaczmarek's track would almost seem out of place in a movie like Unfaithful, and who knows; maybe it is. But it's a trembling, delicate, desperate, tumbling piece of music, and I can almost perfectly imagine Eleanor, suspended in darkness, sending great pulses of color out into the black, timed to this song. 

“Passage,” Passage, Lowercase Noises
During my work on Eleanor’s final act, I stumbled across this particular track by an artist I hadn’t heard of before. Lowercase Noises appears to be a single artist, Andy Othling, whose Twitter bio once read: “I am a guitarist interested in playing as slow as possible.” “Passage" is a curious blend of instrumentation: a misty echo of drawn-out sounds sets a backdrop, while in the foreground what sounds like a banjo and a xylophone plink out a simple, evocative melody. The song captured me the moment I heard it; it’s as full of wonder and revelation as Nancy Wilson’s “Elevator Beat,” and almost immediately became the soundtrack for Eleanor’s climactic moments, when the story begins to narrow its focus. Like Wilson’s track, “Passage” was on steady loop for hours at a time as I wrote.

"Idaho," The Animal YearsJosh Ritter
The quietest entry from Josh Ritter's stunning The Animal Years, "Idaho" is a haunting, quiet, almost a capella tale of a man who has fled his home, and yet feels forever drawn back to his roots. (I used to sing this song softly to my daughter, Squish, as she fell asleep as a baby, often blending it with a little Springsteen for variety.) The final verse seems to capture Eleanor's confusion as her own world is torn away from her and replaced with something else entirely: 

Thought that I'd been on a boat
'Til that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads

“Holocene,” Bon Iver, Bon Iver
I confess I’m a latecomer to Bon Iver’s music. In 2008 and 2011, when his albums were all my friends and colleagues could talk about, I couldn’t find a place for him in my music collection. I didn’t understand exactly what he was doing; all I heard was a grating falsetto and what sometimes sounded like yodeling. I needed a primer for his music, I suppose, and that came a little later, when he produced an album for one of my favorite musicians, Kathleen Edwards, and transformed her sound in ways that at first I couldn’t quite get on-board with, but which over time really clicked for me. In late 2014 and early 2015, as I was working with my editor to revise Eleanor, Bon Iver’s albums became steady backing music for the work. I suppose that they worked, despite not being purely instrumental pieces of music, because I really can’t tell what the hell he’s singing about most of the time. I can pick out a word now and then, and that’s about all. Maybe I’m growing old ahead of my time. “Holocene” is wistful and a little delicate; he might be singing about blowing up factories, for all I know, but the song made a great backing track to Eleanor’s dabblings in the realm of memories and regrets.

“Away,” Back to Me, Kathleen Edwards
For as much as Eleanor is a novel about regrets and grief, it’s also the story of a girl who, in her attempts to restore her broken family, ventures well beyond the borders of reality and time itself. I discovered Kathleen Edwards’s music in 2003 or 2004, when I was a few years into Eleanor’s writing, but it’s “Away,” a track from her 2005 album Back to Me, that captures Eleanor’s extreme sense of dislocation as she weaves in and out of time, disappearing and returning days or sometimes years later.

Do you think I’ve changed?
I swear I never tried
Memory’s a terrible thing
when you use it right
 

That little sliver puts a fine point on the feeling for me, while Edwards’s lilting refrain of "I've been away," repeated in her fragile, wavering voice, is deceptively simple, yet says everything that Eleanor herself can’t bring herself to. 

“Time Moves Quickly,” Ledges, Noah Gundersen
Much like Kathleen Edwards does in “Away,” Noah Gundersen captures another essential aspect of Eleanor’s travels through time with “Time Moves Quickly”:

Time moves quickly
With or without me
You go fast, and I’ll go slow

But it’s a different side of Eleanor’s dislocation, one that reveals itself in her relationship with the one person—her dear friend Jack—who she can share her strange travels with. There’s little time for the romance that might develop between the two of them if the circumstances were different, which Gundersen’s lyrics frame so beautifully:

You stick with me
You never even kissed me
But I can’t let you go

There’s plenty of heartbreak in this novel of mine, so much of which plays out over decades of history, but it’s worth nodding towards these two youngsters who aren’t allowed to be young, aren’t allowed to dabble in love, because they’re both weighed down by the sins of their parents. 

“Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” American Kid, Patty Griffin
Let’s end this a bit more optimistically, shall we? Yes, Eleanor is a novel about pain and tragedy, about consequences and birthrights, but it’s also about the possibility of undoing those things, of a new start, if such a thing can be hoped for. Patty Griffin’s beautiful “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” which I’ve always interpreted as a song about the relief of death:

You can get up on some sunny day and run
Run a hundred miles just for fun now
Heartaches and yesterdays don’t weigh a ton now

But this also sums up what everyone in Eleanor wishes for: to put down their burdens and to be free, and to be themselves without fear of consequence. Maybe it’s all any of us really wants. (Griffin captures the sentiment in many fewer words than does Eleanor, however.)