Hawthorne Books is delighted to announce the Guest Author Blog Series. Kassten Alonso will inaugurate this series to be followed by David Rocklin and Poe Ballantine as well as others to be announced. These posts are meant to be interactive and each author will answer questions, comments, dialog, so feel free to post liberally below.
Now, we present to you: Kassten Alonso.
I listen to music and write. I use headphones, to put the music in my head. Like thoughts. To me, music’s a crucial tool for developing a certain tone or mood, a mindset, an action, indeed, which in turn develop the narrative.
The reason music’s important for me, an illiterate—can’t play, can’t read, know little history and no theory—is because of music’s ability to convey—to generate—emotion. Literature has this power—hell yeah!—so the connection’s there; manufacture the emotion musically, then channel that feeling onto the page.
I’m after something specific—dread, gloom, pursuit or desire—so I’ll listen to the same song over & over & over again. For hours. For days. Weeks. The song’s essence becomes ingrained, subliminal, creates a Pavlovian response as soon as I hear it. Repetition puts us into a trance state. In this state, we write the scene. In this state, we write our best.
I doubt I spent any time writing Core: A Romance without music. After a while, I had enough tunes that I put together a soundtrack. Actually, I had more than one soundtrack—I sponged off a lot of music during the 3½ years it took me to write Core. The soundtrack currently posted on my website has the most variety, say, and the one from which I’ll draw here.
I think the “signature” tune for this book is Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” The line “You can have it all/My empire of dirt,” is definitive of Core, the Persephone myth, and unrequited love. Dirt and what lies beneath is what hapless Hades has to offer. Umm…does any potential love interest want that?
Her fists beat his shoulders she clutched his chest and slapped him and Love will express itself anyway it can like Garlic and sapphires to the mud like Apples soft and bloated in the mud and When did we come to hate daffodils? and Why must sadness be the end of joy? and
Why couldn’t you just love me? he said.
Mostly, lyrics don’t matter to me; the way the singer’s voice complements the music is the important thing. Trent Reznor’s trembling delivery in “Hurt” carries more emotional weight than his lyrics. A lot of songs, I can barely tell you what they’re about, or what the lyrics are, because I’m not paying attention to that, not the literal interpretation.
A prime example is The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.” The song’s about a murderous psychopath—certainly apropos to Core!—but the song helped me write the baseball scene, if you can believe it—something about the way the intro or signature chord hitches made me think of the histrionics of a pitcher’s delivery.
Cam turned his back to him and scraped his feet in the sand. Cam bowed sidewise to the ash trees, his throwing hand rested on the small of his back. The baseball turned fits in Cam’s fingers.
Weezer’s “Undone—Sweater Song” and Urge Overkill’s “Dropout” were important in depicting desire—not the “skyrockets” clothes-ripping aspect—but the vulnerability and self-consciousness that comes with revealing one’s attraction to the desired one.
The girl moved toward him, firelight in her glasses. He sat before her on his knees. He could not breathe. Here in the mud she would kneel with him.
Soundgarden’s “Like Suicide” speaks to the main character’s boiling psychosis. Ominous, foreboding—scary music!
He closed his eyes. The bouchard swung around and around. And shovelheads and sawblades. Mud tossed in thick wet clumps, cow flop plop plopping. Apples spilled to mud. Apples sunk down deep in mud. And running breathless bloody from the fen.
U2’s “Dirty Day” signifies the tawdriness of the affair, and how it’s not what the main character wants—something real, not furtive and shameful.
He laughed. You think you love Cam. Only because you can’t, you can’t ever fully. Have him. Because that’s just the way he is. And when he does things like this. Things that say you need him more than he needs you. Then you come and find me. Because I’m always here.
The Police’s “So Lonely”—well, the title says it all, but it’s keening angst—plus dancing!
He shouted her name. His voice shouted back. He turned away. He turned and turned, from bungalow to studio to fire road, he turned and turned and wanted to ask someone what he should do, and why she had to leave, what was next.
And there, on the shoulder of the fire road, beneath the oaks, beneath the bluff, where they had always been, where they always would be no matter how many bulbs he dug up, no matter how many bulbs he chewed to paste or crushed under his heels, there, nodding gentle, staring him down, horrible daffodils.
It’s Spring, he said.
While this particular soundtrack doesn’t show it—and perhaps the narrative doesn’t either!—Trip Hop had a huge influence on Core. Bands like Portishead and Morcheeba emerged during the time I was writing this novel. Portishead’s album Dummy was gigantic, for me. I wouldn’t dispute the charge I spent the equivalent of a month or two of my life listening to this album. Maybe six! I ground every one of those brilliant cuts into my brain while writing Core. “Sour Times,” its hammered dulcimer, in particular fueled my work, as did the rippling, forlorn “Mysterons,” the ironically bouncy “Numb,” and the sexually turgid, curtain-dropping “Glory Box.”
A writer uses what tools work for him or her to create the world. Blasting pop music into your skull ad nauseum is not required nor is it recommended, but it works for me.
Kassten Alonso’s novel Core: A Romance was an Oregon Book Awards finalist in 2005. He has published in the Portland Mercury, Portland Monthly, and The Oregonian, and was a contributor to Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon’s Sesquicentennial Anthology. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and daughter. Visit him at www.kasstenalonso.com