She closed her eyes as tightly as possible, so tight that the blackness faded to a caramel brown, the way it had done when she was a schoolgirl and the class were told to put their heads on the desk and go to sleep. She pretended she was on her own. Music spilled in from one of the other apartments: Tracy Chapman, ‘Fast Car’. She must have heard it a thousand times that summer.
This morning, I sent a hundred dollars to Stephen Sondheim. Not, I suspect, that one of the world’s most accomplished composers is in urgent need of money; it was payment for permission to use lyrics from one of his songs in my next book. Anyway, it got me thinking about music and songs and about the role they can play in books, especially when it comes to their power to bring you back to a certain time and place.
My book, Going Back, is a story in two parts: the first half is set in Boston in 1988, the second in present-day Dublin and Boston. For the early chapters I needed to evoke what it was like to be young and Irish in America at the end of the 1980s. I was helped by the fact that I did spend the summer of 1988 in Boston, so, to begin with, I wrote a list of all the things I remembered about those months.
The big stuff was easy; in no time at all, I’d scribbled down pages of notes about my job, about the jobs the others in the apartment had, and about our general sense of wonder at actually being in America. What surprised me, though, was how many small details were lurking at the back of my head.
I remembered going to see films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and A Fish Called Wanda. I remembered buying white leggings and a denim shirt in a discount clothes shop (this was the 1980s!), but most of all I remembered songs, lots of songs. ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ by Guns and Roses was on the radio all day every day. Every apartment on our street must have had a copy of Tracy Chapman’s first album because its songs were constantly wafting in. And we owned a paltry collection of cassettes, one of which was Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tango in the Night’.
I tracked down all of these and played them. And played them. And played them a bit more. Each time I listened, more memories were triggered. I also found it easier to visualise the book’s main characters, Elizabeth and Danny. I saw him as a rock music obsessive, a bit of a musical snob whereas she was more of a Fleetwood Mac fan. I even gave her a favourite song: ‘Seven Wonders’.
Oh, and there was another benefit to all of this musical nostalgia. Where better to get a reminder of the era’s fashions than in the thousands of videos on YouTube? If you don’t remember the clothes and the big big hair of the late eighties, I recommend going online and finding the video for the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ From the stone-washed jeans to the teeny-tiny lycra miniskirts, every crime against fashion is there. That’s how I picture Elizabeth and Danny.
Novel Kicks is a blog for story tellers and book lovers.