Today’s guest has a lot of rhythm (sorry, I had to). Dave O’Leary is here chatting about his newest novel, The Music Book.
Dave O'Leary is a writer and musician living in Seattle. His second novel, The Music Book, is a collection of the writings O'Leary has done about Seattle bands for both Northwest Music Scene and the now defunct Seattle Subsonic. It is a fictional narrative wrapped around and within the actual music, a story about live music in Seattle and, more broadly, about the power of music in our lives. A CD of the music experienced in the book has been released by Seattle indie label, Critical Sun Recordings.
1. Horse Bite (Infinitum, October 2011)
2. Condoms on Christmas (The Monarch Review, May 2012)
3. I Was a Mean Boy (Slate.com, March 2013)
4. The Music Book (Booktrope, October 2014)
5. Valentine's Seahorse (Booktrope, February 2015)
Welcome, Dave. Please tell us about your current release.
I have a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is a great book by the way, and one line on the back cover describes it as something, “with music pulsating on every page.” I liked that. I already had the idea for The Music Book, but I wanted to take it further. I wanted music literally dripping from every page. I wanted the reader immersed in music. I had the music and the music writing I’d done, so I crafted the story to that end, something about the power of music in our lives.
The blurb on the back of the book goes like this:
What does music mean? Can it be more than the sum of its notes and melodies? Can it truly change you? Rob, a musician turned reluctant music critic, poses these questions as everything important in his life appears to be fading—memories of lost love, songs from his old bands, even his hearing. He delves into the music of others to find solace and purpose, and discovers that the chords and repeated phrases echo themes that have emerged in his own life. The music sustains him, but can it revive him?
The Music Book is a story of loss, of fear and loneliness, of a mutable past. But most of all it’s about music as a force, as energy, as a creator of possibility. What might come from the sound of an A chord played just so? Rob listens. And among other things, he finds surprising companionship with a cat; another chance at love; and the courage to step on a stage again and finally, fully comprehend the power of sound.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I was finishing my first book, Horse Bite, I was contacted by a music blog in Seattle called Seattle Subsonic. They wanted me to write for them since I'd had some music themes in my personal blog, and they liked the quality of the writing. I was reluctant at first since I didn't want to be a critic. In music, I'd always been the one on stage. I couldn't imagine being critic so what I did was insert myself into the writing. It wasn't just about the music. It was about my experience of the music, and I found that doing it that way allowed me to really get into chords and melodies and lyrics, into what it was like to watch the band while scribbling notes and drinking a beer at the end of the bar. What I found was that the bands quite enjoyed what I was writing. They enjoyed the perspective. The readers did too. Eventually, Stacy Meyer, singer for a band called Furniture Girls, told me one night she'd love to see a collection of those writings in a book. That was the genesis of it, but I knew the book couldn't just be a collection of reviews about local bands in Seattle. What I did instead is take the themes that had shown themselves in the music articles and build a fictional narrative around those. The book is thus a blend of fiction and non-fiction. The bands and music are real. The story wrapped around it is fiction.
Excerpt from The Music Book:
They get to talking about their singing preferences, their karaoke preferences, and I zone out of the conversation for a moment. I think about the line near the end of Pink Floyd’s “Nobody Home,” the one that needs force and conviction and volume. I know the feeling. Picking up the phone, looking at a picture, driving by an apartment. Nobody home. Borderline obsession, I suppose, but I was being honest when I said I’m ready for something new. The heart is a strong thing. It wants to heal itself. It wants new love. Who knows? It could be Katie here. Or maybe some random woman I meet at a bus stop. Or nobody. I look around the bar and notice it’s empty now. There are some glasses on a few tables, a book on another with a few crumpled napkins, but no people. It’s one of those moments where everything else falls away. We could be the only three humans on the planet, and the sun shines in the window as if to say it is so. Radiohead comes over the speakers: “Videotape.” Katie puts the napkin in her apron, and heads in back, perhaps to do some stocking up. Greg goes to the bathroom, and I just sit rooted in the slow, mournful pulse of the piano in a song about an old man dying and saying his goodbyes via videotape in reds and blues and greens. I sip my beer, the pulse goes on, steady but tense, seeming to drag a little at times like it might end at any moment, just like the old man’s heart. The voice of the song goes on to say that he shouldn’t be afraid, but I am. A few chords on a piano have made me so, made me afraid of many things, or rather so quickly reminded me of fears I already had, and though I know there’s no answer to anything in my glass, I drain it in one big gulp thinking that maybe one will be there in the refill. The song fades into the ringing silence of my tinnitus, and I grab a napkin and the pen Katie left on the bar and write one line, “This just isn’t working.”
What exciting story are you working on next?
Shortly after the publication of Horse Bite, I had a short story published by the Monarch Review. It was called Condoms on Christmas, but it wasn’t really a Christmas story, of course. Such holidays just give heightened awareness to the feelings of being alone and the reasons we do and don't let people into our lives. What I’m doing now is expanding that story into a novel. It’ll be told from the view points of a few different people as their lives intersect over the course of a single Christmas day. It’ll keep its original themes but will also be about holidays and family and the ideas of success end expectation both in others and in life.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I started feeling like a writer when writing about music for Seattle Subsonic. I had a few musicians tell me I was one of their favorite writers. They meant music writer, of course, but the idea finally took hold. What made it solidify was when I first saw my book at Barnes & Noble. That meant more that seeing it a one of the local indie stores. When I was in college at Ohio State, I remember going to B&N and daydreaming about someday seeing my name on the shelves. And then one day it happened. There’s nothing quite like a dream come true.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
The answer I love to give is, not yet. That’s the goal though. As far as finding time to write, I’ve always believed that it isn’t a matter of finding the time. If you want to do it, you will make the time. You’ll do whatever it takes to get a few words down each day.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
With each book I’ll listen to a song to get in the mood to write. For The Music Book, it was Radiohead’s “Myxamatosis.” For Horse Bite it was, Jane’s Addiction’s “I Would for You,” and for my next, Condoms of Christmas, it’s “Drown” by the Smashing Pumpkins. The music makes me want to reach out into the world and say something, or rather write something down.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Always wanted to be a musician and a writer, and I’ve done both. Writing doesn’t pay the bills yet, but that’s not how I define who and what I am.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Go out and see some local bands in your city. There’s great music out there that deserves to be heard.
Also, since the music in The Music Book is from actual Seattle bands, we put together a CD of the songs experienced in the book, and the sales of the CD will benefit the Wishlist Foundation, which is a Pearl Jam fan nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting Pearl Jam’s charitable and philanthropic efforts. The charity fit since Pearl Jam is in the book. The music is thus available online here.
Thanks, Dave! This sounds great, such a different idea than I’ve heard before.