Special Post: The Music Behind TLM

I’ve written at length elsewhere about how important music is to my writing process. I can’t put words to paper without a tune in my ear. My reasons for this are rather simple: music helps me concentrate, and it helps me capture a mood. As a result, every story I’ve written has a particular “sound.” For example, when I think back to the first serious short story I ever wrote, the music of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Collective Soul comes to mind.

(The short story itself was a horrid tale called “The Rune” from my freshman year of high school. I’ve buried its six pages so deep into obscurity that the first person to uncover them will be declared the king of England.)

Memories of TLM’s creation are also equated with songs, often playing out in my head like scenes from a film with a backing score. The list of songs has changed over the years, becoming “finalized” around the same time that Amelia and I finished our edits. I feel this music is such an important part of TLM that I wanted to share it with you in the only legal (at least, I hope it’s legal) way I can.

What follows is a discussion of the music that inspired and fueled a lot of the key scenes and themes in the novel. I’ve provided album versions where possible, at the highest quality possible, via YouTube—but if you’d like to listen uninterrupted, I’ve also thrown together a playlist on Grooveshark.

And now on with the “show.”

1 – “The Space in Between” – How to Destroy Angels

Blinding light illuminates the scene / Try to fill the spaces in between

The opening beat and mechanical drones of this track matches the mood of the book and establishes the tone very early on. If TLM were a film, this would be the opening theme playing over the title cards. The first time I heard this song, I knew it had to be included in the playlist. The synthetic drone underlying the entire song is always how I imagined the Monochrome would sound. The song just sounds evil to me, and I can hear it every time I read over the scene with Richard Henza tied to that chair.

2 – “Red Right Hand” – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan / Designed and directed by his red right hand

I’m torn over this song, mainly because it can apply to multiple characters—all of them villains, of course. However, if pressed, I would have to equate this song to Dullington if only because of the ominous qualities of this unnamed figure. Sparrow would come close, though. I also think of this song any time I read about impoverished areas, places where bad things tend to go down. Such areas are what inspired the dried-up South District of the city in the novels.

3 – “All the Love in the World” – Nine Inch Nails

Why do you get all the love in the world?

In the book’s earliest stages, I turned to this song for inspiration behind Donovan’s mindset. The first draft wasn’t necessarily focused on Donovan’s guilt over his inability to act on his suspicions, but on the basis that he didn’t believe he deserved everything he had or the second chance he was given in ALT. This made the opening of the book much bleaker in tone, and in the words of my wife, “Not where Donovan should be.” She was right. I went back to the drawing board in late ’09, and the draft that emerged is mostly intact. Still, when I hear this song, I think about the desperation it conveys, and I always picture Donovan staring at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, asking himself that probing question: “Why do you get all the love in the world?” There are echoes of this in the final draft, but not to such an extreme degree, and by the time the book comes to its conclusion, I think Don is able to answer that question.

4 – “The Noose” – A Perfect Circle

I’m more than just a little curious how you’re planning to go about making your amends to the dead.

In the first draft, the focus was on a single figure—a high school student named Shelly, much in the same style as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks—but I had to cut her out due to plot complications and the new ending I had in mind. Instead, I turned one dead body into fourteen young men and women, all of whom would serve as the catalyst for Donovan’s growing concerns and fears. He blames himself for their deaths because he was too afraid to act on his suspicions, and the majority of the novel is focused on his quest for atonement—even to his detriment. This song was always in my head for those scenes, reflecting Donovan’s regret and desperation.

5 – “Back Against the Wall” – Cage the Elephant

The altar’s calling but my legs won’t seem to stand / Guess I’m a coward scared to face the man I am.

Where to begin with this one? There are so many lyrics in this song that can apply to TLM, and the opening line (Tonight I have a look and try to find my face again) almost led to an entire chapter being titled “Faceless.” This song calls to mind scenes of Donovan tied up in that room down at the Laundromat in the South District—pivotal scenes in which Donovan is left alone to face himself and sift through his sins while bound to a chair. And come on—that guitar solo is awesome.

6 – “Helpless” – Faith No More

Don’t want your help / Don’t need your help

There’s a certain stubbornness inherent in the Candle brothers. This song reminds me of both Donovan and Michael—the former with his stubborn  inability to face the truth, and the latter with his stubborn refusal to accept the possibility of something fantastic. I tried to capture the often illogical, willful resistance of sibling rivalry in their characters, while exploring the loyalty and love they harbor for one another. The repetition of “Helpless” over the course of the song echoes the somewhat helpless situation the brothers find themselves in on opposite sides of reality. I also happen to dig that chorus.

7 – “Forever Can Be” – Ashes Divide

Save the world so you don’t have to save yourself / Save the world so you don’t have to look at yourself.

I’d already completed a draft of TLM when I heard this song, and I was blown away by how much it had in common with the story. Much like “All the Love in the World,” which deals with introspection and questioning whether or not one deserves their accolades, this song deals with the sacrifice one can make in place of facing who they are. Or, in Donovan’s case, he makes a choice to atone for his inaction rather than face himself (although in the book, he does end up facing himself in the process). I think the song’s melancholy theme would complement the middle section of the book rather well.

8 – “A Thousand Details” – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

This the first instrumental track on the playlist, and I thought it best to include it mainly because it illustrates the growing tension present in Part 2 of the novel. I could hear this playing while Michael ventured down into the abandoned subway, or while Quinn ran for his life from the pursuing wave of Yawning.

9 – “Your Decision” – Alice in Chains

You feed the fire that burned us all when you lie.

I have to admit the first time I heard this song, I didn’t care for it. It’s not something I would typically expect from Alice in Chains, and I don’t think I was ready to “listen” to the song the first time I heard it. When I neared the end of the book’s second part, during which Donovan is trapped in liminal space, I overheard this song on the radio and everything clicked. The concept of choosing to act and thereby define oneself was just in its infant stages (this was during the first draft, after all), and the song really helped that theme come to fruition. The lyric I italicized at the top really punctuates the idea that Donovan has brought harm to a number of people by lying to himself. He resents himself for that, and wants to make things right.

10 – “We’re In This Together” – Nine Inch Nails

Even after everything / You’re the queen and I’m the king / Nothing else means anything

The second entry by NIN on this list is also the heaviest. I chose this song because I think it reflects the chaos of Donovan’s struggle against Kale, a somewhat stoic secondary villain in TLM who is more a force of nature than a person. Donovan is driven by a singular purpose of protecting his wife in this scene, just as Kale is driven to inflict as much harm upon her as possible. As the song builds to a quiet conclusion, so does the conflict between these two enemies, leaving us with a distant tune that echoes Don’s—and Donna’s—relief.

11 – “One Particular Moment” – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

There’s a point near the end of the book where Donovan and Donna share a quiet, private moment together after being apart for several draining days. When I heard this instrumental track for the first time, I imagined it playing over that scene in which Donovan comforts his wife as she slowly drifts off to sleep. The scene is important because as Donovan comes to terms with the grim reality of what it is he must do. Like the scene, so does the instrumental itself, taking on a colder, more menacing tune as it nears its conclusion.

12 – “Stripsearch” – Faith No More

Give yourself away.

A few weeks before I completed TLM’s first draft, I was on my way home late one evening. It was dark, I had the windows down, and this song began to play on the stereo. At the time I was debating on how to start a particular scene, and the song, with its somewhat surreal moodiness, gave me an idea. The result is a similar scene: Donovan taking the back roads through the countryside toward the city to rescue his nephew. I even referenced this song by name all the way until the fifth draft, when Amelia talked me out of it. If I could go back to that final draft and change one thing, it would be to add this song title back into the text. Take that, Amelia. :-p

13 – “The Humbling River” – Puscifer

Angel, angel, what have I done? / I’ve faced the quakes, the wind, the fire / I’ve conquered country, crown, and throne / Why can’t I cross this river?

Every time I hear this song, I can see Donovan walking alone toward WBS Plaza at the end of TLM. Speaking personally, I think this song represents Donovan’s complete character arc—some of which you obviously wouldn’t know since I haven’t told you anything about book #3 just yet. But for the most part, there’s the idea that for as far as he’s traveled, there’s still something he hasn’t quite figured out how to overcome. From his delusions of happiness in ALT to his fear of facing the truth in TLM, no matter how far he progresses, he still can’t quite cross that river. Whether or not he will is something I’ll leave for everyone to discover in the final novel.

14 – “A Drowning” – How to Destroy Angels

Please, anyone / I don’t think I can save myself

This was the first HTDA song I ever heard, and I became obsessed with it. It’s a moody tune, for sure, and the first time I heard it, I thought of Donna waiting for her husband to return. I turned that into one of the final scenes of TLM. There’s a quiet resignation in Mariqueen’s voice, even though she’s pleading for help. When I think of Donna standing at that window, I see her with tears in her eyes, silently praying for Donovan to come back, but also trying to brace herself for the possibility that she may never see him again. I feel this song captures the tone of the novel’s conclusion, and if TLM were a movie, this would be what plays during the credits.

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And there you have it, friends. I hope you enjoyed the tunes, and found the insight into my creative process somewhat interesting. As this is part of the TLM Blog Tour, don’t forget to enter for the grand prize giveaway (widget to follow below). Stay tuned for the next stop on Monday with Kristen Tsetsi!

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