People often ask me about my writing routine, and, without hesitation, I always say what an important role music plays for me when I’m writing a book. But what I don’t often say, unless I’m pressed, is that I listen to the same song on repeat for the entirety of my work on a novel. This put my count for “Call Me On Your Way Back Home”—the Ryan Adams song I listened to while working on my first novel London is The Best City in America—slightly shy of the 9,000th play count.
I realize that sounds extreme. And, in fact, turning on “Call Me On Your Way Back Home” as I write this essay brings me back, with startling clarity, to the early fall of 2005, when I was living in a studio apartment in the East Village and walking to a coffee shop called 71 Irving every morning, trying to finish that first book. Not quite sure if it would ever see the light of day.
Now, having recently released my third novel, The First Husband, some of the details may be different—I live on the west side of Los Angeles, not too far from the beach, and the coffee shop I walk to is called Caffe Luxxe—but at the center of my every day routine is still music.
The First Husband focuses on the story of Annie Adams, a syndicated travel columnist who finds herself unmoored after getting married to a virtual stranger and ending up in his desolate hometown in western Massachusetts. While working on The First Husband, I picked music to accompany me that was loosely about travel—and, in fact, travel to somewhere you can’t plan for.
With The First Husband, for the first time I listened to two songs. (Let’s call this progress!) One of the songs is Death Cab For Cutie’s “Bixby Canyon Bridge” and the other is The Avett Brothers’ “If It’s the Beaches.” Recently, a reader asked me how I arrived at these songs, and the first words out of my mouth—even considering their underpinnings of travel and longing—were that I have no idea. They just felt right, I said.
But, as I thought more about it, I realized that while I may not be able to point to a moment when a certain song became “the song” of a novel or writing project, I thought I’d try to expand on the different ways music helps me both find and tell the story I’m trying to tell. To the extent that we all have soundtracks to our lives, listening to music over the course of working on a book gets me to a mental place where I find the soundtrack to the world of a story. I wrote the first 30 pages of The First Husband on the floor of my living room when I was supposed to be working on a different book. The other book—which took place in Big Sur, California—led me to “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” which I started listening to incessantly. The more I listened, the more a different story crystallized in my mind. The two books were similar in subject. But the music helped rough out the hard edges of my own judgment about what I was working on—and let me move down deeper into it from a different angle.
This is what music does for me, at it’s best: moves me into a more meditative state where the writing goes down easier. And while I’m a lyrics dork outside of my work life, while I’m writing, it is about the music itself—and a type of melody that is both comforting and inviting, and yet not distracting. A lot for one little song to manage. And yet, when I find it, that one little song provides me with a type of consistency that sees me through each day’s work. In fact, something clicks in for me when I sit down and turn on the music—which reminds me not only of where I finished with my writing the day before, but where I’m hoping to go.
The second benefit of having this type of singular soundtrack is that it helps me create both a consistent tone and heightened pacing. All three books take place over a short period—the first two taking place over two frenetic weekends. Writing to the rhythm of a given song allows me to play off its energy—and keep the movement in my book from ever faltering. With The First Husband, as an example, I needed Annie to fall head over heels with the man she would soon marry over the course of one evening. This was a piece of the book that I worked on for months. Having one song playing in the background as I revisited this series of scenes every day helped me find what I was ultimately hoping for: the type of quick and small rhythmic beats that add up to love.
So with all of the things that change in my writing life, the one thing I don’t anticipate changing is the important role music plays. Just last night, while speaking to a book club, one of their members said it was impossible to put down The First Husband. And she asked how I accomplished this. I tried to explain to her: It’s because the book takes place over one song.
“I don’t remember the song,” she said.
Which was when I told her this story.