Music as Inspiration

When I write a novel, or basically anything, I keep the volume around me at zero. Or at least at white noise, like the dull roar in a cafe. If I’m home though, there is no music that I listen to when I write. When I get asked that question, I just answer honestly: I get distracted by almost any music. I have to get in the zone. The quite zone.

However, when I had finished my first novel, Benevolent, and was looking for other bloggers to host my virtual book tour, I came across a blogger who specifically wrote about books and music. One of her features is hosting writers with playlists that are inspired by their books, or at least the writing of those books. Of course I said I would do it, and I loved the process of putting together that playlist. I was inspired by the characters in that first book, and a little bit the story.

At the moment, I am a writer in residence, for the week. You don’t even understand! (Or maybe you do.) I have been dreaming of a writing residency since I was a kid. I am sitting in an historical home, in a small, upstairs, corner room, with the door locked and the window thrown open to the approaching thunder. My project this week is another novel, The Family Elephant’s Jewels. So, why am I writing a blog post when my project is a novel? Because I am taking a break and I thought I would go ahead and press play on–perhaps you guessed it–the playlist that I had (already, before the residency) made for this novel.

Earlier, when I was stuck in the section of the book about Emma, I just played a bit of her song, and darned if it didn’t work. I got into her head and figured out the scene.

So this is really just a quick post (much of it is cut and pasted) to tell you that writing residencies are awesome, and also to immortalize the two playlists that I have come up with in my career so far. (The middle novel, The Night of One Hundred Thieves, did not lend itself to a playlist, being a medieval fantasy novel.)



Since Gaby’s usually buried beneath a tower of library books in the sickening glow of her word processor screen, she leaves the music selection to best friend Mikhail. He’s the music expert. That’s how they met, you know, at John’s Punkstraviganza, with Wally’s Toothbrush, The Hired Assassins, and Strike Back. So let’s rewind to the day Gaby asked Mikhail at Purple Monkey Record Shop to pick out an album for her, and he started her collection with The Beatles’ Abbey Road.

Shortly after that day, Mikhail came up with a mix tape and left it sitting on Gaby’s driver’s seat when they got out in the Butter High School parking lot, one morning. When he loped out to the car several hours later, Gaby had the engine going and her head was leaned back against the head rest, The Raincoats reverberating around the car’s interior.


  • “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” The Clash
  • “Lola,” The Raincoats
  • “Woo Hoo,” The’s
  • “Better Man,” Pearl Jam
  • “No Fun,” The Stooges
  • “Tonight,” The Go-Go’s
  • “One Way or Another,” Blondie
  • “Here Comes the Sun,” The Beatles
  • “Could You Be the One?” Husker Du
  • “The Goonies Are Good Enough,” Cyndi Lauper
  • “She,” Green Day
  • “Freak Scene,” Dinosaur Jr.
  • “Bombshell,” Operation Ivy

The tape got a lot of play before the ribbon snapped in 2006. Gaby’s tape player was on its last leg, anyhow.

Excerpt from the Book:

Mikhail wandered into Violet Monkey, a record shop on the main stretch of Butter. Violet Monkey housed an extensive (and tightly packed) selection of new, underground material and dusty, old faves. It was equipped with three racks of great T-shirts (Johnny Cash, The Pixies, Violent Femmes, and Bob Marley) and a display case of not-for-sale merchandise: original Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Ramones. Over these Mikhail drooled (on multiple occasions, with and without accomplices) from behind the counter.

Mikhail buried his hands in the front pockets of his navy zip-up hoodie, adjusted his eyes to the dark, den-ness of the store. The light that filtered in through the glass doors accented a wall of flying dust with gold sunlight and then spilled on the first display. Everything else was dim, smelled of attics and old trunks and abused carpet. In a weak attempt to unify the smell, a stick of incense trailed its tendril of smoke, suffocating the store in sandalwood. A man stood behind the glass counter (covered with stickers and taped-on fliers and paper fragments: “My Other Ride is Your Mom” and “Goonies Never Say Die!”), arms shooting down straight in front of him and his palms pressed against the streaked top. He turned toward Mikhail as the hanging doorbell dinged and clattered against the glass. Then looked uninterested; adjusted his focus outside.

Mikhail dodged into the back of the shop, started leafing through thousands of filed vinyl albums, then slunk his way to the CD section. There was a proto-punk band, one of the forefathers of all later punk bands. Mikhail wanted their debut album, and he wanted it bad. He mentioned it in passing to both his mother and Gaby when his birthday approached, but they both later complained that the album was nowhere to be found. He figured they hadn’t wandered in here.

After a thorough search of the vinyl titles in even the sections that were very unlikely, even outrageous, for the album to be filed in, he resolved himself to the CD section. Still nothing. So Mikhail wandered back out of the shop, grabbed a couple fliers from the table by the door, squinted in the sun. There in his hands: ads for the upcoming rock shows, punk shows, ska shows, and a flier for Violet Monkey. Near the bottom of the Violet Monkey flier: “We will order any album or CD for you, if we can find it, no matter how obscure.”

That was it then. All Mikhail had to do was turn around, walk right up to the counter through the wall of golden dust particles and sandalwood smoke, and ask George or Joe or Mike or whomever to look for that album. He knew that they would probably be able to find it for him. But here’s the thing: Mikhail stood there, stared down at the ad, shrugged his shoulders, and stuffed the fliers in his satchel. Then he walked down the road, mounted his bike, pedaled away toward Gaby’s.

A ritual had begun. Mikhail repeated it maybe once a week, often more. He wandered into Violet Monkey, leafed through the obvious sections, then the not-so-obvious ones, in search of the holy grail of Mikhail’s current album collection. He eventually gave up and pedaled home smelling of patchouli, mildew, lavender char.

After a few weeks, George or Joe or Mike or whomever—whose name actually was George—started keeping his eyes on Mikhail, afraid he was one of the kids lifting records from the shelves. George hovered over Mikhail during Mikhail’s ritual, pretending to dust the shelves (an obvious cover and a laughing matter), to re-organize the alphabetical order, to check inventory of necessary albums. When George became convinced Mikhail was a harmless kid, George still continued his farce, peeking over Mikhail’s shoulder to see where he was looking, what he was picking up. It became a game for George, and he would say to his friends later, “I think it’s Pink Floyd’s The Wall,” and the next day, “No, no, no. I was way off. It’s the early The Clash single. I just know it.” And if George didn’t have what he guessed Mikhail was looking for, George ordered it and stocked it; watched to see if the fish bit. George would even play the album in question afternoon after afternoon until Mikhail wandered in, watching the expression on Mikhail’s face as he entered.

This became such a sport for George that it didn’t really matter if he made a sale, as long as he guessed it right. Mikhail noticed George hanging around, figured he was creepy or lonely, and resented his shoulder being looked over. The one thing Mikhail never did: say a word in Violet Monkey.

Eight months into the silent dance of Mikhail and George, Gaby, Mikhail and Melodie were walking downtown Butter, looking for a place to eat, a used book for Gaby, and a place to loiter. Melodie turned as they passed Violet Monkey, pressed her nose to the window. “Hey, let’s go in here!”

“No…” Mikhail stuttered.

“Yeah. It looks cool. C’mon.” She opened the door with a loud tinkling and clanging of bell on glass. “Gaby?”

“Sure. C’mon Mikhail.”

The store transformed. Smoke parted around waving, long, thin arms, the dimness scattered by lighted eyes and flashes of skin, the still of Violet Monkey went hiding: Gaby and Melodie chatted, cursed, yelled, laughed as they made their way from the front of the store slowly to the back.

Mikhail scooted away, made his way back to his usual section, dodging George’s look of desire and disbelief. (George stayed firmly planted behind the counter this crazy afternoon.) Mikhail began leafing through the records, looking for the usual.
“What’re you looking for?” Gaby’s head appeared over his shoulder, her chin resting on his collar bone.

“A record. It’s called The Stooges, by The Stooges. But they don’t have it. I already looked.”

“Oh.” She reached out her arm around Mikhail to flip through the albums herself, then stepped beside him.

“What’re you looking for?” he asked.

“Nothing particular. You know, just lookin’. This place is pretty cool, huh?” She pulled a few records at random to examine. “Anything you recommend?”

“Ummm. Give me a minute.” Mikhail bit his lip and strode to the back of the shop, his eyes narrowed over the stacks. Gaby wandered the shop, making offhanded remarks to Melodie over The Beastie Boys.

Melodie purchased a T-shirt while Gaby fidgeted by the counter, leafing through the fliers scattered about. Then Melodie exited to the ice cream shop, yelled that she would meet Gaby and Mikhail there when they were done.

“Find anything for me yet?” Gaby popped into Mikhail’s personal space again, barely touching his left thigh with her right hip.

“Yeah, I think I did.” Mikhail weighed a record each in his two hands, then slid one back where it went in the stacks. “Here!” He turned and handed her a record.

“The Beatles. Abbey Road. You think I’ll like it?” She took it in her hands, held it against her waist.

“Yup. But that’s only the beginning.”

“Okay, deal. But I have something for you too.” She handed him a flier and pointed to the bottom. “Here. It says that you can order any album that our man George can find.”

“Who’s George?” Mikhail furrowed his brow down at the paper.

“Guy behind the counter. Just talked to him. Let’s go order your CD or whatever.”

And they did, just like that: approached the counter, made their request to George, filled out a form, and got a “great album!” from George. Mikhail stopped in daily, afterwards, to see if it had been found, then if it had been shipped, then if it had been received. When it was in his hands, he thanked George and disappeared from Violet Monkey for two weeks before returning to browse the shop with Gaby. George’s game was over.


DRAFT COVER FRONT ONLYGray Family Song Playlist

  • Feeling Good, Nina Simone (Gemma)
  • London Calling, The Clash (John)
  • “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” Cream (John)
  • “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Johnny Cash (Mica)
  • “Too Young to Die,” Agent Orange (Jade)
  • “Leave,” Glen Hansard (Opal)
  • “Bouncing Around the Room,” Lawn Boy (Ruby)
  • “On My Own,” Original London Cast of Les Miserables (Di)
  • “Shiny Happy People,” R.E.M. (Em)
  • “Moon River,” Audrey Hepburn (Pearl)
  • Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor Every Night?,” Lonnie Donegun (family)
  • “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” Dean Martin (John)
  • “The Circle Game,” Joni Mitchell (Gemma)

Joan Jett Bonuses:

  • “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” (Opal)
  • “Crimson and CLover,” (Ruby)
  • “Louie Louie,” (John)
  • “Real Wild Child,” (Jade)

What the Book is About:

Whose secrets could undo you?

The Family Elephant’s Jewels is a literary novel about secrets, family, and love.

John was once a young, superstitious literature professor meeting the fiery love of his life, Gemma. Now he’s an aged, superstitious literature professor dealing with the sudden death of the grossly obese, shop-o-holic love of his life, Gemma. As their seven surviving kids make their way back to their East coast home for the funeral, they each uncover a secret about Gemma, and in so doing unhinge something in themselves.


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