I doubt that Joshua Bell, when he laid bow to string to perform his stunning violin part on the song "Short Trip Home," had any thoughts of an orphaned Depression-era prodigy playing in the lobby of a grand hotel, accompanied on piano by an evil man wearing a bowler hat. Such is the phantom world of inspiration: it's a personal thing, a matter of mood and moments.
Bell's song, the title track from his excellent album with Edgar Meyer, had a way of putting me in a storytelling mood, so much so that I'd often listen to it before writing, but I never expected I'd extract an entire novel from a strings piece that comes in at just under four minutes in length. It was a beautiful song, that was all, and I appreciated it for that.
The thing about an instrumental piece is that there are no lyrics to provide meaning; it's up to you to handle that, up to your imagination. "Short Trip Home," a melody inspired by early American folk music, was one that caught my imagination. It needed a story, I thought, and so — idly and without any conscious thought of a novel — I gave it one. I hit upon the image of a young boy in tattered clothes, playing an elegy for lost parents. I knew where he was playing: the West Baden Springs Hotel, once one of the world's renowned resorts, until the Depression came along and cleared out the high-rolling crowd. I knew why he was playing: for coins, and at the behest of a menacing man. That was all I had, but the image was vivid, and with it came questions: who was the boy, who was the man, how had the two fallen in together, and what would become of them?
It's from such questions that stories are born, at least in my experience, and it was from those questions that So Cold the River came into existence. For years I'd wanted to write a story set in the Springs Valley region of southwestern Indiana; the incredible hotels, the area's bizarre mineral water, and the guests who had passed through — from Al Capone and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bing Crosby and Joe Louis — combined to offer an incredibly rich backdrop. I just couldn't come up with that tiny element of a novel that we in the business like to call plot. I've been told it's fairly critical.
Those few minutes of beautiful strings work on "Short Trip Home" provided the plot, first through the image, then through the questions that accompanied it. The circumstances seemed to call for a historical novel, but I was struck by the vividness with which I saw the scene, and hoped that readers might be also if it were presented as a vision from the past, a narrative within a narrative. A ghost story would capture the eerie qualities I'd always felt in the Springs Valley region, and it would allow me to wed two different eras in an organic fashion. It was worth a try, at least. I decided I'd write a bit and see how it felt…
Five hundred pages and a couple years later, I can say that it feels pretty great — I love this book, and I've never had such fun writing. I hope you'll have a chance to give it a look, and I also hope you'll have a chance to hear "Short Trip Home." Close your eyes and listen and tell me if you can picture the boy in the tattered clothing and the menacing man in the bowler hat. I know I can.