Photo credit: Chloe Aftel
Lincoln in the Bardo
is set in a graveyard on a single night in February 1862. Years ago I heard the story: Lincoln was supposedly so grief-stricken at the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, that he went to the graveyard and, per the newspapers of the time, held the body.
I heard about this in around 1992 but could never figure out how to start. Then one day I was driving through the Berkshires and listening to Philip Glass
— I think it was his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
— and an image flashed into my mind of the graveyard, arranged as a theater set. So this was both good and bad — it gave me a push forward, but it gave me a push forward into writing a play, which I did for the next seven years or so, off and on, but which never really worked. But it’s funny how sometimes a piece of music just conveys something — a tone or stance or mindset. That was the case here. That physical layout of the graveyard — which popped into my head because of the Glass music — stayed with me through to the end, pretty much.
So about four years ago I figured out a way to do the story as a novel, and honestly, just about every piece of music that affected me over those four years did so because it somehow “reminded” me of the book — or gave me a little bit of new aspiration re the many possibilities of beauty, or expanded my notion of emotion-through-complexity.
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I’m not a person who listens to music while writing, but in the last throes of writing this book, I sometimes found myself, while on a break, listening to a handful of songs on repeat, mainly to try and viscerally remind myself of what intensity felt like and to quite literally re-energize myself. I had read the book so many times and was trying to keep my attention high and my intention pure and found that listening to certain songs helped me remember. Basically I was trying to tap into other people’s creative energy and, in this way, raise my own bar, so to speak.
So I’d come into the house from this little shed where I work and put on some combination of the following:
“Via Chicago” by Wilco
. I’m a big fan of Wilco’s and wrote about their “One Sunday Morning” in the New York Times Magazine
last year. I heard them at the Greek in Los Angeles and this song stood out for me. There is something about that guitar solo, which is nicely distorted and is getting Bigsbyed slightly off-pitch, that embodied what I was trying to do in the book — make something highly melodic but sort of over-intense and overflowing its own banks.
“Jumpers” by Sleater-Kinney
. Ditto. There is so much emotion in this piece and the whole album (The Woods
), and somehow the wild energy is combined with a sort of laconicism that never fails to move me. I heard the band at The New Yorker Fest last year and what really struck me was the way that these witty, articulate, somewhat reserved people meld into a wildness machine when they play — there's so much love and death in their music. And joy. Mostly joy. Very sophisticated, unbound joy.
But I also found it helpful or essential to keep in mind certain romantic ideas I have about 19th-century pastoral America — that sort of August-morning, flag-draped white porch feeling (if you know what I mean, ha ha). So I’d mix in “Appalachia Waltz
” and “First Impressions
” by Yo-Yo Ma
, Edgar Meyer
, and Mark O’Connor
, and the “Lincoln Portrait
” by Aaron Copland
(I have the version narrated by Gregory Peck, which is very good).
Other general “intensity raisers” were anything by Jimi Hendrix
(especially “Red House”
) and all of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue
(which reminds me that intensity doesn’t have to be wild-assed but is always associated with close attention to whatever one is doing and the belief that everything
can be contained in one simple endeavor). Also “Century Rolls”
by John Adams
, OK Computer
, just about anything by Elliot Smith
or Jason Isbell
, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
,” Al Green’s Greatest Hits
for levity and ease.
My wife and I saw two John Adams operas while I was writing the book — Nixon in China
and Doctor Atomic
— and they were very moving and inspiring in their scope and ambition and the sneaky way they moved you. I'm also always going back to Shostakovich’s String Quarter No. 8 in C Minor
, reputedly a raised middle finger to the Stalinist purges. Brave dude, Dmitri. This is also a great model of what efficiency sounds like — not a wasted or extraneous note — the piece seems to want to get where it’s going as quickly as it can, almost as if it’s in pain. I liked that idea for this book too.
In the summer after I had just finished the last edits, my wife and I went to some good concerts, and so I think I’ll likely associate the music we heard there with the book as well, especially Bach’s Mass in B Minor
(which we heard at the Carmel Bach Festival this summer, twice) and also John Corigliano’s
amazing First Symphony
, which we heard at the Cabrillo Music Festival.
I love music a lot and play it badly — but it works for me as a sort of shadow-art. Though I can’t imagine making great music, I can hear greatness when it’s there. Then I try to construct, by extension, a parallel beauty in prose.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December
, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection). He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time
magazine. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Syracuse University. Lincoln in the Bardo
is his first novel.