Eric Beetner is a frequent guest on this blog, and for good reason. Not only is he a great crime fiction writer, he’s very supportive of fellow writers. In fact, he co-founded Noir at the Bar Los Angeles along with Stephen Blackmoore and Aldo Calcagno and it’s become an enormous success–a place for crime writers at all stages in their careers to read their work for an enthusiastic audience.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Eric’s latest novel, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me. It’s about Lars, a mob hitman for a prominent East Coast crime family who finds himself put out to pasture when he’s been unable to kill Mitch-the-Snitch, an informant living in witness protection who has managed to elude him for the past seventeen years. Lars is given the task of training his own replacement, an arrogant young gun named Trent. It’s an uneasy relationship, to say the least, and when the hit on Mitch goes hopelessly awry, Lars finds himself in a new and precarious role: that of protector to Mitch’s teenage daughter Shaine.
Lars might be a little stuck in his ways, but it can’t be denied that he’s a consumate professional–he has definite opinions on how to do the job right. But his convictions don’t end with a hit, they extend to other areas of life, from love to exercise to music. And speaking of music, it plays a significant role in The Devil Doesn’t Want Me, so I asked Eric about it.
Eric Beetner: Music ends up being a fairly strong through-line in my new novel, The Devil Doesn’t Want Me. It opens with a chapter about a song on a jukebox and ends with a line from an AC/DC song. Honest to goodness, it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind as I was writing.
Using music as a way into character is not a new concept. I feel like it gets used much more in film than in novels, primarily because you can, y’know, hear the songs. If you introduce a character on screen with a shot of a Harley riding up, a close up of big black boots and the opening strains of Bad To The Bone, you know a hell of a lot about that character before you ever pan up to his face. Though if you do use George Thorogood in your movie my biggest takeaway will be that you are lazy. Music is a fast track to cliché-ville.
I used music to define a deep generational gap in my characters. Lars, the aging hit man in the book, is a classic rock purist. There are lines in the book touting the praises of hard rock classics like AC/DC and Motorhead, and trashing things like the Hagar-era Van Halen and Steely Dan. Compare that to Lars’ main rival in the book who listens to an iPod, dresses like a refugee from MTV and couldn’t name a Judas Priest song if his life depended on it.
Music then became a way to get to know Lars’ mental state too. We hear about what is playing in his head during certain scenes. Though I did have to cut some lyrics from Ace Of Spades because of copyright reasons. I was bummed.
Music can be an effective way to get to know a character since music is very personal. Every one of us identifies strongly with the music we like. It effects the way we dress, the way we spend our free time, how many tattoos we have. A guy who likes the Grateful Dead and a guy who like Norwegian death metal are already a long way to having their character’s defined for them simply based on the type of music they listen to. We assume things about people based on their music tastes in the real world, I assume we also do it to the same extent in books. Now, please take note that Lars’ musical tastes are not a reflection of my own. I’m not a classic rock guy, though the bands I did use in the book I am generally a fan of. Well, maybe not Judas Priest. Or Iron Maiden. But I do really hate Sammy Hagar and Steely Dan, does that count for something?
I’d love to see a day when books came with soundtrack albums. Not that I want people listening to music while they read. I can, and most often do, read in noisy places like restaurants. There is constantly music playing and I can tune it out easily enough. But if I put on something I like and want to hear my reading attention goes out the window.
I’m also not a music listener when I write. Can’t do it. Too distracting. I envy the people who can tune everything out to write. I think my relationship to music is just too intimate. Music has absolutely changed my life at different points. I played music for many years and have written dozens of songs. I like to really focus on music when I listen. I don’t like background music.
I do think if you’re going to write about music, it has to be something fairly universal. You want people to hear the song in their head as they read, not go look it up on iTunes and discover it’s some über-hip Japanese band I’m into. Believe me, I’ve got plenty of obscure hipster music I could name drop, but then my book wouldn’t be understood, readers would be pulled out of the story the same way if I referenced an obscure movie or other literary reference. But if you name check a band everyone is familiar with, they don’t even need to know the specific song, they get the vibe.
I bet there are no music references in Diary of Bedlam, huh? Kind of hard to bring up a song that is 400 years old that people can relate to. But you’ve written contemporary set stuff too. Have you ever used music to set a scene or define a character?
Holly: Thanks for tossing the question back to me, Eric. Diary of Bedlam actually does have a soundtrack. I downloaded an album of 17th century folk songs that I occasionally listened to while writing to get some atmosphere in my head. But mostly I like silence when I’m writing anything beyond the first draft. I’m just too easily distracted.
When I’m writing a first draft, however, I occasionally listen to something or have the TV on in the background (usually something silly and familiar, like I Love Lucy reruns). It’s still distracting, but I’m not working so hard at choosing precisely the right words. I’m just trying to get the story out and if I self-edit too much during that process I get stuck. So having something else going on keeps me on track somehow. During the first draft stage of writing, silence has a sort of paralyzing affect on me. Kind of weird, but there it is.
Many thanks to Eric for stopping by the blog. And if you’re looking for an absorbing read I can definitely recommend The Devil Doesn’t Want Me or any of Eric’s books. He wasn’t voted “Most Criminally Underrated Author” in the 2012 Stalker Awards for nothing.