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Crossing Over 

Algonquin Books' new reading series brings together music and fiction writing

The most gifted artists are often the ones who color outside the lines. So why should we expect forms of artistic expression like the novel and musical composition to remain clearly delineated and separate from one another? Granted, there are conventions to be followed, mainly because they help us--the readers and listeners--to understand the context and delivery of a piece. But surely there's room for some overlapping between these two art forms?

As a fan of both music and literature, Algonquin Books' Craig Popelars was interested in this overlap. Realizing the potential to unite writers and musicians, Popelars has helped put together a series of special appearances that are part author's reading, part musical performance.

Algonquin now has several such collaborations in the works. One of their best-known authors, Larry Brown, recently paired up with Austin-based musician Alejandro Escovedo (the two had developed a mutual admiration society) to deliver a series of readings with musical accompaniment. These dual in-store appearances proved so popular that Algonquin has expanded the idea, setting up similar pairings with some of their other authors who have strong connections with music or specific musicians. Other publishers and publications are starting to jump on the bandwagon after seeing how effective this method of presenting new fiction can be at helping both the authors and songwriters reach new audiences.

For Algonquin's Silas House, author of the critically acclaimed new novel, Clay's Quilt, the timing for this collaboration couldn't be better. House will be joined by local fiddler Caitlin Cary--known for her work in Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas--for his upcoming reading at the Regulator in Durham. While House is now seen as a rising star of the Southern literary scene, he's always been an unabashed music fiend. In fact, he recently interviewed singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams for the current issue of No Depression magazine, which is co-sponsoring House's Durham reading with Algonquin and Yep Roc Records. Williams, in turn, has promised to support House on some of his fall book tour dates.

This passion for music pervades Clay's Quilt, where specific songs, and music-making, weave in and out of the characters' lives. The story follows a year in the life of East Kentucky coal miner Clay Sizemore, an adult orphan still feeling the violent loss of his mother. Clay's described as a great weekend partier, music lover and "pretty decent human being." We're also introduced to Clay's inner circle: Aunt Easter, his evangelical, psychic aunt; Cake, his "good ol' boy" best friend, and Marguerite, Cake's classical music-loving mother. Finally, there's Alma, a soft-spoken fiddler whose passion and playing make Clay take notice and quickly fall in love. In fact, it's Lucinda Williams' song "Sweet Old World" that serves as the thread that initially ties Clay and Alma together.

House's debut novel is an example of how an author can use music to expand, enrich, or just help tell a story. Throughout the novel, characters are making music, or popular music is being referenced. He often uses familiar songs to create a backdrop for scenes, expounding on the power of music to enrich his narrative.

"Songs trigger memory more than anything," House said in a recent phone interview. "They establish an instant connection for the readers--you often can't remember a specific event without thinking of the music you were listening to at the time." House cites several examples from his books. "There's the scene with Cake and Clay riding around, smoking pot and listening to Tom Petty; or even the first scene, the snow scene, with the car of people driving along singing 'Me & Bobby McGee.' You know those songs. The music helps the reader to truly picture the scene."

Music was also a facet of everyday life for Silas House while growing up in the small East Kentucky town of Lily (population 800, where he still lives and carries the daily mail). "I grew up with music," House says. "There were always banjos at family gatherings--I listened to it partying with friends. There was just always music around." House admits that because of his background, music is something he's come to take for granted as a vital part of his life, not just a "take it or leave it" embellishment. According to the author, he never writes without first putting music on, and he considers it a part of his method. "It seeps into my writing as I work," House says. "It establishes my pace, and I find that as it picks up--my writing picks up."

Since the music he listens to tends to find its way into his work, House is careful about what he chooses. His "writing music" must fit with the setting of the fiction he is currently working on, both in character and time period. Currently at work on his next novel, set in 1912 in the same small Kentucky town as Clay's Quilt, House has been researching the music that was contemporary to that era, acquiring copies to listen to while writing.

Fiddler Cary, who will be performing with House at the upcoming event at Durham's Regulator Bookshop, understands the fiction-music connection firsthand. Having originally moved to North Carolina to pursue a master's degree in writing, Cary found herself being pulled away from fiction writing when her former band, Whiskeytown, became a full-time profession.

"For me, fiction is intrinsically linked to music. Everything that I learned from writing and from studying about writing contributes to my music," she says. "I remember when a particular piece of music that I heard during a notable time could, when heard again, evoke a visceral memory of the setting, the feelings, the people that were around me, on my first, or 100th, hearing."

By sharing common points of reference, these authors, writers and musicians seem to share a similar means of expression. It's probably more than a coincidence that the artists involved in these recent collaborations have been those popularly known as roots, alt-country or folk artists. No Depression magazine, which is devoted to covering much of the music that falls into the Americana or "twang" categories, has long been aware of this shared understanding. "There just seems to be a kind of complementary aesthetic going on here between the roots music of many artists we cover and the folk-minded writing of many Southern fiction writers," says No Depression editor Peter Blackstock.

"We tend to concern ourselves with real, plain, everyday characters, and with plain, everyday occurrences and feelings," Cary adds. "I think you could say that roots music as a whole has a lot in common with Southern fiction, not because they necessarily concern themselves with the South or with country people or country music, but because they draw on old-fashioned means of expression."

House counters that despite the "roots" tag, he considers himself and the people he writes about to be "Appalachians"--passionate people, he says, to whom making music comes naturally. "Music is the ultimate expression of passion," House says. "When your emotions reach a certain level, you have to sing it--just like in a musical. Great music and high emotions--it's hard to separate strong feelings."

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