Tom and Holly, Story and Song

Over on her site, Holly Phillips is discussing influences on her writing. She has a few things to say on the subject, but the main focus of her thinking on this occasion is Tom Waits’s amazing ability to draw the strange out of the everyday and overlooked.

In other words, he does what the magic realists do: distorts reality just enough that you have no choice but to see just how distorted your view of reality already is.

What a brilliant way of putting it. And, even if she doesn’t admit Waits’s influence as often as she should in interviews, I can 100% see that aspect of his influence in Holly’s writing. I bought her first collection, In The Palace Of Repose, at the 2006 World Fantasy Collection in Austin, and devoured most of it on the homebound flight. Delicate, allusionary, eliptical, heartfelt wonderful stories, every one. And strange, yes. Just enough strangeness to make you look hard at the world.

Me and Tom Waits? I’m not sure that I could list him as an influence. His tales of downbeat Americana, I’ve always viewed as exotica rather than something that connects with my heart and my way of creating. I do love his work, though (for the most part – well, does anyone love ALL of Waits’s work?).  And I especially love the way he creates stories, lives, worlds that leap to life in the listener’s imagination. I even love the Bastards disk in the Orphans set, the one that’s mostly rambling, diesel-drawly  spoken word stuff.

What surprises me a little is that, after citing this arch-storifier as an influence, Holly marks a clear distinction between song writing and story writing. Maybe it’s because I do both, and treat them as complementary activities, but I see them both simply as ways to tell stories. The stories are essentially the same, it’s just that the mechanism used to tell them is different. You choose the mechanism depending on the story. Some require a short and specified treatment, some require unpacking. Some automatically suggest music, or lines that can be repeated, chantlike, as a chorus. Others require richer, denser language. Sometimes you can take the same idea and try it both as a story and a song. Sometimes you just have to write a goddam musical.

What *is* music after all, but a complementary language?

Anyway, good news abounds. After two months of appreciating Bad As Me by osmosis (I always have to new Waits albums make their approach to me, never the other way around), I’ve finally decided that it’s right up there with his best. Even better, Prime Books are going to bringing out a new Holly Phillips collection later this year.

These things make the world a better place.

2 thoughts on “Tom and Holly, Story and Song

  1. HP: Probably too many influences to name. I find music utterly mysterious for the way it can create such powerful emotional effects with nothing but sounds. It’s as if notes, rhythms, harmonies sneak into the mind through a back door, carrying a kind of meaning that bypasses the intellect entirely. I’m always trying to achieve that kind of effect with my writing. Come to think of it, that’s probably why I’m so obsessed with the sound and rhythm of the words I use. And of course anything that sets me dreaming—or daydreaming—can inspire a story. But I play music because when I play with my trio the creative process is shared, and so is the result: the very opposite of the writer’s solitary experience.

    1. Just discovered this message in the nasty old Spam filter, so sorry for not replying earlier.

      That’s an interesting interpretation of music. I sort know what you mean, but for me music is more like a different language and I think I treat it in much the same way as I do when I’m writing English. Yep, sounds, rhythms, cadences are all important to me too.

      >But I play music because when I play with my trio the creative process is shared, and so is the result: the very opposite of the writer’s solitary experience.

      Yes, that’s true, and it’s a proper instinctual collaboration – not like a writing collaboration where you’re taking turn about and constantly revising and overwriting each other, but actually combining in the moment to make something that none of you could make on their own. Totally agree with that.

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