Writer in Residence

Some of the Best Books I Ever Read Weren't Books at All

By Andrew Forbes

I am on the record—somewhere, or perhaps multiple somewheres—as having said that one of the stories in my first collection, What You Need, represented an effort on my part to capture the feel of a Neko Case song.

Well, insofar as I understand blogging, I gather there's supposed to be a confessional aspect or tone to it. So here's one: I routinely steal material from music. Like, all the time. Sometimes it's an image or a feeling or the bones of a story; sometimes I peel line fragments off verses and drop them into a story (and no, I won't tell you which ones, or where they appear).

I get ideas from other books and stories, too, and this all seems consistent to me. Influence is a muddle, and ideas are ideas. I can think of a good number of songwriters who do what they do so well that it seems to me they share an occupation with writers whose medium is paper, not sound. It first hit me young, when I realized that the Public Enemy lyrics I was memorizing were basically poetry. And then there were the overtly poetic lyricists, like Patti Smith, and, I suspected, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, though who could figure out just what he was saying?

I've come to reason since that the formal constraints of songwriting make it the kissing cousin of both poetry and short fiction. Where Chuck D, and Smith, and Q-Tip, and Stipe used wordplay in a manner that tied them to poets, songwriters like Case, or the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle, or John Prine, whose interests tend more toward character and consequence, were often crafting short fiction set to music. “I am an old woman,” sings Prine in the opening to “Angel of Montgomery,” and by the time he, as that old woman, is lamenting the cowboy she'd had as a young woman (“he wasn't much to look at / just a free-rambling man”), you're in the midst of a story more rich and detailed than half of what passes for literature, even if Prine's tale is sparingly told.

Willy Vlautin is four novels into his literary career, but before that came music. He's headed up Richmond Fontaine, an alt.country band based in Portland, Oregon, for twenty-some-odd years. Vlautin's an extreme example of the fluidity of the media here discussed – there's some measure of crossover of characters and settings between his songs and his books (John Darnielle, too, is now a novelist, though as far as I can tell his characters remain segregated within their respective forms). Richmond Fontaine's latest, and apparently final album, is the recently released You Can't Go Back if There's Nothing to Go Back To, and I think it's the best book of short fiction I've read this year.

“I Got Off the Bus,” “Let's Hit One More Place,” and “Don't Skip Out On Me” read more like remorseful Denis Johnson stories than tear-jerk ditties. Matters kind of culminate with the psych-country dirge “A Night in the City,” which details a shift-worker's resigned and heartless overnight bender. By the time the nameless narrator hauls himself into work the next morning while savouring an existential pickle – “Is this all there is? Is this what life is?” – you're tasting the brine of emotions more commonly aroused by serious literature than by Western shirt-wearing guitar pickers, a suite of sensations that you recognize as real because they're too close to the bone to come off as mere entertainment. As I careen down the 401 at a hundred and twenty km/h, warbling along with Vlautin and company, I'm reminded that a bunch of my favourite writers haven't been writers at all, but musicians, their tales arguably more effective for being set to melody, since you can't really sing Flannery O'Connor in the shower.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.


Andrew Forbes’s work has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. He is the author of What You Need, a collection of fiction, and The Utility of Boredom: Baseball Essays. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.