Sara Baume’s Playlist for Her Novel “Seven Steeples”

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In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Sara Baume grounds her fiction in nature as well as anyone writing today. Her novel Seven Steeples is subtle, lush, and unique, one of the year’s best books.

The Guardian wrote of the book:

“Haunting and dreamlike and wonderful to read…[Seven Steeples] powerfully recalls the middle act of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, that heart-stoppingly moving depiction of time passing through an empty house, of loss accumulating. Baume offers up an astonishing prose poem that keeps close religiously and lovingly to the physical throughout.”

In her own words, here is Sara Baume’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel Seven Steeples:

1. ’81 by Joanna Newsom

This song starts in the same way that my novel starts: a place is discovered, idealized, and claimed. I found a little plot of land in the Garden of Eden… Newsom sings in her creaturely voice, her harp plinking an accompaniment. The place she finds is not necessarily special…it was dirt and dirt is all the same…but it sparkles in her imagination. In Seven Steeples two misanthropes – Bell and Sigh – strike up an unlikely relationship and move away from the city where they live, along with their two dogs, in a conscious attempt to cut themselves off from the world of other people. The novel and the song both begin on a note of hope, but darken as they wear on and it becomes apparent that their respective Eden is also a refuge from loss.

2. Time on Her Side by Future Islands

The Far Field, in CD form, is an album that followed me through the years that I was writing Seven Steeples. When my partner and I first moved to the region where we live now we did a lot of driving around – playing music, exploring the coastline – and so for me these songs will always be emblematic of the red van we owned for seven years and that I immortalized in the novel. Time on Her Side starts and ends with the same two lines: The sea was large today / just as any other day. The CD has since succumbed to its many scratches and become indecipherable, but I find myself often repeating those lines to myself. No matter what is going on it reassures me to know that the sea is still there; that it is still unfathomably huge and I am completely insignificant.

3. Big Rock Candy Mountain by Harry McClintock

This is a folk song about a hobo who is heading off to a heavenly, mythical mountain so that he can live out his days beyond the reach of ordinary toil. On Big Rock Candy Mountain there is no wind and the trees grow cigarettes and alcohol flows from the streams…there’s a lake of stew / and of whiskey too. The place that Bell and Sigh move to is a remote farmhouse by the sea in the shadow of a small mountain. As soon as they meet the mountain they state an intention to climb it, but for seven years this intention remains unfulfilled, and during these years the mountain seems to swell and grow and take on a monumental significance.

4. On Battleship Hill by P J Harvey

Let England Shake was another album that lived in the red van during the era I was writing the novel. From what I’ve read I understand that the song is based in the trenches of Gallipoli during the First World War, and that the lyrics make reference to how herbs like thyme were used to mask the smell of the dead, but it’s the refrain that resonates with my novel: Cruel nature has won again. In Seven Steeples the natural world is to the fore; every small action is back-dropped by the weather and the seasons; by death and re-growth. Our changing climate was constantly on my mind while I was writing and over the course of its seven chapters I described a handful of severe storms, a prolonged drought and a big freeze, each of which leave an indelible mark on Bell and Sigh’s magnificent surroundings.

5. The Meaning of the Ritual by Villagers

This is a very beautiful, gentle song. For the most part the lyrics don’t make much sense to me, but the melody and the refrain – which is also the title – become strangely powerful as the music builds and gathers momentum, whilst also somehow remaining soft and imploring. In all of my books, but this novel in particular, I have set out to explore the daily observances that we invent for ourselves in the absence of organized religion. Bell and Sigh have myriad little ceremonies they perform; secular blessings and superstitious rituals. They build domestic shrines; they designate talismans. In one way these practices are benign and thoughtless, but in another they are full of light and dark and symbolism.

6. Red Cave by Yeasayer

This may seem like an odd choice in a list of songs to represent a novel that is essentially about a pair of melancholy recluses, but in spite of their secluded lifestyle, Bell and Sigh are not alone – they are, along with their dogs, a small family. “Red Cave” is, for me, at once both a celebratory and a bittersweet song. A group of singers chant in unison the same short chorus over and over, a chorus that includes the lines… I’m so blessed to have spent that time / with my family and the friends I love. It’s a song about how temporary life is, and the pleasure we take from it. I am frequently jealous of the people who write lyrics – of their ability to transmit strong feeling by way of rhythm; this is something that I have long been trying to achieve in prose. Seven Steeples is an allegory; the language is often repetitious and scriptural, and I would very much like for the novel as a whole to have the same kind of effect as if it were a bittersweet, celebratory song.

Sara Baume’s debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and second novel, A Line Made by Walking, have won and been nominated for numerous awards. She is a recipient of the Davy Byrnes Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Baume works as both a visual artist and a writer.

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