The Big Rewind
Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Libby Cudmore writes about The Big Rewind from William Morrow.
I’ve always spoken in pop music. I failed French, but I can find a song that captures the essence of that late-night drive we took in 2005, where we counted churches and bars in every dingy small town we passed, or a tune that describes how it felt to wander around New York City after dark. So naturally, The Big Rewind started on my iPod, coming home on the bus from my job as a reporter for a community weekly.
So the first chapter came to me, and then the second, and then the book. I had a plot, I had characters, but I needed a heart. That, it seemed, would take some searching… and a serious playlist.
“Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me),” Steely Dan. Steely Dan is to my 30s what The Smiths were to my 20s. I feel every single song of theirs so intently, and this is easily in my top ten. When it was time to sit down and work, I put on this song and almost immediately, I was able to forget everything else that was going on. David Palmer’s voice was like mental yoga, stretching and soothing my brain until I could focus, zen-like, on the task at hand. He holds those end notes so beautifully; the song is deceptively simple and intimately complex. My writing song, I gave it the honor of being the title of my first chapter. Palmer is no Donald Fagen, and although I see the band every time they come to the Beacon Theater, I know they’ll never play the one I really want to hear.
“CBGBs,” Syd Straw. M. had an uncanny ability to pick songs that would resonate in the moment he gave me the mix, as well as songs that would hit years later with the same clarity, as though he had a crystal ball and knew what I would be doing ten years down the line, when I would need a song most. It was his enduring legacy, all that remains of what I still think may have been a quiet love affair. “CBGBs,” from a mix titled Songs for Smart Girls, was one of those songs. This was the song that sparked the book’s core concept, a mix tape with tracks picked in just such a way that they spelled out all the details of a love affair and, in this case, solved a murder.
M. and I had lunch a few years ago, an awkward meal where I sat wondering is this even the same man I loved when I was 22? But that’s the real crux of this book. People change, they evolve and shift and part of growing up is learning to deal with that, for good and for ill. It took me years to untangle the song from his memory, to enjoy it on its own merits.
“Searching For a Heart,” Warren Zevon. I’ve loved Warren Zevon since I was a child, but I discovered this song late in the game, as I was writing this book. The clichéd thing would be to make my protagonist, Jett Bennett, love The Smiths, because what hipster DOESN’T love The Smiths? But this song hit me as though it had been waiting all this time, as though it had been written for me.
I wrote this book for a boy I lost. That’s the truth of it. I shot off my stupid mouth and he left and for seven years I tried to find my way back to him the only way I knew how to — through music and writing. Rediscovering this song was a clue, a reminder that I was on the right path. “They say love conquers all/you can’t start it like a car/you can’t stop it with a gun.” If I could finish and sell this book, maybe he would see it in a bookstore and read it out of curiosity, then he would see how much I missed him. It was a long shot, I knew that. But it was the only arrow I had left.
And when I was sure I’d never finish the book, that I’d never find a way to say I was sorry, Zevon’s lyrics would spurn me on as though it was written just for me. “I’ve been searching high and low/trying to track you down/certain individuals have finally come around.” This was all the cosmic proof I needed to keep writing, to keep searching. I found the boy. And I finished the book.
“Miss Atomic Bomb,” The Killers. This book probably started when I heard The Killers perform this song on The Colbert Report. It was in that moment that I knew I had screwed up. It was in that moment that I knew I had to make things right. Not a single word had been written yet and wouldn’t be for another month at least. But this song was the first line on the sketch of this book’s map, even if I didn’t know it yet.
“Roxie,” Chicago. Every writer needs an anthem and this is mine. I played this when I got a rejection, when edits paralyzed me, when I got a less-than-stellar review and it picked me up every time. A girl I went to high school with once remarked that, “Libby walks around like she’s going to be someone,” which she meant as an insult. Confidence, especially in young women, is too often seen as vulgar, but I refused to let that definition dog me.