Research Notes · 10/25/2019

There You Are

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Mathea Morais writes about There You Are from Amberjack Publishing.

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Oddly, when I started to write There You Are — which was originally titled Rahsaan’s Records until the publisher decided it needed to be something else, I didn’t have a soundtrack already made up. Every other time I’d attempted to write a novel, I had to have headphones on, had to have a soundtrack set up and playing, in order to sit down and write. I’ve thought about this a lot — why I didn’t have a prerecorded soundtrack to write a novel that, at its core, is about how important our connection to music can be in connecting to each other. I’m still not sure about the answer, but I think that it has something to do with how music became an actual character itself forced so many songs in my head as I wrote that I no longer needed headphones.

Growing up, I was a mix tape junkie. As a very small person I recorded songs off the radio. I can still hear Casey Kasem’s voice come in at the end of songs where I hadn’t been able to cut the recording off in time. As I got older, I made them for my friends, for my crushes, for my parents, for myself. If I was just messing around, I’d use a cheap TDK tape or record over something else, but if I was serious about the mix (or about the person I was giving it to) nothing except a Maxell XL II High Bias 90 minute cassette tape would do. I had special pens that could write on the tape cover and not smear. But that was the easy part. The hard part came when I had to choose which song to go first, which one to follow. Should Side A be different in theme than Side B or should they blend together? How should it end?

Somewhere during the writing of the second or third draft of my book I decided I had to title each section with the name of a song and that each chapter would then become part of a mix tape, not a playlist, a mix tape.

But this idea was much more complicated than it seemed. As I endeavored to create these mix tapes out of my book, I found myself in the same place as I’d been back in the day. Each chapter had songs in it somewhere, or referenced at least a few artists. But which song should I choose? Should it be one that was named directly in the chapter, or one by an artist that is simply mentioned? And more importantly, did the song reflect the chapter? It had to work in title, tone, and topic — and this was sometimes nearly impossible. I couldn’t necessarily use a Beastie Boys song to name a chapter where the characters were having sex (well…maybe), but I could definitely use it in a chapter where a fight broke out.

Like the mix tape, the even harder part came when the songs were put together. Not only did they have to be referenced in the chapter and make sense as a title for that chapter, but they also had to move from one to another and not make the listener sit up and say, “what the hell?” I must have listened to Ella Fitzgerald’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” followed by Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” fifty times before I decided that yes, even though it may be weird, the songs moved well from one to the other. I also really struggled with the transition between Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause” (which was a hard choice over “Miuzi Weights a Ton”) to “If Not Now” by Tracy Chapman. I’m not sure there are two songs that seem less destined to be next to one another. However, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was released less than a year before Tracy Chapman’s first album and so there’s something very real about them being sequenced that way.

Every good mix tape has a good title, but once these were finished I couldn’t decide what to call them. The book moves back and forth from 2014 to a section that takes place in the 80s, a section that takes place in the 90s and a section that takes place in the early 2000s. Each section does reflect a decade and I did want the readers to know what decade they were in but I didn’t want to confuse them. The 90s mix tape includes songs like Janis Joplin’s “Little Girl Blue” which is clearly not a 90s song. I decided that readers could probably understand this and went ahead and titled them each The 80s (90s, 00s): A Mix Tape and hoped for best.

While the multitude of songs in my head didn’t allow me to listen to music as I wrote, one of the most beautiful things about writing the book for me was the amount of music I had to listen to and relisten to in order to get these mix tapes put together. I wanted so badly to include Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” because what song has a better title than that? But in the end I knew that chapter had to be called to “Self-Portrait in Three Colours” because that felt much more like what was happening in the story at that time — and it’s still an amazing title. I’m not sure I ever would have learned the soft nuances of both of those songs if hadn’t listened to them that many times over.

The mix tapes changed countless times, but in the end, like real mix tapes, I had to commit to each song, to each title, to each transition. They are certainly not like any other mix time I might have made. But then this is music tied to a story, this is music that is the story itself.

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Listen to the mix tapes on Spotify:

There You Are — The 80s: A Mix Tape

There You Are — The 90s: A Mix Tape

There You Are — The 00s: A Mix Tape

All Mix Tapes Together

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Mathea Morais grew up in St. Louis and earned a degree in Literature from NYU. She began her career writing about hip hop culture and music for The Source and Trace Urban Magazine. Her work has gone on to appear in The New Engagement, Slush Pile Magazine, Arts & Ideas, and Anti-Heroin Chic. She is the Director of the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard and has taught creative writing to children and young adults for over fifteen years. She lives with her husband, her three daughters, and a beloved dog.