The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is NYT bestselling ghostwriter and novelist-in-his-own-right Daniel Paisner @DanielPaisner
Soundtrack by James McMurtry
Confession: I listen to the Spa channel on Sirius when I’m writing. Like, a lot. In my defense, I don’t actually ‘own’ any of this music, and I’m not really ‘listening’ to it. It’s just on, like white noise, a little something to fill the space between exasperated sighs. I’ve tried listening to jazz, or symphonic music, or even piano sonatas, but when there’s a mood to a piece it messes me up. I hate it when some long-dead composer’s sense of bombast or melancholy seeps into my work, so this New Age pap is just the thing. (Plus, sometimes there are zithers!)
Mostly it’s the lyrics that get in the way. I need music to fill the room, but there’s no room in my head for the words – not when I’m working on a piece of my own. That’s not always the case. You see, I make most of my living writing other people’s stories.
I’m a ghostwriter, by principle trade. I work with actors, athletes, politicians and assorted colourful or celebrated characters and help them craft their autobiographies or their 15-minutes-of-fame tomes, and when I’m collaborating on one of these assignments I can listen to pretty much anything. Classic rock, mostly. Loud. Since I’ve got the satellite radio set up in my office, that lately means Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel. Are you hip to this channel? Here, I’ve got it on now as I write this: Chocolate Watchband’s Let’s Talk About The Girls into Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie into Social Distortion’s Ball and Chain. Lots of surprises here, always, and some of the jocks dig deep into liner notes and back-story, so there’s good context too, and when I’m rendering a life story that’s already been lived by someone else I can absorb these distractions.
A book of my own
But it’s when I’m not writing somebody else’s memoirs that the music starts to matter, and it’s when I’m not sitting at my desk that I’m doing most of my own work. For example, I’ve got a book coming out called A Single Happened Thing, from a terrific indie press called Relegation Books (‘craft publishing at its finest’), and that sucker was gestating for a long, long while before I actually rolled up my sleeves and started writing. During that long, long while I listened to a lot of singer-songwriter types – alt rockers and folk rockers, troubadours and hillbillies. James McMurtry. Jason Isbell. John Hiatt. Bonnie Raitt. Christopher Paul Stelling. Courtney Barrett. Storytellers, all. Writers, all. Foot-stompers, most of ’em. I was drawn to artists with a singular vision, a way of looking at the world that hadn’t been slick-polished by mainstream success. There was no formula here, only a clear sense of voice and place. A sensibility.
A lyric that persists
A lot of times I’ll hear a snatch of lyric or a turn of phrase that stays with me and informs the piece I’m working on. That’s what happened with this new novel. It’s based on the life (and death) of an old-time baseball player named Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, one of the forgotten greats of the game. He played in the 1880s, most notably for the 1884 St Louis Maroons of the Union Association, where he had one of the greatest seasons ever, ever, ever. For a stretch, he was one of the best-known ballplayers in all the land, at a time when our national pastime was taking root. And yet he died at the relatively young age of 43, penniless, friendless, all but forgotten. His body lay unidentified for days — far too long for a man who was once baseball’s highest-paid player — and strangers had to be pulled from the street to serve as pallbearers.
I started thinking about Dunlap’s curious legacy, and looking for ways to attach his story to a contemporary tale of a middle-aged protagonist coming to terms with the fallings short in his own life. Alongside this thinking, I was playing a shit-ton of James McMurtry. (Yep, his dad is Larry McMurtry, so he’s got some serious pedigree to go with his serious chops.) His first album, Too Long in the Wasteland, was on all the time in my study — and, after that, his follow-up, Where’d You Hide the Body.
There’s one song of McMurty’s, I’m Not From Here, that haunted me, stayed with me, and as he sang that title refrain and told his story of a vagabonding soul my own story began to take shape.
I’m not from here…
It was just a phrase, a snatch of lyric, but it spoke to me of the rootlessness that must have been at play at the end of Dunlap’s life — the life of an itinerant ballplayer, with no apparent tether to family or community. At least, that’s how I imagined it. The song, I think, is about something else entirely, but the line itself was all Dunlap, and out of that one line a story emerged. Really. Those album titles had a hand in things, too. Left me wondering what would happen if together with that rootlessness there was also a restlessness in Dunlap that left his spirit to wander in the cosmos, like an unreceived radio transmission, only to alight in the path of another lost soul.
And so I was left at the intersection of two lives without footprints — one real, one imagined — separated by a century, and joined somehow by this one line from this one song. Anyway, that was the germ of it, the nut of it. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m back to the Spa channel. There’s another story to tell.
Daniel Paisner is the author of more than 60 books, including 13 New York Times bestsellers. As a ghostwriter, he has written more than 50 books in collaboration with athletes, actors, politicians, business leaders and ordinary individuals with extraordinary stories to tell, including tennis great Serena Williams; Ohio governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich; football legend Ray Lewis; Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn; and potty-mouthed comedian Gilbert Gottfried. He is co-author of the acclaimed Holocaust memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, written with Krystyna Chiger; and, the gripping 9/11 diary Last Man Down: A Firefighter’s Story of Survival and Escape from the World Trade Center, with FDNY Deputy Chief Richard Picciotto – both international bestsellers. In addition to A Single Happened Thing, from Relegation Books, he is the author of two previous novels: Obit and Mourning Wood. Find him on his website and on Twitter @DanielPaisner