As I’ve previously written, Books & Music go together so naturally it’s hard to imagine them separately. But that pairing is usually implicit. So it’s a pleasure to stumble on an anthology of Noir short stories grounded in the world of music. Meet Crime Plus Music, a new anthology edited by Jim Fusilli, accomplished author and the Rock & Pop music critic for the Wall Street Journal. It’s hard to imagine someone more perfectly suited for the job. Jim was kind enough to share his thoughts on the anthology, and his experiences as a writer and music critic.
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You’re an accomplished author with your own works, as well as the Rock & Pop critic for the Wall Street Journal. What drove you to produce and edit a collection of other writers’ work?
I had written a number of short stories over the years that were set in the world of music; a minority of my short fiction to be sure, but a sizeable number nonetheless. So I was thinking about doing an anthology of my own on the subject of Crime and Music. I realized I’d spoken to a number of writers over the years about their passion for music, and thought it would be interesting to have a variety of voices and perspectives and generations, together in a compilation. So I started asking around and almost everyone was interested. I approached Three Rooms Press and that was it.
Were these stories written explicitly for this book or were these already-written stories looking for a home?
18 out of 20 were written expressly for this anthology. People often ask (this is my third anthology), “what is the secret?”.
It’s to invite the best authors to contribute. I can’t think of a single story that required any editing except for copy editing for consistency.
Like so many things it all boils down to having great material!
Some stories have obvious musical inspirations— The Long Black Veil, Watching The Detectives — echoing the names of well known songs. The story by Val McDermid, The Long Black Veil, sent me back to Johnny Cash’s version sung from Folsom Prison, which is wonderful.
I’ll tell you a story about The Long Black Veil. Val, in our field, is a superstar — even a legend — and Val likes to sing. A couple of years ago Val was singing The Long Black Veil at a writer’s conference, and she needed a guitar player to back her up, so I did it. Val and I have done that in concert a number of times. Several of these authors are musicians — Peter Robinson is an excellent musician, he lends me his guitar when I’m in Canada. And of course Willy Vlautin is just a very very special musician, great singer-songwriter, and a great novelist, who often lets his works cross over.
(We built a playlist for this book — ours, not Jim’s — go ahead and fire it up while you read the rest of our discussion with Jim.)
A Book Playlist for Crime Plus Music: Twenty Stories of Music-Themed Noir
A playlist featuring Richmond Fontaine, Tim Buckley, Rickie Lee Jones, and others
Willy Vlautin’s music was really a revelation to me —Willy is the founder of the band Richmond Fontaine, the first song on our soundtrack. That’s one of the pleasures of a book like this is learning about things you’d never have found on your own.
He’s something. He’s one of America’s great writers. I did a story about him for the Wall Street Journal and we got on this long tangent about writers, and we were recommending writers to each other, and we just clicked. I thought of him fairly early on for this anthology.
His story (Let’s Hit One More Place) is really fun. After listening to his music it’s clear his writing and music come from the same place and person.
It’s really informed by experiences on the road, you can tell he’s been in those kinds of hotel rooms and restaurants and jumping back on the bus to get to the next town.
I love Zoe Sharp’s story Earworms. Earworms (songs you can’t get out of your head) are used to torture someone, ala Clockwork Orange, in her story.
The problem with earworms is that at one point they were worthy of attention, and then they wear themselves out. Trying to get rid of an earworm is like trying to go to sleep, it will eventually happen but you probably can’t force it to happen.
Played to Death (by Bill Fitzhugh), is a wonderfully dark and humorous story and very compact. The conceit is a bad guy who talks in song lyrics, who kills in classic rock album titles.
Bill, in addition to being a very funny and talented mystery writer, comes out of radio. He’s had a long career in radio, as a DJ in Jackson, Mississippi, then a free-form radio station, then to Seattle, and as a DJ in clubs. He wrote a few novels about the radio industry. He’s a very devoted fan of music, had an XM radio show about obscure tracks on classic rock albums — you can see he’s writing about a world he knows. And he’s a very funny writer too.
Reading 1968 Pelham Blue SG Jr., about a thuggish band on the road, looking for a stolen guitar, I couldn’t help but hear Motörhead’s Eat the Rich as I read.
Mark (Haskell Smith) is from LA so he probably saw Lemmy (Motörhead’s lead singer) sitting on his stool at that bar at some point…
Being a musician is not a glamorous life.
It’s one of the hardest jobs I know of. It is nothing like people think it is. When somebody says he’s a rock star, to me that expression means he spends four hours a day practicing scales, then four hours a day learning to use the latest audio equipment, then another four hours going to see other bands and talking to other musicians. It’s not glamorous, it’s hard and difficult, and the fact that people still do it is a wonder to me.
You must certainly have done many book tours and have your own perspective on what that’s like.
Yeah I am on the road about 25% of my time. The Journal is a national and international publication so we go to the work of art, we don’t wait for it to come to us. When I think of book tours it’s the same thing, you have a lot of time by yourself.
So that’s an interesting segue into something I’m curious about – being a critic is all about discovery and evaluation. How do you do discovery? There’s this tidal wave of content out there, books, music — how do you surf that wave?
I go to a lot of shows and festivals, and I’m the kind of person that gets to the festival as soon as the gates open, because I want to see the bands that are obscure and are on in the afternoon. The bands who are not yet on the radar, but talented enough and promising enough to play at major festivals. The second is, I inevitably ask the musicians themselves, they are always recommending someone who opened for them or they met in a recording studio a year earlier.
I do get albums months in advance, so I have the opportunity to get a sense for what’s going to happen, and I filter it through my sense of the listeners’ need-to-know and want-to-know. If you put all those things together, it’s a really efficient way to stay on top of things.
[Laughing] It sounds efficient for us, because you’re doing all the work for us, and a lot a work for you.
After all these years I have a sense for what grownups might be interested in. Sales & popularity aren’t part of the formula — I write about what’s good and what I think is worth the reader’s time and energy. It might be a very obscure artist, or someone who is famous but not yet recognized for their talent — generally somewhere between the two extremes. Writing about something that’s simply popular — that just doesn’t occur to me. Grownups aren’t looking for celebrity contact, they turn to music because they want music.
The older you get the less you care what other people think and like, you want something that speaks to you and your situation.
Yes. I just dedicated a book to this, Catching Up. It’s a collection of essays and 50 album reviews. Some of the albums are from popular artists, but I expect most readers haven’t heard of most of these people. But I’m equally sure that once they hear the music they’d be delighted. The challenge for me is to put the reader/listener together with the music.
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Speaking of what grownups are interested in — electronic music. Some grownups are, some aren’t. You wrote a great story for the book, Boy Wonder, about a young musical genius and his encounter with the EDM industry. As a 50-something myself with an on-again, off-again interest in electronic music, I’d love to hear the backstory, and more broadly, about electronic music for grownups.
Well, once upon a time I had really enjoyed electronic music, and I thought that we at the Wall Street Journal were ahead of the curve — we’d seen it coming, moving from the clubs to the mainstream, but it got really bad really quickly. Musicians and producers figured out they didn’t need to make great music to get a lot of fans. It became cookie cutter so swiftly it was almost hard to comprehend.
I saw it collapsing in real time, and I got off the bandwagon pretty early. So by the time Avicii and Calvin Harris and Tiësto were making these bad pop hits, I was out. I just thought it was bad pop and bad EDM. And then EDM started turning up on TV commercials and mainstream backing tracks, and it reminded me of Disco. At one point Disco was really great, and then the worst of Disco was getting the most airplay, and it ate itself. It’s a niche, a large niche but for an undemanding audience.
Ironically, I’m reading a book called — I am not making this up — Black Sails, Disco Inferno, a retelling of the legend of Tristan and Isolde — but set in 1970s disco-land. There’s a lot of pointers to great disco music and to really bad disco music.
Yeah dance music producers nowadays who don’t follow cookie cutter EDM, one service they provide is reconnecting us to some of the classic disco music. It’s really popular among dance producers and it’s delightful to hear it treated with the respect it deserves. My hero Bowie, he wants to make the music he likes, he’s cognizant he needs some consumer appeal, but he’s young and he wants to do what he wants to do. He’s under pressure from his mother and producer to pursue stardom, but he really wants to just do what he wants to do, but doesn’t know how to navigate this conflict. But he makes some decisions, and I think they’re rather wise ones, and they play out in the story.
In some respects, wise beyond his years.
I find when artists know what they want to do and they have to craft to do it, they can be trusted to make the right decisions. When they are less secure in their craft they can be manipulated by commercial forces. Bowie has two parents, one of whom has a different point of view on craft and art and happiness.
I’m a huge fan of the author Steven Pressfield, he has a discussion going on: suppose you have an author with fourteen self-published novels, but that never got a publisher or got more than a few hundred readers — is that writer a success? No surprise, his answer is “Yes”. If you have a process to create what you believe in, that’s what it’s about.
My experience is that in any art form, people who have serious chops and don’t sell, would say they’d rather have serious chops. And people who sell and don’t have serious chops, say they would rather sell. I think that works out in the right way. There are very few people who can create something original and make it commercial viable, and some point you have to decide, “Do I want to build a career based on craft, or on consumerism?”. Everybody has to confront that. Some people might take 10 seconds and say they want to make a lot of money, and that’s probably the right decision for them. Most people I know do what they can do, the best they can. Nobody’s underwriting — turning in a book and saying “I can do better than that”.
Very much like athletes, if you don’t do the work, no matter where you are on the spectrum of craft to commercialism, you have to do the work or you don’t get past high school athletics.
Right. I was surprised — in the music business, you have people helping you all along the line. You’re twelve and you have bandmates, people paying attention to you. In publishing, until you have a finished product worthy of publication, you don’t really have anyone helping you. I found that to be a big surprise, and accordingly you have to make a decision in a vacuum.
Many years ago, I said to Van Morrison (who had a new album out), “Who did you think was going to buy this?”. And he said, “I thought it was going to appeal to the people it was going to appeal to” — a very cryptic answer. Now I realize, my books are for the people who like my books — they’re not for the people who don’t like my books. [Laughs]. And the end of the day if you produce the best work you can for the readers who can appreciate what you are doing, that’s the job.
If I’m curious about Miles Davis, I can listen on Spotify for the price of listening to a few ads. The same is very much not yet true with books. Is there something the publishing industry can do to help me figure out if Jim Fusilli’s books are for me?
Well, I am singularly unhelpful here — I have no interest in delivery systems, particular in music. I find Spotify very helpful for my job, and I post a playlist every week of new music I find interesting, but I couldn’t tell you if I read a book on Kindle or if I read a paperback, or hardcover, or if I streamed the album or bought it.
I actually don’t know what consumers of fiction do. If I want the book, I buy it. I have an excellent mystery bookstore up the street and I live in NY and LA where there’s lots of bookstores. Maybe it’s something to do with my age, but word of mouth and dependable reviewers are what make me want to buy books. Whereas with music, a little something sparks my imagination and I go after it any way I can: YouTube, Spotify or the band’s website.
It’s probably a question for young readers. People are less flexible in changing their reading habits than they are their listening habits. Listening to music is easier. I don’t know that reading books has gotten easier.[Laughs].
I read a lot on my iPhone, because it’s what’s with me. I just reviewed Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography for The Wall Street Journal — a fascinating — but very large and heavy — book, carrying the book on the plane and it was a pain! It took up a quarter of my bag. I resented it 🙂 But it’s a much-in-demand book. And I wanted to go get coffee and read it but I couldn’t bring it with me because it was still under wraps! If I had it on my iPhone I would have been fine.
In the publishing industry there’s been a fear that eBooks and physical books were going to cannibalize each other. People are realizing they are different products with different contexts and use cases.
There are people who are really passionate about delivery systems. When I review an album, I try to imagine how people will listen to it. Few have extraordinary stereo systems, are buying vinyl and have a listening room. Most people have $40 speakers or a nice pair of headphones, or in the car. I try not pay attention to delivery systems.
Delivery systems for books are less interesting. Some readers are more diverse in their reading. Delivery is less important but discovery is still a challenge, it’s mostly word of mouth — surprising, given how much of everything else has moved on line.
It’s like a writers group. It’s only as good as the writers. If you’re taking word of mouth from people with bad taste, it’s not very useful. I’ve been writing for the Journal since 1983 — by this time the readers either trust me, or they don’t. Same thing with word of mouth.
While we’re on the topic of trusted sources, who are some of the writers you trust or whose writing speaks to you?
I’m not dodging the question but I don’t like to talk about who I’m reading “in the genre”, I don’t want to offend any of my friends by omitting someone. It’s funny you mentioned Miles Davis before — when I listen to Miles, I listen for days at a time. When I read, it’s often the same, if I get into their world, I have to “binge watch” their books.
I just went through this Edna O’Brien phase, five books in a row. William Trevor, once I read his stories, I start looking for more and more. I have the big pile of books I’ll never get through…. I love the Wall Street Journal’s Book Section, the Journal has been the rare publication that has dedicated itself to expanding its coverage of books
The slow demise of the newspaper space has been bad for the “trusted reviewer” model of book discovery. And that’s spilled over to consumers, who don’t know where to go.
If there’s a great books blog, I don’t know what it is. And it’s my fault for not being more diligent to pursue it, and I don’t have a shortage of things to read.
Yes, it’s not “find me something to read”, it’s “out of the spectrum of things I could read, what should I read?”
I’m a big believer that you have to surround yourself with quality in the arts to produce quality in the arts. So I’m diligent about going to movies and museums, the theater, trying to push myself outside my comfort zone, but that’s very time consuming. So it’s important I read the right things.
There’s a really fun story in the book involving bagpipes, it’s not just classic rock…
Brendan (DuBois) is a great guy with a dry sense of humor, I asked him to write a story, we see each other at conventions. I took an risk and lo and behold he turns up with a story about bagpipes! I think it really works.
As a transplanted New Englander, he got the “coming home to New England” spot on.
This is one of the things about the anthology I like the most, there’s lots of stories from lots of points of view. Gary Philips’s story about the old soul artist is great, and you wouldn’t think it would work in the same collection as a bagpipes story, but it’s the quality of the writing that makes them work in harmony.
Crime Plus Music is out now in eBook form, and coming in October in paperback. You can get it on Amazon now.