Rob Yardumian’s enchanting, sun-filled debut novel, The Sound of Songs Across the Water, transports readers to a heat-soaked California back yard in the 1990s where two former bandmates have resolved to put aside old differences to make a record. Rob’s writing brims with beauty and humor, but it also has an insistent, page-turning pace.
The Sound of Songs Across the Water is an incisive portrait of the egos behind music-making, the power struggles and hopes and fears that get channeled into the creative process when it involves multiple strong-willed artists. But it’s also a story of rewriting your own life, taking chances, and being brave enough to try to make a dream come true.
While writing the book, Rob stepped away from scenes to compose the songs that are an integral part of the plot. Although the book remained the priority, he said he would have regretted not producing a companion CD. The Sound of Songs Across the Water carries readers deep into the creative process, and the CD, Sing With Me, Brother, For We Have Sinned, makes it even more of an evocative portrait of the realities of making music.
The Sound of Songs Across the Water, published by MP Publishing, is available at Powell’s and Amazon. Sing With Me, Brother, For We Have Sinned is available at CD Baby, or at Rob’s readings. Hear a conversation about writing between Rob and Yuvi Zalkow, author of A Brilliant Novel in the Works.
Rob will be reading (and playing songs) from The Sound of Songs Across the Water at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 12, at Annie Bloom’s Books in Portland, Oregon.
1. Tell us about The Sound of Songs Across the Water.
At its heart, the book is about two friends (and ex-bandmates) who reunite to try to record an album together over the summer of 1995 in Los Angeles. It’s a story about the mysteries of melody, the lessons of lust, the ghosts we can’t outrun. It’s about the enduring sting of rock and roll, and the siren scent of a lover’s skin. It’s about friendship and loyalty, and how the bonds of both can stretch and snap under pressure. It’s about what might happen when a dream comes true.
And it has a soundtrack—ten songs I wrote in conjunction with the novel, professionally recorded and produced here in Portland. So not only does the music of the novel live in my characters on the page, it lives in real life as well.
2. At your book launch at Powell’s, you mentioned a sudden burst of inspiration ignited this ten-years-in-the-making novel. Can you share that story? How much did the book change from that initial impulse to the final product?
Back when I still lived in Los Angeles, I used to run around Silver Lake in the morning. It’s about three miles around the reservoir, which at the time was off limits, behind barbed-wire fencing. Riley runs around the lake in the book—it’s where he sees the perturbed parrot at the beginning and the coyote at the end.
Anyway, one morning in 2003 as I ran around the lake, I got the idea for this book. By the time I got home, I had the whole shape of it figured—a reunion of two friends, a backyard studio, a wife in the middle—and that shape never changed very much. (Although there was this note: “There’s a magical guitar—a Martin owned by Buddy Holly that the producer lets him use. At the end he steals it and it feels OK. Maybe the name of that guitar is the name of the book.” I didn’t explore that idea. Probably wisely.)
However, within that fairly well-defined shape, many, many things about the story changed over the four full drafts I wrote. Characters came and went, plot lines were developed and then discarded. My initial draft was 500 pages; the final draft was closer to 300. So you can see the size of what was cut.
3. The Sound of Songs Across the Water features two primary point-of-view characters, plus a third one commenting in italics about a long-ago gig. The structure itself feels musical, like everyone is playing their parts at the right moments. Why tell the story through three points of view? What was challenging—or liberating—about that decision?
Because the story involves an essential dramatic triangle, it felt both right and wrong to give each character a point of view. Obviously Riley, being the main character, gets one. But who else? I decided to give Lena a present-time POV because I knew there would be scenes that didn’t involve Riley, and how else would we be able to see those? It would be critical to see how Will and Lena react to Riley’s intrusion into their lives. One of them has history, knows the whole back story; the other can only react to what she sees in front of her that summer. And the attraction between Riley and Lena presented an interesting dynamic to explore in close third POV. So that gave me two legs of the triangle.
But what about Will? To some extent, I felt that giving Will a present-time POV would merely duplicate what we’d already learned in Lena’s chapters. And choosing not to give Will a present-time POV would set up an interesting absence around his character—a void, a cipher. He becomes the only character we don’t hear in real time, and that felt OK at first. But as I was writing the first draft, I began to feel that lack pretty acutely. And another element kept rearing its head: What really happened between Riley and Will back in 1980 at CBGB’s? So I came up with a way to let Will tell the back story and also get a POV, by inserting these smaller, more lyrical pieces between the main chapters. They serve a number of purposes, not the least of which is to show us who Riley really was back then, from the point of view of someone observing him, and how the surprising dynamic of power between the two of them was established.
4. Tell us a little about your CD, Sing With Me, Brother, For We Have Sinned. Why did you decide to release a companion album? Did you write songs to fit scenes in the novel—or did the scenes end up wrapping around the songs you wrote?
Hmm, good question. A little of both, I think. I’ll start with the why. The idea of writing the album’s songs, and then releasing them in an album, was part of the original idea that came to me running around Silver Lake that morning in 2003. So I knew all along that that was something that I wanted to try to do.
Having dabbled in songwriting for a few years, I knew that I could render that world pretty convincingly. But it wouldn’t be completely submersive—for me or the reader—unless the songs actually existed in real life. Having that fingertip, cellular knowledge of a song—where the changes are, what parts are hard to play or sing, what you do to get around that—was essential to understanding Riley, to the creative work he had set himself. To this dream made real.
So as I was writing the book, I was also writing the songs. A lot of songs made their way into various drafts and then dropped out along the way. The only songs that were written to fit a scene were songs that Riley wrote that way, namely “The Colour of Despair” and “Lazy Angel.” I didn’t write any other songs that commented on the actions or characters in the book, because other than those two, Riley didn’t write songs that commented directly on his life. And it seemed more appropriate to keep the record as close to the book as I could.
I even toyed with the idea of having the record be by Riley Oliver, with Will Taylor producing and using the band from the book. But ultimately that felt a little precious. And I want the record to live forever as I thing I did, much as the book will. Is that ego? Yeah, probably.
5. Was the recording process for Sing With Me, Brother, For We Have Sinned anything like what Riley and Will experience in the book? If not, what was it like?
Yes, it was! There were several moments, sitting in David’s studio, cords snaking all over, headphones on, third or fifth or tenth take, that I just had to smile and think, this is it. I have become Riley Oliver.
I was so fortunate to have someone like David Lane to make my record with. He carries all the best of Will Taylor’s skills in the studio, without all the, you know, bitterness and jealousy. But yes, some of that dynamic was similar—David is an astonishing musician and a very experienced record-maker. And I am neither. So I was in way over my head at nearly every moment. That was a little frustrating for both of us at times. But David was remarkably patient with me—“OK, you almost got it there. Let’s try it one more time.”—so the process was as painless as it could be. And I convinced him to play all the hard parts, so they sound great on the record.
6. Your novel is full of witty, well-paced dialogue—the kinds of things I always wish I could say off the top of my head—and as a result, the chemistry between your three main characters explodes on the page from the very beginning. Any tips on making dialogue work in fiction?
That’s a tough one. I think we all wish we could talk like our characters in real life, because we spend years honing their dialogue until it does sparkle. But I’m sure everyone’s had the same experience I’ve had, of watching a TV show or movie and thinking, yeah, clever, but no one really talks like that.
So, where’s the happy medium? Well, for one, your characters have to—absolutely have to—talk like real people talk. That sounds simple, but it’s tricky to do. Write a scene and then read it out loud. Listen for the rhythms, the pauses. Be meticulous in your fine-tuning. It’s almost like tuning an instrument. You need to be able to hear when it’s sharp or flat, over- or underwritten. That may not come until the next draft, once it’s sat there on the page for a while. But you need to pay extraordinarily close attention to dialogue.
Also, one other thing: be available to moments when your characters might surprise you. The very first page I ever wrote of this book, Riley parked the car in front of Will’s house, climbed out, and met a young girl named Emma who was walking her dog. Emma lasted through a couple of drafts before I had to take her out (which broke my heart), but what surprised me, from the moment they opened their mouths, was that there was humor in this book. I had no idea. No plan for any wittiness whatsoever. And yet, right away, there it was. They were playful with each other, a little teasing, even though they’d never met. And it felt good and it felt right. Like I’d struck a true tone. So, Riley taught me how he should talk. And I listened.
7. What are you working on now?
I hope the answer to this question is always, “the next book.” Fortunately, right now it is. My next novel is a very different animal from The Sound of Songs Across the Water. Here’s the blurb from my web site:
Workingly titled Rider Keene, it’s the story of the titular character, the elder of two brothers in a family of Irish-American jewelers in San Francisco’s Mission district.
Spanning forty years of the twentieth century, spun out in three parallel narrative threads, the book tells the story of how a family drifts almost unintentionally into a life of crime, beginning with the black market in World War II and continuing on into a brash new post-war America.
Cast out from the Bay Area after an unsuccessful power struggle with his younger brother for control of the family’s burgeoning criminal empire, Rider roams the country in exile, putting his only true skill to use: ending the lives of lost men in bad trouble.
I’ve intentionally changed almost everything about this book from the first one: This book is set in a time and place in which I never lived. It’s told in overlapping narrative threads from a single point of view. It’s written in many, many small pieces, rather than traditional chapters. And most importantly, the story it tells is deeper and darker than Riley’s story.
This will be a bigger book, in every sense of the word. And that’s exciting.
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Thanks so much for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Rob. You can learn more at robyardumian.com. The Sound of Songs Across the Water is available at Powell’s Books and in ebook and paperback at Amazon.com. Find his CD at CD Baby. Check out The Sound of Songs Across the Water on Goodreads.