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Virtual Dimensions and Sonic Landscapes

Writing a book is a funny thing. For a long time, you are the sovereign over a world that grew out of your brain jungle. Not only that, but you are the world’s only resident. And then suddenly, one day, someone new reads it, and the versions of the world you created multiply. Every time someone else reads it, a new version of your story takes root in their head. And that is equal parts super cool and utterly terrifying.

Obviously, I am not the first person to view texts in this way, genius though I undoubtedly am. Wolfgang Iser—one of the founders of reader response theory—calls the meeting of imagination and text a “virtual dimension.” For Iser, this virtual dimension is what ultimately “endows [a text] with its reality.” Furthermore, he argues that “the potential text is infinitely richer than any of its individual realizations.” (Phew. Now I have officially put my degree in children’s literature to use. SO THERE, Dad.)

I subscribe to Iser’s view of texts as being constructed (i.e. the text is dependent on the reader because the reader plays an active role in creating the text), which is why when people start to read one of my stories, I am fascinated to know how they constructed it.

The trouble is, that’s a very hard—perhaps impossible—question to answer. Sure, a reader can tell you what they thought about a specific character or draw you a picture of your setting, but what about the feeling the story gave them? Is that more universal?

It’s a bit like when you first have the mind-bending realization that you can’t see what colors look like to other people. What if my red and your red are completely different? How would we ever know?

I don’t think we can ever truly enter another reader’s virtual dimension, but I did an experiment to see if I could get a bit closer. I asked Ethan’s very first reader—my husband, Aki—to create a playlist for the book. I wanted him to choose songs that he thought conveyed the emotions he felt while reading and the atmosphere the book evoked for him.

So, he put together the Palm Knot playlist. And I have to say, I was pretty shocked at how most of the songs he chose capture exactly the tone I was hoping to strike in different parts of the story. There were some surprises, too, and some songs that even shined a new light on the book, changing how I perceived it, which was really kind of awesome.

I asked him to write about why he chose a few of the songs he did, so without further ado, I’ll turn it over to him. We both hope you enjoy the Palm Knot playlist, linked here. Happy listening!

After I read Ethan for the first time, I had to keep reminding myself that Palm Knot was a fictional place. In my head, I had such a clear image of the quiet Southern town and what it would be like to walk through it. And with that image, there was also a subtle sonic landscape that I could almost hear if I listened carefully.

Palm Knot is a wholeheartedly Southern town full of Southern sounds. Naturally I wanted to find artists from the South to tell their story: A.A. Bondy, the Lumineers, Iron & Wine and a few others.

“The Weight of Lies” by the Avett Brothers was the first song to go in. It just fits the story and is the obvious introduction into the sounds of Palm Knot. The song speaks about how your past will “follow you to every town,” just as Ethan’s follows him to rural Georgia.

But Ethan isn’t just a Southern story. Ethan is an outsider in the South. I wanted to include songs from outsiders who have, one way or another, found a home in the South. Kristian Matsson, better known as The Tallest Man on Earth, might not be the first Swede to fall in love with American folk music, but I can’t think of many who can pay such close homage to it without sounding like a ripoff.

As a work of art, Bright Eyes’ “Poison Oak” has a lot in common with Ethan. The song looks back at a childhood friendship and the ultimate separation of that friendship. For me, there’s something interesting about looking back at childhood with the distance and wisdom that come with adulthood. It’s hard to do that without being patronizing, but I felt that’s what both the song and the book achieved. The heartbreaking reality of the song is summed up by the line: “And I'm glad you got away / But I'm still stuck out here.”

Finally, The Ethan I Was Before is not only about Ethan. It’s also about his best friend, Coralee, whose roots run deep in the Georgia soil. Coralee is wise beyond her years, which is why she is able to helps Ethan come to terms with the trauma of his past. “Leaving Eden” by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, with its brave and beautiful strings and poignant wisdom, felt like a song straight from Coralee’s heart. It’s about leaving behind paradise and innocence for an uncertain future, but it tells us not to be afraid: “But I am not afraid of that bright glory up above/ Dying’s just another way to lead the ones you love.”

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