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Shortbreader Inspiration: David Appleby

David Appleby, in the first of a series entitled Shortbreader Inspiration, uses the structure of an interview in order to fully express what inspires him as an author.

‘What are your literary genes?’
‘I have no literary genes, none that I know of.’

‘No other writers in your family, then?’

‘Well, were you read to as child and discovered books early on, like so many writers?’
‘Oh, no. I was not read to as a child, and I grew up without books until I attended school.’

‘Ah, you got interested in books while in school, where you began reading stories, then taking English classes, and creative writing courses? Is that it?’
‘No, I have to admit that I loathed school, all twelve years of it.’

‘Well, how did you become a writer, growing up without books in your life, and finding school detestable? What inspired you?’
‘Songs inspired me. Specifically, the songs that make up The Great American Songbook. Listening to these great songs, this was my version of ’reading’ books. In a very real sense, I “read” these great lyrics as well as listened to them. I memorized many of them, much the way one memorizes poetry. I recited them and wrote them out, copied many of them in a notebook. I was fascinated by the words. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that words conveyed feelings, not just information. Of course at that time I did not know that the songs I was reading were very short stories and poetry. They were literature. I recited the lyrics to myself. I sang them silently. I read them for the stories they told in this prose-poetry of song. I became aware of good writing, what it was and what it could do.’

‘These songs, do they belong to an genre of music? Such as folk music, or rhythm and blues, for instance?’
‘Overwhelmingly these songs were composed from the 1920s to the 1960s, mostly for Broadway musicals. And the majority of them are about love–the varieties and vagaries of love, the vicissitudes of love. The songs in The Great American Songbook are actually love stories, love poems, you see. I categorize them as very short stories told in a stanzaic form, others are pure poetry with sonic, sensory and ideational levels. These songwriters, these lyricists, were incredibly literate and one becomes immediately aware of this by the lovely, rich language they employed. In fact, I liken them to the French Troubadours of the 12th and 13th century who produced a significant corpus of lyric poetry. The songs of The Great American Songbook speak of something special and one’s heart is awakened by them. In that manner, the result is not unlike that of the Troubadours’ lyrics. I had reached that age in ones life — late teens and into my early twenties — when one believes that love is just around the corner waiting for you. Consequently, the subject matter of the Songbook was foremost in my mind. These beautiful lyrics spoke to the emotional highs and lows, the joy and suffering that accompanies love. So yes, like the medieval Troubadours of Provence, the American songwriters of early to mid-twentieth century have made a great contribution to broader aspects of American culture.’

‘Can you give me an example of how one of these songs inspired you to write a short story about love? How it’s based on the subject matter of a lyric to a song?’
‘Sure. One of the master songwriters of the period was Jimmy McHugh, a lyricist who wrote over a thousand songs during his lifetime. He titled one of these songs, “Too Young to Go Steady.” During the 50s and into the mid-60s, a very fertile period for McHugh, American teenage girls and boys “dated” and when they felt they had found someone special they agreed to “go steady” — that is, to date no one else, to be a “steady” girlfriend/boyfriend to one another. I think in today’s vocabulary the equivalent word would be, “commitment”. Not all parents were in favor of this arrangement, this commitment. As you might imagine, many believed that their teenager was “too young to go steady.” Too young to be serious about one boy or one girl.

‘In Jimmy McHugh’s opening lyric, a boy breaks the news to his girlfriend that “they are too young to go steady”. In the song, the boy’s parents are opposed to their son becoming too serious about a girl. They forbid it and tell him to break it off, and being the good kid that he is, he complies. Listening to and reading these lyrics led me to think about the boy’s parents, and why they wanted to break up this budding romance. From McHugh’s lyric to my own kernel of an idea for a short story, No Sunday Best took root [LINK] about a teenage girl named Joanie who suspects that her boyfriend’s mother is out to “break up” the romance she is having with her son, Billy. McHugh’s lyrics for this song, in total, become an ache of such profound grief, as Joanie fears for the loss of her love, and this teenage girl’s lament, her pain, never left my mind. I thought of her constantly. The story then grew into something far more complicated involving both families and “assorted do-gooders”.’

‘Does being inspired by these song lyrics make the story easier to write? Are you following a sort-of script?’
‘No. Certainly not, because for me writing is essentially a walk into the unknown. Writing is never easy, it’s hard work. And you tend to learn your own shortcomings very quickly. That applies to all writers, I believe. However, I do allow any story I’m writing to lead me. I follow, as if pulled by the nose, as the story begins to “write itself”. Now I’m making it sound easy, aren’t I? Don’t be fooled. I’d like to say straight away that I agree with Thomas Edison’s comment on creativity—“It’s 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.

‘My inspiration for short stories comes from numerous sources, same as most writers of course. The Great American Songbook is simply one source for me; yet, several of my short stories of love and romance were born from a line or two from The Great American Songbook.’

‘So, this book contains songs from this fertile period in American songwriting, and you dip into it at will and are inspired by what’s there?’
‘I have a confession to make. Are you ready?’

‘Probably not. But go ahead anyway.’
‘Here it is: there’s no such book as The Great American Songbook. There is no book containing the songs of this period, or book of songs written for Broadway musicals that have now become the standards of the jazz repertoire. What’s known as The Great American Songbook is not a book at all; it is a construct. Jazz musicians, jazz vocalists, Americans of a certain age, those with a deeper awareness of our history and culture, or those who have a literary bent, they nourish the songbook by continuing to listen and support these great literary works. They support these songs told in stories and poems.’

‘Why jazz? Why do these songs, this music, fall into the “jazz repertoire”, as you termed it?’
‘Because jazz is a language of suggestion and nuance. Jazz, as we know it today, is America’s art form, and the music from these composers was seized upon by jazz musicians and vocalists who quickly discovered the richness of the stories and poetry. They recognized how open these works were for improvisation and interpretation. Not all that different from what a writer does, I believe, which is create, interpret, and improvise.’

‘And how does the song end?’
‘He breaks off with her, and she tells herself that he’ll come to regret that he let her get away. The day will come when he’ll realize that he made a big mistake by not going steady with her.’

‘And so your short story, “No Sunday Best”, does it end similarly with Joanie’s lamentation?’
‘Oh, no, not at all. The story led me by the nose, as I said, and I had no idea where I was going. Along the way something quite unexpected was waiting for Joanie and Billy — and for me as the writer. It led me to a rather different ending entirely.’

‘So, the creative process at work! Something of a mystery, isn’t it?’
‘Exactly. And think of it this way, even though The Great American Songbook doesn’t exist, it nevertheless continues to live. It lives in ones heart, which is love’s dwelling place, after all.’

What inspires you? Email a blog post between 1000-1500 words on what inspires you to write a particular story, in a specific style, or to write at all? ShortbreadStories will publish the best of the Shortbreader Inspiration posts.


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One thought on “Shortbreader Inspiration: David Appleby

  1. Excellent interview. It is endlessly fascinating to find out how other writers found their way to writing and in this particular case to learn that it was through song lyrics was particular interesting, especially so as David wasn’t exposed to books and reading as a child. I think it maybe indicates that if the “gift” (for want of a better term) is there it will find a way to be expressed. . Thanks for this.

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