The Song Reader -- Debut Novel Hits the Right Note

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Lisa Tucker will always remember the time she and her younger sister were sitting around listening to an Aerosmith song several years ago. No matter how hard she tried, Tucker couldn't get that tune out of her head, especially because of its lyrics. "The song was haunting me, so I wondered 'what does it really mean to me?'"

Later on, Tucker started asking her friends what songs were on their minds, with the hunch that it would help them make sense of their own lives. Tucker's fascination with song reading, as she dubbed it, eventually helped her come up with a unique book idea. In Tucker's first novel, The Song Reader (Down Town Press/Pocket Books), teenage narrator Leeann Norris tells the story of her older sister, Mary Beth, a waitress who also works as a song reader for people in their small Missouri town. Along the way, Leeann reveals the challenging experiences she and her sister face after their single mother dies in a car crash.

Following the accident, Mary Beth must support them as well as Tommy, an abandoned child she adopts. Mary Beth's song reading is "an overriding metaphor for understanding people," Tucker told BTW. Meanwhile, the novel ultimately presents Leeann's poignant coming-of-age story. Eventually, Mary Beth's song reading comes to a halt when she experiences a nervous breakdown. "You can be someone who is very helpful to everyone else yet still have your own heart be a mystery to you," Tucker said about Mary Beth's breakdown. "There are people who are really good at other people's problems, but they're not as good at their own."

Considering Leeann's distinctly youthful voice, it's no surprise that the book was published by Down Town Press, whose titles address young women's issues. The novel was also excerpted in Seventeen and was the inaugural selection for the magazine's fiction club. Yet Tucker feels The Song Reader is intended for "everyone," which makes sense considering its plethora of vulnerable female and male characters.

Tucker received a master's degree in English and American literature from the University of Pennsylvania several years before she embarked on this project. And it was such teenage protagonists as Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caufield of Catcher in the Rye who partly inspired Leeann's voice. "The kind of wisdom that a teenager can have is really interesting to me," Tucker pointed out.

During her studies, Tucker also became intrigued with novels that offer gripping stories, like the Scarlet Letter. "It's literary fiction with beautiful prose, but you definitely want to know what happens next while reading it," she noted.

The Song Reader, too, is a page-turner, which features several compelling plots working in tandem. One deals with Mary Beth's song reading and the painful situation she falls into after the suicide attempt of one of her clients. Another has to do with the sisters' mentally ill father, who returns to them during the course of the novel. And a third centers around the narrator and all she experiences and tries to make sense of, including relationships with boys, her sister, her father, and her community.

While weaving these plots, Tucker strove to create a "true book," she said. "What's important to me is to look at a true world view. Not true in that it's about my life. I mean it has something to do with life. It doesn't tell you that everything will work out easily, but when it takes you into a difficult place, it shows you that even in difficult places there are things you can hold on to."

Tucker's writing presents an enlightening notion of family. "I wanted to give Leeann and Mary Beth more family. Tommy comes in. Then there's Juanita, who is very sweet and nurturing and who is also looking for family. We can create our own families."

The book is certainly organized well, yet Tucker actually didn't come up with one outline for it. When she finished a section, she would go back to polish things up. "But the first time through, I was just as surprised as the reader," she admitted. "When the novel ended, I was like 'My goodness! I didn't expect that!'"

Sometimes, Tucker would want to say things through her characters but realized she was forcing dialogue. "If I didn't think Leeann spoke enough about her mother," the author explained, "then I might try to force that but really couldn't. That's when I had to back up and wait until she told me what she wanted to tell me next. It's really mystical and bizarre."

But Tucker was able to delve into subjects that interested her (such as a passing fascination with neurology) through her characters. When she created Mary Beth's boyfriend Ben, a biochemist dealing with brain science, she downloaded material about genetic code. "Fiction for me is perfect because I've done different things and my characters can go out and do them more, do them further," Tucker said. "Ben really is in brain science, and I got to study it to deal with him."

Then there's the book's music and pop-culture angle. Tucker said the novel could have been written with Mary Beth moonlighting as, say, a psychotherapist or a dream interpreter. "But I think the reason the songs are crucial is because the pop culture around them is what they're working with," she added. "That's what they have and that's what they go with." --Jeff Perlah