Correspondences and the truth
For more than two decades — first as Smog and then under his own name — Bill Callahan has turned his sharp, literate writing sensibility toward music. He began with a series of experimental, lo-fi recordings that gradually evolved into a powerful brand of dark folk music. From difficult debut “Sewn to the Sky” all the way through to last year’s striking “Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle,” Callahan has produced richly emotional, evocative songs.
Callahan expands his oeuvre with the release of his first novelette, “Letters to Emma Bowlcut,” today. The book will be published by Callahan’s usual record label, the Chicago-based Drag City. An epistolary story — a piece of prose fiction told through collected documents — it collects 62 letters from an unnamed protagonist to a woman he sees at a party. Austin resident Callahan says the book was an onagain-off-again project that started eight years ago.
“I kept forgetting that it existed and whenever I remembered that I had it to work on, I would just do it, kind of whenever I felt like it, I guess,” says Callahan. “And I went back and edited it a lot. It became like a totally different novel every year or so and I kept thinking I’d finished, but I never had. I was really glad that I didn’t submit it as finished a long time ago.”
Callahan’s tendency to constantly revisit and rework his writing was, he says, one way to promote honesty in the text.
“Editing is just the process of making something not feel like a lie. And sometimes, when you’re creating something like that, you lie to yourself a lot and say ‘Oh, that’s fine,’ but there’s a tiny little voice in the back of your head saying, ‘No it’s not fine,’” says Callahan. “You can go through a lot of edits and just ignore that, but I think the idea is that by the final edit is you’ve bared yourself completely.”
Despite the years of oft-challenging writing and editing required to produce the 79-page “Letters to Emma Bowlcut,” Callahan says he intends to continue working with prose when his musical pursuits allow him the time.
“I totally want to do more. There’s something about writing prose that’s really satisfying,” says Callahan. “I think songs are a bit more open to interpretation, but with prose, when you write a paragraph that you like, it’s just this satisfying feeling that songwriting doesn’t quite have. It makes me feel really good.”
Bill Callahan didn’t rush to write ‘Letters to Emma Bowlcut.’