The titles of a few of the songs on Dori Freeman’s new album, Letters Never Read, could have come straight out of a book of stories by Harry Crews or Flannery O’Connor: “Yonder Comes a Sucker,” “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” for example. Of course, just the title of the album itself (see ND Assistant Editor Stacy Chandler’s recent review) is redolent of a literary bouquet, and in songs such as “If I Could Make You My Own” and “Over There,” Freeman tells stories like she was born to it. As it turns out, of course, Freeman comes to storytelling and songwriting quite naturally, and overflows with literary gifts bestowed on her by her family and by a life spent reading.
I chatted by phone recently with Freeman about books and reading – and her literary tattoos.
What books are on your nightstand now?
Well, I’m in the middle of two books now. Amy Schumer’s recent memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo; it’s a hysterical book. I’m also reading Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, written mostly by Charlie; it’s a very good book and it shows you how hard things were for them and how much they went through.
How do you find books? Reviews? Recommendations from friends?
A combination of reviews and recommendations from friends. Sometimes I’ll find a new book just by wandering the aisles of the bookstore and looking at the shelves. I love going to the bookstore and just browsing the shelves.
Do you have a bookstore in Galax?
Yes, we do; we have this great little bookstore called Chapters.
What’s the last book you bought for its cover?
I found this book called The History of Wolves at Barnes and Noble.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The Foot Book by Dr. Seuss. I obsessively carried it around the house with me. My mom read to me from the time she was pregnant with me and then when I was growing up, and I’ve always been grateful for that. The other book I read all the time was Where the Wild Things Are.
What books do you read to your daughter? Does she have favorite books?
She loves the Little Critter books. I loved them, too; they were also some of my favorite books when I was a kid. We have a ton of those around the house. Her favorite books right now, though, are Jon Klassen’s Who Stole My Hat? and I Want My Hat Back. They’re kind of dark, and they have that kind of humor that’s more for adults, but she loves them.
Do you go to the local library with her?
Oh, she loves the library. We usually go twice a week. My grandpa took me to the library when I was a kid, and that was one of my favorite times; I loved spending that time with him.
Have you ever faked reading a book?
Yeah, I’ve definitely faked reading a book, especially many of the books they had us read in school. I remember not finishing 1984; I started it but I just couldn’t get through it. We had to do some sort of report on it, and I wrote it, even though I hadn’t finished the book.
How do you like to read? Electronically? Print? One book at a time?
Well, before I had my daughter I’d definitely read one book at a time; now, though, I read more than one book at a time. I much prefer to read a tangible book rather than an e-book.
What the one book you won’t leave home without?
I don’t think there’s one, but there is one book I read over and over: Jane Eyre. I think it was ahead of its time. Jane is a character ahead of her time; she’s a strong woman who stands up for herself and to her husband, who’s so despicable, in a world where she has little standing. It’s pretty cool that it was written when it was. Bronte is one of my favorite authors.
If you could invite five authors, living or dead, to lunch, whom would you invite?
Charlotte Bronte, of course; Nabokov: Lolita is one of my favorite books, it’s written so beautifully. As disgusting and despicable as the main character, Humbert, is, I love what Lolita stands for. Also, Nabokov draws the evil in us all so attractively. Flannery O’Connor: she tells stories about rural Southerners, as well as stories that have religious themes, and she tells the stories straight. She doesn’t caricature her people; they seem like real people you’d meet in the rural South. Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men is my favorite novel of his. I like the style he writes in, and like O’Connor his characters seem like real people and not caricatures. Chad Harbach, who wrote The Art of Fielding, would be the fifth person; that’s a beautiful book.
Your songs come out of a deep Southern music tradition; are there elements that connect music tradition and Southern literature?
Absolutely. I feel like my abilities as a songwriter are strengthened by a lot of the stories I’ve heard all my life in the mountains of Virginia. Those stories and ballads have this darkness — murder ballads, and those Childe ballads about death that come from Scotland and Ireland into the mountains. When you’re talking about mountain music, there’s a lot of similarity between the songs and the literature.
Are there any books that you avoid reading?
I avoid all the books I got sucked into reading as a teenager, like Twilight. I’m not a huge fan of nonfiction, but I do love a good memoir. I am a big fan of fiction.
Do you finish every book you start?
No; if I don’t like a book 30 pages in, I won’t finish it. Of course, I also am the worst in terms of spoilers. If there’s something I want to know about a book, I’ll turn to the end. When that last book in the Harry Potter series came out, I went to the bookstore at midnight, got my book, and turned to the last page to see if Snape died. I was sad.
Did you go back and read the book from the beginning?
Of course. I can’t wait to read the Harry Potter books to my daughter when she’s old enough.
You have some literary tattoos?
Yes; I’m working on having images of all the women who have inspired me. Right now, I have two female literary characters: Jane Eyre and Lolita.
If you could advise the president to read one book, what would it be?
Something that deals with Southern culture, since he has no idea what it’s like; maybe a book like Salvation on Sand Mountain [by Dennis and Vicki Covington].