When I wrote "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," I thought it would be a nice character detail if Janice Miller drove around town cheerfully humming a song from her youth. I ended up structuring the novel's first chapter -- which takes place on the day that Janice becomes unfathomably rich, and is simultaneously dumped by her husband -- around the song "Happy Together," by the Turtles. ("Imagine me and you, I do, I think about you day and night" etc. Trust me, you know it). I wove the song into the entire chapter, starting with the second paragraph of the novel, using it in different places to trigger memories from Janice's past, her optimism for the future, etc.
This was all well and good until my editor asked me if I'd secured the rights to the song.
My editor gently enlightened me to the fact that I needed permission to use these lyric snippets -- that, in fact, there are entire law firms that deal almost exclusively with this kind of thing. So I hunted down The Turtles' law firm, and got in touch. It turned out that the rights-holder (ie: the songwriter who composed the tune for the Turtles) was fine with me using the song ... as long as I paid him a chunk of money. A chunk of money so sizable, in fact, that I began immediately to rethink using the lyrics at all. Unfortunately, the surgery on the novel would have been so extreme that I decide to suck it up and just pay. Which is why you see the "Happy Together" lyrics all over the first chapter, and I stopped drinking lattes.
So I learned my lesson, right? It's true, I did. With my second novel, "This Is Where We Live," whenever I felt the urge to quote a song lyric in the text, I stopped myself and asked whether it was vital to what I was trying to achieve with the book. Uniformly, the answer was no. I managed to write a whole book (and one about a musician, to boot) without extensively quoting any song, and I don't think it suffered as a result.
But I did have an epigraph. Since "This Is Where We Live" was inspired in part by a Robert Frost poem called "Directive," I thought I would use four lines from the poem as my epigraph. "Great," my editor responded. "So, do you have the rights?"
It turns out, the whole permissions question also applies to poems, essays, other novels -- pretty much any text from which you quote more than two lines. You'd think that after 15 years as a professional writer, I would have known this. Somehow, I didn't. And this time around, I had a baby with a college education I needed to save for, so the idea of spending the money was far less appealing. An epigraph would have been nice, but it certainly wouldn't be missed if it wasn't there. As a result, anyone who buys "This Is Where We Live" will notice that there is no epigraph. My daughter will get a month at Harvard (no pressure, kid), instead.
As a side note - Whenever I now read a book that quotes extensively from songs, or poems, or other books, I always wonder whether that person shelled out a small fortune for rights, or whether they personally knew those musicians/writers/poets and somehow received permission gratis. ("Lit" by Mary Karr, for example, is chock-full of poetry, but I imagine she got most of it for free from her fellow poets.) Perhaps this is the new literary bragging rights: Free words from famous people.
In any case, I'm fairly certain that it's fine to publish the epigraph here. If not, I'm sure I'll hear from Robert Frost's lawyers. Until then, here it is, for your edification, my epigraph:
Weep for what little things could make them glad
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
-- "Directive," Robert Frost.