A few years ago, at a reading at the Soda Bar, on Vanderbilt Avenue, in Brooklyn, the writer Paula Bomer said something that has remained in my memory, though I can’t remember all of the details of what she said, or what led her to say it. Someone in the audience had asked her a question about her writing, and, in answering the question by way of digression, she’d begun to talk about the musician Jack White – and about how the colors that were (or still are) associated with his band (The White Stripes) put her in mind of the Holy Trinity. Jack White had been raised Catholic, and the colors that he and Meg White had associated with their music were red, white, and black.
When I was a child, in Melbourne, Australia, the football club that my father’s family barracked for was the St. Kilda Saints. My dad would take my brother and I to Moorabbin Oval, the home ground of the Saints, where we’d watch the footballers run onto the field before the opening horn sounded. The jersey that the Saints wore had three vertical stripes on the front of the shirt – red, white, and black.
In Catholic liturgical tradition, every color has a symbolic referent. Red is associated with blood, as well as with holy fire. White is associated with purity, innocence, and light. Black is associated with death, mourning, and sorrow.
The covers of my first three books – If I Falter at the Gallows, Figures for an Apocalypse, and The Three Sunrises – have the same color scheme: red, white, and black. At the Soda Bar, when I heard Paula speak about the colors that The White Stripes employed, my first book had just been published, or it was about to be published. And what she said about those colors made me conscious of the colors I had chosen (or would choose) for the cover of that book, and for the covers of the two books that would soon be written.
So there are three books, the third of which is The Three Sunrises, which in itself is a trilogy (consisting of three novellas). But also, with the first two books, this latest book is part of what I now think of as a larger trilogy – the holy colors trilogy (or the red, white, and black trilogy). Wherein the meaning of the whole derives from a symbology that can be felt, but not necessarily located.
I don’t mean to sound mysterious. What I mean is that a reader might find it difficult to point to a place in the text of those books, and say, “A-ha. That is where the meaning is.” The meaning is everywhere in them, or it is nowhere. It is in what happens, but it is also in what doesn’t happen. But all of that which happens, or doesn’t happen, occurs within the context of those colors.
I didn’t know, as I began to write the first book (If I Falter at the Gallows), that what I was writing was the beginning of a trilogy, but that is what it turned out to be. And yet it isn’t so important to read each book in terms of the trilogy of which it is part. For the commonalities among the books are more thematic than chronological. They are substantive, but not sequential.
I believe that what led Paula Bomer to speak about The White Stripes, that evening at the Soda Bar, was the idea of constraint. By which I mean she liked that Jack White had provided himself – in the realm of performance but also in the way he conceptualized his music – a color scheme to which he and Meg White adhered. Constraint, I think Paula said, is something an artist applies to his or her process in order to locate and create meaning. It isn’t something to fear, or to shy from. It can be something to seek out.
The holy colors, then, were my constraint in the writing of this trilogy. I say this now, even though I could not have known (at least at first) that they would become my constraint. But I believe in the role that accident plays in the creation of a work of art – that what begins as accident can be selected by the artist as one of the elements that contribute to a work’s meaning. And I also believe that an artist does not fully realize what he or she is creating until he or she has finished creating it.
Edward Mullany is the author of If I Falter at the Gallows, Figures for an Apocalypse, and The Three Sunrises, which will be released by Publishing Genius June 9. He is also the author of the comic strip Rachel and Ben, which appears each Saturday at the arts site Real Pants. He is on tumblr and twitter.