“Words and music” is the fundamental list of ingredients and inspirations for songwriters and novelists alike. The myriad ways in which they can be combined and approached moved singer-songwriter and producer Ben Arthur to create his “Words & Music” series, which brings together literary writers and songwriters.
Arthur’s brainchild brings him to Vroman’s Bookstore from New York this Sunday. Author Jonathan Lethem will read from his story “Men and Cartoons” (and not, as originally advertised, his new novel “A Gambler’s Anatomy”), and Arthur and “anti-folk” veteran Cindy Lee Berryhill will respond with “answer songs” they’ve composed for the occasion. In keeping with the usual “Words & Music” formula, the songs are inspired by some aspect of Lethem’s prose: a character, a moment, a mood, a question posed to which the songwriters reply differently. Lethem selected his story for what he deemed its musical properties; per Arthur, “he wanted to hear what two musicians do with it.”
Arthur describes Lethem as “a genius with lyrics.” The two have collaborated before, most recently writing “Pending Vegan” from a dog’s perspective for Arthur’s 2016 album “Call & Response” — an entire set of “answer songs” responding to better-known tunes (like Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”) and short stories.
“I tell the authors the musicians’ jobs are made easier if they choose something that has some space to it, some emotional heft,” Arthur explains. “But I usually let them choose the piece that they want to read.
“When you have something like Jonathan’s charming and brilliant story to work from, you’re not starting at a blank page, and the only trick is figuring out the angle of attack — whose perspective you’re coming at the story from. It’s always fun to switch the perspective; I often do that. It’s so much easier than starting, ‘Oh, what am I going to write about today?’ That’s the essential fear, and that to me is the worst part of trying to be an artist.”
Arthur has also collaborated with “Lincoln in the Bardo” novelist George Saunders (“an extraordinary cat … it’s a little like trading emails with Ernest Hemingway”), and jokes that the series is “really an excuse to talk to and sometimes work with people who I admire.” Previous “Words & Music” events have featured writers such as Roxane Gay, Patricia Lockwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Susan Orlean; several have been recorded for a podcast Arthur promises he “will eventually get around to putting out into the world.”
What fascinates him most is the basic issue of creativity, its genesis and channeling. In addition to “Words & Music,” he has also produced the video series “Songs of the Road,” for which he has teamed with Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, A.J. Croce, Lera Lynn, My Brightest Diamond, and Sean Rowe, among others. Does he find creativity easier to tap into in collaborative settings?
“I think it is for me, personally,” he says thoughtfully. “And I think that in some ways it makes for a more fun engagement. Which is to say, a show on PBS where I sit in a room and hammer my head against a wall and cry is maybe less engaging [laughs] than sitting down with Steve Poltz or whomever to write a song.”
The intersection of music and literature is familiar to Arthur, who has written two novels, as well as Berryhill, who released “Memoirs of a Female Messiah” in tandem with her 1999 live album “Living Room 16.”
“Musicians are fascinated by writers and writers are fascinated by musicians, and very frequently, they moonlight in each other’s worlds,” Arthur says, noting that Steve Earle has written a novel and short stories. “Plenty of writers are musicians and musicians are writers. It’s a cross-fascination.”
The Words & Music series presents author Jonathan Lethem and songwriters Ben Arthur and Cindy Lee Berryhill at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 4; free admission. Info: (626) 449-5320. Benarthur.com, youtube.com/user/songcraftpresents, vromansbookstore.com