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December 6, 2006

Book Notes - Sarah Grace McCandless ("The Girl I Wanted to Be")

The Girl I Wanted to Be is a coming of age novel that both teens and adults can enjoy. Sarah Grace McCandless has written a suspenseful tale turning on the point in everyone's life where we realize that the people we love are not perfect. My focus group (okay, just my wife and teenage niece) both were impressed by McCandless's plot development, and found themselves anxiously drawn further into the storyline with every page turned.

Plus, any author that challenges Zach Braff to a soundtrack challenge is cool with me. If anyone knows Mr. Braff, tell him I'd be happy to host the Braff-McCandless mixtape mayhem...

Many thanks to Jamie S. Rich who recommended this book for this series.

In her own words, here is the Book Notes essay for The Girl I Wanted to Be, by Sarah Grace McCandless:

Confession: if I could do anything besides write novels and stories, it would be songwriting – not just the lyrics, but the music as well. Unfortunately, the title of “musical prodigy” was not a part of my destiny. My hands were far too clumsy for the guitar and not much better in the piano department either. After struggling through seven years of lessons, exactly two songs are what remain in my repertoire: the love theme from “St. Elmo’s Fire” and the beginning notes of the Wham! classic, “Careless Whispers.” I’m still not sure how I conned my teacher back then into forgoing the concertinas and sonatas for an 80’s songbook, but it’s likely what got me to stick around for seven years vs. seven minutes.

Regardless, I love music, both live and in person, as well as via the privacy of my own iPod. I still daydream about waking up one morning to discover I’ve been blessed with the musical talent of, say, Rachel Yamagata or Tegan & Sara or Tilly and the Wall or Cat Power – but even on a good day, I sound more like Judy Tenuta. So instead, I incorporate music into my writing – from using it as audio inspiration when I get stuck, to filtering actual references into my stories.

I believe everyone has a soundtrack for their life – not just one, but many, for each significant era or event – or at least I do. This goes for the characters in my book as well, who are just as real to me as my own mother, teachers, next door neighbor, and best friend. For The Girl I Wanted to Be, I actually created two soundtracks, but first a little background as to how I decided which songs to include on each.

This novel is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Presley, who was named in honor of her young aunt Betsi’s hero and favorite singer. Presley was born just a month after the King died (1977), so if you do the math, you can figure out that the novel takes place in the fall of 1991.

But unlike my first book Grosse Pointe Girl, which was a much more obvious love letter to growing up in the 80s and 90s, I didn’t want my second novel to be as blatantly tied in to one specific era. Also, The Girl I Wanted to Be focuses on the crash of Presley’s once perfect idols – the aforementioned Betsi as well as Presley’s cousin Barry, a high school senior heartthrob. With that in mind, it seemed more appropriate that the music would be more reflective of what her idols would have listened to or embraced.

That said, I labeled the first set of tracks under the title of “Then,” featuring songs true to what I imagined one might have found in Betsi or Barry’s collections, sprinkled with a few tunes from Presley’s era. Many of these songs are also specifically mentioned in certain scenes. My alternate version, “Now,” is comprised of more current artists. Some were chosen because of the way I believe their lyrics fit in with the story, and some were selected for their incredible covers of songs that are more in line with what’s on the “Then” compilation. Of course, there is a movie version of my book that is always dancing around in my head (to the point of already having cast it, but that’s another story), and this “Now” listing it what would likely serve as the soundtrack. Look, I know Zach Braff fancies himself a soundtrack guru of late, but I hereby challenge him to a duel, anyday. I am the mix tape queen.

Both track listings are featured in full on my MySpace page (and let’s just ignore the fact that I am 32 years old with a MySpace page), but I’ve included some highlights from each version:

The Girl I Wanted to Be – “Then”

“Summer Breeze” – Seals & Croft
This song instantly brings me back to age three or four, when I was still young enough to fully believe everything would be okay – a time before worry, I suppose. This record (yes, record) must have been in my parents’ collection, because I can still hear the needle being set down on the vinyl, and see myself playing with my toys and dolls on the hardwood floor on our living room with the sun streaming in and this song in the background.

I chose this song to kick off the “Then” soundtrack (in the “Now” version, this song is covered by Jason Mraz) as a backdrop to the opening of the novel, with Presley at a family reunion during the Labor Day weekend. This event will later become one of the last moments she freezes in her head as a time when her family was still “perfect.” Of course, the unraveling was well underway by this point, but not from her perspective.

“Mona Lisa & Mad Hatters” – Elton John
There are several Elton John songs on the “Then” soundtrack, but this one plays a significant role during a scene with Presley, Barry, and Betsi, before Presley is privy to what’s really going on behind closed doors. I’m a big fan of Elton’s early work, and I passed that taste on to Barry. I envisioned his interest coming as a result from pilfering his father’s albums. Turning back to what our older brothers and sisters or our parents listened to was common practice when I was in high school – the Stones, Beatles, Elton, James Taylor, and, yes, the god-awful Steve Miller Band. Eesh.

“If You Leave Me Now” – Chicago
There’s a scene in the book that flashes back to a party Betsi had at Presley’s parents’ house, shortly after Betsi has graduated high school. Presley is watching from the sidelines as these kids who are meant to be prepared for adulthood are falling into old patterns, grabbing each other to slow dance to this song as if they are still on the gymnasium floor. This particular tune is from Chicago X, which was released in 1976, shortly before Betsi would have been graduating from high school. I could just picture this song playing at her prom.

Betsi and her crowd are definitely the kind who peaked in high school and have spent the better part of their lives since then trying to get back to that place. Part of that is staying connected to music that marked that time. I see these patterns in some of the kids I grew up with, and even in myself.

This song also reminds me of the first time I had my own methods for listening to music, courtesy of a clock radio, circa 1983. I would stare at those bright, bleeding red digital numbers, scanning the stations for Chicago, Hall & Oates, and Air Supply, and drift off dreaming about “couples skate” at the roller rink, and wondering if I would ever learn how to move backwards so I could join in. Of course, in most of these scenarios, my skating partner was Ricky Schroder from “Silver Spoons” – this was back when he was still a Ricky vs. a Rick.

The Girl I Wanted to Be – “Now”

“Where I Fall” – The Reindeer Section
I discovered the Reindeer Section by way of Snow Patrol, as it was one of front man Gary Lightbody’s earlier projects (along with about, no joke, 27 other artists including Richard Colburn and Mick Cooke of Belle & Sebastian and Eva’s Jenny Reave). This song has become a staple in the “mix tapes” I make for friends (along with another equally amazing cut, “Will You Be There For Me?”). It’s also part of my “Now” soundtrack because it’s definitely something a current day Betsi would have in high rotation. And the lyrics “Please don’t look at me/I’m in such a mess/I will beat your love/out of my chest” continue to rank as one of my favorite – reading it doesn’t do it justice. Trust me.

“Sunday Afternoon” – Rachel Yamagata
I’m pretty sure Rachel Yamagata is the singer I wanted (and want) to be. I love a singer/songwriter who can also play their own instruments. To me, that’s the Holy Grail, and that’s what Rachel is – the total package. Her voice is haunting and heartbreaking – so scratchy, real, and raw – and her lyrics are the tales I’d love to tell. I thought this song in particular was a very appropriate manifestation of the ache that Barry is going through, though it’s unknown to most of those around him.

“For Blue Skies” – Strays Don’t Sleep
Full disclosure: I didn’t discover Strays until after I finished writing The Girl I Wanted to Be, so this was a post-publication addition to the track listing. But I’ve definitely become a full blown fan, and listened to them nonstop while on the road promoting the book. The group is a side project of Matthew Ryan (with Nielson Hubbard), and I flip flopped on whether to include a Strays song or one of Matthew’s solo pieces. This song ended up becoming the winner, because – and without saying too much – it is a perfect fit for the chapter in the book that immediately follows the Thanksgiving dinner scene.

Sidenote: if this book ever does become a film, I’ll do everything in power to make sure Matthew Ryan is involved with the soundtrack.

“I Can't Help Falling in Love With You” – Eels
Fun fact: I played this version of this song during my “Co-Captain* march” at my recent nuptials (*Co-Captain used in lieu of “bridesmaids” – cringe). It was wedged in after our “overture” (Guns’n’Roses’ “November Rain” played in it’s glorious 8 minute plus entirely) and before my “bride prance” (a piano version of Coldplay’s “Yellow”).

Anyhoo, I close out my “Now” version with this selection. This is one of those “current artist doing a cover” selections I mentioned before, and I think it really connects well with the book – from Betsi’s idol Elvis having made it so popular way back when to the actual lyrics themselves. Eels, i.e. the singer/songwriter known as “E.” (also known as Mark Oliver Everett), has a remarkably clear and captivating voice. And in my opinion, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect end note.

see also:

the author's blog
the author's website
the author's MySpace page
the book's myspace page

Publishers Weekly review of The Girl I Wanted to Be
DCist review of The Girl I Wanted to Be
Bookslut review of Grosse Pointe Girl
Armchair Interviews review of The Girl I Wanted to Be

interview @ Venus
interview @ Kansas City Star
interview @ Conversations With Famous Writers
interview @ AuthorsDen
interview @ Future Tense Books
Newcity Chicago profile
Washington City Paper profile
author articles at Mudsugar

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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