July 30, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
The Mother Garden, Robin Romm's debut collection of short fiction, showcases the author's vast imagination and keen storytelling skills in these often surreal stories of death and grief.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"In her embrace of the off-kilter (one story is aptly titled “The Tilt”), Romm is mining the same vein as Aimee Bender and Judy Budnitz, whose recent collections have featured, respectively, a pumpkin-head family and a woman whose pregnancy lasts for years. But Romm is a close-up magician, more intimate and less instinctively fabulist, and most of her work leaves room for rational interpretation. Even the title story, about a woman who plants other people’s mothers in her backyard, makes it clear that the garden is basically an elaborate art installation. No magic here, Romm seems to insist."
The Mother Garden, my collection of short stories, recently came out in paperback. I started this collection a few years before my mother died and finished it shortly after. Most of the stories are preoccupied with impermanence—and the way the world gets so vivid, bizarre, and beautiful in the face of it. Many of the tales are actually questions made into metaphor. For instance, "Lost and Found," about a woman who finds her father lying naked in the desert with a note on his toe, is really me asking the question: can you ever really know your parents? "The Beads," where a woman's autopsy reveals a stomach full of glass beads, is a way of asking the question: what if mysteries of a person's death (or life) die with the deceased? I'm a big believer in questions. I suppose I don't care as much about the answers. I think our human experience is best expressed in that grammatical construction, held at bay with that loopy bit of punctuation, that small spoon.
"The Night at Sea," The Rachels
When I started the story, "The Arrival," which is a story that takes place at a beach house on the Oregon coast while a mother is dying, I was on the Oregon coast, at a beach house, with my dying mother. In the story, a woman washes up on the shore. She's not nice, but the mother takes to her. It's a mystery, like so many things are when you're confronted with death. The music for this song was the music of the sea, the grinding, crashing sound whose lyrics come from the listener's head. I think The Rachel's get at this in their creepy album, The Sea and The Bells.
"Lost and Found"
"Papa Was a Rodeo," The Magnetic Fields
The jaded absurdity of 69 Love Songs fits nicely with the less jaded but not less absurd feeling of "Lost and Found." Also, at the time I was writing this story (the years of graduate school), I listened to this set all the time. Everyone did. Even my professors seemed to have these albums on during workshops at their houses.
"Where Nothing Is"
"You Are What You Love," Jenny Lewis
I wrote "Where Nothing Is" because I wanted to write a love story for Don, my boyfriend of many years. But love stories are really difficult to write. And love never unfolds the way you expect. It always involves the ghosts of the past. In this story, the boyfriend is haunted by the death of his father, and entranced by another woman, Gwen. The narrator watches all this with a mix of dread and hope. And Jenny Lewis sings, "You are what you love, and not what loves you back…"
"The Egg Game"
"Get it While You Can," Janis Joplin
Marriage and children—such innocent, mundane pursuits. But they're scary as hell. Janis Joplin had nothing to do with this story, but what better song to be playing in the background as a man gets more and more frightened by the future he's wished for himself? I love the way Janis's voice just disintegrates in most of her songs. Like she's already a little past living, herself, though she's constantly praying for a little more life.
"Is This All There Is," PJ Harvey with John Parish
"The Tilt" is one of my favorite stories in The Mother Garden, though not a single magazine would take it before the book's publication. It was too moody and brooding. In fact, it was the story whose rejection led me to write the story, "No Small Feat." (An editor wrote to me and said, "You've helped us see death in a whole new way. No small feat! Unfortunately, a reader wants more.") I first heard this PJ Harvey song in college. It was the semester I took a painting class with a RISD professor who seemed perpetually stoned. ("Careful of the lead paint," she joked, pointing to her head.) I painted a giant cat on a black and white tiled floor with ghost cats just visible under the red walls. And I listened to this moody, brooding song all the time. Moody and brooding, a worthwhile state.
"We're Nowhere and It's Now," Bright Eyes
No song really encapsulates "The Beads." In the story, the narrator's mother's autopsy reveals an impossibly strange thing... The first wobbly drafts of this story feature scrolls or keys inside the mother's body, but they were both too symbolic. Scrolls would have messages on them. Keys would unlock something. Finally, I settled on beads for their strangeness and mystery, their glassy beauty. I want to put Conor Oberst on my playlist, because I think he sings from a stance of not knowing. He's willing, almost excited about how small he his. And that reduction from human to spirit-speck is something that lies behind many of my tales, including "The Beads."
"Baby Let Me Follow You Down," Bob Dylan
A happy interlude.
"No Small Feat"
"You're Not A Man," The Vaselines followed by
"F**k and Run," Liz Phair
I could have chosen any pissy anthem for this one, but The Vaselines do taunts. And Liz Phair does bitter. And this story, which I mentioned in my paragraph about "The Tilt" is, in part, a bitter taunt.
"I Feel it All," Feist
A young woman finds a diet online. It says: find someone you love to berate you, and this will kill your appetite. She chooses her estranged father. The chorus of this Feist song seems appropriate.
"It's Only Life," The Feelies
There's something sad but also escapist and honest about this song. And it has just enough wordlessness. Plus, so much of it is in questions.
"The Mother Garden"
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," The Beatles
Put aside the fact that it stands for LSD. This song is from my childhood. In fact, the first memory I have of seeing a movie is going with my dad to some screening of something Beatles…maybe Yellow Submarine. I sat there, I must have been seven, and the colors blurred out at me, shifting shapes squashed over the screen. It was terrifying, but also a portal to something I'd already sensed. The world was not a place where everything made obvious, orderly sense, like arithmetic. No, the world was also a place of smeary shapes in bright colors that moved too fast to slidey music. My world, too, is a slidey place, where mothers get buried up to their knees in a backyard as a kind of art installation.
"Spirit in the Sky," Dr. and The Medics
This song has one of the best music videos in the world. In "Family Epic," the ghosts of a girl's family keep falling through the ceiling, interrupting her daily life. She can't keep them out. I can just imagine my characters up there with that old hair band, all darting their tongues out while climbing short ladders to heaven.
Robin Romm and The Mother Garden links:
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Eugene Weekly review
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer review
Orlando Sentinel review
San Diego Union-Tribune review
San Francisco Chronicle review
SF Weekly review
Beatrice post by the author
The Jewish Review interview with the author
LitMinds Blog and Interviews interview with the author
New York Times review
Paper Cuts interview with the author
Poets & Writers interview with the author
Santa Fe Reporter interview with the author
Writers Read contribution by the author
also at Largehearted Boy: