September 4, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Claire Zulkey's debut novel An Off Year chronicles her protagonist's year between high school and college, a clever and humorous coming-of-age tale readers of all ages will appreciate.
Gapers Block wrote of the book:
"Where Zulkey succeeds here is in examining that sacred, allegedly carefree first year of college and showing the myriad of ways in which it can be a year filled with some of the greatest tension of one's life. But, as Zulkey says through the conclusion of her book, that's okay. That tension is normal and common and the mistakes one might make during this period of time do not necessarily have to determine the course of one's life thereon out. An Off Year makes for an encouraging read for anyone on the cusp of that treasured change, or for anyone having just come out of it thinking, as Cecily does, "Holy sh**...I can't believe I just did that. What now?" That "What now?" is something that Cecily, as do all of us, successfully learns can only be answered by oneself."
I don't listen to anything when I write but I do listen to music almost every time I go for a walk, which is frequently when I think about what I'm working on. Over the last couple hundred miles or so a few songs jumped out of my iPod and attached themselves to my book. The funny thing is that I've been working on An Off Year for so long--since I was 19 or so--that you'd think I'd have more songs emotionally attached to the project, one for each year at least. However, I wanted to keep the book relatively disconnected from pop culture, since it's about a girl who's rather lost and floating, which I'd hope can be relevant to anyone anywhere and isn't necessarily tied down to 2009. Besides, I already embarrassed myself by setting a scene at the Sears Tower, which is already outdated since it's now called the Willis Tower.
Before I knew that "Ghost World" was a comic (and then a movie) I loved this song for capturing the feelings of confusion, loss, hatred and apathy that come with the end of high school (of course in real life there is also jubilation, growth, maturation and so on but Aimee Mann, god love her, rarely is happy-go-lucky). Then, of course, I learned the story of "Ghost World," about two aimless, sometimes-witty recent high school grads who ponder what will come next while criticizing (sometimes pointlessly) the world around them. One matures and moves on, the other doesn't. All this happens in An Off Year, but moreover I feel like Mann's lines "All that I need now is someone with the brains and the know-how to tell me what I want...anyhow" pretty much sum up my protagonist Cecily's point of view.
There's a scene in my book where Cecily is hanging out with her friend Mike, a music lover, in his bedroom, so I had to have them listening to something. This being a Young Adult book I could guess what the young adults these days are listening to in their bedrooms but I figured that if they're like I was in high school, they certainly don't restrict themselves to the most current music. So, I decided to have them listen to someone that I listened to a lot during hangout time in high school: Beck. Sure, I listened to Mellow Gold with my friend Tracy in her mom's basement but I liked the spooky, lost sounds in this track since Cecily is basically adrift during a large part of the book. If you go to page 88, this is basically the song I envisioned playing during the scene (although I technically called Beck's The Information, which came out in 2006, an "old" album).
We had an annual Christmas dance at my school. Well, to be truthful it wasn't at my school, but at the nice hotel in town and while it was kind of a school dance, it was actually a private dance and I know that not everyone got invited, but I did, and I am grateful for that but also feel bad now in retrospect for those who didn't (I didn't know anyone personally who was not invited--that's how big the dance was). Anyway, the dance, which we called "Holiday," was a lot of fun. It wasn't as formal as some of the other dances, so people didn't get quite as hung up about who they were going with or what they were wearing as they would with, say, prom or cotillion. I was possibly the only person in the history of my school who was never drunk or stoned at Holiday but that didn't stop me from having the time of my life each time I went. The dancing was just too fun and too silly. Everyone got down when "Baby Got Back" came on and so of course I had to put that in the high school dance scene in my book--I don't know if kids still dance to that, but they should. In that scene I also included a detail about a girl getting sloppy drunk which did happen to a friend of mine--it was quite scandalous and thrilling at the time but of course only a foreshadowing of the many friends who would get sloppy drunk later on in college.
"School spirit, motherf**kers!" That pretty much sums it up. In between paying homage to fraternities and sororities, Kanye West talks about dropping out of college and what he sees as the bogus parts of the school system: "This nigga graduated at the top of my class...I went to Cheesecake, he was a motherf**king waiter there." Incidentally, when Cecily graduates from high school she, like just about everyone else on the North Shore of Chicago, gets taken to lunch at the Cheesecake Factory to celebrate. West's song both celebrates and mocks the college experience, a sentiment I know I and certainly Cecily can get down with.
I applied to a million colleges back in 1996. Actually, to put a fine point on it, I applied to ten. Those are a lot of applications to fill out, heartfelt essays to write. I remember shutting the door to my room and attacking several of these at a time over Thanksgiving break, at one point calling up the local radio station WXRT and requesting this tune for inspiration. The DJ honored my request, saying on-air "Cross your fingers, cross your toes--this girl wants to go to Georgetown." And I totally did. You know what else don't come easy, I've learned? Writing books.
Claire Zulkey and An Off Year links:
also at Largehearted Boy: