September 25, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Many authors try to integrate music into their narratives, but few accomplish the feat as well as Stephanie Kuehnert does in her young adult novel, Ballads of Suburbia. The book's characters use song lyrics as touchstones for their lives' key moments in this dark and engrossing story, and their song choices are illuminating.
As you probably guessed from the title Ballads of Suburbia, this book (and pretty much all the writing I do) was heavily inspired by music. In fact the book probably wouldn't exist if it weren't for Mr. Johnny Cash (and Joe Meno for putting Cash's songs in a particular context), but we'll get to that in a second. The characters in Ballads of Suburbia keep a notebook and in it each one of them tells the tale of the event that changed his/her life and made them into the person they are. That is their ballad and they open it by citing a line or two from a song.
The book itself had playlist that ultimately grew to 36 songs by the time I was all the way through revisions. I'm not the kind of writer who can listen to music while writing unless I'm really in the zone. (I did hit that zone for a bit while finished the first draft of Ballads and then I was on a steady diet of Johnny Cash, PJ Harvey, and Screaming Trees.) For the most part, I used my playlist to get into the mood to write or I'd listen to a certain song to tackle a certain scene or set a mood. Don't worry I won't go through all 36 songs, just the most important ones.
"Cocaine Blues" by Johnny Cash, "Story of My Life" by Social Distortion, and "The Young Crazed Peeling" by the Distillers
Pretty much since I was a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I wanted to write a story about the darker side of suburbia—the problems that go on among families and especially teenagers, the drugs, the depression, the generally messed-up situations that people ignore in order to continue pretending that they live in a safe and happy place. But everything I wrote came out too autobiographical or too whiny or too preachy-sounding. So I put the idea on the back burner and was working on my first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, in one of Joe Meno's classes at Columbia College Chicago when Joe brought in a boombox and a bunch of CDs by Johnny Cash and The Carter Family. He played some songs and started a discussion about ballads. He told us that ballads were one of the original forms of storytelling and to think about how we could use the kind of storytelling they do in our own writing.
I thought about what a direct story a song like "Cocaine Blues" tells: "I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down." It's a compelling story; the teller is blunt and honest about his actions and the consequences. Then I started thinking about some punk song that I loved like "Story of My Life" and "The Young Crazed Peeling" and how, again, the singers just laid it out: this is how my life went down and you get the sense of the consequences and the ‘lesson,' so to speak without it being preachy or whiny. I was scrawling things down in my notebook like mad. I'd figured out the structure for my suburbia book. Each of the characters would need a way to tell their ballad. I'd lay out the chapters like songs—some short, some long—each focusing on a particular life-changing moment and it's consequences, each a ballad. So that's where the structure came from. I stewed on it for about a year before I started writing.
"Little Boxes" by Rise Against, "Hey Suburbia" by Screeching Weasel, and "Suburban Perfume" by Office
These were my suburbia songs, each evoking a different sense of the suburbs that the characters feel at various points in the book. "Little Boxes" is the classic song about the suburbs. It's the image of suburbia that my story was smashing up—perfect little boxes that are home to perfect little families that will raise perfect kids that will start the cycle over again. In the original Malvina Reynolds version, the socio-political commentary on what the suburbs represent definitely comes across, but when Rise Against covers it… Well, you can feel those perfect little boxes being broken to pieces.
"Hey Suburbia" pretty much sums up how the characters act and feel through most of the book: "We're gonna slamdance on your grave/Cuz we don't give a shit about tomorrow."
"Suburban Perfume" is the song I used in the book trailer because if the book were a movie, I always imagined it would be playing as the credits roll. It has a more reflective feel, which is the place that the main character, Kara, is telling this story from. It's like an introspective ballad. I listened to it again and again to remind myself of the tone I wanted the book to have.
All three of these bands are from Chicago. Since the book is set in the Chicago area, I found myself listening to a lot of Chicago music.
"Cut My Skin, It Makes Me Human" by The Gits and "Hurt" by Johnny Cash
One of the ways Kara copes with her life is by cutting herself. It's one of the ways I coped as a teenager, too. Which meant that to get into Kara's head, I had to revisit some pretty ugly places myself. The music helped me get into that mindset. A lot of the lyrics in The Gits song expressed the reasons why I used to cut and why Kara cuts: "Cut my skin, it makes me human/scorn your mind/just feel the pain" makes me think of escaping mental anguish with physical pain. And "When you're looking at pain, you're looking at truth/Nothing like pain to make us all the same" goes even further, that line summarizes one of the main themes of the book.
And I was definitely listening to the Nine Inch Nails version of "Hurt" in high school thinking Trent knew exactly how I felt when he sang: "I hurt myself today/to see if I still feel." But the Johnny Cash version just feels a lot less angsty and more honest. You really get the sense that it's being sung by someone who has hit rock bottom and is trying to crawl out of the darkest pit. I listened to Johnny's version again and again when working on the end of the book.
"Christie Road" by Green Day and "A Place Called Home" by PJ Harvey
The main thing the characters in Ballads of Suburbia are searching for is a place where they feel like they are at home. Polly Jean singing "One day I know/we'll find a place of hope/just hold on to me" is pretty much what this story is all about. And the place where they create their makeshift home is Scoville Park, a real place where I hung out as a kid. "Christie Road" always reminded me of it: "Give me something to do to kill some time/Take me to that place that I call home/Take away the strains of being lonely." That's what Kara was searching for at Scoville Park and I was, too.
"Heroin" by The Velvet Underground, "Mr. Brownstone" by Guns ‘N' Roses, and "Sober" by Tool
In my opinion, "Heroin" and "Mr. Brownstone" are the best songs ever written about heroin. "Heroin" conjures up the feeling that gets you addicted—"When I'm rushing on my run/and I feel just like Jesus' son"—and brings you to the point where you just don't care about anything but the drug—"Heroin, be the death of me." "Mr. Brownstone" captures the actual process of getting addicted: "I used to do a little but the little wouldn't do it/so the little got more and more." When I had to get into Kara's mindset during the heaviest parts of her addiction, I listened to both those songs repeatedly. And "Sober"—"Why can't we not be sober?/I just want to start things over" definitely sums up the way she feels when everything starts to fall apart, but she still doesn't want to give up the drugs.
"The Kids Aren't Alright" by The Offspring
I heard this song on the radio when I was revising Ballads and it pissed me off so much because what they sing about in three minutes complete with catchy little "whoa-oh's" was taking me 300+ pages to sum up: "How can one little street swallow so many lives?" Except I was asking it about a whole town and I was going into a hell of a lot more detail about each character's dashed dreams. Still I can't tell you how many times I listened to this song after that. It was like having a personal trainer show you how easy an exercise is done—inspiring and aggravating at the same time.
"Bastards of Young" by The Replacements
There are six ballads in Ballads of Suburbia, not counting Kara whose ballad spans the book. The characters write them in the "Stories of Suburbia" notebook. As I mentioned each character opens with a lyric that applies to their story in a way, but I think the lyric that the guy who created the notebook, Adrian, chooses applies to the whole story: "We are the sons of no one/Bastards of young." That's pretty much how all these kids feel, like they really are "the daughters and the sons of no one" and that "The ones who love us least/are the ones we'll die to please." This sentiment is what is behind so many of their actions and the story as a whole. It's probably the song that sums up this book of ballads best.
Stephanie Kuehnert and Ballads of Suburbia links:
The Book Cellar review
The Book Muncher review
The Book...Spot review
The Book Vault review
Butterfly Book reviews review
Carrie's YA Bookshelf review
Eileen Cook review
Frenetic Reader review
Gapers Block review
Library Lounge Lizard review
Opinionated? Me? review
Plenty of Paper review
Pop Culture Junkie review
Reading Is Bliss review
Steph Su Reads review
Stop, Drop, and Read review
The Story Siren review
Chicago Sun-Times profile of the author
Crystal Reviews interview with the author
Forest Park review profile of the author
Razorthoughts essay by the author
Reading Nook interview with the author
Sarah Hantz interview with the author
Shout Outs... interview with the author
Want My YA interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy: