October 16, 2009
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Good things do come in small packages, and in the case of Emma Straub's slim novella Fly-Over State, so do great things. Straub's unique narrative voice is keen and nuanced, and after having read this book (plus every short story of hers I could find), I can safely predict she is a writer to watch with a strong literary future.
Dan Chaon wrote of the book:
"Emma Straub is a wry, witty, incisively observant writer and I was charmed from the first page to the last. Fly-Over State is a smart and memorable story that I will cherish, a great inaugural to a literary career that is full of promise."
My novella Fly-Over State is about a woman from New York City who moves to Wisconsin with her husband. Strangely enough, I too moved from New York City to Wisconsin a few years ago. Though my family is originally from Milwaukee, and points further north in the state, my experience was at turns jarring, amusing, and entertaining. I found myself asking a lot of questions, both in my fiction and to my husband, such as is that what vowels really sound like? Is everyone being ironic? The idea of irony in a generally friendly environment was really interesting to me, and the sense that I was misunderstanding/being misunderstood on a daily basis certainly formed the basis for this story. My father's family, all from farm country outside of Madison, is a very funny bunch, and so I knew that there was some dry humor lurking behind the niceties. The earnest conversations about earthworm composting couldn't all be real, could they? Many of my students in Madison were having a similar, if diametrically opposite, reaction to the town. I had several first-year students cry in my office because Madison was too big, too scary. We were both having stranger-in-a-strange-land syndrome. Fly-Over State is very much about that feeling: where am I? Who are these people?
Another thing about Wisconsin: it's not like other mid-western. Illinois may have gangsters, and Minnesota may have even longer vowels, but Wisconsin has Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ed Gein, and polka, and lutefisk. What is lutefisk, you ask? It's fish that has been cured with lye, and is then eaten for dinner. Welcome to Wisconsin.
1. The Talking Heads, "Psychokiller"
My impetus for writing Fly-Over State came from my fear of our next-door neighbor. Unlike in the book, I never actually ventured into his underground lair, but if I had, I would not have been surprised to find several small skeletons there.
2. Loudon Wainwright, "White Winos"
One thing people like to do when they are cold is drink. There are many towns in Wisconsin that have but one local business: a tavern. You might not want to order the white wine, but if you stay long enough, you will end up talking about your mother.
3. Bon Iver, "Skinny Love"
Now here's a guy who understands cold weather. I don't think I've heard an album that captures the long winter like this one. Is it the falsetto? Is it the beard? I think it's the tinny guitar, and the way the album sounds like it was recorded in a cabin in the middle of the woods, which I believe it was.
4. Faith Prince, "Adelaide's Lament" from The Original Broadway Cast Recording of Guys and Dolls
This song actually appears in Fly-Over State, as a part of a community center production of Guys and Dolls. Though perhaps several other musical numbers would have served as well, I know the songs from Guys and Dolls better that most other musicals, due to the fact that I myself was in a middle school production of Guys and Dolls. However, because of my undeniable lack of musical proficiency, I didn't sing a note that wasn't bolstered (read: drowned out) by the rest of the cast. Adelaide was always my favorite character, and so choosing this seemed natural. And you know what? I'm singing this song outloud to myself right now, and I sound fantastic. Thanks very much, Cathedral School, for giving me a complex. I think I'm going to write a song about it-- "Emma's Lament." So there.
5. Billy Joel, "Uptown Girl"
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, this song always spoke to me. It came out in 1983, when I was three years old and perhaps not yet sophisticated enough to know that Billy Joel wasn't cool. I think Sophie, the narrator and protagonist of Fly-Over State, would also have a not-so-secret soft spot for Mr. Joel's ouevre, especially this song. In fact, she might even have sung it as her audition for her middle school production of Guys and Dolls, had she had the chance.
6. The Gothic Archies, "Shipwrecked"
There is a certain romantic, shipwrecked feeling that comes over Sophie and her husband in the book, and which I also experienced. This song takes that feeling ("If it looks drizzly, I'll build us a yurt.") and bumps it up to a Wisconsin-worthy bloody end.
7. Jens Lekman, "Maple Leaves"
You know who else understands cold weather? Swedes. Jens Lekman has a quirky/sad/goofy quality that I really enjoy. I think it has something to do with writing songs in a second language, but is likely also just his natural sensibility to play with words. He's like the blond, Swedish Lorrie Moore.
8. Joanna Newsom, "Peach, Plum, Pear"
Lest this list sound too negative, let me make something very clear. I adore Wisconsin, and had three of the most enriching years of my life there. Some things are an acquired taste, like Joanna Newsom. Wisconsin is weird and amazing. So is Joanna Newsom. If you don't believe me, listen to nothing but this song for at least two days. You will change your mind. This might be the secret message of my book, too: give it time. Anything can grow on you, even your psycho neighbor and his BB gun.
Emma Straub and Fly-over State links:
also at Largehearted Boy: