September 17, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kim Culbertson's young adult novel Songs for a Teenage Nomad captures both the essence of small town life as well as the personal power of music in our lives. Her characters are realistically drawn, especially her protagonist Calle, whose trials are relatable.
Songs for a Teenage Nomad incorporates music into its narrative as well as anything I have read all year.
For me, music is a sort of time machine. I can be sitting in a café or walking into a clothing store or in the car and hear a certain song and it can vault me to another point in my life where that song cemented a memory for me. Every time I hear OMD's "If You Leave" I'm back in my Bongo lime green mini-skirt at an eighth grade dance, dancing with a brown-eyed boy. When I started writingmy young adult novel Songs for a Teenage Nomad, this musical time launch was what drove my main character Calle to create her song journal. Calle's not a songwriter; she's not a musician. But music means everything to her because it provides a record of her memory, a timeline of her nomadic life. She collects songs, the way one would collect stamps or baseball cards.
Each of the chapters in Songs for a Teenage Nomad starts with one of these memory songs. Calle hears a song that reminds her and she writes down the memory in her song journal. There are 25 chapter songs in the novel (and dozens of others) but I thought I'd pick ten of them and talk a bit about how they made their way into Calle's story.
"Get out the Map" Indigo Girls
When I first started writing Songs for a Teenage Nomad, I had initially wanted to use the song "All That You Can't Leave Behind" by U2 for that opening chapter – I just loved the idea of everything Calle manages to bring with her in her nomadic life. But then the whole idea of the way that Calle and her mom find new places to live came to me, a penny flipped onto a map of California, so I wrote that into the chapter. One evening, I was sitting and listening to a mix of music and "Get Out the Map" came on. I remember sitting straight up and thinking, "that's perfect!" and so that became the opening song. No offense, U2.
"Underneath It All" No Doubt
I love this song title and used it for this chapter because subtext plays such a key role for Calle in this part of the story as she navigates her new friendship with Alexa, starts to connect to her new school and Sam, and also starts to question why she listens to her "Mom's music" if it makes her "strange." The music in this book is really eclectic but it is essential that it have a history for Calle and her mom, that it track the last decade of her life.
"Island in the Sun" Weezer
I've taught high school for twelve years, and one of my former students wore a Weezer shirt about three times a week (it wasn't always the same Weezer shirt and I'm pretty sure he washed them, once in awhile). Whenever I saw him outside of class, he would always be listening to Weezer or he'd be talking to me (or anyone who would listen) about Weezer or he'd scribble their lyrics in the margins of his assignments. A few of us at the school took to calling him "Weeze" as a nickname. And he did get me hooked on their music. When I was writing the chapter that would become "Island in the Sun," I kept thinking about how Calle felt alone so much, felt like an island, and when Sam smiled at her she describes him as having a smile "like the sun." That song just fit so naturally there.
"Hard to Explain" Cowboy Junkies
I once saw the Cowboy Junkies in concert at this really cool outdoor theatre on a warm evening and there is just something about their music that bleeds angst and memory and summer to me. I knew I wanted their music to play a role in Calle's world with her mom, be there in the fabric of their history. Calle's memory in this chapter in particular is very dreamy to her, very rooted in darkness but also in melody and ease – she's rocking back and forth on a tire swing – and so this song just seemed perfect to me because so much about Calle's life is "Hard to Explain."
"Father of Mine" by Everclear
This song always gets me, the underlying sadness and loss of it, the blame, but also the rage. Calle's father left when she was a baby, but he was the one who named her "Calle after a cat he had in college that ran away." She is driven by a longing for that person who named her. I knew I wanted to use this song somewhere in the book before I ever started writing this chapter.
"Small World" Ani DiFranco
I am a lyrics girl and Ani DiFranco is one of my all time favorite songwriters. Her ability to string words together in such a dynamic, lyrical (and such prolific!) way always astounds me. I love her work, so I knew I would put one of her songs in the novel. I teach high school creative writing and I often use Ani's songs in class to talk about metaphor or imagery; one day I was teaching "Small World" and there was this lyric in that song that says something about the world being "absurd and beautiful and small" and I thought about how Calle's world must feel that way at this point in the novel. Also, this song deals so much with lost time and past mistakes...it was the right song for this chapter.
"People Talkin'" Lucinda Williams
Lucinda writes whole novels in the span of one song; I just love her songwriting. This one jumped out for the novel because people talk – and in small towns that talk often becomes gospel and myth or both. Calle is sifting through all the talk in this new little world of Andreas Bay, California, trying to make sense of her life through what people tell her, whether it's truth or myth or a little of both. She feels like a visitor in this small town where everyone has this deep-rooted history and their own versions of the past. I live in a small town (the one I was raised in) and it's incredible how stories grow and shift while they are passed around until they become their own entity – a sort of mashed up version of reality.
"Busted Stuff" Dave Matthews
There is so much busted stuff in this novel. Let's face it, we all have our own bin of busted stuff that we drag around with us. From slippery little fragments of things we wished we'd said differently to huge chunky mistakes we've made with people we've loved or lied to. I was drawn to this song because I'm drawn to the idea of people being busted or breakable and the work it takes to fix that. If I was writing the book now, I might use Ingrid Michaelson's "Girls and Boys" where she just talks about how breakable we all are, but at the time I was writing Songs for a Teenage Nomad, this song just seemed to sum it up in two words.
"Karma Police" Radiohead
This one was handpicked for me by one of my students. She thought it would be perfect for the book and I just loved the idea of "Karma Police." This is a pivotal moment in the book for Calle and Sam and there is definitely some Karma at play in this chapter. I'm not sure I believe in Karma – I think I wish for it more than I actually believe in it – but I just love the moody, haunting quality of this song.
"You Can't Always Get What You Want" The Rolling Stones
This song is the epilogue song and a song that I find very grounded and hopeful. We do, if we let ourselves, "get what we need."
There are many, many songs in this novel. People have asked me, "why didn't you choose…" some specific song and I do really like to emphasize that while all these songs stood out to me in the writing of this novel, each one could have easily been a dozen different songs. The role of music in this novel is not about the specific songs but rather about the way that we each have our own soundtrack, the way music shapes us in a very individual, but still universal, way.
What's the soundtrack of your life?
Kim Culbertson and Songs for a Teenage Nomad links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists
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