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November 19, 2010

Book Notes - Deborah Willis ("Vanishing and Other Stories")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Deborah Willis's debut collection of short fiction, Vanishing is a brilliantly observed and eloquently written examination of loss and its after-effects in our lives.

The National Post wrote of the collection:

"Even-tempered, sober and intimate, Willis's stories have a gravity that suggests an author well into her career. But if echoes of Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro (and, in the hard-luck stories, Raymond Carver) reveal her as an astute apprentice, Willis also illustrates her talent for crafting stories that reflect her distinctive techniques and voice.

Read more:"

In her own words, here is Deborah Willis's Book Notes music playlist for her short fiction collection, Vanishing and Other Stories:

Vanishing is a collection of fourteen short stories that I wrote over a period of seven years. I usually write in silence, or in places so noisy that all the chatter blurs into white noise, but music has certainly been an inspiration. One of the stories is titled "And the Living is Easy," which is a line from Gershwin's song "Summertime." Radiohead and Mercury Rev make an appearance in "This Other Us." Leonard Cohen's sensibilities––his way of mixing biblical imagery with contemporary language––was one of my inspirations when writing "Sky Theatre," a skewed retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. I could go on, but I've narrowed the Vanishing playlist down to five songs.

"Maggie May" – Rod Stewart

In my story, "This Other Us," two young women who live together as roommates like to put on Rod Stewart and dance in the kitchen. Of course, they only do this when no one else is home. (According to Nick Hornby, there was a time when one didn't have to be ashamed of being a Rod Stewart fan and when dancing to Rod Stewart in your kitchen didn't have to be ironic.) Their favourite song is "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" (whose isn't?). But for this playlist, I chose "Maggie May," in which Rod sings to the older woman who is his lover. The song reminds me of most of my characters, who seem to be constantly falling in love with people who are inappropriate but fascinating. There's Tom, a doctor who becomes obsessed with a blackjack dealer. There's Wendy, a biologist who has an affair with a young photographer. There's Braden, the aging cowboy who is seduced by a suburban girl. And there's Lise, the one dancing in her kitchen, who is half in love with both her roommate and her roommate's boyfriend.

"Marijuana Motherfuckers" – D.O.A.

I've gone from Rod Stewart to D.O.A. (I doubt that either the Vancouver punk band or the British balladeer would be impressed.) Such is the beauty of playlists, and of short story collections: perfect consistency is not required.

I've chosen this song because the final story in my book, "The Separation," is about an eleven-year-old girl named June who is obsessed with punk music. She's the daughter or hippies and she listens to a lot of D.O.A. And since the story mostly takes place on a Greyhound bus traveling between Victoria and Port Hardy, I though this particular song was appropriate. The lyrics (I like marijuana / you like marijuana / we like marijuana too) are not exactly profound. But on Vancouver Island, they're not far from the truth either.

"It's Too Hot for Words" – Billie Holiday

The characters in my story, "And the Living was Easy" listen to this during a heat wave in Toronto. The garbage ferments in the streets, everyone drinks too many gin-and-tonics, Lady Day is always on, and Alex falls permanently and disastrously in love with his father's new girlfriend. And then, of course, the summer ends. The weather changes, the heat passes, and they have to continue with their lives.

"Heartbreak Hotel" – Elvis Presley

It must be clear by now that Vanishing is a book of stories about love and loss. Hence "Heartbreak Hotel." In the book's title story, a girl named Tabitha begs her mother to buy her a life-sized ceramic bust of Elvis Presley. She carries it home on her lap, the King's glassy eyes and ceramic collar making even the streetcar-ride seem pleasant. But when she arrives home, Tabitha finds that her father––a famous playwright––has vanished. After this, she lives in a kind of ‘heartbreak hotel.' She tries to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance, believing he might have gone to India or to the Alps or just up the street. She wakes up in strange beds in strange cities, and is never quite at home.

"Nomadic Revery" – Bonnie Prince Billy

I don't have a reason for including this song, except that I listened to a lot of Bonnie Prince Billy during the time when I wrote many of these stories. Maybe that's why tone of the song––somber and melodic––seems to fit with the mood of many of Vanishing.

"Set Out Running" – Neko Case and Her Boyfriends

I'll end with Neko Case, whose album, Furnace Room Lullaby, shows just how brilliant and powerful country music can be. This song is full of both drama and understatement: If I knew heartbreak was coming / I would have set out running. It calls up the winds of the prairie, where I grew up and where many of my stories are set. And in its wailing way, it communicates just how strong memory is, how it chases us down: Want to get it all behind me / because everything reminds me. To me, this is what stories are about: how the past shapes our future, and how time alters our bodies and our perceptions and the plot of our lives.

Deborah Willis and Vanishing and Other Stories links:

the author's website
publisher's site for the book
excerpt from the book ("The Separation")

Booksie's Blog review
The Brown Tweed Society review
Eye Weekly review
Globe and Mail review
KevinfromCanada review
Kirkus Reviews review
Leafing Through Life review
The Lost Entwife review
The Millions review
National Post review
Pank review
PopMatters review
Raging Bibliomania review
Rundpinne review
Sasha & the Silverfish review
Three Guys One Book review
Time Out Dubai review
Vol. 1 Brooklyn review

Bookmark interview with the author
National Post interview with the author
Publishing Perspectives essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

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)
musician/author interviews
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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