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February 3, 2011

Book Notes - Alison Espach ("The Adults")

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

Alison Espach's debut The Adults is a striking coming of age novel that elegantly captures both the awkwardness and exuberance of youth as well as the complexities of adulthood.

Teddy Wayne wrote of the book:

"Every single sentence has tragicomic verve in The Adults. Alison Espach's coming-of-age novel is jaggedly funny, moving when you least expect it, and wise beyond its years. Parental guidance is strictly optional to enjoy this gem of a debut."

In her own words, here is Alison Espach's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel, The Adults:

I started writing The Adults in 2006, but much of the novel takes place in the 90's, before computers, and CD's, when all we had were boom boxes and Super Mario Brothers, and all Mario had was three lives. I made a lot of mixed tapes then; I went to the mall and bought singles. Strange.

Not all the songs listed here are from the 90's, because I know it's not healthy to try and live there forever. Most of the songs below don't even appear in the book. In fact, now that I think about it, there isn't much music in the book at all, besides a line from The Monkees, a nod to Rod Stewart, and a reference to Jimmy Buffet's possible "Blue Period," none of which I listened to while writing the book, except when I was visiting my parents, driving their car.

I get uncomfortable when fictional characters are defined heavily by their music choices, like they are in most Michael Cera romantic comedies; I find it confining, and it reminds me of being judged for my music tastes when I was too uncool in high school to know any better, stuck with a car that only played tapes, and only one tape, Les Mis.

But I did listen to music 99.9% of the time that I wrote The Adults, so this is a sampling of the songs that I listened to usually on repeat. Most of them are about intense heartbreak, or desperate longing, or the hazy in-between, confusing, paralyzing states of being, or the 90's. The Adults, I guess you could say, is about all of those things.

"Glycerine," by Bush

Once upon a time, I thought the lyrics were, "I'm never in love, I am in love all of the time." It took years of listening to realize that Gavin Rossdale was actually singing, "I'm never alone, I'm alone all the time." I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed by this revelation, because that whole time I thought Gavin and I shared an understanding of what it meant to be in love, and yet never in love, simultaneously, all of the time. That was how I, and a few of the characters in The Adults, spent our teen years. We were painfully infatuated with everybody, but never actually in love, because we idolized intangibles: memories, people we didn't know, people who didn't like us back, distant figures of the teenage-horizon.

"All the Things She Said," by T.A.T.U.

In 2010, halfway through editing The Adults, I remembered that this song existed, and hearing it was like unwrapping a Christmas gift I forgot to unwrap years ago. I loved this song for a lot of reasons when I was young, but I love it now mostly for the music video. The intensity of being in high school, the shameless melodrama, the complete urgency of every emotion, and the inability to forget any hurtful or wonderful thing anyone ever said to me, not to mention the weird camera angle that provided for the uncomfortably sexualized teenager girls in the video. The cameras, the strangers watching them, even the girls themselves play a role in this. They are being rained upon in their Catholic school girl uniforms, making out. I never wore a Catholic school girl uniform, regrettably so, but I listened to the song a lot, so I almost feel like I did.

I'm still not exactly sure what the crisis is—besides the fact that the girls are stuck in a jail where it happens to be raining, and then at some point later their cab driver has no eyes—but it helped me reconnect with my inner teenager who felt constantly rained upon, behind bars, while strangers with umbrellas looked in on me.

"Crosses," by José González

I listened to Jose Gonzalez almost exclusively for a month while writing, particularly this song. There is so much I like about his music, but it's his instrumental repetition I enjoy the most, the way it never gets annoying or feels overly simplistic as it can in other songs. I like repetition, in music and in life; I am a creature of habit, and if you read The Adults, you'll probably notice that.

"Be, Be Your Love" by Rachael Yamagata

Rachael Yamagata's voice is so clear and beautiful and sweet and then, when you least expect it, raspy and guttural and demanding. I'm a sucker for songs with piano accompaniment, as well as earnest declarations, ones that have been stripped of all their anger; she's just a woman at a piano demanding love, and I kind of admire that.

"Unattainable" by Little Joy

In case you haven't picked up on it by now, I wrote half of The Adults with a broken heart. And so the theme of the unattainable continues on. But in this song, Binki Shapiro's voice, in tandem with the acoustics and lyrics, is so perfectly peaceful. A nice contrast to the urgency in T.A.T.U. The song, at least in part, seems to be about choosing to be "unloved" instead of forcing a love that's not there. A little sad, yeah, but the fact that maturity exists somewhere—I guess that's important to keep in mind too.

"Sneaker Pimps" by 6 Underground

This song actually appears in the novel, and I'm not going to ruin the moment by saying how. Just know it's an unfortunate sequence of events. I listened to this song a lot while I wrote, because a) I like it, and b) it was a big part of the 90's for me. I'm not sure what it represents really, if anything besides me in the 90's. All I know is that when I listen to it, I feel like it's 1997, and I'm in stuck in overalls with one strap unclasped.

"Where the Wild Roses Grow," by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Even though someone once told me if they were to murder me, they would do it while listening to this particular song, there is something I still like about it. It's a duet between Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave about the murder of a woman named Eliza Day. I like the declaration of her name at the very start ("They call me the Wild Rose, but my name is Eliza Day.") I seem to enjoy it when characters declare who they are, beyond their nickname. I'm not sure why, but it happens in the book a lot.

I enjoy it even more when Kylie adds, "Why they call me it, I do not know," and drags out the "know" to the point of comedy. It's amusing, and yet, a little creepy, because there's a strange nervous, sexual anticipation to Eliza Day's murder, on both the victim and the murderer's part. Normally, I'm very ambivalent about Kylie Minogue, having almost no clear opinion on her at all, but I really like how she sings the woman's part here.

The whole thing is seductive and sad, perhaps in the way of the main male figure of the book, Mr. Basketball: beautiful upon first glance, and a little less so upon each subsequent glance. I like beautiful things that end up being scary and vice versa. What other song can make you laugh, send ghost fingers crawling up your spine, and inspire you to slip off your robe, in under four minutes? I can only hope my book does at least one of those things.

(And I still think this all applies even though Nick Cave claims he was just kidding when he wrote this song).

"Cursed Sleep" by Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Much of my sleep was cursed during the creation of The Adults, but that's not really why I choose this song. I wrote the book when I was living in Missouri (a bluegrass band that I listened to as a reprieve from all the darkness, if you are curious, is the Hackensaw Boys). I performed a cover of Bonnie "Prince" Billy's song "Horses" with a friend of mine at some St. Louis bar, that went tragically awry, but I really fell in love with "Cursed Sleep." In Cursed Sleep, people are yet again "enslaved by sweet wonder," held captive by their darkest desires, a bunch of love-sick insomniacs, no big surprise there.

"Fleur de Saison" by Émilie Simon

Sometimes listening to music in French helped me write. It was sort of like listening to Classical music, but a little more exciting because there were lyrics, and yet equally not distracting because I didn't understand them. I just imagined that she was saying something profound.

"Notorious Thugz," by Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugz N Harmony

Not being much of a thug myself, this song has a strangely profound effect on me. When I was in elementary school, my brothers were in the height of their rap and R&B phase, which they subsequently forced upon me. I was a bit too young for it; I thought "angel dust" was the dust sprinkled down by our favorite angels. Not that I'm ungrateful for the education. Singing this song with my brother in the early 90's was one of the last memories I have of him—he passed away many years ago. So I listened to this song a lot while writing. It reminds me of the sounds and sights and feelings of living with him in the early 90's, how we would dance and curse and sing about grabbing our gats even though I had no idea what that was or where I put mine.

I also listened to this song when I started worrying that writing The Adults had made me too sedentary, or that I was listening to too many murder ballads. Notorious B.I.G. has a way of making my fiction seem totally irrelevant, which is nice sometimes, because there is such a thing as taking your fiction too seriously.

So there's that, but then there's also Puff Daddy's brief cameo in the song as Jesus Christ which is infinitely appealing.

Alison Espach and The Adults links:

the author's website

Author Exposure review
Between the Covers review
Kirkus Reviews review
Wall Street Journal review

Five Chapters short story by the author
Guide to Literary Agents guest post by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists
Online "Best Music 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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