August 2, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
In her debut short story collection Battleborn Claire Vaye Watkins marries character to landscape as well as anyone I have read in years. These stories set in the Nevada desert are gritty and brilliant, and foretell an auspicious literary future for their author.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"Readers who have enjoyed the work of Annie Proulx and Joan Didion will find much to admire in this arresting collection, which one hopes is merely the first stop along the way for a writer who deserves a sustained literary life."
Five Secret Songs in Battleborn
1. "My father, Paul Watkins, met Charles Manson at a house party in San Francisco eleven months before Razor Blade Baby was born. He and Charlie wrote songs together and camped around the bay until December, when they set out for L.A., bored of the city, sick of the rain." — "Ghosts, Cowboys"
If I were picking a great song to accompany "Ghosts, Cowboys" it would be "Helter Skelter," by The Beatles. But it was actually the music of the Manson Family I had in mind when writing the story. I listened to as much of it as I could bear while working, and that wasn't much. I imagine Paul and Charlie working on a tune like "I'm Scratching Peace Symbols on Your Tombstone," which is the Family's best song, and the best thing about it is the title.
2. "Here we are in my bedroom, just come home from a concert. We are made of clay and our limp limbs are clandestinely held in place with toothpicks. We've been to see a band whose music was frantic and heartsick and whose lead looked so much older than the last time either of us had seen them that we couldn't help but grow a little older ourselves as we listened." — "The Archivist"
"The Archivist" is a story about breaking your own heart. The band Nat and Ezra, the "cokehead flimflam man" she's sleeping with, went to see is certainly Built to Spill, who have induced in me this same peculiar form of time travel. Here she's probably thinking of their live performance of "You Were Right," a woeful cannibal of a song. In that way it's a lot like Battleborn.
3. "They've both got an uneventful adolescence's worth of recklessness welling inside them, and one of them has a driver's license and a like-new Dodge Neon and it's just the tip of summer, which means there are college boys from places like Chicago and Florida and New York City wandering the Strip, sixty miles away, boys who came to Las Vegas looking for girls willing to do the things she and Lena think they are willing to do." –Rondine al Nido
I listened to Hospice, a haunting and bleak album by The Antlers, a lot while writing "Rondine al Nido." The epigraph to the story comes from the Bhagavad Gita via J. Robert Oppenheimer—"Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds"—but it could easily be this line, from their song "Bear": "All the while we'll know we're fucked/and not getting unfucked soon."
4. "At the Bonanza's glassy bar we switch to whiskey and video poker. We hit the buttons as slow as possible, like Jules taught us, trying to stretch our money long enough to get a few free drinks, long enough to make it worth our while. Willie Nelson is on the jukebox, a muted soccer game on TV." — "Virginia City"
My grandma turned me on to Willie Nelson, who is, along with Paul Simon, the patron saint of these stories. Since "Virginia City" is about a busted love triangle in a campy Old West tourist trap, I'm going to say the track on the jukebox is "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." Or maybe "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)."
5. "Here's the truth, Duane Moser. Sometimes I see his eyes above that bandana, see the grasshoppers, leaping in the lights, hear them vibrating. I feel the kick of the rifle butt in my sternum. I would do it again." — "The Last Thing We Need"
I wrote "The Last Thing We Need" after listening to The Mountain Goats and not much else for months. Depending on how you look at it, "The Last Thing We Need" is either a loving homage by a superfan, or an utter rip-off, particularly of the song "Against Pollution." Every time I hear the main character say "I would do it again" I'm hearing John Darnielle.
Claire Vaye Watkins and Battleborn links:
Bust Magazine review
Kirkus Reviews review
The Millions review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
The Nevada Review review
Publishers Weekly review
Sacramento News and Review review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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