August 16, 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 novel The Forrests, Emily Perkins vividly shares the life of a New Zealand woman from birth to death, a masterful and intricate depiction of an ordinary life.
The Independent wrote of the book:
"Most poignantly, and entertainingly, Perkins' knowing eye and unerring hand showcase the way that familial dysfunctions are often writ large at family functions: Dorothy's engagement meal at a Chinese restaurant, where the in-laws are meeting for the first, time distils its relentless march of discomforts perfectly; the farcical elements of a dropped tray and unfortunate allergic reaction jarring beautifully with the spontaneous moment of a secret love publicly revealed. Like the rest of the novel, it is funny, painful and utterly mesmerising."
I fell in love with a bunch of music while I was writing this book – some I'd listened to long ago and some that was new to me – maybe all part of the same submerged mid-life crisis that flowed under the novel (it is hard to describe what this book is about – 'a woman in time'? oh god no but that's pretty much it). You can read The Forrests as a family story, about all the different phases in family life and what happens to the characters, but also I wrote it as a story about time and how it changes us or not – both the great sweep of a life and the sensations of intensely felt moments. I hope it opens up to the things that make ordinary living extraordinary.
So as part of my 'I'm 40 now what the fuck?' thing, and the reading I was doing about Time and Fiction and whatnot I was also dragging my husband along to shows at the Kings Arms, where we would stand not too close to the stage and not too close to the bar and lose ourselves for a few blissful hours. Things had changed since I last went to a lot of live music, mostly that no one now can smoke indoors so in order to get that cloudy atmosphere they puff dry ice or a diffuser across from backstage. It's actually a lot nicer, if somehow less authentic.
Anyway, my memories of writing The Forrests are a bit like memories of childbirth in that I only remember the fun stuff, the surprises and jokes and exhilarating moments when I stumbled onto something that felt new, and I've forgotten the tears and sweating and I-can't-do-this and the get-it-out-of-me and I-hate-you. A big part of the pleasure was all that great music I got to listen to.
1. Clogs feat. Shara Worden, "Cocodrillo"
A setting that comes and goes from the book is a commune, where the Forrest kids meet some fairly freaky women and spend their days ranging around looking for rabbits and eels. They're caught on that awkward cusp when one of the boys is getting curious about sex and the others are still more interested in rabbits. There's something dreamy and shadowy about this track – the sense of wonder at the natural world and the bodily sensation of childhood – the flickering of summer days outside of time.
2. Okkervil River, "Unless It's Kicks"
And the mood of this one takes a great hormonal swerve into the mood of teenagehood and driving fast at night. I played it a lot while I wrote a scene with Dorothy and Daniel when their relationship's really unnegotiated and uncertain, going to a gig and having a particularly tricky are-we-together-or-aren't-we encounter afterwards. I imagine Dorothy is that girl 'exploding up from the stands, her heart opened out'.
3. She Keeps Bees, "Gimmie"
This captures that kind of sexual intensity young women can feel and which might be, sometimes, completely terrifying to the young men it's focused on…
4. Lawrence Arabia, "I've Smoked Too Much"
… like Daniel, who comes and goes from the sisters' lives. Geoff Dyer writes in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi that 'it's possible to be a hundred percent sincere and a hundred percent ironic at the same time.' Lawrence Arabia is brilliant at tracing that line.
5. The National, "Slow Show"
I listened to this a lot while I was writing just because it is one of the foxiest, funniest songs ever.
6. The Mountain Goats, "Woke Up New"
Who doesn't know this feeling? Also I went to see The Mountain Goats when I was in the middle of writing and it was one of the greatest shows ever. I slightly worship John Darnielle.
7. Nick Lowe, "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass"
While Dorothy and her sister Eve get older, have children, get married, go on family holidays, there's the feeling that, despite the trappings of adult life, they haven't shed that jangly, elbowy energy of youth. Thrash-dancing in the living room once the kids have gone to bed. This song gets at the almost sweet desire for chaos, destruction with a light touch. You want to smash things up? Hey me too!
8. Jim James (George Harrison), "The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp"
I played this all the time walking around my neighbourhood thinking about The Forrests. It's a gorgeous song, deeply relaxing. That whole album of Jim James singing George Harrison is a fast track to meditation maybe.
9. Broken Social Scene, "I'm Still Your Fag"
Just beautiful, sad, kind of funny, full of longing. That thing when you can see someone clearly and love them anyway. The real/imaginary power of an early love affair, the way it can hit you in dreams even over a distance of years, the way it's opened you out to a new version of yourself.
10. Smog, "I Break Horses"
And you are scary and amazing! I imagine this is like Daniel's inner voice as he grows up and life becomes more serious and he gets to know his own fallibility. The song gathers from sparseness to an incredible intensity. Another one that was on high rotate while I was writing.
11. Martha Wainwright, "Bloody Motherfucking Asshole"
All there in the title.
12. Tom Petty, "Breakdown"
In 1985 or 1986 the Violent Femmes were touring NZ at the same time as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. All the cool kids went to the Femmes show. Gordon Gano came on and said 'We're Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' which was kind of a great joke, but confused a few people. I wasn't cool but I was trying to be and I did love the Femmes, but now I think it's OK to love Tom Petty too.
In one scene Dorothy and Daniel are in their early middle age at a school reunion listening to a not-very-good band, and there's a screech of guitar feedback and Dorothy says 'I love that sound.' And there's another scene later when she's older still and wants to tell an uptight younger man, 'You're human, don't fight it!' To me those moments are like the feeling in this song – all of that inappropriate, odd energy – just give over to it. The seduction of giving up control, in whatever way.
13. Gillian Welch, "Look at Miss Ohio"
Getting older and the tiara has slipped. Age is a great leveler.
14. Joan Armatrading, "Woncha Come on Home"
I love the vulnerability in this song, the acknowledgement that sometimes wanting to be with someone is about not wanting to be alone. Her voice is incredible – the meaning she gives the word 'home'.
15. Sean Donnelly (Chris Knox), "The Outer Skin"
Chris Knox nails so much about life in his songs – this is covered here by Sean Donnelly (SJD), another great New Zealand musician. I love how it describes a twinned closeness/aloneness. Over the years Dorothy feels that Daniel's the person who knows her best, that she's most herself when seen through his eyes. It's a kind of thread through her life but it's dangerous in the way it sometimes takes her away from the life she is actually living.
16. Paul McCartney, "Maybe I'm Amazed"
This song's here for that great feeling it conveys of being surprised all over again by love for someone you've known a long time – kids, friends, partner, whoever – and what you have to give over of yourself to it.
17. Fleetwood Mac, "Landslide"
The way suddenly you turn around and that kid you were at school with has become a mother of three, or a drug counselor, or become wealthy or been caught in a terrible accident. I love that this song is about getting older and braver.
18. Volcano Choir, "Still"
'I'm building a still / to slow down the time'… It's the great illusion of fiction, that we can control time. Paying really close attention to physical sensation is a way of slowing things down. There's a spooky, spacious feeling to this track that makes me think of the strange power of the New Zealand landscape.
19. Fleet Foxes, "The Shrine/An Argument"
This came out after I'd finished writing The Forrests, so including it here is kind of cheating, but basically if I'd written the line 'sunlight over me no matter what I do' I probably wouldn't have needed to write the book.
20. The Decemberists, "Sleepless"
Probably this is the song I listened to most while writing the first draft. I don't know why, maybe just hooked on its slowness and the time it takes to get going, and the longing underneath it. Looking over these songs they're really chosen for their intensity of mood and unexpected corners and funny details, which are some of the same things I most enjoy as a reader.
21. J. Tillman, "Year in the Kingdom"
Did I mention this book is about the natural world and love and the passing of time?
Emily Perkins and The Forrests links:
BBC Radio 4 review
Financial Times review
Kirkus Reviews review
Melbourne Age review
New Zealand Herald review
New Zealand Listener review
Publishers Weekly review
also at Largehearted Boy:
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