September 28, 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.
Stewart O'Nan, in choosing Sharma Shields' debut short story collection for the Autumn House Prize, wrote that she "dares us to follow her through the twisted mazes of her dark rides." These stories are dark, funny, and filled with the fantastic, from medusas to werewolves to the scariest animal of them all, man, and are as entertaining as they are surprising.
Diana Spechler wrote of the collection:
"In Shields’ beautiful debut collection, Favorite Monster, a butcher is a vehement vegetarian, a man becomes a cricket, and a woman falls for a Cyclops. The stories are as devastating as they are funny. Shields dazzles with fresh language and insight, with wit and sensitivity. Hers is an unforgettable voice."
For the most part, I don't listen to music when I write (I'm thinking too hard, I guess, to even notice it), but music is as essential to my daily life as reading and composition. Of course, we writers tend to be music-obsessed, language-obsessed nutjobs.
So, here's the playlist. I wanted it to have loads of female perspective, Northwest flavor, quirkiness, humor, and darkness: all traits that have been used to describe my short story collection, Favorite Monster.
"Kicked It In the Sun" – Built to Spill
Favorite Monster is set mostly in the Northwest, and Built to Spill is, for me, the quintessential Northwest band.
This wacky chick I lived with my first summer in Seattle ('97) introduced me to Built to Spill after fretting greatly over what was, at the time, my affection for Dave Matthews Band. She literally pulled out some strands of her hair when I tried [failed] to convince her that the song "Satellite" was beautiful. After impatiently listening to me ramble, she instructed me to shut the fuck up and put on the first few bars of Perfect from Now On.
I was confused. What was this guy doing to his guitar? What was up with this dark discordance? I liked it. It tweaked my ear. I would put the album on repeat, and then switch it out for There's Nothing Wrong With Love. I'd lie on my roommate's bed and listen to Doug Martsch's mournful warble and daydream about writing (at that age, I was daydreaming about writing much more than I was actually writing).
Perfect From Now On remains one of my favorite albums ever. It works the way a great short story collection works, with songs that are strong independently but are most powerful when strung together. I also feel this way about Time (The Revelator), mentioned below.
As for this particular song, I didn't have much of a reason for choosing it other than it numbers among my favorite BTS songs ever. I love all of its surprising transitions, which give it this amazing epic quality.
"Away with Murder" – Camera Obscura
There is a serial killer in my book, so I needed a song about murder/death. I also considered Talking Heads' "Psychokiller," but this Scottish band won out because of Tracyanne Campbell's clear, feminine voice. Like the song's narrator, several of the women in my collection are undergoing a disturbing malaise. In my story "Souvenirs," a woman would rather fall in love with a suspected serial killer than enjoy some much-needed alone time. This song highlights a similar loneliness and desperation. Also, it mentions Portland – another Northwest shout-out. Of course, I'm sure she means the Isle of Portland in the U.K. That's okay. I'm going to pretend she means Portland, Oregon.
"My Mistakes" – Eleanor Friedberger
I really dig Friedberger's solo stuff, as well as the stuff she writes with her brother, Matthew, for their band, The Fiery Furnaces. I think she's a unique vocalist and lyricist, and her instrumentation is always funky and interesting. I chose this song because my collection's characters are also, as the song discusses, grand fuck-ups. Friedberger is always great at injecting humor into her work – not an easy task for a songwriter, and she does it really well.
"For Reverend Green" – Animal Collective
A few of my stories have literal monsters in them. Cyclops, Sasquatch, a werewolf, even Medusa. Although, in the end, it's really the humans that wind up being/feeling the most inhuman.
This weird, catchy song by Animal Collective mentions, "Now I think it's all right to feel inhuman," but there's an unreliable narrator speaking here, so the sentiment is perhaps not to be trusted. Singer Avey Tare explodes emotionally throughout the song, screaming "NOW I think it's all right" despite the lyrics' purported calm. I think it really speaks to Favorite Monster's unreliable narrators, as well as to its intended quirkiness and emotionality.
"For Reverend Green" is the sort of song that I turn up and other people turn down. It's definitely not for everyone, but it gives me goosebumps.
"Make Me Wanna" – Girl Talk
Apparently Girl Talk's clever and mathematic mash-ups are not supposed to be sipped as individual songs – rather you're suppose to drink down the entire album in one fell take, like a shot of tequila. I had to refer to this track individually, though: the surprising mezcla of Cyndi Lauper and Young Dro always cheers me. It's funny and fun and wittily done.
Comparatively, with Favorite Monster, I tried to use humor to lighten the mood a bit, considering the recurring themes of loneliness, regret and unwarranted maltreatment. It was important to me that people realize I'm not some asshole sadist – I do believe there is goodness in the world; I do believe in such things as love and laughter (albeit in small, shimmering quantities).
Girl Talk, then, is a great way to inject some joy, and some dancing, into what is otherwise a melancholic playlist.
"Margaret vs. Pauline" – Neko Case
If Built to Spill is my quintessential Northwest band, then Neko Case is my quintessential Northwest singer/songwriter. Her songs are dark and ominous; her style is a quirky amalgamation of country and blues and folk. I dig her mucho. I also love the Northwest imagery that peppers her songs. On her album Blacklisted, she mentions the light shows at Grand Coulee Dam. Back in the day, my mother would take us to the light shows on the way to our grandparents' house in Okanogan. It was a weird white-trash event, with giant laser eagles and flags flapping on the nation's largest concrete structure. My brother and I loved it. When I first heard that song years ago, it unlocked all of this dormant, sweet nostalgia for my childhood. I adore a songwriter that can wrest those emotions from me.
I chose "Margaret vs. Pauline" in particular because it compares and contrasts two characters: one who is lucky in life (Pauline) and one who is not (Margaret). At the end of the song, Pauline loses her coat on a train and Margaret loses her fingers in a cannery. The severe divide between these two losses really encapsulates some of the disparities in my short stories – why do some people seem to live charmed lives, while others are doomed to darkness? It's a question I ponder in my daily life, and in my fiction. Life is unfair. I like to ask of it, "Why?"
Poking into this song further, I read that Neko Case based the song on a Richard Brautigan novella, which makes it even cooler.
Anecdotally, I recently cornered Neko Case after one of her shows. We were in the Baby Bar in Spokane, a tiny dark coffin of a space with what may be Spokane's best jukebox, and I saw her standing there looking pretty damn magnificent with her red hair and wry mouth. I approached her and shook her hand. Our conversation went something like this:
"Hi, Neko. I just wanted to tell you that I'm such a huge fan."
"Your songs are so beautiful."
"You're such a fantastic writer. The lyrics are so dark, filled with blood and guts and gore. I love that darkness."
"And your voice, of course, is just so bold and gorgeous."
"So I just had to meet you."
"Yeah. Thanks! Thank you."
I guess I lingered a bit longer, maybe waiting for her to say, "Wow, dude! You're rad. Hey, do you want to be my new best friend?"
No such luck. She stared off into the corner and waited patiently for me to leave her alone. Can't blame her. I sounded like a sycophantic slag (to quote The Smiths).
"Everything is Free" – Gillian Welch
When I saw Gillian Welch perform this song, I loudly hooted after the line, "…I'm gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay."
I loved this song before I understood what it truly meant. I'm a sucker for a slow, sad ballad. My most trusted editor (who also happens to be my husband) was the one who introduced me to Gillian Welch. He was also the one who clued me into the song's tenacious anti-pirating message. We had been dating at that time, listening to Time (the Revelator) in Missoula, Montana, where we both went to graduate school for writing. The album is perfect to me not only musically but also in that it reminds me of the complete and utter dedication I suddenly had with my writing – not just daydreaming about it, but fucking doing it.
If I could reincarnate myself as a musician, I would choose to return as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. And I don't mean as one of them: I mean as both of them together, like Siamese twins with two heads and a shared torso. That's how seamlessly they compose and sing – just listen to those inextricable, complex harmonies! Holy crap! – so it would be tragic to come back as one and not the other.
"Wolf Among Wolves" – Bonnie "Prince" Billy
There is a werewolf in Favorite Monster who really wants to connect with the human world. He's looking for love and acceptance, and he almost, and then doesn't, find them in his envious friend, Nicky.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy – aka Will Oldham – writes what is, for me, the world's most beautiful music. I saw him perform this entire album (Master and Everyone) back in 2004 in Missoula. It's still my favorite live show ever.
The narrator of this song laments the pure way that he is loved. He is not a man at all, he argues, but a wolf among wolves. While his lover is trusting and good, he knows himself too well to accept or reciprocate such naïve affection. Instead, he feels burdened by it. It's a different narrative from my werewolf story, but it compliments nicely the theme of isolation.
"Broken Face" – The Pixies
This is a disturbing little ditty, if you pay close attention to the lyrics (uh…incest?). It's one of the amazing songs on Surfer Rosa, an album I've loved since high school.
I'm concluding my playlist with "Broken Face" because, lyrics aside, it's zippy, strange, and catchy, and because the title alone pairs nicely with Favorite Monster's last story, "The Ones," in which a woman falls in love with her boyfriend's dentures.
I don't have the slightest idea where I came up with that plotline. Maybe I just wanted to say that all love is weird and unexpected and awkward.
Anyway, "The Ones" is, I believe, the happiest story in the whole book.
It's always good to end uptempo.
Sharma Shields and Favorite Monster links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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