November 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.
Mary Stewart Atwell's debut novel Wild Girls is chilling and engrossing, a gothic coming of age tale set in an Appalachian prep school.
Shelf Awareness wrote of the book:
"Wild Girls proves a cleverly reimagined take on the classic coming-of-age tale, combining boarding school politics and typical teenage romances with an undercurrent of dark magic and even darker power plays that chills to the bone. The result is a compelling novel filled with enough small details of the high school experience to keep an otherwise fantastical tale grounded in the real world."
I have a feeling that Wild Girls may be unusually un-autobiographical for a first novel. I don't have much in common with the main character in terms of personality or biography, and as the events tend toward the fantastic, they're pretty unlike anything that ever happened to me. That said, the novel is set in the southern Appalachians, a place that has a strong hold on my subconscious. I grew up there, and have longed for it in a moony way ever since I left. For me, there's a natural but indefinable connection between the mysterious, wild landscape of those mountains and the dark terrain of adolescence. Maybe that explains why, when I tried to make a soundtrack for this story, I ended up giving each of the characters a song that was important to me between the ages of fifteen and twenty-ish.
Born in the small Appalachian town of Swan River, Kate is also a scholarship student at the prestigious local girls' boarding school. Because she's the main character and the narrator, she gets two songs.
Magnetic Fields, "Born on a Train"
I've always had friends who knew a lot more about music than I did, and probably only once or twice in my life have I had the opportunity to say that I liked something before the rest of the world discovered it. This is just one reason why I wish I still had the Magnetic Fields 7-inches that I hunted for at the local record store in the early nineties. When The Charm of the Highway Strip came out, I copied it onto a tape and listened to it on an Amtrak trip to visit a friend in Brooklyn. Maybe it's the literalism of that moment—listening to train songs on a train—that makes that moment stand out to me. Kate never gets to take the train to anywhere, but she does spend a lot of the book longing for movement. She'd love the pulse of place names that runs through this album—Montana, Vermont, all the places she's afraid she'll never get to see.
Dixie Chicks, "There's Your Trouble"
Country is the diegetic sound of Kate's teenage life, as it was of mine. This is a song that she couldn't help hearing from passing cars and radios in open windows, one she would probably assume she hated until she realized that she didn't.
Willow is Kate's on-again, off-again friend and sometime-nemesis.
Throwing Muses, "Bright Yellow Gun"
When I first heard this song, I loved the coded mysteriousness of the lyrics. Listening now, they seem much less inscrutable. The person with the bright yellow gun and the bright silver grin seems to have a lot of power over the speaker, and that's how Kate perceives her relationship with Willow. She's the one who makes the rules; Kate can only decide whether or not to follow them. Now that I've made this literal connection, however, I can't pretend that it's the reason I chose this song for Willow. Throwing Muses, with Kristin Hersh's powerful, abraded vocals, just sounds right for this character.
A local half-hippie, half-redneck, Mason is a potential love interest for both Willow and Kate.
Ryan Adams, "To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)"
My husband grew up in West Virginia, and while I was writing Wild Girls, we actually talked a lot about what kind of music Mason would listen to. I wanted to have a sense of what would be playing on his radio as he drove around with Willow and Kate, and if I'm going to be honest, it would probably have to be the same stuff my husband liked in high school—Led Zeppelin, The Doors. Ryan Adams doesn't exactly fit in, but if this song happened to come on the radio, I think Mason would turn it up. It's a song that makes you want to drive faster, but the vocals gives it a wistful quality, like nostalgia for something that's still happening. It doesn't hurt that in my head Mason looks a lot like Ryan Adams on the cover of Heartbreaker, complete with the cigarette standing straight up out of his mouth.
Caroline is Kate's best friend, independent and serious.
Superchunk, "Driveway to Driveway"
Because Caroline wears John Lennon glasses and rainbow-striped kneesocks, Kate sees her as terminally uncool, and for much of the book she's a little embarrassed by their friendship. Though Kate and Caroline bond over a shared affection for Dylan and Joni Mitchell, I like to think that Caroline has more eclectic musical tastes than Kate recognizes. Caroline could scream out the chorus to "Driveway to Driveway" without feeling self-conscious, and I think that's the only right way to listen to this song.
One of the wealthier students at the Academy, Tessa is a close friend of Willow's who thinks of herself as the leader of the other students.
George Strait, "Marina Del Ray"
After sophomore year of college, I spent a lot of time with a friend from Houston who listened to George Strait pretty much constantly. I still thought I hated country then, but I don't know how anyone could help falling in love with George Strait's voice. He just sounds so relaxed, as if he's sitting back in a recliner with a bourbon on his knee, the microphone just barely pressed to his lips. "Marina Del Ray" is a love song, but for Tessa, I imagine that this would be a comforting song, one that reminds her of home.
Another local boy, Clancy sees himself as the right match for Kate but has a hard time winning her over.
Velvet Underground, "Pale Blue Eyes"
I think this is the love song for secret and/or ambivalent romantics. I've never been sure what Lou Reed means when he sings the fact that you are married/only proves you're my best friend, but clearly it's one of those relationships where distance and unattainability only increase desire. At the same time, the music is very dreamy and languorous—it's a song that you want to listen to with your eyes closed. Clancy spends a lot of the book by himself, and I imagine that the yearning, pensive quality would really appeal to him.
Mary Stewart Atwell and Wild Girls links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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