April 10, 2013
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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Jennifer Gilmore's third novel The Mothers is as striking and memorable a book as I have read all year. Sincere, heartbreaking, and at times even hilarious, Gilmore has skillfully portrayed the hurdles one couple faced becoming parents in one of the year's finest novels.
Omnivoracious wrote of the book:
"The Mothers is harrowing and hypnotic, a page-turner that makes the reader long to know what ultimately happens to this couple at the end. But the book also has some very interesting things to say about the desire to be a mother, and the state of motherhood itself."
I wrote a book called The Mothers, my third novel, and the book chronicles a couple's journey through a labyrinthine process of adoption. The book is also about many other things, but no matter. Like this couple in my book, my husband and I were also going through a very protracted and tragic adoption at that time—unbelievably awful things kept happening to us. And so I decided to write about it to make our experience be about ideas and therefore more interesting to myself, as opposed to just gut wrenching and grief-filled.
I have said this here before, but it bears repeating: I never listen to music while I write. I just can't concentrate as I get sort of caught up in music and also my memories of the music, where I first and last heard it. But I do, when I'm off work, as it were, listen to music about the books I'm writing. I'm inspired and haunted by music, and so is my fiction. Then, during the writing of The Mothers, the easiest thing for me to list here would be books about babies: Crosby Stills and Nash's "Teach Your Children," say, or "Stay up Late," The Talking Heads. Or perhaps songs mentioning babies! Like, "Anyone Seen My Baby," (The Stones) or Ike and Tina's Baby Get it On. Or: Freebird! Yes, why not Freebird.
But I listened to none of those songs during the writing of this book.
What I did listen to, and what did cost me a lot more than songs about or mentioning babies were those songs from growing up. There were all different genres of music when I was young. These are songs that remind me of the wonders and horrors of being part of a family. They were the songs I believed I would pass on to the children my protagonist had so much trouble procuring. I had to get into her sense of dire longing—it was these songs that let me know what was so deeply at stake for her.
Okay, so don't laugh:
Bette Midler, "Do You Want to Dance"
My father might be the only straight person who owned and adored Bette Midler. I can still see the wild hair on her likeness on the album, The Divine Miss M. We used to dance around in the den. My mother, who worked full time and traveled often, was always exhausted and would try to convince my sister and me that sometimes you can dance while lying down, just with your hands.
John Lennon, "Starting Over"
When Double Fantasy came out in 1980, it was just before Lennon was shot. "Starting Over" and "Woman" were my first real clue to the deep complex world of romantic love. That he shared this album with Yoko was, even then, touching to me. I wanted to be thought of, wanted, loved, by someone like John Lennon, who now I see meant loved by an artist. The day after he was shot, I was in Mrs. Most's classroom at North Chevy Chase High School. She was young but had the kind of lipstick that bled into the lines and cracks in her upper lips. It all seemed so bloody to me then. Love, wanting to be wanted, school.
Carole King, "Really Rosie"
Feminism for girls through the voice of the great Carole King. I can tap across the Tappan Zee! Don't you see, I'm terrific at everything.
The Beach Boys "God Only Knows"
Pet Sounds was the first time I understood what was happening on the surface was not always what was happening beneath. That happened in high school but the lesson was lost on me until I was much older.
Bob Dylan "Just Like a Woman"
My parents had the Dylan Greatest Hits. They were not Dylan fans, nor did they live in his time, as in live in it, but that nonetheless that song would inform my idea of what being female was for a long time. I contrasted it in my mind, often, with John Lennon's Woman. It was confusing.
For all the regional theater I saw at Bowdoin College with my grandmother. I remember her driving out there in her big white town car, her coral lipstick, her wooden purse that had Paris! painted along the side. South Pacific: You've got to have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true? Holding my grandmother's hand in the dark. A moment I would now kill for.
Gilbert and Sullivan, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General"
My father loved Gilbert and Sullivan. This was passed down through his mother, who adored all forms of musicals. We all went to see "Pirates of Penzance" with Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Klein. I used to run around the house trying to sing instead of speaking, like in an operetta. I told my friends I would be an actress and could not accompany them anywhere that summer as I was doing repertory theater. Alas.
Billie Holiday, "Body and Soul"
I wish I could say this was not how I learned what a drug addict was. But this was the story of Billie Holiday in my house, and then to hear her sing. Even very young, I felt this visceral attachment to her sadness.
Puccini, Turandot, "Nessun Dorma"
My grandfather was a judge in Maine, and he was an opera and classical musical fanatic. He had an entire basement filled with musical accoutrements. While my grandmother screamed from upstairs, he could lie back on his day couch and listen to "his music." I had little interest at the time, but he would make me these tapes--with that new Dolby sound—and he made a series of opera for me. I remember hearing "Nessun Dorma," which is of course one of the most recognizable songs, but I didn't know that then and I won't forget him sharing it with me, his hands moving up and down, as if her were a conductor, as if he were hearing it for the first time.
This goes out to my sister. She was everything Cyndi Lauper. Loved her. Everything about her.
Edith Piaf—Je ne regrette rien
My sister and I sang this really loud, often on top of the refrigerator. Until one day my sister fell off the refrigerator and the practice was questioned. The Little Sparrow's story always spoke to me.
Jennifer Gilmore and The Mothers links:
Brooklyn Daily Eagle interview with the author
Jewish Daily Forward essays by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Something Red
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
Reuters essay by the author (on unreliable narrators)
Rumpus interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
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