June 14, 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.
Joshua Isard's novel Conquistador of the Useless is a clever slacker novel filled with magnificently unforgettable flawed characters.
Small Press reviews wrote of the book:
"Anyone who grew up at the tail-end of Generation X will find something to love in this book — the protagonist's angst over drifting, however late, into adulthood, his taste in music, or even his fraught-if-only-because-it's-so-damn-pleasant relationship with his parents. All told, a fine novel about settling down without settling."
Music is central to my debut novel, Conquistador of the Useless, but more specifically it's music fandom. Nathan, the protagonist, went to high school in the mid 1990s, and is a grunge aficionado who never let go of that culture even into his 30s. When he and his wife buy a house in the suburbs, he befriends the teenage girl next door and is shocked to find that he likes some of the newer bands she listens to. This is one of the catalysts for Nathan's somewhat belated maturation through the novel, wherein he discovers how the world weariness of his youth helps him discover what he really values as an adult.
The music I've chosen here is a combination of the songs important to my characters, and those important to me. I'm a big fan, and always write with music on. I’ve made a playlist for every major project I’ve ever attempted, and that list has always developed along with the writing. For Conquistador, it began with some of my favorite alternative tracks that would get me into the mood I felt my initial pages should have—but then as the story grew I began adding songs that, for me, represented the characters, and even the book as a whole. The result is 54 songs, each of which has a subtly different meaning for me in the production of this novel. I still remember adding each one over the three years I wrote and edited it, and the reasons, however vague, that I did so.
Below are the best, and most interesting examples.
"Debaser" by Pixies
This is the seminal song of the novel. Pixies arguably spawned 90s alternative and grunge rock as we know it, and for Nathan they kick off his obsession with the genre. On a ride home from school someone plays "Debaser," and Nathan, who’d never connected with the classic rock his parents love, gets addicted to this new sound, which then dominates his high school years. Later on, when he’s married and Pixies get back together, Nathan and his wife go to the reunion tour where they end up spending a lot of time looking at the others in the audience who now have receding hairlines, crows feet, and even toddlers in tow. The music hasn’t changed for him, but he starts to realize that everything else has.
"Son of a Gun" by Nirvana
I really like Nirvana, obviously, but mostly their B-sides and covers. Yes, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is an essential song, but Incesticide has my favorite singles, especially their two covers of The Vaselines: "Molly’s Lips" and "Son of a Gun." I’ve heard various people say that "Teen Spirit" sort of changed their lives, but that always seemed a little ridiculous to me. So I wrote a character, Nathan’s neighbor, Tom, who says just that, and even has a guitar signed by all the members of Nirvana hanging in his home office to remind him. As Tom recounts how the song validated him, Nathan’s not quite sure what to say, so he tells the story of how Kurt Cobain came up with the title of the song because Teen Spirit was a brand of girls deodorant. Tom did not know this, and seems a little gutted. The exchange helps to establish Nathan’s real reason for moving to the suburbs: so he can be alone.
"Let Me In" by R.E.M.
This was the song that always focused me for writing, and stayed at the top of my playlist during the whole composition and editorial process. It’s intense right from the start, pensive, and put me in the mood to write something that is at once accessible and thoughtful (I hope…). The fact that it was written as a tribute to Kurt Cobain, and is part of one of the best albums of the 90s, doesn’t hurt, but I never thought about that when it came on. I thought about my characters and their story. Every single time. I hope I find another song like this for my next project.
"Suburban Home" by Descendents
I always wanted a bit of humor in Nathan’s story, and this song helped me to keep that in mind through the writing process. A satirical piece of punk that says, "I want to be stereotyped, I want to be classified," it reminded me of the irony Nathan and his wife feel as they move into a neighborhood about fifteen minutes away from the ones where they grey up. It could seem like a failure, and their instinct is that it should, but at the core their move is genuinely what they want.
"Titus Andronicus" by Titus Andronicus
If there is a contemporary band that I think those who grew up in the grunge culture would like, it’s Titus Andronicus. With their lo-fi, guitar driven sound, not to mention the humorous audacity of an eponymous name for their first single, they fall right into the style of the best bands of the early 90s. In the novel, the teenage girl Nathan befriends introduces him to bands like this. It helps him to realize that there’s some good music which was produced after his high school years, and that he might be able to handle growing up without losing every value from his youth—only the ones he probably should lose.
"Roots Radical" by Rancid
This is the band that Rayanne, the teenage girl, and Lisa, Nathan’s wife, find they have in common when they first meet. Rancid seems to be one of the bands that's had the most longevity, and I've seen more current teenagers at their shows than those of almost any other 90s band. When I saw them at the Electric Factory in Philly I stood on the balcony—you have to be 21 to get up there—and on the floor were teenagers, looking just like my friends and I must have ten or fifteen years ago when we came here. This seemed like one of the best ways to establish a connection between generations in the novel.
"Schaffino" by At The Drive-In
Jim Ward, the lead singer of At The Drive-In, used to work for Cinco Puntos Press. One of the first email exchanges I had with Lee Byrd, my editor and Cinco Puntos' CEO, was about how the novel made her think about Jim, his band, and how he cut a CD with the poet Bobby Byrd, Lee's husband and co-owner of Cinco Puntos. I hadn't thought of At The Drive-In for years, but once I got involved with CPP I went and downloaded the albums I used to own on CD back in high school. Their first album, Acrobatic Tenement, is incredible, especially "Schaffino," my favorite single, and this reinforced for me that I'd found the right place for my novel.
"All My Friends Are Insects" by Weezer
You know it's a good time to have kids when your favorite bands are appearing on children's programs to promote their new album. This track from the deluxe version of Hurley, released in 2010, was first played by Weezer on Yo Gabba Gabba, a performance I presume was as much for their kids as for them. Three of the four current members of Weezer have kids, and much of their original fan base does as well (and were probably thrilled to see Weezer on their children's favorite show), so this is a nice song to show where we've all come after the 90s. It's a good song, too, and is first on the playlist I made for my baby daughter.
Joshua Isard and Conquistador of the Useless links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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