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October 18, 2013

Book Notes - Don Waters "Sunland"


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.

Don Waters' Sunland is a fast-paced, impressive comic novel that explores themes of identity and ethics.

ForeWord wrote of the book:

"In richly descriptive and propulsive prose, Don Waters's dynamic debut Sunland dissects the meanings of aging, manhood, family and the borders erected between people and nations, all against the backdrop of the unforgiving Arizona sun. His mid-thirties protagonist Sid Dulaney experiences a delayed, yet highly potent, coming of age in a novel that explores many questions, including how to separate what is against the law from what is ethically right or wrong."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.

In his own words, here is Don Waters' Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Sunland:

Sunland is set in Tucson, Arizona and in the outlying desert along the border. The city of Tucson is bright, hot, harsh, and gorgeous. Water is scarce and light is plentiful. As enchanting as the Sonoran desert can be, our southern border and the cities that sit along the border are under pressure. Sunland touches on many of the hot button issues that add to the region's complicated fabric: race, illegal immigration, the American healthcare system, and drug smuggling. To take the sting out of the heaviness, I also tried to make the book funny.

I set the story in Tucson because of the city's unique population, which grows older every year. Arizona draws large numbers of retirees and snowbirds. And it's where my narrator, Sid Dulaney, carves out a business for himself. To pay for his grandmother's costly assisted living expenses, Sid runs cheap prescription drugs over the U.S./Mexico border—from Nogales to Tucson. But Sid wants out of his self-conceived business. He wants to start a family. He wants a job teaching high school. He wants to find some way to feel rooted under the big Arizona sky. Though his business is illegal, his grandmother's friends rely on him for their meds. So, he's stuck. Decisions loom. Meanwhile, just within earshot, music plays in the jukebox at his local taqueria, inside Sid's car, at the corner bar and around the elderly residential village.

It's hard to imagine jazz or reggae as background music in my novel. With Sunland, the music that comes to mind (and helped me write the book) is Outlaw Country with a little punk rock, norteño, and Lucinda Williams sprinkled in.

When Sid meets one guy with ties to a Mexican cartel, they size each other up and ask one another about musical tastes.

The guy asks, "Do you like norteño?"
And Sid replies, "Do you like Waylon?"

Waylon Jennings, "Slow Rollin' Low"

Waylon's "Slow Rollin' Low" has the sweetest guitar-picking opener ever recorded. As far as I can tell, Outlaw Country blends old-time country and Rock'n'Roll. And Waylon embodies that. He played bass for Buddy Holly. He gave the finger to the traditional Nashville sound. He was an original. Not to mention: his voice is a solid boulder of grit. My narrator, Sid, is a big Waylon fan. Sid loves his music, and I imagine he'd also appreciate Waylon's hard-working, blue-collar themes.

The Highwaymen, "Highwayman"

Sid drives a lot: Sixty-miles south to Nogales, Sonora to pick up cheap pills, and sixty-miles back to Tucson. He drives a beat-up blue Honda and listens to the radio or the in-dash cassette tape player. Pandora? Spotify? Forget it. Sid's choices are limited by whatever tapes he can shove into his old cassette player. Littering his passenger seat are cassette tapes, and one of them, I imagine, would be The Highwaymen's Super Hits, which begins with "Highwayman." I can see Sid listening to the song again and again as he cruises south on I-19, itching to find some other way to make cash.

The song, I admit, is a bit overly produced. It's neat and tidy, its beat too uniform. While it lacks originality, everything is forgiven the moment Willie Nelson begins singing, followed by the aged yet syrupy voices of Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. The Highwaymen is the super group formed in Outlaw heaven.

Tift Merritt, "Stray Paper"

Tift Merritt has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard. She's an amazing musician and songwriter to boot. Part of Sid's journey in the novel is to find a partner. An ex-girlfriend nuked his heart, and Sid occupies that liminal space just between heartbroken and being open to new possibilities. "Stray Paper" is a song about longing, fleeting moments, and those deliciously masochistic moments when we ruminate on past pain, even though doing anything else would be a better use of our time.

Bob Dylan, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, "Main Title Theme"

It's amazing how a simple guitar-driven tune can evoke the aura of an entire region. This song is a gorgeous instrumental. For me, it nails the feeling of the southwest landscape. Dylan scored the soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which came out in 1973. "Main Title Theme" is the opening song. Sid would have this cassette tape in his car.

Calexico, "Dub Latina"

Calexico is from Tucson, so when Sid enters his local coffee shop, which he frequents with an elderly friend who likes eyeballing college coeds, it wouldn't be unusual if he heard Calexico. Oftentimes music rises out of a place. The many wide and varied regions across this big, weird country have different musical souls. Calexico—part Alt-Country, Americana, Latin—represents the soul of Tucson. Their music knits together cultures. While writing this book, I often listened to Calexico, especially whenever I was away from the southwest. Calexico's songs address topics I write about. In many ways we're on the same wavelength.

Chalino Sánchez, "Cartel de Las Calles"

Chalino Sánchez is the godfather of the modern day narcocorrido. (Narcocorrido = drug ballad.) One of my characters associates with a Mexican cartel, and his big dream is to have a well-known Mexican songwriter write one corrido about him, which is how one grows his or her legend. Corridos are basically the equivalent of gangsta rap. The lyrics contain stories about hustling, threats, battles, and boasts. And the music? Well… I'm not the biggest fan of accordions and polka beats mixed with norteño folk guitar. When I traveled to Nogales, Sonora to conduct research, I bought several Chalino Sánchez bootlegs from a street vendor. The seller nodded his approval. Later, I listened to Chalino whenever I sat down to write about the cartel character.

Los Tigres Del Norte, "El Jefe de Jefes"

Sometimes I like to have fun while writing by smuggling obscure references into my stories. In Sunland, I inserted the name of this well-known norteño band into a scene unrelated to music. Even more, I borrowed the name of a song when describing a big-time, regional gangster. ("El Jefe de Jefes," or "The Boss of Bosses.") It's amusing how snippets of songs and life events inevitably show up in fiction. When I was in Tucson, I ate at a taqueria near the place I stayed, and Los Tigres Del Norte was playing, so naturally, when Sid frequents his local taqueria, he also hears the workers listening to the band.

Bad Religion, "Generator"

There are several necessary and humorous turns in Sunland, and with these turns come new beginnings. "Generator," by Bad Religion, is a powerful song. It's hard, fast, punishing and forward-looking. Sid isn't just a man of the desert. He has tastes and opinions. He would appreciate punk rock as much as Outlaw Country because both share similar ideals. Sid is educated. He's lived all over the country, from the West Coast to Ohio to Massachusetts. When the story begins to move, things happen fast. "Generator" symbolizes this rising change.

Lucinda Williams, "Sharp Cutting Wings"

"Sharp Cutting Wings" is the most beautiful song about love and longing. Lucinda is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. Her voice is raw and incomparable. I see Sid listening to this tune late at night, sitting on his back patio, cicadas buzzing in the bushes and half a beer sweating at his feet.

When you put the word "land" in the title of your novel, as I've done, you evoke a physical setting. Novels also have emotional settings and, in many cases, musical settings as well. If I had to choose only one musician to bring along to Sunland, it would be Lucinda.

Found Cassette Tape Wedding Mix:

Before pulling onto I-19 for his hour-long drive to Mexico, Sid often stops by his local Goodwill and rummages through the bin full of old tossed-off cassette tapes. He looks for mixed tapes with interesting labels. He finds birthday mixes and friendship mixes and wedding mixes. I imagine Sid boarding the highway on a sweltering afternoon and popping in this bad wedding mix, songs everyone is entirely (and sadly) overly familiar with:

Billy Idol, "Mony, Mony"
Nelly, "Hot in Herre"
Madonna, "Vogue"
Van Halen, "Jump"
Prince, "Purple Rain"
Bee Gees, "Stayin' Alive"
Aretha Franklin, "Respect"
Elvis Presley, "Love Me Tender"
Aerosmith, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing"
Garth Brooks, "Friends in Low Places"
Righteous Brothers, "Unchained Melody"
Village People, "YMCA"

Don Waters and Sunland links:

the author's website

ForeWord review
Publishers Weekly review

Akashic Books essay by the author
Hobart interview with the author
Kenyon Review interview with the author
Ploughshares interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author
Talk of the Nation interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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

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