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October 17, 2013

Book Notes - Lisa Borders "The Fifty-First State"

The Fifty-First State

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.

Lisa Borders' snovel The Fifty-First State is a compelling exploration of family and grief.

Christopher Castellani wrote of the book:

"Deeply affecting and compulsively readable, The Fifty-First State displays Lisa Borders' emotional acuity, first-rate skills as a storyteller, and profound empathy not only for her two compelling main characters but for an oft-neglected region and a disappearing way of life."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.

In her own words, here is Lisa Borders' Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Fifty-First State:

Music has always been integral to my writing process, especially when I'm working on a novel. I can't listen to it while I'm writing, but I absolutely have to listen before; the right selection of songs allows me to shake off my day-to-day worries and slip into the writing groove. When I was writing my first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, during the 1990s, the iPod didn't yet exist. My playlist for that novel was fixed, a mix disc of about ten songs that felt culled from the world of the book.

By the time I started work on my second novel, The Fifty-First State, I had iTunes to organize playlists, and an iPod to take the music with me anywhere I wanted to write. Thanks to this technology, my playlist became a living thing: something that grew and evolved as my work on the book progressed. It took me six years to write the first draft of The Fifty-First State, and then another two years of revision before it found a home with Engine Books, so there was plenty of time to add and delete songs from my playlist. The version below is an amalgam of songs from the final list I ended up with, plus a few others that were crucial to me in the early draft stages.

Each of these songs brings to mind a specific character, setting, or theme from The Fifty-First State (in some cases, more than one of the above). To give some brief context, the novel opens with a car crash on a South Jersey highway in which a tomato farmer and his second wife are killed. The farmer's 37-year-old daughter from his first marriage, Hallie, must leave New York and return to her hometown to see Josh, a half-brother she barely knows, through his last year of high school.

1. "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" – Arcade Fire

Once this song made it onto the playlist, it never dropped off, and I quickly moved it to first song in the list as it evoked so strongly for me the feelings of my character, Josh, a teenager whose parents die in the novel's opening pages. In fact, the entire Funeral album summons the kind of conflicted, nuanced reactions to grief I explore in this book: the inevitable devastation and loss, but also, the delicate, muted joy of being young and still alive. Neighborhood #1 describes a post-apocalyptic landscape where children have to strain to remember "bedrooms … our parents' bedrooms, and the bedrooms of our friends. Then we think of our parents – well, whatever happened to them?" Josh's world, especially early in the novel, is defined (and confined) by his bedroom, and he struggles throughout the book to both remember his parents, and let go of his memories so that he can move forward. The "whatever happened to them" always punches me in the gut when I hear it, as I think it would Josh.

2. "Atlantic City" – Bruce Springsteen

This was the first song ever on the playlist, and the one that has perhaps the most thematic and setting resonance. I use a quote from this song as an epigraph in my novel: "Maybe everything that dies someday comes back." This refers not only to the deaths in the novel's opening pages, but to the environmental degradation in the rural South Jersey region where the book is set. The Fifty-First State takes place largely in the fictional town of Oyster Shell, on the Delaware Bay; in terms of location, Oyster Shell is analogous with the real town of Bivalve, about 50 miles from Atlantic City.

3. "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" – R.E.M.

I'm a huge fan of early R.E.M., so it's physically impossible for me to make a playlist on which they don't appear. But this song also strongly evokes some personal memories that I used to shape my character, Hallie. Just as she struggles with resentment and bitterness following the accident that forces her to leave her life in New York and return to the small town where she grew up, I returned to my South Jersey hometown of Millville for a year and a half after college. This was shortly after the release of R.E.M.'s Reckoning album, on which "Don't Go Back to Rockville" appears. For the first few months I was back home, I would ride around blasting the song on the crappy cassette player in my Pontiac Sunbird, singing at the top of my lungs, replacing "Rockville" with "Millville." However, the job I had on a local newspaper led me to do a series of stories on the Delaware Bay communities that were impoverished by the oyster blight of the 1950s, and I saw for the first time this exquisitely beautiful yet utterly ravaged region I'd never known when I was attending high school just 15 miles away. It became a place that engaged my writer's imagination, a place I turned over and over in my mind. And with that, my feelings about the region shifted so completely that I no longer felt, to paraphrase the song, I was "wasting another year." I grew to love South Jersey so much that I was willing to spend nearly a decade immersed in a novel set there.

4. "Hold On, Hold On" – Neko Case

This is another song that reminds me of Hallie; it's also the ultimate single woman defiant lament. It brilliantly captures the ambivalence of being single at an age when other women have already paired off; the line "with a valium from the bride" has always packed a lot of punch for me, as it would for single, 37-year-old Hallie. Another line, "In the end I was the mean girl/or somebody's inbetween girl" resonates with both Hallie's treatment of her stepmother, Brenda, when she was young, and her feelings about her ex-boyfriend, Damien.

5. "Hurt" – Nine Inch Nails

This is probably my least favorite Nine Inch Nails song, but it's always struck me as the perfect teen anguish anthem. My character Josh goes through some very dark days as he struggles with the loss of his parents, and this song has the emotional feel of that part of the novel. Josh is a fan of the fictional rock star Damien Dark, and I imagine Damien's band Some Dark Angel doing a song very similar to "Hurt." Also, Damien himself has a soupçon of Trent Reznor in him (as well as a healthy dose of David Bowie and a pinch of Robert Smith).

6. "Second Chance" – Liam Finn

This song is the perfect soundtrack for Hallie's struggles in Part II of the novel. The lyrics deal with memories, and how we remember. Hallie is forced to confront her past as she grapples with the family issues she fled when she moved to New York as a young woman. "You stand around your haunted home/those demons won't leave you alone" is a line that perfectly captures some of the sleepless nights Hallie spends in her childhood home.

7. "Committed" – Pete Yorn

The main characters in this novel – Josh, Hallie, and Ram, an environmentalist researching frog deformities in a nearby creek – all have varying commitment issues, romantic and otherwise. Like with most Pete Yorn songs, the music itself has more gravity, for me, than the lyrics. The song is ebullient on the surface, but there's an underlying melancholy that resonates emotionally with Part III of the novel, where the characters are trying to move past their grief. Also, bonus points to Pete Yorn for being from New Jersey. (Not a prerequisite for appearing on this playlist, but it helps.)n,m

8. "Zero" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

My character Cecile doesn't appear until Part II of the novel, but she was actually the character who first came to me before I began writing. I saw this beautiful young woman, her short hair fastened in many tiny tufts by multiple children's barrettes, pull up in front of a grim-looking little building in a raspberry-colored car with leopard-print contact paper on the hood. I knew immediately that she was nothing like the occupants of that building; I also knew that she was trouble. At one point in the novel, Cecile blares Yeah Yeah Yeahs from her car stereo. Musically, this song reflects her attitude and posture; I can easily picture her dancing to it in a club. But lyrically, I think it hones in on some of her worst fears about herself, fears which fuel her need for constant attention, her need to create continual drama.

9. "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" – Death Cab for Cutie

Josh's longtime crush, Missy Dalton, is a huge Death Cab for Cutie fan (the novel takes place from 2006 – 2007), and I listened a lot to the albums Plans and Transatlanticism during the years I was writing The Fifty-First State. But this particular song is all Josh. He's a big-hearted kid, full of love, and hugely romantic, just as the song is. It's perfectly expressed in this line: "If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks, I will follow you into the dark." It's about love, but it's also about dealing with death and the notion of an afterlife, all issues Josh faces over the course of the novel.

10. "Such Great Heights" – The Postal Service

There's a scene in Part III where Josh and three other teenagers are sitting in a car, smoking pot, at the edge of Mollusk Creek (the scene of many of the environmental issues explored in the novel). It's the first time Josh, who was somewhat isolated from his classmates before his parents died, has had an experience like this. In the scene it's mentioned that The Postal Service is playing, and while I don't name the song, I always imagined it was this one. Again, it's got that joy/melancholy thing going: "They will see us waving from such great heights/come down now." But beyond that, the way the singer seems to observe himself and his partner from a distance reflects the way Josh, a budding writer, sometimes steps outside himself and watches what's going on around him.

Lisa Borders and The Fifty-First State links:

the author's website

Grub Street Daily posts by the author
Jennifer Spiegel interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
South Jersey Times profile of the author
The Somerville Times profile of 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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