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April 3, 2014

Book Notes - Nathan Oates "The Empty House"

The Empty House

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.

Winner of the 2012 Spokane Prize, The Empty House is an outstanding debut short fiction collection from Nathan Oates.

Frederick Barthelme wrote of the book:

"Nathan Oates is an extraordinary young writer whose collection is utterly remarkable. His stories are dense and intricate, very close to the heart, taking us to places we've never been and will never be. In Oates's skilled hands these are works rendered perfectly by a master of place, character, action, a writer with a stunning skill set. The Empty House announces the arrival of an astonishing new voice on the literary scene."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Nathan Oates's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Empty House:


The stories in my collection, The Empty House, were written over about ten years, and during that time I went through a series of obsessions with different songs and artists. That's how I tend to listen to music: I fiddle around with a bunch of albums and songs until I find an artist with whom I become obsessed and then for a while I listen to almost nothing else. This is also how I write: I mess around with a bunch of stories until one takes over and I can't push it aside for anything else. Those are the stories that end up working. And these are the songs that were there in the writing of my book.

Beta Band "The Beta Band Rap"
This is the song I was listening to while writing the oldest story in the collection, "Running Rapids." I lived in Baltimore, in an apartment that faced onto St. Charles Avenue. Buses poured by every few minutes, and there was a homeless man who would occasionally burst into wild, incoherent rants as he ran past the window, replaced soon after by chattering college students, and sometimes the creak of a mule cart as it hauled fruit up the street. This wild cacophony is captured in this strange and charming song about how the band got their first break, which is a bit how I feel about that story.

Talking Heads, "And She Was"
One of my first published stories was based almost directly on a Talking Heads song – "I Wish You Wouldn't Say That" – and while that story didn't make it into the book, the reaching after the sublime that is the subject of many of the Talking Heads's songs is something I'm trying to do in my stories. "And She Was" was the inspiration for another, ultimately failed, story that I was fumbling through as I was starting several of the stories in the collection. As is always the case with failed stories, they end up feeding the stories that work, usually in ways I don't realize until much later.

Bill Callahan, "Eid Ma Clack Shaw"
This is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard and so wanted to include it for that reason. But there's more: the subject, as the song puts it, "Working through Dad's pain," the feeling of being haunted by those we've loved and lost, is a major issue in my stories, most of which are about the connections – made and missed – between parents and children, and the way our families haunt us into adulthood.

Bob Dylan, "Things Have Changed"
This song, from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, is tied up for me with Michael Douglas's frustrated writer figure, and with my own sense, as I worked through the making of this book, of the many frustrations and anxieties that time, its quick passing, generates in the writer. I like to think I write quickly, but this book suggests otherwise. As the song says, "Lot of water under the bridge. Lot of other stuff too."

Wilco, "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"
This album came out at exactly the time I started writing the first stories that would go into the collection, and it is the last good album the band managed for some time, at least in my mind. The songs are about being an American in a difficult time (2002), as is true in most of my stories, and it combines melody with noise, layering them together in a way which I'd like to think I do in my stories, trying to get the mess of life into a story without just leaving it a mess.

The National, "Daughters of the Soho Riots"
As I was writing the stories in this collection, I was also working on several ultimately failed projects, one of which was a novel about a woman who grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1980s, and this song, with its fictional history of downtown New York, was an obsession that leaked over into the stories, which are often about the parts of our personal histories we hide away from everyone else but that we also secretly feel define us. My story, "Looking for Service," is, among other things, about a "missing daughter" as the song describes.

Elizabeth Mitchell, "Freight Train"
During the time I wrote these stories, my two children were born, and so a lot of my music listening has in fact been children's music, some of which grates and nags, but some of which is in fact very beautiful, including the work of Elizabeth Mitchell. Mitchell has an elegant, haunting voice. This song, about taking a freight train to visit friends all over the world, also happens to fit thematically with my stories, which are largely about travel.

Old 97's, "Lonely Holiday"
I first heard this song in a bar on the Lower East Side while I drank afternoon beers with my wife to cure our hangovers. We were in our twenties, visiting the city, years away from having kids. We left the bar and bought the album at a nearby CD shop (remember those?) and listened to it endlessly for a few months. Ever since I was a boy and read From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I wanted to move to New York; even before that I knew I wanted to write fiction. As the Old 97s song says, "There's so many towns I hate," and, for me, New York is one of the few I love.

Rufus Wainwright, "One Man Guy"
This song, written by the great songwriter Loudon Wainwright for his son, is an anthem of solipsism, something my characters struggle with from time to time. It's also a song I sing to my children as I put them to sleep at night, and so is weirdly tied up with the complicated pressures and joys of parenting.

Son Volt, "Windfall"
This is one of the preeminent road trip songs I can think of, the kind of thing my characters would probably be listening to as they drive through Montana along the highline highway. It is also a song that, for me, is tied up with the idea of friendship, perhaps because it was introduced to me by one of my best friends from college, a friend who, like so many friends, I rarely see now. We both have kids, we live in different cities, but this issue of friends fading away runs through many of my stories.

Neutral Milk Hotel, "Oh Comely"
This is perhaps the purest example of raw emotion poured into the form of music I can think of, and I'd like to think some degree of the urgency of this song runs throughout my stories. If you have this album (doesn't everyone?), turn up the volume at the very end of this song and you'll hear a bandmate shout, "Holy shit!" as the song ends. Apparently this vocal performance was done in a single, astounding take. This is the dream: to make something so completely honest and pure and to have it come out straight and clear. Maybe this isn't possible in fiction, but it's what I keep aiming at.


Nathan Oates and The Empty House links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Palo Alto Online review

The Antioch Review Blog essay by 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)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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