June 23, 2014
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.
Both the novella and short fiction in Lauren Becker's short fiction collection If I Would Leave Myself Behind are impeccably crafted, and throb with a sense of urgency that brings them, and their characters, brilliantly to life.
James Robison wrote of the book:
"This collection of quick fiction is like a playlist of enthralling songs with every one a smash hit. The young women narrators who talk us through these living moments seem often to be courting or rejecting mates, but they are driven by deeper, more mysterious impulses, for meanings and answers to our deepest questions."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
If I Would Leave Myself Behind is a collection of very short fiction and a novella, which is also comprised of 22 brief fictions that were written as stand-alone pieces from 2008 through a few months before publication. There's no real progression, time-wise, but I think this correlates with music. I listen to older music (like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell) that evokes earlier times, and how I felt when they were new to me. And I come back to those things. Emotions and experience don't move in straight lines.
Some of the stories in the book reference music directly: "Spin" involves a hyperactive boyfriend who only sits still when listening to records, including the Osmonds, Spoon, and Coltrane. The story "Things About Me and You" is about a girl cutting loose a guy who spends convenient time with her because she lives next door to his parents, who he also takes for granted. The first line is "You live in a city where there is music." There is often a sense of disconnect in songs. Of people trying and succeeding and losing and trying again and loneliness, and longing and resignation. A friend of mine even wrote some music about one of the stories. I thought his music was beautiful, but I didn't feel the story in it. He did, and I love that. It's really all that matters. In the same sense, my list includes songs that I might interpret in an entirely different way than was intended by the songwriter(s), and I think that's all that matters, too.
"Gravel" by Ani Difranco
Pretty much everyone has at least person from the past or present who they can't stand, but want to be around all the time. She sings "And you were never very kind. And you let me way down every time. But oh, what can I say. I adore you." I sometimes refer to my writing style as "sad girls, disappointing men." My editor liked the description, and suggested I change the book title, but that would have just given away a lot of the book and I didn't want people to feel gypped. I am asked if my stories are autobiographical. Doesn't everyone's writing reflect the writer in some way? Even the most fantastic science fiction tells you something, like maybe the writer wants to escape the ordinary life, or wishes for more control. So, yes, you can find me in some of my stories. But I write fiction, so readers shouldn't assume that everything is me. I didn't wear a wedding dress to my brother's wedding. I haven't been stuck in an abusive relationship. I am not a recent college graduate who helps her guy friend hook up with other girls, in spite of her feelings for him. I don't mind at all if people think they know things about me after reading the book. I am happy they even think about it at all.
"Florida" by Patty Griffin
"Isn't it hard sometimes? Isn't it lonely? How I still hang around here. There's nothing to hold me." In the title story of the book, the narrator wonders if moving to a different state would make her a different person. If she would like beer, if men would be less disappointing, even if she would pick up a new accent, and, implicitly, if she would feel less alone. I wrote the story in 2012, when I visited a friend in Austin, and felt a relief and security I hadn't felt for a long time in Oakland. I wanted those three days to represent a life I could have, but I knew they couldn't. I moved to Austin one month ago with no expectation of leaving myself behind. Maybe some hope that things would be simpler. And I love it here. It was sort of overwhelming, but necessary. I moved not to become a different me, but to be able to get past some pretty bad things I wasn't able to get beyond without distance. There are other stories with characters who believe they are trapped, and maybe are. "Annabel" is about a girl whose family leaves her unprotected. She adopts unhealthy behaviors, then moves away, believing she can be another person. There is ambiguity in the story's conclusion, but I hope she can.
"Ultimatum" by The Long Winters and "Court and Spark" by Joni Mitchell
Both songs are about a person knowing what they want and doing the opposite. In "Court and Spark," Joni Mitchell sings "And the more he talked to me, the more he reached me, but I couldn't let go of L.A., city of the fallen angels." It's an excuse, a habit she can't break. In "Ultimatum," the singer expresses an intense connection with the subject of the song, but says he will only keep seeing her as long as she doesn't tell him she's falling in love. Someone once described me as being thirsty, with a glass of water within my reach, but I keep reaching for water in the opposite direction. I believe the metaphor applies way beyond me. Even painful outcomes can provide some comfort in their familiarity. This applies to the majority of characters in my stories. But there is hope, at least in my mind.
"Away," by Kathleen Edwards
This is not one of my favorite songs of hers, but there's a line I think of a lot with regard to some of my characters (and yes, I think it applies to me, but not just me). "Memory's a terrible thing if you use it right." Memory can remind of us better times and make our present lives barely livable. In the story "Rituals," a mailman buries the mail in the yard where his deceased wife used to grow beautiful vegetables. In other stories, characters have troubling pasts that prevent them from moving forward. I don't know about anyone else, but I often use my writing as a way of processing or problem-solving. Or just tearing myself open in hopes that others will recognize the holes and not feel alone. It's been called brave, which I don't agree with at all. It's honest.
Oh Sailor, by Mr. Little Jeans
My list is rather repetitive in its bleakness, but there aren't many songs of hope following defeat. None that I can think of anyways. But there are stories and songs of hope, messages intended to ease those times of disconnect. In Oh Sailor, the object, drifting alone, is told "when you feel you're out there on your own, there is someone watching over you." I don't think of any higher power watching over the characters in the book, but that we might control our own fates sometimes. Beyond hope, I believe many of the stories in the book suggest possibility, and potential for change, of greater potential for directing our own lives.
Lauren Becker and If I Would Leave Myself Behind links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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