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August 8, 2014

Book Notes - Ryan O'Neill "The Weight of a Human Heart"

The Weight of a Human Heart

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.

Smart, diverse, and inventively told, Tony O'Neill's The Weight of a Human Heart is one of the year's finest short story collections.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"Vital storytelling and literary flourishes distinguish Scottish author O’Neill's creative story collection . . . there’s also sex, clever narration, and illustrative graphics that add wit and whimsy. What brings all of the tonal diversity together is O’Neill's obvious understanding of the cohesiveness of language, its power to transcend and overcome, and the way an economy of precious words in a short story can achieve a novel’s worth of emotion."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Ryan O'Neill's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, The Weight of a Human Heart:


The Weight of a Human Heart, my dream soundtrack


Thinking back to the writing of my short story collection, The Weight of a Human Heart, I was surprised at how much music had influenced the book, and my writing in general. The stories in my collection are set across several different countries and continents, and many of the stories were also written in different countries. Like many people, I tend to associate music with specific places and times, and so each of the songs below remind me of the countries I have lived in, and the stories I wrote there.

"Paperback Writer" by the Beatles
I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer, and I can't remember a time when I didn't love the Beatles. I used to listen to their albums endlessly on vinyl and cassette in the 1980s. When I was studying for my school exams, they would always be playing in the background, and when I wrote my first short stories, it was the Beatles I listened to.

Though I love many Beatles songs, my favourite is "Paperback Writer," perhaps because I identified so closely with the singer, sharing his longing to be published. Lennon and McCartney's lyrics perfectly, and humorously, capture the desperation of the unpublished writer. And how many songs have been written in the form of a writer's submission letter?

"Scotland the Brave" (lyrics by Cliff Hanley)
Most national anthems are dreary affairs, with those of Great Britain ("God Save the Queen") and Australia ("Advance Australia Fair") being two of the worst. However, the Scottish national anthem, "Scotland the Brave," is a little more upbeat. The first lines are

Hark when the night is falling

Hear! hear the pipes are calling,

Loudly and proudly calling,

Down thro' the glen.

When I was growing up, and we were called upon to sing the anthem at school, my friends and I would replace these words with

Fart, fart my bum is calling
Must be the beans I ate this morning
Quick! Quick! The lavvy door!
Too late! It's on the floor!

Many years later I was writing a short story called "Four Letter Words," which is structured around different swear words. When writing a section based around "fart," I suddenly recalled the alternative lyrics for "Scotland the Brave," and they slotted perfectly into the story.

"Caledonia" by Dougie MacLean
For most of my twenties I lived and worked abroad as an English language teacher. I taught in China, Rwanda and Lithuania, before I eventually settled in Australia, where I've lived for the past ten years. For all that time, I've been writing short stories, and when I want to write one set in Scotland, I put on this song, which is about an exiled Scot longing to return home. Yes, it's sentimental, yes, it's manipulative, but I guarantee that if you play this song in the presence of any Scottish person who is living in another country, you'll see them start to tear up, however much they deny it.

"Yesterday" by the Beatles
My first teaching job, at the age of twenty one, was in Lithuania, which had only a few years earlier broken away from the USSR during its collapse. For the first several weeks I was very nervous as I stumbled over various grammar points which, like most English speakers, I instinctively understood but had never given any thought to, and so found difficult to explain. When it came to teaching the past simple tense, I used the Beatles song, "Yesterday." I gave the students the lyrics with the verbs removed, and they had to fill in the blanks. Whenever I hear this song, I think of Lithuania. Although I had a wonderful time there, happiness isn't very exciting to read about, so when I came to write a story set in Lithuania, "English as a Foreign Language" I had the protagonist, an English teacher, have a much rougher time of it than I did.

"Don't Stand So Close to Me" by The Police
This song was my first introduction to Vladimir Nabokov, ("Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov") a writer who I would come to admire hugely, and whose experiments in the novel form would inspire my own in the short story. Nabokov's Pale Fire, for example, is a novel in the form of a poem and commentary. My own attempts at playing with form include "The Examination" told in the form of an English exam, and "The Eunuch in the Harem" told in the form of a book review.

"Piano Man" by Billy Joel
In 1999 I joined VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas, the British equivalent of the Peace Corps) and was sent to a small rural secondary school in Rwanda to teach English. I stayed there for two and a half years, and during that time I caught malaria twice. I remember once lying in bed with a high fever, soaked in sweat, listening to a Billy Joel CD, as I couldn't summon the concentration to read. When "Piano Man" came on, I started to hallucinate that Billy Joel was in my room, and wanted to play Scrabble with me. I remember getting up out of bed, and trying to find the Scrabble board, but by the time I found it, Billy had disappeared. I was bitterly disappointed; I was sure I would have beaten him. I found my way back to bed, and tossed and turned all night until the fever broke in the morning. It took me two weeks to get my strength back.

I used my experience of having malaria in my story, "Africa was Children Crying," though this story took a darker turn than having a 1980s pop star wanting to play a board game with the main character.

"Gangsta Gangsta" by N.W.A.
I never liked rap. My taste in music has always run very much to middle of the road pop. However, living in Rwanda expanded my musical horizons quite a bit. The only way to travel round the country was by taxi-bus; mini-buses which were supposed to carry a maximum of eleven people, but usually carried sixteen, and on one memorable occasion, for the three hour Kayonza-Kigali trip, twenty three men, women, children and babies, including myself. On these journeys the drivers would have their cassette players turned up at full volume. Kenny Rogers was a popular choice, and one I was always happy to listen to, but it was most common to hear rap music. Though I never learned to love rap, from (unwillingly, at first) listening to many N.W.A. songs, including "Gangsta Gangsta", on many long trips I did come to appreciate the inventiveness of the lyrics, and the anger at injustice behind them. My experiences on taxibuses feature in several of the Rwanda stories in my collection, including "The Cockroach" and "Africa Was Children Crying."

"Guess Things Happen That Way" by Johnny Cash
When writing my short story, "July the Firsts" in which a character is obsessed with everything that happened on that day, I needed to find a song that would play on the radio in the story. With a bit of digging, I found out that "Guess Things Happen That Way," had been number one on July the first, 1958. It also happened to be one of my favourite Johnny Cash songs, and I put it in the story.

"Down Under" by Men at Work
Before I came to Australia in 2004, my knowledge of the place was limited to the TV soap, "Neighbours," and the classic song, "Down Under." While it's true that beer and vegemite, as mentioned in the song, do play a great part in Australian culture, there is more to the country than that. Since living here, I have discovered many great short story writers such as Murray Bail and Frank Moorhouse whose work in the form has influenced my own, especially those stories in my collection set in Australia.

"Let it Go" by Idina Menzel
Unfortunately my children were playing this son on the iPad as I opened up the parcel which contained the first paperback copy of my book. I'll always associate this song with seeing my book in paperback, but I can console myself with the thought that I am, finally, a paperback writer.


Ryan O'Neill and The Weight of a Human Heart links:

Guardian review
The Monthly review
Open Letters Monthly review
Publishers Weekly review
Sydney Morning Herald review


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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