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February 12, 2015

Book Notes - M.O. Walsh "My Sunshine Away"

My Sunshine Away

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, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

M.O. Walsh's debut My Sunshine Away is an impressive Southern Gothic novel that has earned numerous comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is M.O. Walsh's Book Notes music playlist for his novel My Sunshine Away:

What an honor to do this! Although not any sort of expert on music, I definitely enjoyed thinking about ways to link songs to my novel. I came up with a list of about 20 for every nook and cranny of the book and then realized everyone else was being much less self-indulgent and doing about 9. That made sense to me. So, I've chosen 10 tracks here that I think about as fitting two different categories. The first is the mood or atmosphere of the book (4 songs with *). The second category deals with characters in the book (6 songs). I also limited myself to songs I could find with free links for easily listening. Hope you enjoy!

Ernie K Doe has the quintessential Swamp Pop sound. This is the type of music that's always in the background of places your parents drag you to when you're a kid in South Louisiana. It wasn't until I hit my mid-thirties that I came to understand the exquisite funk and attitude of Ernie K Doe's music, of nearly all Swamp Pop, which inevitably sounds like it's being played off an LP even when you're hearing it live. My kids are now forced to watch me bop my head to this as I fire up the grill outside. Luckily, I see them dancing to it, too. And the lyrics of this particular track hint at the type of mystery that I like, not obscure or difficult, but simply private. Why can't he reveal her name? Is she married? Is he afraid of jinxing it? Regardless, when he says "One day, I'll wake up and say/Just to have ya, I'll be your slave," that pretty much sums up the total personal abandon I thought love required when I was a teenager, which matches the head space of my narrator for most of the book's action.

This is the state song of Louisiana. As a kid, you sing this in your kindergarten class, at events when your grandparents are invited to file into the gymnasium and eat cookies at noon. The singer, Jimmie Davis, was twice the governor of our state and used to sing this at his campaign stops. It's an amazing chorus to sing with friends, to teach your children, I agree, but then there's the verses: "The other night dear, as lie sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms/When I awoke dear, I was mistaken, so I hung my head and I cried." This is sad stuff. I find the darkness of these lyrics to be in such stark contrast to the way the song is generally viewed by the public that I became kind of obsessed with it. It drives much of the way I conceived the novel, thinking about an idyllic childhood surface, like a bright blue cookie jar, that is actually filled with sadness. The second verse, too, "I'll always love you and make you happy, if you will only say the same/But if you leave me to love another, you'll regret it all some day" absolutely embodies the fine line between being sweet and being menacing that I hoped my narrator could walk. If you read that lyric as being confident and earnest, i.e., you'll regret it because my love is true and I will never hurt you like the world might, then it's pretty damn sweet. If you read just a little bit differently, well, you're probably filing restraining order. My novel in its final form (and not just the title) doesn't exist, I don't think, without this song.

This song is one of the best examples of a true and earned nostalgia that I know of. Heading to the skate rink, playing arcade games, being nervous to talk to a pretty girl. It immediately paints a picture in my head, from the black lights to the multicolored carpet. The real magic of the song for me lies in two lyrics. One is a personal admission from the narrator of the song ("If my mom watches Falcon Crest/sometimes she picks me up late") that, to me, makes the song feel so lived in and true. It also puts a time stamp on it that I really like. Falcon Crest. My God, that just nails the 80's. So good. The other lyric is, of course, the song's climax, when the narrator makes a promise to the girl ("Do you see that video game? That's Galaxia 4/And, one day, I'll get the highest score/And I'll type in your name./ I want to share all this fame with you.") That's about as sweet a sentiment as I've ever come across, made engaging and heartfelt (instead of sappy) by other the other great details that hold up the song. It's one of Branan's best (and he is great). I love it so much that I often murder it on my own acoustic guitar when my wife and I find ourselves alone in the garage with empty bottles at our feet and our kids long asleep. After all, imitation, I hear, is the greatest form of something or other.

If there's one thing in common about the musician's I really respect, it's their awareness of what makes a truly great riff and their willingness to rock it until they're damn well good and done with it. The same with a lyric. It's up to them when they will stop singing it, when they will stop pumping those same two chords, because they know how good it is and if you would just shut up and listen, you'll recognize it, too. The bald faced honesty of this song just kills me. It is not a debate this narrator is entering into. She, and only she, knows of what she speaks. The way the intro goes an extra measure, too, before the singing traditionally starts in a pop song, is a master stroke. She will tell this when she is good and ready. The song is on her terms: "You took my joy and I want it back." I think obviously of Lindy Simpson, the focal point of my novel, when I hear this song. The fact that Lucinda Williams found a way to mention Slidell in a song, too, a Louisiana town not far away from me, also gives me pleasure. I can't play this song only once. I hit repeat. Repeat.

My father taught me to love the blues. Still today, whenever we get together and have a few, we end up sitting back on the couch listening to folks like Slim Harpo and John Lee Hooker. This is one of the great joys of my life and I'm forever grateful. Living in Oxford, Mississippi, for five years, too, a short ride from Clarksdale, also helped me appreciate the blues. Yet I didn't come across Johnny Jenkins until recently, when my good friend and a great writer named Sean Ennis introduced me to him. Holy smokes. I love this sound. For me, this version of Leaving Trunk (originally written by Sleepy John Estes) plugs right into a character in my novel named Uncle Barry. He shows up one day at the narrator's house with his suitcase, having problems with his wife, with work, with jealousy. And it's like a picture of him comes to my mind every time I hear Jenkins sing: "These blues I woke up with, three different ways/One says go, the other two say stay." Now there's a dilemma! Yet he ends up being a great relief to the narrator, in the same paradoxical way the pain of blues music has helped so many people feel better these last hundred years.

An obvious outlier stylistically to the rest of these tracks, this is one of a few songs actually named in the novel. The narrator recalls his eldest sister Hannah (older by 11 years), in one of the scant memories he still has of her, standing in front of a mirror listening to this song when he was a young boy. And the song walks that same line that our memories often do, a nostalgic glimpse back at youth, the family structure that feels so nice before it is gone. As the lyrics say, the mother "Sends the kids off to school with a small kiss/She's the one they're going to miss, in lots of ways." Yet it is often hard to locate the heart of songs amid the poppy compositions of most 80's music. That's why a lot of people hate on this era of music, I think, or only pretend to enjoy it ironically at parties where they dress up like Madonna or Michael Jackson. But, the thing is, this music hasn't yet disappeared from the airwaves in the way a lot of the grunge rock of my generation has. I think the reason for this is deeper than irony, as nearly all things are.

Go ahead and laugh. Yet this is one of the most iconic opening riffs in the history of rock music. And in the middle of the novel, our narrator is able to stand front and center at a house party with a guitar and play this song at full blast for the girl he adores. With his amplifier at 10, with a good band backing him up, this is about the only 5 minutes in this boy's life where he can feel like a king. And if you can handle this solo, if you can get through it without bursting into flame, then you're able to relax for a moment during the breakdown, and maybe take look at that girl you desire, as Axl Rose asks one of the great questions in life: "Where do we go?/Where do we go now?" It doesn't get much better than that. I'll never apologize for loving this song.

This song is one that cycles through my mind nearly every day. The distinct opening is easy enough for me to tap out on our drinking glasses that my wife has no doubt grown tired of my ill-fated versions. Yet it seems to me to be one of the more brilliant explorations of how the past affects us for reasons out of our control. And, for this reason, I think of the narrator's mother, Kathryn, in My Sunshine Away. She's a person whose experienced several devastating heartbreaks and, despite her best efforts, can't help but be reminded of her sadness by the simple way that life works to remind us of our past. And so, just like the narrator of this song, who says: "I can't stand the rain, against my window/Bringing back sweet memories," she is forced to relive her tragedies nearly constantly. How can a person ever move on, I wonder, if the thing that reminds them of the hard times is a natural and recurring phenomenon like rain. Because the rain isn't ever going to stop coming. Especially not in Louisiana. And the way Ann Peebles asks the window pane itself if it remembers when life was better just tears me to bits when I think of the narrator's mother in her quiet times, alone in the house, just trying to be happy.

I've long been obsessed with the reason for telling a story. I guess I'm terrified of writing anything where the reader finishes up and says, "OK, that was all good and well, but why did I spend time away from my loved ones to read that?" I'll readily admit that this question likely keeps me from writing more than I should. However, this feeling is not dissimilar to the way I view parenthood. It's one thing to change the diapers and cook the food and drive the kids to school, but what is the ultimate point? I like that this song seems to take on a similar question. The chorus, totally addictive, simply repeats "If I die/You'll have something to remember me by." A lot of people might argue that the reason we write books and make music is to be remembered after we die. I don't feel comfortable with that notion at all. It may be true, subconsciously, but I think most writers I know are so preoccupied with not screwing up the sentence, the paragraph, the page, that the big picture idea of immortality is kind of laughable. I think we have a much better chance of being remembered by the way we talk to and treat the ones we care about, as the song says, simply enough, "If I should go, I want you to always know/I never stopped loving you." Then that chorus. That chorus!

This novel spans twenty plus years of the narrator's life. To say that he's made mistakes is an understatement. But the thing that teenagers don't get is that life is long, and that the only thing we control is what we do now, not what we did then. And Darrell Scott (who ranks up there with my all time favorite songwriters like John Prine, Tom Waits, and Dan Hicks), absolutely nails this when he says "I long to be a happy man, in this life that I am given/In this life that I am given, I long to be a happy man/ And when the noise turns to stillness, I see I have the makings/I have the makings to be a happy man." The idea of the noise turning to stillness is, to me, the simple act of reflection, of which most great stories can't exist without. And so the final line of "Only when I'm looking back do I see the straight and narrow/I see the straight and narrow, when I walk my crooked road" hits me pretty hard. It is rivaled only by the other paradoxical line of straight truth in the song, which I believe the narrator of my novel feels, when he says, "I love with all my heart. There is no way of stopping/I have no way of stopping. I just love with all my heart/Through the broken and the beautiful, the bad news and the good news/The bad news and the good news is that I love with all my heart."

M.O. Walsh and My Sunshine Away links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Chapter 16 review
Chicago Tribune review
Dallas Morning News review
Entertainment Weekly review
Fort Worth Star-Telegram review
Kirkus review
San Francisco Chronicle profile of the author

Huffington Post interview with the author
Kirkus interview with the author
Times-Picayune profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
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
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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