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February 20, 2015

Book Notes - Stephanie Kegan "Golden State"

A Tree Born Crooked

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.

Stephanie Kegan's novel Golden State is a compelling and thought-provoking book.

Alex Espinosa wrote of the book:

"Stephanie Kegan's Golden State signals the arrival of an exciting new voice in contemporary American fiction. Here is a California novel like no other, where an influential family's turbulent legacy, and one woman's decision, ultimately shapes the destiny of an entire state. In a landscape that is at once as serene and Edenic as it is volatile and combustible, Stephanie Kegan’s writing is deft, finely calibrated, and emotionally resonant."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Stephanie Kegan's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Golden State:

Golden State is a novel about the extraordinary and ultimately disastrous impact of a brother on his younger's sister's life. It is set in California in the mid-1990s but reaches back in the memory of the narrator to the 1950s and forward to the nearly now of its telling. Although I don't actively listen to music while I'm writing—unless I'm stuck—I'm playing it softly in the background, where it serves my demand not to be interrupted, merely profoundly inspired. Here is my playlist:


"Don't Look Back" by John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker was nearly eighty when he made this recording with Van Morrison. When I listen to Hooker sing "stop dreaming and live on in the future" it is like my father's voice telling me to get over it, and I do. Natalie, the sister in my novel, is like a lot of us, clinging to her version of the past. I like to think in her darkest days when her idea of her past and her adored older brother is publically taken from her, she too finds comfort in the sad authority and paternal wisdom of Hooker's voice in her ear telling her: "Baby don't look back. . .live on in the future, not the past."

"Come on up to the House" and "Anywhere I Lay my Head" by Tom Waits

There are days I don't think I could write a postcard without help from Tom Waits. He's been an ideal writing friend, giving me so much and asking for no more than few a dollars in return. He's always there to help me strip away the defenses, the unnecessary words, to get at what lies beneath. When I was working on Golden State, I played "Come on up" and "Any Place I Lay my Head" sequentially. On the former, Waits seems at once reformed sinner and raw-voiced revivalist urging us toward redemption and--at the same time--huckster shilling us suckers into his tent. Yet the mood is hopeful, and I want to be hopeful. But facts are facts. Hence, the following track, "Anywhere I Lay my Head" in which the visceral pain in Waits' voice gives heartbreaking lie to the lyrics, "I don't need anybody because I learned, I learned to be alone." I delude myself into thinking that if I listen long and carefully enough to Tom Waits that one day I might pack as much into one of my pages as he does into any one of his songs.

"Oh Please Come Back" by Johnny Rawls

I find love a tough emotion to portray honestly on the page, anger and despair are much easier. Golden State is fundamentally a story about love: a sister's lifelong love for her big brother that can't be compromised even by his terrible crimes; a mother's love for her children; a husband and wife who can't stop loving each other despite the tearing apart of their marriage. Natalie's husband Eric accuses of her of abandoning their family for the sake of her worthless brother. When I couldn't get at the love beneath Eric's silent fury at Natalie, Johnny Rawls in this great R&B song helped me reach it.

"Mississippi" by Bob Dylan

There's so much in this disc-one version of "Mississippi" from The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 that inspired me: the American sense of place-to-place movement that brought so many people to California; how perfectly Natalie's feelings toward her husband are expressed in the lyrics: "So many things that we never will undo, I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too." But the biggest inspiration for me in this double disk is the photo of my cousin Larry Kegan next to Bob Dylan on the back of the accompanying booklet. I never had an older brother. I drew my inspiration for all that the young Bobby Askedahl meant to his sister from my older cousins, Larry and Haskell, John and Lance. When I was a young teenager and Larry was an impossibly cool older guy in a wheelchair, he came to our house for an extended visit and changed my life. He taught me about music. He played the great bluesmen for me, showed me how their sound changed when they moved north. He regaled me with the sad story of Johnny Ace who believed his own love lyrics. He introduced me to Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. He played the albums of his friend Bob Dylan, telling me how Bob never doubted he was going make it, even when they were just young kids with guitars.

"Tired Feet" by Alela Diane

The Sierras figure prominently in Golden State. The fictional Askedahl clan originally crossed the Sierra Nevada in 1846 just ahead of the Donner party. The patriarch bought land along the Bear River, building a cabin that figures into the present-time story. I imagine I can hear the sound of the Sierras in the lovely voice of Alela Diane. Although her later work is more sophisticated, I love the simplicity of her first album, The Pirate's Gospel, recorded and mixed by her father in their Nevada City garage in the summer of 2004.

"Take Me" by Karen Dalton

"Take Me" is from Karen Dalton's second and final album In my Own Time, released in 1971. I like to believe that Natalie would have heard the album then and bought it. The ache in Dalton's slow bluesy voice is heartbreaking, the sound of longing in the simple lyrics devastating: "Take me to Siberia, And the coldest weather of the winter time, And it would be just like spring in California, As long as I knew you were mine." The song is even sadder because you hear the future in her voice—the waste of a life and the loss of such promise. It's a sadness that is always present in the pain of Natalie's relationship with her brother Bobby.

"Schizophrenia" by Blue October

Justin Furstenfeld, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist for Blue October is open about his bipolar disorder with psychotic features—in his case aural and visual hallucinations. He has said his music allows him both to reach out and to stay on this world. It's hard to have empathy with a mentally ill person who is raising havoc around you. It can be impossible when that person violently hurts other people. This passionate song and these lyrics helped me gain insight into what it must be like to be inside that scary, troubled person: "I've got the mood that seems to scare ya, I'm paranoid, self destroyed. I've got the nightmare called…Schizophrenia. The fever becomes my home. Becomes my home."

"Braver Newer World" by Jimmie Dale Gilmore

The Askedahls of my novel are products of the Central Valley of California, a region closer to the West Texas of Jimmie Dale Gilmore than to the rest of California. Natalie would have grown up to the rhythm of American country music. Gilmore's "Braver Newer World" was one of my mainstays during the time I was writing Golden State. Although I pretty much loved every song on it, the title track stands out. I imagine Natalie bitterly addressing her brother in her head: "It's a braver, newer world you've found."

"200 More Miles" by the Cowboy Junkies

When my narrator Natalie takes the wrong exit in Sacramento after meeting with her jailed brother, she doesn't turn around. She just keeps on driving. South on Highway 99 through Modesto, past the farmlands of the Central Valley to the end of the road in Bakersfield with "Willie on the radio, and dozen things on her mind." As a writer, the more hours I am stuck in a chair, the more I need road songs to make it to the end of the day. This is one I played at lot.

"After the Gold Rush" by Dolly Parton with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

I would have this song in rotation no matter what I was writing, but it seemed to apply so directly to this book that I toyed with naming the novel after it. As much as I like the original, I think the Parton version is better. The dream of apocalypse here has expanded--Mother Nature is no longer on the run just in the 1970s but for all of the twentieth century. We can't turn from those children crying as the spaceships come for the chosen ones. In the mind of Robert Askedahl, Natalie's brother, California is no golden state. There is no California dream, only a nightmare of avarice flowing from a state that was built on the heedless rush for gold.

"A Century Ends" by David Gray

Another song that inspired me, another title I would have like to have borrowed. Instead of a dream of apocalypse sung sweetly, David Gray offers the raw anger of someone who can no longer tolerate butchered facts, and urges the rest of us to focus, to find a spirit of resistance, to forge some opposition, to stop admiring our own reflection and to accept that reality does offend. Too bad for the people in my book that Robert Askedahl wasn't able to express his feelings in music.

"Run On" by Moby

I can't argue with the meaning of this traditional song: you can't escape being judged for the choices you make, the actions you take, if not by the Almighty than by everyone else, possibly worst of all by yourself. My character Natalie is haunted by this awareness. In the process of writing a somewhat dark novel, I particularly appreciated this version by Moby with its upbeat electronic sound.

"California" by Joni Mitchell and "California Dreamin'" by Queen Latifah

Of course, I would list Joni Mitchell's masterpiece here. Queen Latifah's jazzy "California Dreamin'," is my favorite of the many versions of the other obvious choice for this playlist.

"The Weight" by Ricki Lee Jones

In memory of the brilliant writer and my mentor, Les Plesko.


Stephanie Kegan and Golden State links:

the author's website

Los Angeles Magazine review

Lori's Reading Corner interview with 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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