October 7, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Diane Cook's dark and boldly imaginative Man V. Nature is one of the decade's finest short story collections.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Cook's potent and unnerving stories depict ghastly battles between humans and the brute forces of nature. Adept at a stark spookiness in the vein of Shirley Jackson and William Golding, Cook also summons up a lonely weirdness like that of Aimee Bender and George Saunders. Cook writes assuredly of archetypal terror and even more insightfully of hunger—for food, friendship, love, and, above all, survival. A canny, refined, and reverberating debut."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
Before I wrote Man V. Nature, I spent six years working as a radio producer for This American Life. In that time I almost never listened to music with lyrics. Part of my job was to score the stories—use music to make scenes more emotional, or to move a narration-heavy moment along at a nice clip. So I was always thinking about, searching for, and auditioning instrumental music. I loved the effect that music had on everything. I loved the endless loop of songs in my head after I left work, when I walked down the streets, rode the subway, even cooked dinner, as though my life had its own score.
As a producer, I'd use that music to highlight a feeling that was already in the story. Now, as a writer, I play it to help me discover or extract some emotion from the thing I'm writing. Some of those songs became so essential to my thinking mind and my emotional life that they are now ritual. I can't work without them. I like their repetitiveness. In general, I like repetition and will play an album or song on repeat all day and not think twice about it.
Of course, now that my job doesn't require instrumentals, I enjoy music with lyrics again. Some of the songs listed below became inextricable from the writing of Man V. Nature. Others came to me later in the process; perhaps validating something I felt about one of the stories or about the world the book was investigating. A couple of these songs just reminded me of a story. The playlist below is a medley of those songs interspersed with my most secret weapon—my official writing playlist.
Bexar Bexar: "KT"— My iTunes will tell you that this song has been played close to 8000 times on my laptop. When I was writing Man V. Nature I most often just put this song on repeat. It was my go to as a producer and my go to as a writer. To me it offers a moody emotional quality that's perfectly balanced. It reads both dark and simply emotive.
Jake Bellows: "New Ocean"—This song was released while I was editing the book. And for the months I did revisions it played on repeat. If there is a soundtrack to the book, this is it. It's uncanny how well they pair. There are eerily similar scenes in the song and in my stories, and the feelings emanating from "New Ocean" are some of the same feelings I get from the book. I love this song. In one story I'd originally written this sentence: The new sea is changing the weather in awful ways, and it's been cold for days. If you read the book, you'll see I changed new sea to new ocean in gratitude to this song for getting me through my edits with a full heart.
Nick Cave: "Love Letter"—"Moving On," the opening story in Man V. Nature took some time to find its bearings. It took me a while to push the story past the conceit, and make it about a person in the midst of something painful but inevitable, a situation where pathos was not the first concern—order was. The story broke open for me when the narrator writes a kind of love letter to a man she has just met. It's one of the last things I figured out in the story. Once the letter appeared, everything instantly fell together for me. I have always loved Nick Cave for his deep and dangerous emotional sense, which binds love and grief to such devastating effect. The yearning in "Love Letter" is almost too much to bear, and I think, at the key moment where the letter appears in "Moving On", that feeling is the same.
His Name is Alive: "Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth"—The album Someday My Blues Will Cover the Earth has a sly, sensual end times feel going on. The title song is moody and soulful and mournful and awesome. I really love this band in all their incarnations.
Eels: "The Mansions of Los Feliz"—My ruined cities are not geographically near L.A. but still, "The Mansions of Los Feliz" is a spookily spot-on companion to a couple of stories, "Marrying Up" and "The Way the End of Days Should Be."
Arcade Fire: "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)"—I love that Arcade Fire songs are so full of tumult. Everything is urgent and about to ignite. And, creatively, I love their settings: suburban-esque and in the throes. I especially love the "Neighborhood" series on Funeral, and "Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)" is my favorite.
Bexar Bexar: "Aidos"—This song is my second go-to song for writing, though, it's a pretty distant second. I play this one when working on something a bit more ominous and sad. iTunes says I've played it 2937 times.
Beyonce: "Rocket"—This song came out long after I'd written the following line in "Meteorologist Dave Santana." In a scene where Janet is fucking the meteorologist she's long obsessed over she thinks: You are my match. You are my equal. And perhaps in the back of my mind I'd always wondered if that line would make sense to anyone but Janet. So when I heard Beyonce declare, You're the shit. That's why you're my equivalent. I thought: Janet! I love how wet this song is and I think Janet would love it too.
Prince: "Beautiful Ones"— I think this might be Janet's favorite song. It holds the longing, the sexuality and the obsessive tinge that is what Janet is all about. Like she's saying to Dave, Do you want her? Or do you want me. ‘Cause I want you. In fact, I think a few of my characters would love this song. What's not to love?
Philip Glass: "Kyoko's House"—There was a whole month when I came home humming this song. We were working on a special story project about old Chicago buildings with Chris Ware and there was a lot of mixing and edits and screenings to do each day. I'd come home humming it compulsively. After an hour or so, my husband (then boyfriend) would quietly say, "Please stop." And I wouldn't be able to. I'd try to clamp down, clench my mouth shut but it would rise out from deep in my chest. The repetition now is meditative to me. Phillip Glass makes good writing music. Perhaps there is something hopeless in the repetition, yet hopeful in the notes and chords. In fact, for me the repetition heightens the notes and makes them as dizzying as reckless hope can sometimes feel. And somewhere in those notes I find this grand sense of seeking and curiosity, of driving on. I played this on repeat often while drafting the book.
Smog: "I Was a Stranger"—"I Was a Stranger" is a great song for my story "A Wanted Man." Bill Callahan sings, And why do you women in this town let me look at you so bold when you have seen what I was in the last town?....I was worse than a stranger. I was well-known. It makes me laugh and gives me chills at the same time.
Taylor Swift: "I Know Places"—Alternately, "I Know Places" is also a great match for "A Wanted Man." The story is about a very virile man, the women who want to fuck him and the men who want to kill him. Which is also what Taylor Swift is singing about. The album came out after Man V. Nature did. But when I hear her yell And we run! I see visions of some of my characters running for their lives.
Caleb Sampson: "Eternal Future II"—The soundtrack to Errol Morris's Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is quintessential This American Life music. If every song hasn't been used on the show, it's not for lack of trying. "Eternal Future II" is another one to stick in your craw while you're writing, with its dizzying repetition, soaring hopefulness and honest, simple melancholy. Because even hopeful things have layers of sadness to them.
The Cinematic Orchestra: "To Build a Home"—A song doesn't have to be instrumental to have the cinematic quality that I look for when I write. "To Build a Home" was one of the six songs on my official writing playlist. The lyrics feel fable-esque to me and the theme of home resonates with the stories. Plus, the music yearns hard.
Aimee Mann: "Wise Up"—I've always loved how lush and lovely this song sounds even with its harsh hopelessness and cautionary message. This is a good companion piece for Jane in "The Mast Year."
Low: "On My Own"—This is a bittersweet song for the boys in the story "The Not-Needed Forest." I feel a pang for them when the music turns dark and Alan Sparhawk wails, Happy Birthday. I think, This is how it feels to be eleven.
Jason Molina: "A Sad Hard Change"—I was in a snowy Vermont when I heard Jason Molina had died. I listened to Autumn Bird Songs on repeat as I wrote the story "The Not-Needed Forest.
Diane Cook and Man V. Nature links:
Electric Literature interview with the author
Flavorwire interview with the author
Harper's interview with the author
KQED interview with the author
Omnivoracious interview with the author
Salon interview with the author
Talking Writing interview with the author
The Toast 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)
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)