December 3, 2015
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kathy Flann's impressive short story collection Get a Grip features diverse protagonists firmly rooted in their Baltimore environment.
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
When I thought about writing a playlist for this series – one I have long read and admired – I was scared. I wished I had some story to tell about how music is the soundtrack to my writing process because this might give the sense that I have a modicum of coolness and/or tattoos and/or insights that are so profound they lodge behind your eyes and you can't even cry. I pined to be a person like that, going way back to when I was a teenager going to hardcore shows in DC. But I was always goofy. Sometimes people with mohawks and nose rings would cock their heads at my freckled face like they were talking to a puppy or Laura Ingalls Wilder and say, "You're sweet." No I'm not! I wanted to say. I am sure all relationships end with death or breakup, and I am skeptical of everything, including myself and Tide with Bleach! But I was too damn sweet to say such things. My stepbrother had recently died in a car accident, and we'd been very close. It had been hard enough to be a fifteen-year-old who felt like the only person at school struggling with impermanence. But on top of that, people would say things like, "At least he wasn't your real brother."
The places I escaped were books and music. Hardcore played at the pitch of my mourning – Marginal Man, Scream, Government Issue, Beefeater, Embrace, and so many others. The kids I met at shows shared an anatomy – something in our chests triggered by that frequency. The music was angry for the same reasons as we were, for the same reasons as the writers of the books I read – because life is sad and funny and beautiful and absurd. And how dare it be all of those things? These artists had captured the humor, the frustration, the melancholy. The hardcore community felt special. And it turned out that people far outside of our world thought so, too. People in that DC hardcore scene became cultural touchstones of artistic expression: Brian Baker graduated from Dag Nasty to Bad Religion, and Dave Grohl went on to Nirvana. My friend, Sohrab Habibion, formed Edsel and later was in Obits.
For me, it took longer to figure out how to get all of that stuff swirling inside to find its way out. The way I could express it was through other people, the characters in my stories. But I have such strong feelings about music that I'm unable to stop being me when I listen to it. So I have never played it when I write. I just can't. And when I listen to it outside of my writing sessions, I'm me. I'm not my characters. Ugh, I thought, why wasn't I more awesome – like Jami Attenberg or Jesmyn Ward?
My husband was the one who pointed out that there was music in quite a few of the stories. He'd been a college radio DJ back in the day, and he had a thousand bazillion albums ripped losslessly. I trusted him about all things music, but this came as news.
I made the What you talking about, Willis? face.
"Remember?" he said, and he listed off several songs.
I started flipping through the stories in Get a Grip. He was right. There was music in them. A new awareness of my own process started to grab hold in my conscious mind, like waking. In that weird dream state of writing fiction, music had helped me understand my characters. I just didn't know it. It had always been playing in my head during those silent sessions of writing. No wonder I couldn't have music on. It was already on.
Once I knew what kind of music the characters liked, I comprehended something deep about what made them tick. The artists or songs may or may not have made it into the final versions of the stories, but they were crucial to the process. I heard them.
Crack the Sky "Hold On"
In "Neuropathy," the main character's husband recently died in his SUV with a prostitute. The SUV is painted with a lime green ad for a radio station, which in my mind is more or less 98 Rock here in Baltimore and pretty much plays Crack the Sky, a local precursor to Poison, all day long. Probably I needed to find something funny about this terrible situation in order for it to seem true. Wayne is not who she thought he was, even though his nature was as obvious as Crack the Sky, announcing itself like an ad.
Bob Dylan "Tangled Up in Blue"
The main character in "Little Big Show" is separated from a woman who welcomed people to their home with music they liked. On the day he went to pick up his stuff, she left his favorite song playing for him. He pretends to disdain singer/songwriter types, lest anyone see how full of emotion he really is, but underneath, that's the music that resonates. The fact that she saw through it and left the song playing really kind of wrecked him, but that's not something he admits, even to himself.
Jim Reeves "In the Garden" (cover of "I Come To The Garden Alone")
The main character in the title story is trying her best not to acknowledge she's in love with a guy who's younger than she is. She has already dumped him once. "Jake works as a youth minister at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. And all those kids tell him their problems. And he fills the rafters each Sunday with haunting acoustic-guitar renditions of ‘Holy, Holy, Holy' or ‘I Come to the Garden Alone.' And all of the moms touch his arm when they seek advice on matters they have probably fabricated, their fingers so light, like whispers. Why did you ever let him go?" The Jim Reeves version is how I imagine Jake might sing it – kind of retro-cool.
Bad Brains "I Against I (Banned in DC)"
When I moved to Baltimore after living away and even overseas for all of my adult life, I reconnected with people from the hardcore scene days. Some of them had settled down with families, but they were still themselves. I had never married or had kids, so this fascinated me – how does a punk kid become a punk adult with a family? "Show of Force" is the story in which my imagination played out this idea. The main character met his wife at The Razor Club, which is made up, but sort of inspired by The Hung Jury Pub. I picture them in the room with me at one of those Bad Brains shows, kids I could have known, riveted by the way HR would jump straight up, arms at his sides, his head nearly hitting the ceiling.
They Might Be Giants "What Is a Shooting Star?"
The story that required the most research was "Heaven's Door," about an aging meteorite hunter at the end of his career. He has chosen that career over his wife, over family, over friends. For him, what matters is in the sky, not on the earth. He would think music was a waste of time and a distraction, but he would probably tolerate this song, maybe even grudgingly admit he likes it – mainly because it is so factual. It acknowledges the friction, heat, and light that accompany a meteorite's journey. Facts are The Meteorite Man's (ineffective) armor against the decay that time brings. Plus, The Meteorite Man is kind of hilarious in his directness, which is a lot like the band.
Future Islands "An Apology"
Ned, from "Homecoming," gets in a bike wreck, and the brush with death helps him realize that he's still in love with his ex-wife, even though he's remarried. He's the kind of guy who listens to the lyrics of songs, who's always lived in Baltimore, and would be tuned into what his students listen to. To me, what he grows to understand is that maybe what he feels isn't so much an urge to be with his ex-wife as an urge to apologize to her:
And I wasn't there in the last,
But I was surely there from the first.
Here, in my chest where you burst,
I keep the crush And the weight of the world.
So far away
Abdu Ali "I, Exist"
The Estonian brothers in the collection's second story, "Half a Brother," are in their teens. They're trying to get to their college interview at Baltimore's Loyola University, despite a broken-down MTA bus. The younger of the two isn't as keen for things to change as the older one, and the story tracks the way he manages his trepidation. Not only would he know about a local talent like Abdu Ali, but this song relates to his desire to live in the present moment, not the future.
Lyle Lovett, "Farther Down the Line"
Young widow, Fiona, in "Leaving Reno" moves herself and her twelve-year-old son to Baltimore from Nevada after her estranged, drifter father shows up. She's trying for a geographical cure, but she can't escape her problems, especially her troubled parents, who, of course, show up. She's embarrassed about her past, her late rodeo clown husband, all of it. She wouldn't admit it to people she's meeting on the east coast, but she likes country music. It plays in her head, and this song would sum up the problems in her family. Maybe she would even prefer the twangier duet version with Willie Nelson from Farm Aid.
One day she'll say she loves you
And the next she'll be tired of you
And push'll always come to shove you
On that midnight rodeo
Kathy Flann and Get a Grip links:
Baltimore Style interview with the author
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Monkeybicycle essay by the author
The Nervous Breakdown self-interview by the author
The Quivering Pen 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)