February 1, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Genanne Walsh's debut novel Twister, awarded the Black Lawrence Press's 2014 Big Moose Prize, richly evokes a sense of place and community.
Peter Orner wrote of the book:
"Genanne Walsh's Twister is a chronicle of a small town amid the calm before the storm—but so much more. This book digs beneath the surface of place to create a kind of Spoon River Anthology for our time replete with secrets, truths, startling reckonings—and very, very threatening weather. As fine a new novel as you will read this year."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
In my debut novel, Twister, a small Midwestern community grieves the loss of a young man killed in a war. Coincidentally, or not, there's also a powerful storm coming. The story opens with Rose, the soldier's mother, but then broadens to include a number of other characters—Rose's estranged stepsister, a neighboring family, and townspeople who appear at first glance to be less connected to the loss. I wanted to explore how a community copes with momentous change and existential threat—the earliest fragment of the story first appeared on the page during the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Though the book has major external pressures, the community's undercurrents intrigued me too. What do these people see in each other that they might not be able to face in themselves? Will they survive what's coming? If so, how will they be changed?
The playlist here comes mostly from songs mentioned in the novel, or from songs that struck me in some way while I was writing. So you'll note some threads: loss and grief, of course; but also dark humor, misunderstandings and missed opportunity for connection, and the shifting, elusive nature of dreams and memories.
Don't Forget Me by Neko Case
Maybe I should just list all the songs from Middle Cyclone and call it a day. This song grapples with nostalgia and bitterness about someone loved and lost—and the desire to be remembered. There's an oblique reference to Neko Case late in the book: a "big-voiced girl singing about memories and gunpowder"—a nod to "Don't Forget Me" and its directive to "Keep your memories/But keep your powder dry too."
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan
Oh, man, this song. This song has the force of a prophecy. It captures a feeling of foreboding, of impending reckoning, that many of us recognize—even (or especially) when we're uncertain exactly what it is that's coming. What's a singer to do in the face of it? Take careful note of what you see, and know your song well before you start singing.
Blackbird by The Beatles
Twister's resident oddball, Scottie, lives in the back of a shoe store and secretly makes art out of bird bones. He's an outsider but also a visionary—he sees things that others miss. I think of this as his song. "Take these sunken eyes and learn to see."
Them There Eyes by Ella Fitzgerald
In the book there's a mention of a "favorite jazzy singer" playing on repeat on Rose's turntable. Though her name isn't specified, Ella Fitzgerald's voice was always the one in my head. Her vocal flexibility is intoxicating: lightness and joy threaded with deep sadness. Rose and her stepsister, Stella, were introduced to this record by their mother and father—awful parents in a lot of respects, but they had great taste in music.
Que Sera Sera by Pink Martini
Pink Martini does very well by this song. It's orchestral and dramatic, but with wry self-awareness. Stella, the bad girl of the family, has made a mess of her life in many ways—but she never stops asking questions and trying to understand things. This is her song.
Long Black Veil by Johnny Cash
There's a reference in Twister to a Johnny Cash cassette tape used as a coaster on an end table in Rose's house. A tape listened to so often, it's become part of the furniture. I love how succinctly and evocatively this song tells a haunting tale about a man who does the wrong thing but then an honorable thing, even though it costs him his life. And he's telling us all about it from the grave!
Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps by Cake
Sylvie, the teenage daughter of Rose's neighbors, has a memory of hearing this song when visiting Rose and Lance as a little girl. She's unable to speak of Lance's death to most people, and definitely unwilling to speak of it with her troubled family. But her grief is honest—there's a crack in the world that she won't pretend isn't there. Though Sylvie first hears the sugary Doris Day rendition, I like to think that eventually she'll find Cake's interpretation. And it will make her very happy.
It's Not Unusual by Tom Jones
In the book, Stella is plagued by an earworm, a tune emitted by her beeping alarm clock. I wanted to use lyrics from "It's Not Unusual," but couldn't because of permissions challenges. (I substituted "Camptown Races" instead, which I thought had a similarly frantic, almost bonkers momentum. See below.) Though Tom Jones's wacky hit isn't in the novel, it's there in spirit. "It's not unusual to be loved by anyone … It's not unusual to see me crying." The lyrics don't make much sense, but it's hard not to sing along.
Camptown Races by Dave Brubeck
I'm listing Dave Brubeck's version because it's a lovely riff and has no vocals. The original, written by Stephen Foster in 1850, has lyrics in the racist minstrel tradition. It seems appropriate to me that waking up to an electronic version of this song would drive Stella nuts. Yet, the tune has an energy that gallops into her consciousness. A few lines based on the lyrics come to her at a pivotal moment just before she has a close encounter with the tornado: "Going to run all night, going to run all day…."
Is That All There Is? by Peggy Lee
Rose quotes a line from this song in a letter to Stella. The fatalism and wit here have always slayed me. It walks the knife-edge between humor and despairing cynicism, always returning—triumphantly, if you ask me—to the dance.
I Dream a Highway by Gillian Welch
I listened to Time (The Revelator) quite a bit while writing the first draft of Twister. "I Dream a Highway," at more than fourteen minutes, is a song that takes you on a journey. Listening to it was a way to understand Lance, the dead soldier. Or to understand his continued pull on Rose and the others he left behind. Yearning, lost dreams, slippery intersections of present and past, a promise of revelation that never really comes—what's not to love? Plus, lyrics don't get better than this:
"Step into the light, poor Lazarus
Don't lie alone behind the window shade
Let me see the mark death made
I dream a highway back to you…."
Genanne Walsh and Twister links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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