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August 19, 2016

Book Notes - Patrick Ryan "The Dream Life of Astronauts"

The Dream Life of Astronauts

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Patrick Ryan's short story collection The Dream Life of Astronauts impressively shares the fascinating stories of everyday lives against momentous occasions in American history.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"The author illuminates [his] characters with pitch-perfect dialogue and period references that capture the various decades in which the stories take place. In the end, he uses a symbol of mankind's greatest achievement as an ironic yardstick for the more earthbound interactions of his sorrowful characters"

In his own words, here is Patrick Ryan's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection The Dream Life of Astronauts:

I know a lot authors who listen to music while they write. I only do this if I'm writing in a public space and if noise-canceling headphones aren't enough to drown out the background noise. And even then, I only listen to music without lyrics, music that won't jab me or tickle me or make me swoon. Brian Eno is good for this. So is Philip Glass (though there's a lot of Philip Glass that makes me swoon). Also good for this, it turns out, is a lot of incidental music from film soundtracks—even films I've haven't seen or didn't especially like.

That said, songs with lyrics fuel my writing. I listen to the influential ones over and over again—never during but before I write, and after. Listening to them after, in fact, is like getting a scalp rub from my imaginary life coach.

The Dream Life of Astronauts is comprised of nine short stories. Here are the songs that took had significance for me while I was working on the collection:

"The Morning After" by Maureen McGovern

It's the song from The Poseidon Adventure, of course, performed not long before the ship turns upside-down. It's a very hopeful sounding song, brimming with promise. And because it's forever associated with that brief, pre-capsize period of the film, it doesn't sound hopeful to us at all. I thought it was the perfect song for the parents to dance to early on in the first story, "The Way She Handles." The parents both drink too much, and the family is on its way to a slow capsizing. Even as I got deep into the nitty-gritty of the story, when I listened to this song I felt nothing but sad for those parents and for the son who is narrating their arc.

"Secret Agent Man" by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri (sung by Johnny Rivers)

This is a stretch, because it was written for a pretty obscure British TV series called Danger Man, shown in the U.S. as Secret Agent. But it's the song I began to associate with my character Frankie when, at 16, he becomes infatuated with an ex-astronaut. He lends this guy all sorts of hipness and mystery—none of which the guy has earned. Likewise, Carly Simon's excellent James Bond theme, "Nobody Does It Better."

"Bandstand Boogie" by Joe Porter

Historically, what I was reaching for was Mike Curb's original theme to American Bandstand, because that's what the narrator of the book's third story, "Summer of '69," would have heard on TV. But the Joe Porter song is so engrained and associated with that show, it was inspiring for me to listen to when trying to imagine what the show meant to a young woman living on an isolated orange grove in 1969.

"The Year of the Cat" by Al Stewart

I have a story set in 1976. There's no music mentioned in it, but the song from that year I kept listening to was Al Stewart's "The Year of the Cat." With lines like "you go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre" and "she comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolor in the rain," who couldn't help but be seduced? I kept imaging this was the song playing on the car radio that would have either annoyed or secretly delighted the grouchy scoutmaster in the story. He's 50, has suffered a stroke, and feels his control slipping away, so I imagined he would very much like to go strolling through a crowd like Peter Lorre, a conniving and slippery figure in American film history.

"At Seventeen" by Janis Ian

I've always thought of this song as one of the best young adult novels ever written. In the book, I have a long story that takes place over a single afternoon, wherein a pregnant 16-year-old tries to figure out what to do with herself and her future. I was in an audience once when Janis Ian walked onstage with just an acoustic guitar and performed this song. She was fantastic and the song was devastating; it was as if I'd never heard it before. So I tried to hear it for the first time every time I listened to it (which I'm always trying to do with my favorite songs).

"Ain't That a Kick in the Head" by J. Van Heusen and S. Cahn

This was one of Dean Martin's signature songs, and the narrator of one of my stories, "Fountain of Youth," is a man living in The Witness Protection Program, in a retirement village in Florida, flirting with the head of his condo board (who's playing hard to get). This seemed like a song he would have appreciated, and so I listened to it as a way of tapping into his character. Any of those Rat-Packers would have done the trick, but I can only stomach so much of them. They all sound like the fathers of the guys who used to beat me up.

"Theme from Mission: Impossible" by Lalo Schifrin

There's a moment in one of the stories when a 60-year-old grandmother is awaiting the arrival of a would-be suitor (her driving instructor, a real creep), and as she fiddles with the radio dial, this song comes on. But it's not the original; it's the vamped-up remix for the first franchise film. Still, it fuels her excitement for her date, and it's playing as he arrives. So I would listen to this very short song over and over again as I tried to put myself into her head. She knows she's being overly hopeful about the prospects of her date, and yet here's this song filling the inside of her car. Who couldn't be titillated?

"The Way You Look Tonight" by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields

The last story in the book is about the last argument that will ever occur between a 70-year-old man and his 92-year-old mother. She used to be music teacher. I thought this was a song she might have played on the piano for her son, way back when. And I thought the lyrics were so sad, in that context. "Lovely…never, never change, keep that breathless charm." If she'd sung that to her boy, she would have meant it, and if he remembered it in his early adulthood, he might have cherished it, and yet here they are scrapping it out in their twilight years, with this song (maybe) echoing in the farthest reaches of their collective memory. During the months I spent writing the story, when I would start feeling like it was too mean and devoid of tenderness, I would listen to this song—especially Fred Astaire singing it to Ginger Rogers in Swing Time—and feel like I was in touch with the sweetness that once had existed between those two characters, mother and son.

Patrick Ryan and The Dream Life of Astronauts links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Chapter 16 review
Kirkus review
NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

Electric Literature interview with the author
Interview magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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