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May 22, 2017

Book Notes - Selena Chambers "Calls for Submission"

Calls for Submission

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.

Selena Chambers' Calls for Submission is filled with an impressive variety of weird fiction and fully realized characters.

Paul Tremblay wrote of the book:

"Selena Chambers' collection Calls for Submission is a wonderful, irresistible mix of the historical and modern, the literary and fantastic. These stories burst with humor, genuine emotion, and the dread of those who see the end coming."

In her own words, here is Selena Chambers' Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Calls for Submission:

Calls for Submission is my first short story collection. The oldest story and first to be published was written in 2005, and the most recent was in 2015. That is quite a period of one's life to unpack, and during the book's arrangement, I would flashback to when (and how) a story was written. I'd remember the housing I was in with its smells of brewed coffee and the neighbors fried cooking. I'd remember the needed deadline sustenances (Americanos, figs and nuts, all the cheese, all the wine!). Most of all, I'd remember what track or album was playing through my headphones.

I don't prescribe much to writer rituals, but music is the one requisite I can't create without. Not only does it tune out distractions, but it also helps me find the story's mood and rhythm. If the setting is in a foreign country, music helps me find the cultural and historical essence that immerses me well enough to get the job done, if I can't experience the scene firsthand. And, sometimes, music can be used within the stories themselves as thematic devices. Either way, because of the way I loop albums and tracks during my drafting process, the songs become imprinted in the writing experience.

And it doesn't stop. I had a fixed list when I first started this mixtape to the world. But as I tuned in and out to new music, I came across some fresh cuts that expressed certain characters or feelings in a story way better than the music used during their actual composition. So, whether it is tangentially or quite literally, the below is the soundtrack to Calls for Submission, twelve years in the making (and then some).

Dedication / "Lashes" by Babes in Toyland

I dedicated this book to the members of Babes in Toyland. From the Cindy Shermanesque cover to the double-edged femininity that permeates throughout this collection, it is perhaps more in-debt to their aesthetic than any horror writer or work. This has nothing to do with one story, necessarily, as the overall mood of the collection.

I was influenced to write horror by a notion to explore womanhood fears. Outside of Mina Loy and Virginia Woolf, I didn't have many female references at the time, so I secretly labeled this kind of horror Foxcore.* "Lashes" personifies the fierce tempo, soft surrealism, and feminine contradictions I tried to invoke into each story, even the ones dialed back without distortion.

*Foxcore was actually a loving joke Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore made to the media about bands like Babes, Hole, and L7. Media, being the suits and squares they are, thought it was just a synonym for Riot Grrrl, leading to a lot of resentment between the various bands when they were all lumped together.

Of Parallel and Parcel / "All is Full of Love" by Björk

When we think of Virginia Poe, the child-bride of Edgar Allan, we don't think of a willful young woman who knew whether or not she'd been given true love. However, this story imagines her as a person conscious of her own fate. I think the message in Björk's "All is Full of Love", as well as the cosmic heart-beats of its tempo, very well set the tone to a young woman weighing her options in an option-less time, and following her heart and her true love all the way to whatever awaits her at the end.

The Şehrazatın Diyoraması Tour / "Caravan" by Raquy and the Cavemen

This is an anti-Orientalist Steampunk story set in Constantinople at the end of the nineteenth century. It involves a diorama tour designed to give Western sojourners their "ideal Orient," as guided by the mysterious eponymous automaton. "Caravan" is an excellent companion to this story as it encompasses several Middle Eastern techniques and instruments into a fusion of Persian and Turkish influences. It also parallels the story's pacing of the story. A mysterious riff from Raquy and the Cavemen's trademark 11-string guitar slowly rises into a lush auditorial trek. It recalls Gertrude Bell and Lawrence of Arabia clichés, but once you have settled into that fantasy, the song becomes furious and the travels are no longer what they seem.

Dr. Lambshead's Dark Room / "Miss Annabelle Lee" by Django Reinhardt

This story was written for a great high-concept anthology, Dr. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Dr. Lambshead was a famed eccentric and archeologist of the Weird who left the world a house full of curios after his death. Each story, then, was an account of the author's interaction or knowledge of what objects laid within. In my case, I wrote more about an experience with the good Doctor as he cured my Poepathy (a word I've coined to describe the disease of the imagination that stems from reading too much Poe). Therefore, what better way to go visit a crazy octogenarian about Poe than with Django swinging you in with "Miss Annabelle Lee?"

Descartar / "La Llorona" by Lila Downs, Luis Mars, and Mariachi Juvenil Tecalitlan

"Descartar" is a modern re-telling of the Hispanic La Llorona legend. La Llorona means "Weeping Woman," and concerns a lady ghost who haunts the coast searching for her lost children. There are a lot of variations on the theme of La Llorona. Sometimes she is victim and her children were drowned by someone else, or she is the murderer. My version both flirts and subverts both notions.

As a folk song, "La Llorona" also has assorted arrangements and verses. This version from the Frida soundtrack was what I had on loop most of the time while writing. Arranged by Eliot Goldsmith and performed by Lila Downs, Luis Mars, and the Mariachi Juvenil Tecalitlan, it is a more upbeat and festive version that best captures my characters foil personalities. For Arylola, the village bruja, it expresses a deep melancholy masked by an insouciance demeanor. For the young Remedios, Arylola's reluctant patient, it evokes her heartbreak from being abandoned, dishonored, and impregnated by her lover.

Dive in Me (with Jesse Bullington) / "Dive" by Nirvana & "1994" by Slutever

If you are a Nirvana fan, you probably already know from the title that "Dive" figures prominently in this Southern Gothic story. Set in the 90s, it's about three teenage girls who set out to find and dive the legendary "Suicide Sinks." I co-wrote this with one of my own fellow childhood conspirators, Jesse Bullington (some of you may know him as Alex Marshall). We wanted to write a story about some of the kids we knew, and the lush, dripping Gothic of North Florida springs and sinkholes we both grew up around.

Our girls—Spring, Moira, and Gina—trespass, chain-smoke, bicker, and swear up a storm to hide their growing fears about their adventure. Music becomes the one thing that settles their nerves. To scrounge up courage and renew their pact to dive the mythical sink together, they sing an altered version of Nirvana's "Dive."

Gah, I love this story so much that I have to cheat. While "Dive" appears directly in the story, and repeated while I worked, I have to include Slutever's "1994" here. This song sounds like something the girls would perform, and captures their gritty, ironic sense of the world. I also like the time-continuity/nostalgia of it. Of course a song about 1994 written in 2015 would be symbiotic to a story set around 1994 written in 2013.

Vintage Scenes, #1: Bandol, Château La Rouvière, 2002 / "Rude Boy" by Rihanna

This story concerns a philosophical exchange about wine and experience in the oldest cave in Nice, France. It's almost taken verbatim from a scene my husband and I experienced during our Honeymoon. Since it is about manipulating the senses to take you back to a time and place, Rihanna's "Rude Boy" is pretty appropriate as it inadvertently became the trip's theme song back in 2010. Whether it was in the Atlanta airport, the Côte d'Azur train, the streets of Geneva or Ansbach, this song was blasting from airport speakers and phones non-stop. (For some reason, no one believed in headphones and persisted in rocking their phones like mini-boom boxes). So, while the association of Rihanna and Bandol is pretty much non-existent, this song helped me trick my mind back into returning to Nice and 2010 while reconstructing my experiences there in 2014.

Collaborative Disambiguation (with Virginia M. Mohlere) / "Don Quixote" by Gordon Lightfoot

This isn't a story so much as a spontaneous record of two writers' budding friendship while trying to navigate their changing lives with their writing lives. Virginia and I were paired together by Mungbeing editor (and Pelekinesis founder/editor) Mark Givens to write a story for a collaboration issue. We were strangers, but through Don Quixote and crappy day jobs, we became fast buds.

Sometimes pursuing a writing career feels like tilting at windmills, so it was apt that our big idea behind our collaboration dealt with the Man from La Mancha. Gordon Lightfoot's bright and clean guitar reminds me of the idealism Virginia and I radiated almost ten years ago. His refrain of "seeing" conjures up the writing scales that slowly but very necessarily fell from both of our eyes, making us stronger dreamers in the end.

The United States of Kubla Khan / "Futurism vs. Passéism, Pt. 2" by Blonde Redhead

This is the oldest story in this collection. It was written in 2005 after spending the week with a cold, doped up on NyQuil, and watching the horrible aftermath of Katrina on CNN. It's about helplessness, idealism, and the ease of manifestoing but not manifesting action—all soliloquized through a somnambulant young girl only known as the Last American Dreamer. We all want good in the world, but how do we bring it about? A tough question I find myself struggling to answer more than ever this year….

To keep myself in the needed trance to write "Kubla Khan," I listened to two Blonde Redhead albums, the lush and atmospheric Misery is a Butterfly, and the more raw but still hypnotic, In An Expression of the Inexpressible. "Futurism vs. Passéism, Pt. 2," appears on the latter, and asks basically the same question as the Last American Dreamer: Is history actually held accountable?

Vintage Scenes #2: 2010 Bernkasteler Lay Riesling Spätlese / "Ohm Sweet Ohm" by Kraftwerk

Just like "Vintage Scenes, #1," this piece is also about the sensorial experience of travel, but rather than having memory work for you, it works against you. Rather than being mindful of where you are right now, you waste that time wishing you were somewhere you are not. In the case of this story, it is about missing Springtime in Florida while spending it on The Romantic Road in Bavaria, and vice versa. The ironic title of this song, the meandering ambiance of the synthesizers, and the fact that these are the only other German artists I listen to besides Marlene Dietrich make this a pretty good navel-gazing companion to this vignette.

The Last Session / "Girl O'Clock" by Dismemberment Plan

This song is directly referenced in the Emo-period novelette, "The Last Session," when the protagonist, Clarissa Collyer, and her best friend, Laney exchange barbs while driving home from school. It's cranked up after Clarissa burns her friend hard about being a nympho. To be fair, it was in retaliation for Laney suggesting Clarissa be a groupie. Clarissa doesn't want to be a groupie, she wants to be in a band, and this is where the song comes in.

While the hooks and chaos in this song are still fresh and dynamic, the lyrics are really rapey and come off more as Gamergate fan-fic than anything fun and rebellious. This was pretty typical of Emo during the 2000s, which was a retro-active boy's club disguised as the next level of punk rock progression. Riot Grrrl and Foxcore were swept under the rugs, and if there were any girls up front at an Emo show, it was as adulating fans. While the notion that a girl in the early 2000s wants to be in a band doesn't seem abnormal, it was a straight up aberration at the time. In "The Last Session," I try to depict that dynamic in the background, and bring back to the front the girls who had music to make.

The Good Shepherdess / "Joan of Arc" by Melvins

What if Joan of Arc wasn't touched in the head by Jesus, but turned Zombie by Cthulhu? These are the kind of pertinent existential questions posed by Lovecraftiana. Much like the conceit of this story, the Melvin's "Joan of Arc" is some noisy nonsense that pulls you under with deep riffs. Despite the brain's inability to comprehend the auditorial abuse it is being subjected to, it finds itself lulled into head-nodding conversion and selfless devotion to the calls of sludge.

That all sounded kind of grumpy, but Buzzo and Joan of Arc both live side-by-side as Saints in my Temple of Bad Asses.

Remnants of Lost Empires / "Sappho Song" by Chagall

Sometimes it takes years to find the soundtrack for something you wrote, and Chagall's "Sappho Song" is definitely the companion to this story. The story revolves around a forgotten Romantic poet/scholar named Sarah Pickman, who is sent on a weird, occult goose-chase involving Sappho. As she descends into madness, her stanzas, just like Chagall's song, are both inspired by the Sapphic form.

Recent scholarship has theorized that Sappho's poetry would have been performed musically, and in my mind with what bits it knows of Greek choruses and the strangeness of the Aeolian harp, I always imagine a Sapphic concert as disembodied sopranos wafting through stalagmite riddled caverns. Chagall comes mighty close to that auditory fantasy thanks to her vocal chords and the gloves.

The Venus of Great Neck / "This Island Earth" by The Bryan Ferry Orchestra

"The Venus of Great Neck" is a Decopunk story about a grand reunion turned séance, obsessions with controlling the past, spiritualism, alchemy, and ultimately my taking a Symbolist piss at F. Scott Fitzgerald. While the time of the story is after the Crash, and all of the Bright Young Things are now sober and old, I kept the vibe jazzy and fresh with the three Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby soundtracks, plus The Bryan Ferry orchestra's The Jazz Age. Out of all of that swing, "This Island Earth" best captures the mournful tarnish that has dulled the once-glamorous lives of my main characters, Eva and Hollis Ellis.

It, and The Jazz Age as a whole, also echoes my philosophy on historical fiction. Bryan Ferry breathed new life into his Roxy Music songs by riffing off of Swing tempos and using 1920s era instruments. It isn't nostalgic from either a 1920s or 1970s stand point, but is a unique vehicle demonstrating that new ideas can be excavated from the past.

Vintage Scenes, #3: Morellino di Scansano, 2011 Vendemmia / "What The Water Gave Me" by Florence and the Machine

This final story in the Vintage Scenes series deals with familial empathy, memory, and mourning. It uses an ekphrastic device inspired by Frida Kahlo's What The Water Gave Me. My favorite Kahlo painting, it provides other aesthetic alternatives to memoir. Instead of an another iconic self-portrait, all you see is what Kahlo sees—her feet at the end of the tub with all of the memories of which she is trying to wash herself. The narrator in "Vintage Scenes #3" experiences her wine-induced visions in a similar vein and comes out cleansed of sadness.

Florence Welch didn't necessarily write this song about Kahlo or the painting directly. She wrote the song first, and named it afterwards, when she came across the painting. Even so, it's themes of water and helplessness is pretty appropriate (not to mention trance-inducing) for a story about drowning one's sorrows in both bottles and sudsy baths.

The Neurastheniac / "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" by Bessie Smith

Helen Heck is a forgotten junky-mystic poet from the 1960s who, having nothing to lose, decides to explore the abandoned Winthrop Lethal Chambers in Washington Square. Also known as the Suicide Chambers, she finds the building something like a Last Days resort, with each room designed to lead their guests to death in comfort and style. Among the amenities are Victrolas with abandoned records from the 1920-1940s. They were presumably the last sounds guests heard before their euthanasia. Heck listens to them all while surveying the rest of the digs, and as a result I was able to create a suicide jazz playlist featuring Rube Bloom, Billie Holiday, and Bessie Smith. This device underlines the disparity of the ruins and the ignored melancholy during an age often depicted as carefree. These records also lead her to the discovery of a great mystery that propels the story into its final adventure and conclusion.

Out of that playlist, Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" gets extra special air time as Helen Heck remixes it with Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody Who Are You." It also summarizes how Heck felt in the world—an alone, destitute failure who was disposable and forgotten by all the literary communities in her day.

Selena Chambers and Calls for Submission links:

the author's website

This Is Horror review

Literary Hub essay by the author
Mary Robinette Kowal essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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