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May 31, 2017

Book Notes - Stephanie Powell Watts "No One Is Coming to Save Us"

No One Is Coming to Save Us

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.

Stephanie Powell Watts' debut novel No One Is Coming to Save Us is a brilliant reimagining of The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"Watts writes about ordinary people leading ordinary lives with an extraordinary level of empathy and attention...The novel's intricately plotted relationships pay off satisfyingly in its final chapters."

In her own words, here is Stephanie Powell Watts' Book Notes music playlist for her novel No One Is Coming to Save Us:

No One Is Coming to Save Us is the story of Sylvia, her daughter Ava, Sylvia’s sister Lana and the men they try to build their lives with in rural North Carolina. Into this setting reappears JJ Ferguson, an old love of Ava’s whose mission is to try to convince Ava to reboot and start a new life with him. The characters live in a once thriving factory town, where most of its residents work elsewhere or not at all. The story is in conversation with The Great Gatsby in that there are characters desperately trying to move up in the world and grab hold of their piece of the American dream. My novel is not a retelling of that story, but another version of the struggle to transcend class, break free from the past, and start again, all told from America’s cheap seats. I’ve chosen mostly old songs, R & B jams from the seventies and eighties to navigate the story. At the heart of No One is Sylvia’s thinking, her hopes, and for the most part, the songs I’ve chosen would have been the background music for her young adulthood.

“Fire and Desire" by Rick James and Tina Marie

This song thrilled me when I first heard it. It starts in that way that many old R & B jams start with the singer talking not singing. When I was a kid I’d sit up like a meerkat if I heard the singer start talking, like he or she was in the room with me and needed me to know something vital, like a voice from the beyond, like a friend who could not risk me misunderstanding what he or she might sing. In this case Rick James and Tina Marie have met after some time apart, they exchange pleasantries and then begin singing about their old love affair and what they learned from each other that they will carry into their subsequent relationships and into the rest of their lives. Rick James could sing and not just about Mary Jane! If you just know him from Super Freak, you are missing it. My characters all have these moments when they are reaching for a past and a moment that they know in their bones is gone. They talk together and sit together not always hoping to rekindle a passion, but just to feel some of the warmth of that old fire. Reliving that past, understanding what you know now because you lived it, is a deeply satisfying and emotional moment. What my characters learn, what we all learn is those moments are not engines (they transport but do not propel), but fires—warm yourself and keep it moving. You should listen to this song without irony. That’s important. The emotions are so concentrated you might be tempted to discount them, but the intensity is intentional. Like the best gospel music, this song offers you a moment to grieve and wail and lament without self-censorship. Take it.

“If You Think You’re Lonely Now" by Bobby Womack

You see tonight's the night when the needs come out

When your needs come out to breathe

And you toast the stars and there ain't no way you can sleep

Bobby Womack kills this song. There are few lyrics, just a steady chorus of background singers almost chanting “if you think you’re lonely now,” while Bobby screams and growls and wails his insistence that the pain is coming and you won’t will it or wish it or pray it away. Sylvia works full time at a decent job; she sees her daughter often; she talks several times a day to her sister; but the nights are lonely and remind her of the many ghosts she is trying to ignore. She tries to avoid the darkness, but the night always comes.

“Beautiful Ones" by Prince

Prince is pleading at the end of this song, “Do you want him or do you want me!” That’s the bottom line question in every love triangle. But what makes the song genius for me is Prince’s vulnerability. His passion is not fueled by anger, though he is screaming through the limits of his voice, but by need and desire. My characters need so much, but they are afraid if they scream they will not be heard or worse ignored. If you say nothing and are ignored, well, you can survive the indignity that nobody thought enough of you to ask, but if you speak the fullness of your heart and no damn body cares, how do you survive that? Prince finally declares at the end of the song, “I want you. Yes, I do.” All of my characters have their “beautiful ones” moment when they face the thing they’ve been avoiding or ducking or trying to minimize. In a tension-filled moment in my story, JJ Ferguson has to face the memory of his family, the loss of his mother and sister, the guilt and shame of his father. In melodrama, characters are mute and pawns of circumstance. My characters are desperate to step into their own stories and finally say what needs to be said.

“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” by Nina Simone

Nina Simone is from North Carolina as am I, but I was in my late twenties before I heard her voice. I heard her for the first time when I was trying to find a decent radio station on a long driving trip. I had to pull the car over. I love her version of this folk song because the lyrics are simple but there are worlds of meaning: a black, dark-skinned woman, singing the word black over and over, singing about loving hair, singing into being the idea of a unity in love that goes beyond sexual unity. This is a fantastic version. My characters are all trying to figure out their place in a racial landscape that has changed dramatically (though not always definitively) in a short period. When every word and gesture is laden with meaning even something as innocuous as the simple words in a folk song can take on outsized meaning.

“Our Town" by Iris Dement

And you know the sun's settin' fast

And just like they say nothing good ever lasts

Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye but hold on to your lover

'Cause your heart's bound to die

Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town

Can't you see the sun's settin' down on our town, on our town


The fictional town of Pinewood has seen the closing of most of the furniture factories-- the town’s main employer. Rather than think about an uncertain future of the town, the people look to the past and the stories of the past for comfort. Nostalgia is always a Band Aid, but is no cure. This is a sad, sad, song sung with Dement’s hardened, dead-eyed, young girl lilt. I love the way she twangs around the lyrics like she’s talking about making fruit preserves instead of witnessing apocalypse. It is the end of the world or at least the end of her world—which is, of course, the same thing.

“Take a Chance on Me" by ABBA

When this song comes on the radio, it is such a treat. I love the harmony. I love the contrast of the women’s voices and the awful plea they make. The singers affirm a resolute desire to be waiting for the slightest change of heart of the lover. This heartbreak is not pitiful, but is no less real or meaningful. My characters understand the idea of using what you have, surviving and even living a little despite unrequited desires. You put on the good face. You make do. You look like you are fine while you are doing it.

“Betcha By Golly Wow" by Stylistics

“Betcha by golly wow, you’re the one that I’ve been waiting for, forever.”

I learned irony from thirty years of watching David Letterman and for that I am deeply grateful. But there are some moments that are sappy and ridiculous and completely true and free of irony. JJ Ferguson is a forty year old, black man with a troubled and tragic past and he has figured out some way to manage to believe in miracles or at least to try to believe that the most unlikely event could happen to him. At least he believes enough to try.

“Where is the Love?” by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

Where is the love,
You said was mine all mine, till the end of time

Was it just a lie

Where is the love

I love the phrasing of this song. The accusations, the pain come through in the question ‘was it just a lie.” Isn’t that question at the heart of every love gone wrong story in the world? Did you ever even love me? My characters sidestep this question. What good can come from knowing that you have been clowned again, the butt of the joke? That doesn’t mean they don’t feel this question. That doesn’t meant they wouldn’t give good money to know the truth of it.

“I’ll be Around" by Spinners

The song starts “This is my fork in the road. Love’s last episode. There’s nowhere to go.” I have loved this song since I was a very young kid listening to my mother play (loudly) Spinners records to wake us up in the morning. The singer tells his lover who has chosen someone over him that he will “bow out gracefully” from his/her life but he will always be a phone call away. This song manages to sound wistful and loving and not stalker-y. If you couldn’t make out the words in this song you might image that it was a joyful, smooth groove, a song to hand dance to. But you know this dude is cracking up inside, dying, but he’s almost breezy and light in his insistence that he’ll be around. The most obvious connection to my novel is JJ’s love for Ava and the return to her that is the driving force for the story. However, Sylvia loves her difficult husband and despite how it might look he loves her too. They are permanent parts of each other’s lives and they both realize it. In fact, all of the characters have ghost lives that intrude on their everyday living. The trick is not to appease the ghosts but to acknowledge them. Tip the hat to the ghosts, occasionally shake a hand, they ain’t going nowhere so best to get used to them. I wish every relationship felt mutually gratifying and safe. I wish we all got what we needed when we want it. But for most of us, love is a process, and a series of accommodations and compromises. Would that it weren’t. But we shouldn’t be sad for that. Life means getting yet another chance.

Stephanie Powell Watts and No One Is Coming to Save Us links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Dallas Morning News review
Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review
TIME review
USA Today review
Washington Post review

All Things Considered interview with the author
Durham Herald Sun profile of the author
Vol. 1 Brooklyn interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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