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August 15, 2017

Book Notes - Paul Yoon "The Mountain"

The Mountain

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.

Paul Yoon's The Mountain is a stunning collection of linked stories.

The Boston Globe wrote of the book:

"Believe me: This is a genuine work of art, a shadowland of survivors that is tough and elegant and true. And beautiful."

In his own words, here is Paul Yoon's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection The Mountain:

The Mountain is a collection of six stories set around the world. It begins in the Hudson Valley of New York in the early twentieth century and moves east around the globe (and forward in time) until we circle back to New York. I write listening to music. I tend to be minimalistic and will usually put a track or an album on repeat. With this book, because of the vast geography I was dealing with, I decided that for each story I was working on I would listen to only one song, on repeat. It helped me establish, I hope, an individual identity for each story within the book as a whole. The following are the songs that kept me company.

"Cold Clear Moon" by Tomo Nakayama

With the opening story, "A Willow and the Moon," I was looking for a song that evoked a pastoral evening—more specifically, an evening with a large, empty house by a lake. Tomo Nakayama's "Cold Clear Moon" was perfect. I love the spaces in this song; there's a lot of air in the piece, and I think this helped me think of how to structure "Willow." Also, the piano chords became a kind of heartbeat that held the mini-chapters together.

"Yet Again" by Grizzly Bear

The star of this song, for me, is the percussion. It is gently ominous at first and then builds. I needed that propulsive and yet, at first, ghostly beat for a "Still a Fire," the seed of which was an image of men being forced to walk down a forest road. The incessant cymbals helped me think of the small pieces of things throughout this story: debris, shrapnel, wreckage, snow and sunlight. The song evolves toward the end, and that was helpful in terms of thinking of how I could make this story evolve from one to another.

"Fall Hard" by Shout Out Louds

"Galicia" is a kind of interlude story, which I thought was necessary after the long, dark tunnel of "Still a Fire" which was a brutal story to write. Coming out of it was not easy; I would have these recurring dreams of violence to the body. That's where Shout Out Louds comes in, as they are currently my favorite band. Dreamy, melancholic, Swedish pop goodness. "Fall Hard" has a vulnerability that lent itself well to the character, Antje, in this story. A lot of that comes from Adam Olenius's beautiful voice and whatever guitar pedals they're using. "Mistakes and mistakes" becomes a recurring chorus by the end of the song, and I couldn't help but think that Antje would be listening to this song as she cleaned the hotel rooms.

"Stubborn Love" by The Lumineers

A lot of "Vladivostok Station" deals with walking. It opens with two friends walking in the countryside in the Russian Far East, and it ends with one of them walking through the city of Vladivostok. This song has a rolling quality that seemed to capture the narrative rhythm I wanted to convey. I find this song to be terribly lonely. Perhaps it's Wesley Schultz's knife-like voice, which is a nice contrast to Adam Olenius's, but it embodied a pain (and a rage) that is really repressed in this story. So in some ways Schultz's voice became everything that my narrator couldn't voice himself.

"Homesick" by The Cure

I have a very special place in my heart for epic songs by The Cure. I grew up listening to them and I always make sure I get one in during a book project. The title story of my book is set mostly in a factory in Shanghai. I wanted to capture the mundane, repetitive gestures and movements of working in an assembly line. In its quiet relentlessness, "Homesick" seemed the perfect song. I love the slow build, the repetitions, the layers of melodies. Two characters, Faye and Tad, are the center of this book—a kind of love story, I suppose. I love that "Homesick" begins with just two instruments, the piano and guitar, and then everything else fades and we return to them at the end.

"Lucky You" by The National

The last story, "Milner Field," comes full circle, so to speak, and returns to Hudson Valley, New York for a while, though this one is set in the present day. I listened to "Luck You" by The National because in some ways this song, like the Nakayama song, has a lot of space in it. Everything seems to be a micro-beat slower than it should be. It leaves room for some interesting pauses, as though we are standing on a cliff's edge. And like "Willow," this story is structured in mini-chapters, so the song helped me think about space, white space, and how to let the reader fill in that space, if they wanted to. I also think there's a longing in this song, and the lyrics, that spoke to the tone I was trying to capture with the narrator, his history, and his world.

Paul Yoon and The Mountain links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
Publishers Weekly review

Aspen Public Radio interview with the author
Boston Globe interview with the author
Harvard Gazette interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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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

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