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January 29, 2018

Book Notes - Chandler Klang Smith "The Sky Is Yours"

The Sky Is Yours

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.

Chandler Klang Smith's novel The Sky Is Yours is bold, inventive, and outrageous in the best of ways.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Hyperimaginative…Smith’s novel calls to mind the works of Nick Harkaway and Game of Thrones.…An auspicious debut with enough inventiveness for two novels."

In her own words, here is Chandler Klang Smith's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Sky Is Yours:

When I began to write my novel The Sky Is Yours – set in a ruined metropolis plagued by two fire-breathing dragons – I knew I wanted to create not just an imagined city but an imagined world where the story would take place, one with its own culture and history. But I also knew that I wanted that world to be recognizable to readers, and to resonate with aspects of our own society that I find alarming, or hilarious, or heartbreaking. The answer, as I saw it, was to dump everything that evoked the vibe I wanted right into the blender of my brain, churn on high, and pour out the results on the page. While I worked, I reread snippets of Jane Austen and YouTubed military recruitment commercials. I streamed audio of T.S. Eliot reading his poetry and Patton Oswalt reading E. Hamish Plumbrick's. I rewatched Gangs of New York, Brazil, and the cartoon adaptation of The Rats of NIMH. I played Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite. And I listened to a lot of music, from the Oliver! soundtrack to the nastiest excesses of Tom Jones' Greatest Hits, depending on which character and which part of the story I was tackling that day. Here are some of the songs that helped me generate the book's (polluted, pungent) atmosphere and put a sky above my characters' heads.

"Palo Alto," "There, There," and "Where I End and You Begin" by Radiohead
When in doubt, I defaulted to Radiohead when working on this book. Their cryptic lyrics, paired with accompaniments both boldly futuristic and markedly primal, capture the particular tenor of weirdness I was usually going for. These three songs in particular evoke the book's three main characters for me. "In a city of the future it is difficult to concentrate," observes the speaker of "Palo Alto." Like my character Duncan Ripple, the narcissistic scion of the city's wealthiest family, this guy is bored, spoiled, overstimulated, and out of touch: everyone he knows is "made for life." But the increasingly frenetic music shows this façade coming unglued. "There, There," on the other hand, shows us a figure far from home and frightened from the start ("In pitch dark, I go walking through your landscape"), uncertain who to trust ("There's always a siren singing you to shipwreck"), much like my character Abby, a feral girl who grows up in isolation on a garbage island, only to be transported abruptly into a world she knows nothing of with a lover who doesn't understand her. Finally, "Where I End and You Begin" is about erotic hunger ("I will eat you alive"), but also the lies, betrayal, and existential distance between people that can make true emotional satiation and connection impossible. My character Swanny, a tempestuous Baroness who becomes entangled in a doomed romance, actually speaks a key line from this song in a pivotal scene: "I'm up in the clouds… and I can't come down."

"Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" by Bob Dylan
This song is the source of my novel's first epigraph: "Anyone with any sense had already left town." The omnipresent "drilling in the wall" that Dylan conjures in his lyrics is exactly the type of portent my book's characters are uniquely inclined to ignore until it's too late.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (cover) and "Birdland" by Patti Smith
Patti Smith's "Birdland" was the inspiration for a song called "Kingdom of the Sky" Swanny performs in a late chapter, but it's Smith's cover of the Nirvana classic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that I listened to the most while working on this project. I basically convinced myself that her spoken word solo was a poem about the world of my novel: "scavengers picking through the ashes," "junkyards," "fuzzy little rats," and "foul-mouthed, glassy-eyed, hallucinating" young people are all central images in the book.

"Human Behavior" and "Bachelorette" by Bjork
Bjork's persona and music definitely informed the creation of my character Abby: sensitive but otherworldly, among civilization but not of it, she's eminently relatable even as she protests her alien-ness. In these songs, Bjork claims to be a changeling, uncomprehending of "human behavior," "a fountain of blood / in the shape of a girl" – but that means she can bleed, and does, her humanity and vulnerability stunningly audible in every passionate exhortation and lament.

"The Way You Look Tonight" by Frank Sinatra and "You'll Have Time" by William Shatner
"The Way You Look Tonight" and "You'll Have Time" are the only songs I allowed to pass through the membrane between our reality and the book's fictitious one to appear in the novel as themselves. "The Way You Look Tonight," reduced to a lyric-less, plinking melody, plays whenever my character Swanny opens the jewelry box where she keeps her extracted teeth; the song is part of her childish fantasy of perfect love, not to mention "city lights, glamour, and communion with like souls." "You'll Have Time" is the cold water thrown in the face of all this, at the worst possible moment and in the smarmiest of tones by none other than that great emissary of the future – our universe's Captain Kirk, known in the book's world only as "the Shat."

"Monkey Gone to Heaven" by the Pixies
The source of my novel's second epigraph ("Everything is gonna burn. We'll all take turns. I'll get mine too."), I regard this as the book's theme song. The seamless lyrical connection between mythology and ecocide, the ancient and the Anthropocene, not to mention the wild fluctuations in musical dynamics – from recitative to singing to screaming – mirror the seismic leaps in tone and voice I was going for in the book.

"Fire Water Burn" by the Bloodhound Gang
In the film Fahrenheit 9/11, tank crewmen in Baghdad talk about cranking this song on their vehicle's speakers to psych themselves up – but also about how the real-life experience of combat stands in stark contrast to their video game-inspired expectations. I find it interesting that the song itself – performed by an aggressively tasteless band that capitalized on shock value and gross-out humor in so much of their material – starts out on a quiet, almost elegiac note, as if the performers themselves are trying to rouse themselves from melancholy or self-doubt. When my character Ripple finds himself far from his life of privilege fighting fires in the city, feeling increasingly bleak about both his prospects and the world's, I found this song conjured the right combination of immaturity, bravado, and sadness to put me in his headspace. (Lyrically, it's also interestingly connected to "Monkey Gone to Heaven" above.)

"Sweet Thing" by The Shaggs
Bonnie Raitt once said of this band, "The Shaggs are like castaways on their own musical island." Since my character Abby literally grew up as a castaway, I imagine her inner melodies might have the same unearthly logic as theirs.

"I Killed the Monster" by Daniel Johnston
I love a lot about this song, but the thing that strikes me every time I listen to it is how clearly it brackets "killing the monster" as a fantasy. The speaker declares himself the "winner," even angels descend from on high to acknowledge the definitive victory – and then we find out, "This is a demo… we hope you like it…" along with hoots and laughter that signify that everything preceding it has been imaginary at best, maybe even delusional. Monsters, whatever form they take, don't really die – if they vanish for a time, it's only because they've mercifully submerged themselves back into depths where we can't or won't follow them.

"Misty Mountains Cold"
Toward the end of the novel, Uncle Osmond – a bookish trickster figure who constantly views the events unfolding around him through the lens of narrative contrivance – sings a folk ballad I invented in homage to this song from The Hobbit. The version from the 1977 animated film best captures the haunting quality I was going for; since I grew up watching the movie, it's also tinged with memory for me, a soundtrack wafting from the pages of a half-forgotten storybook. But since that's not on Spotify, this version from the 2012 Peter Jackson remake will have to do.

"Queen of the Night"
The relationship between Swanny and her domineering, driven mother Pippi provides conflict in the early parts of the novel… and the negative space left behind after their parting deepens that conflict still further. This aria is a perfect sonic representation of how a parent's love, in its laser-like intensity, can become a mythic curse.

"Tell Mama" (live) by Janis Joplin
The last song Swanny performs in the novel is based on this Janis Joplin classic, specifically this live version. Also, my secret wish is to write the way Janis Joplin sings. She isn't afraid to risk sentimentality (as when she addresses the audience here) or incomprehensibility (as when her words break down into fractured syllables, shrieks, or moans). Everything she does is fueled by the urgency and specificity of what she has to communicate.

"Bottom of the World" by Tom Waits
Tom Waits, when he's sad, sounds like a dying predator, a wolf or an alley cat, beyond snarling now, torn by another's teeth, lying on its side somewhere cold and dark, bleeding out. In my novel, the character Sharkey – a crime kingpin and murderer who makes and sells psychedelic chaw – winds up in a bad place, and I imagined his internal monologue sounding a little like this.

"April Showers" by Tiny Tim
There's something stilted and unnatural about the merriment in Tiny Tim's quavering voice; his love for archival tunes always comes across to me as half nostalgia, half willful forgetting. No spoilers, but if the city could speak aloud at the end of my novel, I feel its tone would present the same forced levity, the same desperate longing for retreat to a fabled earlier time of simplicity – an age before the fall.

(This last one isn't on Spotify, but here's a YouTube link:

Chandler Klang Smith and The Sky Is Yours links:

the author's website

NPR Books review
Publishers Weekly review review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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