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January 3, 2018

Book Notes - James Han Mattson "The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves"

The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves

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.

James Han Mattson's novel The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves is a masterfully orchestrated debut about love, loss, and community.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Mattson expertly teases out the relationships between our real lives and our social media feeds, the faces we show to the world and the ones we must confront in the mirror. A moving debut about the intersections of rural queerness, the internet, and forgiveness."

In his own words, here is James Han Mattson's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves:

I wrote The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves in three countries, five states, and twelve cities. In each place, I listened to different music, partly because my character focuses shifted with each new locale, and partly because I needed a distraction from the heavy subject matter of the novel. In Korea and South Africa, I used music to enliven me, to stave off some of the deep alienation I regularly felt, and in the States, my playlist showcased more ruminative and sentimental outpourings—it became a portal to both my adolescence and young adulthood. I wrote much of Jeremy's sections while living in San Francisco, the city serving as his geographical reality, and the music I listened to then, interestingly, conjured significantly less angst than the music I listened to while living in southern Maine, writing Mark and Claire. I wrote some of Harriet, Alyssa, and Corky in every place I lived, so the musical inspiration for those characters wasn't tethered to any particular geographical location, but to all of them at once.

Below is a list of songs that were meaningful for me during the writing process. Each contributed to my understanding of the characters—and my understanding of myself as a nomadic writer—in different ways.

"Ring Ding Dong" by SHINee

K-pop is everywhere in Korea—you can't go anywhere without it assaulting you in some fashion. As such, while you might initially dislike—or even abhor—it, you eventually grow used to it, and often, that acclimatization transforms into a strange sort of love, no matter your age. In Seoul and Busan, I regularly felt culturally isolated, and I used these feelings to concoct Ricky Graves. It worked pretty well, but I still needed an outlet for decompression, so: K-pop. With its glitzy, catchy beats, the music helped me momentarily get away from the weightiness of both Ricky's and my reality, and this song, in particular, allowed for some actual fun. (Full disclosure: I studied the dance moves in the video and performed them in front of my mirror.) The song itself is delightfully weird lyrically. For example:

We wanna go rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rock
so fantastic
go rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rocka, rock
so elastic
fantastic, fantastic, fantastic, fantastic
elastic, elastic, elastic, elastic
Ring Ding Dong, Ring Ding Dong,
Ring Diggy Ding Diggy Ding Ding Ding

Sadly, one of the lead singers recently committed suicide, making this playlist entry all the more significant.

"Fire" by 2NE1

I heard this song every day for the first few months I lived in Korea, and I took to it almost immediately. It contains the chirpy bubbliness present in most K-Pop songs, but there's also something else, something almost anxious, particularly in the verses, and as I was creating the town that would ultimately become The Springs, I thought about how veneers—of place, of people, of music—often obscure serious underlying concerns. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that this song obscures any substantial concerns, every time I hear it, I sense some small anger trying to break through.

"Rise Above This" by Seether

This is the only song on the list that directly discusses depression and suicide. It's both lyrically and musically simple, and this simplicity allows for a more affecting experience. The South African band seems to have written lyrics aimed directly at people like Ricky Graves, particularly these lines:

And everything's in vain, distressing you, don't leave me open

Feels so right but I'll end this all before it gets me

"Fishin' in the Dark" by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

This song is mentioned by name in the novel—it reminds Corky of his days with Ricky at Camp Burroway. It reminds me of my adolescence in Grand Forks, North Dakota. In the nineties, it seemed teenagers in my town were split musically—some listened to grunge, the rest, to country. The song, for me, is emblematic of those country-listeners I grew up with, the more conventional kids for whom the cloistering mechanism of the town itself was rather amenable.

"Nothing Left 1" by Orbital

There's a sort of ordered frenzy to each character, all of them struggling to keep composure in the aftermath of Ricky's crime, and this song perfectly captures that state. It's at once haunting and delicate, mesmerizing and creepy, and I listened to it on repeat for a few days after finishing the first draft.

"Killer Queen" by Queen

Whenever I listen to Queen, I think about how important it is to actually enjoy what you do. Many times while writing The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves, I found myself drowning in the quagmire of despair—I kept running into logistical snags, plot holes, voice deteriorations. Queen, and particularly the song "Killer Queen," with its vivacity and verve and surprising complexity, helped pick me up out of that pit and get me writing again.

"Hotwax" by Beck

The only thing that completely clears my head is vigorous exercise. Over the last seven years while writing and revising and editing this novel, I joined a number of gyms, using them as tools to promote both health and sanity. Cardio always had me listening to Beck, and particularly "Hotwax" the second track on the much-celebrated Odelay album. It's wonderfully rhythmic and fun, and I always love when the "enchanting wizard of rhythm" talks at the end.

"Breathe Me" by Sia

The breathy melancholy of this song amplifies any sad denouement, as evidenced by the finale of the outstanding TV show Six Feet Under. My personal writing denouement, with respect to this novel, occurred in Maryland, right after my final edits were complete and before the book was published. It was a time of reflection and deliberation, a time of explicit sentimentality, and I am not ashamed to admit that sometimes, theatrically, I listened to "Breathe Me" and looked pensively out the window.

"Bat Country" by Avenged Sevenfold

Mark McVitry mentions Avenged Sevenfold in one of his sections, and the band's music to me perfectly embodies young white male ennui-slash-aggression. For example, the band starts its Bat Country video with a Samuel Johnson quote: He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. Mark was certainly the most challenging character to write—I have never experienced, nor have I ever understood, unadulterated privilege; I find it terrifying in its unbridled possibility. This song, as well as a host of others like it, helped me get in touch with the idea of privilege, and the immense lack of self-awareness that often accompanies it.

James Han Mattson and The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Ploughshares review

Aspen Public Radio interview with the author
Author Stories Podcast interview with the author
Weekend Edition 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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my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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