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February 12, 2018

Book Notes - Danielle Lazarin "Back Talk"

Back Talk

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.

Danielle Lazarin's smart collection of stories about women and girls, Back Talk, is an auspicious debut from a talented writer.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Brilliant and tender . . . With poignant imagery and a fresh voice, Lazarin portrays these women honestly and relatably. Her exceptional craftsmanship speaks to the heart, as she paints these tales with empathy and a compassion that extends to all humankind."

In her own words, here is Danielle Lazarin's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection Back Talk:

I've always used music to help me understand the world, and I've always made mixes for my books. I need silence to work, but I listen to music when I'm walking my dog or on my way to pick up my kids from school. Back Talk is a collection of stories about women's lives, about the stories we tell behind closed doors, about the things we want to say and are conditioned not to. When I returned to the list I'd been building for this collection I expected more roaring women, but instead found a good number of contemplative ones, which seems fair to the book, which is an interior and intimate one, and reflects how I feel when I am under a set of good headphones, walking through New York, where so many of these stories have roots. I've assigned each story a song.

Appetite—"Ne Me Quitte Pas," Nina Simone
The moment in "Appetite" when Mich plays this song for her younger sister Claudia is based on a similar one between my oldest sister and I with this same song, when I was a teenager and she was in college. As I recall it, we talked about the crushing desperation in the lines where Simone begs to be the shadow of her lover—of his hand, of his dog, of the shadow itself. In the story, Claudia sees Mich's romanticizing of the lines as pathos, but she is too kind to let her know; she lets her see the suffering as beauty. The story is set against the backdrop of the fairly recent loss of their mother; the family is both seized by grief and in denial of it. It's as if all of them are singing this song, saying don't leave me, when, like the song, it's so clearly a done deal. I can only listen to this song when I'm feeling either very strong or in mood to be destroyed: Simone's voice claws at my heart, the song is raw and painful and undeniable. And also quite long—by the time you get to the end of it, you are pleading alongside Simone; you want so badly for her to be out of the pain she's in. You, too, would bargain for any relief.

Floor Plans—"Floorplan," Tegan & Sara covered by Sara Bareilles
It was hard to resist a title overlap, and the song itself is full of lyrics that echo the story's themes: being unsure what you want from someone else, being watched as a woman ("all eyes are on me now"), the knowingness that as something is ending, you'll carry it forward with you ("I know I know I'll hold this loss in my heart forever"). Both women in the story, Robin and Juliet, are in the middle of painful experiences of transformation that they're looking for the edges of. They're in a room together that is hard to let others into.

Spider Legs—"Homeward Bound (Live)," Simon & Garfunkel
Due to a fairly disastrous college application process, I spent my freshman year of college in Paris. I had a full command of French in written form, but like most Americans, was ill-prepared for living immersed in another language and culture. Add to that the hubris of being a New Yorker and having a long-distance boyfriend, and I was homesick in ways I did not see coming. Much like Caitlin, the teenaged protagonist of "Spider Legs," I approached the experience with refusal while also feeling pained at the understanding I didn't belong there, even if I wanted to, as Caitlin does with her siblings. It was a formative year personally and so many of the Paris stories grew from that year, and for that I'm grateful, but damn, I was miserable there.

I did many mundane college kid things during my year in Paris—kept a chocolate stash in my underwear drawer, learned a lot about architecture, read and re-read James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, with its insights into Paris versus New York, and most stupidly, ran from a taxi without paying as Caitlin and her siblings do in this story. I also often skipped the metro in favor of walking Paris with my Discman (this was 1996-1997), and listened to, amongst others, a lot of Simon & Garfunkel. I knew then it was cheesy that so many of those songs made a lump appear in my throat, but in retrospect I love the way that late adolescence is full of naked longing, how on the nose it was for me to listen to music that was so American. There are many songs that take me back to a long, bitter walk through Paris, but I think the most direct is of course, "Homeward Bound." The live version is the one I listened to, and that section at the end when they address the crowd in Central Park, Ed Koch gets booed, and they make jokes about loose joints, killed me; it felt as though those people in the crowd understood me in ways no one around me managed to.

Weighed and Measured—"Wish You Were Here," Pink Floyd and Hey Mami, Slyvan Esso
I chose two songs because this story is about splitting loyalty and energy between a friendship and a romantic relationship. In the story, one character makes a mixtape for another with "Wish You Were Here," which was absolutely on mixtapes of my adolescence. All the boys thought Pink Floyd was super deep. In full disclosure, I do love this song—it's perfect for when you're being subtextual. "Hey Mami" is the ultimate walking song for me. The tempo matches the pace of walking through New York as a woman, trying to zoom past all those "dudes in bodegas" and "eyeballs" unbothered, seemingly impossible for women from too young an age, but a glorious feeling when it happens, much like the mood of this song.

American Men in Paris I Did Not Love—"Nineteen," Tegan and Sara and Hayley Williams
I've long loved this song by Tegan and Sara, which captures the fierce way we attach to one another at that age and question that attachment just as quickly. Belonging to a place or a person figures prominently in this book and is at the center of this story in particular. When Tegan & Sara released The Con covers, I knew I had to put both versions of "Nineteen" on the list. Tegan and Sara's original is ripe with loss and frustration. The Hayley Williams version is more wistful, a reflective narrator, a kinder understanding of the self and our limitations at that age. "I was nineteen/can you blame me" was a line I never even caught in the original version.

Window Guards—"Let No Grief," The Wild Reeds
This story, like many others in the collection, is about two characters who are meeting in their grief. Lexie and Owen share an unspoken longing for people who are gone, a sort of grief glue between them. They're also bracing for what's next, asking themselves if they can move on from the only community they've ever known. The narrator lets us know: "Next year, college." This is also a story of figuring out how to move forward. The song suggests the only way is to let go of this grief: "Seasons are changing and supposedly I have to as well/My heart is pacing and I have to break free from your spell."

The Holographic Soul—"Breathing Underwater," Metric
I thought of this song because "The Holographic Soul" closes with an image of the sorts of games children play underwater. I also chose it because the lines "I'm the blade/you're the knife//I'm the weight/you're the kite" remind me of the relationship between the two sisters in the story. Vanessa, called V is the younger and freer one, the one who believes she can transform a trick that she and Hannah do pretending they're psychic into actual psychic ability. Throughout the story, Hannah works to protect her sister's trust in the world even as she knows one day it will put distance between them. I see them as inextricable from one another at this stage and also beginning to work their way apart: one ready to fly, the other gathering up the courage to let her.

Landscape No. 27—"Constant Craving," k.d. Lang
A large part of what drives the characters in this story about an affair is want, even if it isn't exactly for one another specifically. Though they are extremely intimate with one another physically, they do so in a very private way that keeps them from knowing one another beyond a surface level. Lang's song, too, contains that sort of mystery that is present between the characters here. How much they don't know that's between them, how that mystery keeps their relationship possible.

Hide and Seek —"The Emperor's New Clothes," Sinead O'Connor
When I was growing up, my oldest sister's room was only accessible through mine, and the door that connected them never closed all the way. She is five years older than I am, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention how much music I absorbed through that doorway, years of unwitting musical eavesdropping on someone older and worldlier than I was. One such album was Sinead O'Connor's. This song came to mind for the mother in this story, Alison, who has made a series of choices that so many people want to tell her are wrong—where and how she lives, who she does or doesn't love, how she is raising her daughters, what stories she tells. There's a peace this character has with herself and her choices that I really admire. Alison does have a bout of insomnia in the story, but I think of her as reflecting the conviction of O'Connor's lines when she sings: "Whatever it may bring/I will live by my own policies/I will sleep with a clear conscience/I will sleep in peace."

Back Talk—"Talk to Me Now," Ani DiFranco /Anticipate, Ani DiFranco
It was on my first phone call with my editor, Sarah Stein, that we discovered we both used to listen to Ani DiFranco in our teens. During edits I joked with her that I'd like the book designer to prompt "Talk to Me Now" to play when the cover opens. DiFranco's music, and this song especially, awakened a fierceness and self-possession in my younger self that I really wanted to get back to when writing this book. In particular the lines: "I played the powerless in too many dark scenes/And I was blessed with a birth and a death/And I guess I just want some say in between" gave voice to what I noticed my place was in the world and how I felt about it. On another note, when I met my cover designer, Lynn Buckley, she also asked me if I had listened to DiFranco in my youth, because she kept thinking of DiFranco's song "Anticipate" as the mood she wanted to capture on the cover—"Get a firm grip girl, before you let go/For every hand extended, another lies in wait/Keep your eye on that one, anticipate"—that state of constant, exhausting watchfulness women are saddled with, physically and emotionally. I love the live version of that song, so I've included it on the playlist, too.

Lovers' Lookout—"Somebody to Anybody," Margaret Glaspy
"Lovers' Lookout" is about a breakup, but more so about a frantic grasping for self so many of us experience in our twenties when we are abutting professional and personal expectations and not yet able to own our desire to swim upstream. I think Foley, the story's protagonist, will do just fine on her own if she can let go of the idea that the way she exists in the world is somehow wrong.

Dinosaurs—"Adventures in Solitude," The New Pornographers
I listened to this The New Pornographers album a lot while walking my dogs through the suburban cul-de-sacs of Ann Arbor when I lived there during graduate school. I wasn't then comfortable writing about places I was living in my stories, so I set "Dinosaurs" around Boston, but those walks, the often-empty streets and wondering what connected all those neighbors, was a huge impetus for writing this story. This song has always been an ode to hope for me. It speaks so compassionately to the liminal space in between a big loss and a commitment to re-inhabiting your life with wounds and all. "More than begin but less than forget/But spirits born from the not happened yet." I love too, like the story itself, that it contains both male and female voices.

Gone—"Better," Regina Spektor
This song's lyrics are full of neat echos of the characters and arcs in "Gone," in which two friends begin to keep a list of girls who are dying near them: the verse references being "born like sisters to this world" and naming names, which both factor in the story. The story turns when one of the girls sinks into the pain of adolescence, breaking their bond. The song asks if you can follow people you love to a place they don't want you in: "If I kiss you where it's sore/Will you feel better, better, better/Will you feel anything at all?”

Looking For a Thief—"In the Dark," Jeffrey Martin
I think of "Looking For a Thief" as a story about marriage after parenting, about how much more difficult kindness and patience can be at the end of a long day or week or month, but how much more necessary it is, too. One of my favorite parts of this song is the simple lyric "To you I'm bound" on repeat. Sometimes it helps to remember you've made a choice to tie yourself to someone for exactly those moments of vulnerability.

Red Light, Green Light—"Come and See," Lean Year
This song and story is about quiet defiance. I'm sure the narrator would love to toss out a "fuck off" to her mother as casually as the song does, but instead she tells us "I narrowed my eyes at her but only when her back was to me." I love too, how the lyrics "come and see" and "come and show me" are delivered more like challenges than asks, reflecting how the mother and daughter in the story engage in a battle for knowledge that exasperates them both.

Second-Chance Family—"Chosen," Rose Cousins
I feel so much for the narrator of this story, Hope. She keeps taking leaps toward what she wants—a kind of man she thinks will click her life into place, a more secure spot in her family—despite falling, many times over, on her face. There's a pain in seeing what you want and not only not getting it, but not understanding why. This song reflects that lost feeling of waiting to be chosen, of turning that doubt inward.

Danielle Lazarin and Back Talk links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Ploughshares interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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