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February 12, 2018

Book Notes - Tom Sweterlitsch "The Gone World"

The Gone World

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.

Tom Sweterlitsch's The Gone World is a rollicking novel that admirably blends science fiction and literary thriller.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A mind-blowing fusion of science fiction, thriller, existential horror, and apocalyptic fiction...The power of this novel is two-fold: Sweterlitsch’s intricately plotted storyline will keep readers on the edges of their seats until the very last pages, and his extended use of bleak imagery coupled with his lyrical writing style make for an intense and unforgettable read...This darkly poetic and profoundly disturbing glimpse into the potential last days of humankind will surely haunt readers’ dreams long after the book is finished."

In his own words, here is Tom Sweterlitsch's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Gone World:

The Gone World is a science fiction thriller about time travel, memory, and the end of mankind, but at its core it's the story of the close childhood friendship between two girls in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania: Shannon Moss and Courtney Gimm. I used to take long drives through Pennsylvania and West Virginia as I was writing early drafts of the book, to let my mind wander through the paradoxes of time travel, and to learn about Shannon and Courtney, to see the places where they grew up, where they lived. Soon I made a couple of mix CDs to listen to on repeat as I drove, and so these songs are important to The Gone World, directly inspiring my writing.

"Star Witness," Neko Case
Can I just list Neko Case's entire catalogue for my Book Notes? Every album she's ever done? Her music reminds me of growing up in Ohio, and people I've known. "Star Witness" is the first song that I listened to thinking it specifically paralleled what I wanted to write about in The Gone World. I listened to the song obsessively, her lyrics about a tragic killing, someone whose true love was the victim. Her imagery makes me think of the working class poor, where a murder is "nothing new, no television crew/they don't even put on the sirens."

"The Pharaohs," by Neko Case
This is the single most important song to The Gone World. I make a direct reference to one of its lyrics, and the emotion of the song infuses the end of the book. This song is heartbreaking, hopeful, mystical.

"The Dream of Jacob," by Krzysztof Penderecki
This composition has often been used in soundtracks, most notably in Kubrick's The Shining, but also Inland Empire. The piece is an allusion to the Bible, where Jacob wakes from a dream of God—"And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." Listening to this music reminds me of the overwhelming terror of the unknowable.

"Material Girl," by Madonna
While I was writing, I came across a Nathan Benn photograph of a Pittsburgh legal secretary taken in 1990, and had the thought: I'm looking at a photography of the young Shannon Moss, my main character. The photograph, described as "half bureaucratic nightmare, half fashion shoot," shows a young woman with teased hair, wearing a trendy brown suit with military styling, but who is almost swallowed up by the sea of manila folders behind her. "Material Girl" is a song my wife says puts her right back to her childhood in the 1980s, so I made sure to listen to it occasionally, like a time capsule, to remind me that even as Shannon confronts horrific aspects of deep space and deep time, she and her friend Courtney were once fun loving teenagers in the 1980s.

"Sweet Child O' Mine," by Guns N' Roses
Another from the '80s, this is a song that Shannon and Courtney would have listened to, they absolutely would have been fans of Guns N' Roses. Anyway, so back in 1987 when this song came out, I was in middle school, and I was at a party that had hundreds of people at it, out in this field in Ohio. There was a cover band on a makeshift stage, playing Guns N' Roses. At some point, someone started a huge bonfire and I remember seeing this one guy squirt lighter fluid at the fire and he had to drop the can and jump back when the fire chased him. The fire, in my memory, must have been about thirty feet high or so when a bunch of the older kids, the high school boys, took their shirts off, got into a line, took running starts and jumped through the fire. The cover band was playing "Sweet Child O' Mine" when the fire jumping started.

"Dying Day," by Brandi Carlile
This song about the weariness of travel and the desire for home is filled with longing, emotions my characters feel keenly as they suffer the physical duress of time travel. I think I might have listened to this song the most while writing, trying to capture that sense of duty and travel, set against an ache for love and to settle down.

"In the Pines," by Lead Belly
The first of three versions of the same song on this list, this song is one of the most important in American musical history, going through permutations of titles, of lyrics, but always with the same prowling melody and confrontation: "My girl, where did you sleep last night?" "In the pines, in the pines…" The Gone World is a novel of cosmic horror, haunted by the massive, infinite-feeling, forests of West Virginia.

"In the Pines," the Louvin Brothers
From the album, Tragic Songs of Life. The Louvin Brothers have a tough luck biography full of violence and drunkenness. If, by any chance, anyone who reads this Book Notes ironically collects vinyl records for the strange cover art, definitely track down a copy of their album Satan is Real, and hang it prominently on your wall.

"Where Did You Sleep Last Night," by Nirvana
I reference this song from Nirvana's "Unplugged In New York" in The Gone World, and the reference provides one of the few "clues" about the true nature of the book's universe. I was sixteen when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, just a few months after this performance for MTV's Unplugged—and, like most people my age, I still haven't come to terms with that tragedy, I still don't understand.

"Somebody's Gotta Die," by Notorious B.I.G.
The Gone World largely takes place in March, 1997, beginning on March 9th, the day that the Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down after an appearance at the Soul Train Music Awards in Los Angeles. That event is mentioned only in passing in the novel, but it's important for the sense of time.

"Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair," by Nina Simone
The image of a young woman's black hair echoes throughout The Gone World, and so this song was in my mind while writing. Although Nina Simone flips the gender roles, singing about a male lover, rather than the traditional lyrics where the beloved is a woman, this is by far my favorite version of this song, intense and tender to the surprising, beautiful, final note.

"Orion," by Metallica
I definitely drive around listening to Metallica's Master of Puppets all the time, and "Orion," their nearly ten-minute instrumental berserker howl, is one of the best to listen to. Listen to this song on repeat thirty times and it's easy to start envisioning astronauts on a doomed, hostile planet.

"Lux Aeterna," by Gyorgy Ligeti
Another song I listen to while I write, "Lux Aeterna" is another composition famous as part of a Kubrick soundtrack, in this case the mind-bending cosmic wonder of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Tom Sweterlitsch and The Gone World links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review

The Author Stories Podcast interview with the author
SyFy Wire interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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