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March 27, 2018

Leah Stewart's Playlist for Her Novel "What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw"

What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw

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 Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Leah Stewart's What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw is an impressive literary pageturner.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Stewart masterfully portrays universal truths about self-awareness, image, and responsibility."

In her own words, here is Leah Stewart's Book Notes music playlist for her novel What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw:

I write with music playing, and when I start a new book I always have to figure out what music is right for the mood I'm trying to set. This novel, What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw, features two characters whose romance has recently ended, separated by many miles and still thinking constantly about one another. I described one of those characters, an actress named Josie Lamar, as "particularly good at longing and the struggle to repress it" and "the moments when self-doubt and indecision give way to resolve." I've tried to make a similar shift in this list. While writing this book, I sometimes needed to listen to music full of love and longing. Other times it was all about angry certainty, the defiant determination to charge ahead.

"Flume" by Bon Iver
Despite its melancholy sound, I associate this song with love scenes because I first remember hearing it during one, a moment on a TV show when the will-they-won't-they couple has a long-awaited kiss.

"Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" by The National
The members of The National are from Cincinnati, where I live, and one of them curates a yearly three-day festival called Music Now. One year The National closed the festival playing at Music Hall (a huge historic theater and one of my favorite places anywhere, ever). During the encore they lined the stage along with everyone who'd played in the festival, about twenty people total, and sang an acoustic version of this song. The audience sang along. It was one of those moments that exemplify why we go to concerts: for a transcendent lifting out of the self, a communality of emotion. I am forever chasing moments like that in my own work, and I did my best to create them in this book.

"Backwards Walk" by Frightened Rabbit
I could have put a lot of Frightened Rabbit songs on here. I quite often use their music to raise the intensity of my mood, to narrow what I'm thinking about and channel my energies into the expression of a particular emotion. Music helps me transition from daily life into the concentrated imaginary space required for writing, especially for writing dramatic scenes. In my attempt to make the reader feel what the characters are feeling, it seems necessary to feel it myself. As I researched acting methods to understand my characters for this book, I recognized some of the tactics I've used in writing, without ever being taught them or fully articulating them myself. It made me think about how I could teach fiction writing differently.

"Carol Brown," by Flight of the Conchords
After all this talk about emotional intensity, now we cut to the comic. But comedy with pathos! This song, like all the others so far, is about romantic trouble. This time that trouble has to do with the singer's shrugging haplessness, which gives way to a poignant entreaty for his latest girlfriend to "stick around." That poignancy is immediately undercut by mockery from a chorus of his ex-girlfriends. This type of self-aware humor, simultaneously satirizing and sympathetic, is something I hope I captured in the book.

"The Voyager," by Jenny Lewis
I love this album for its highly specific, narrative lyrics. This song combines a tragic cultural moment, a tender sense of love and longing, and a description of its protagonist "at the 7-11, flipping through the New York Times." Its quirky, rueful tone opens out into something cosmic in its yearning. It captures something of my sense of the emotional life of my character Josie. Also, I saw Jenny Lewis in a restaurant while I was in LA doing research for this book. We were at a sushi place, and she was in the next booth with a recognizable TV actor in a jaunty hat. It all felt very LA.

"When You Were Mine," by Prince
A song about a complexity of emotion, described with a self-awareness that doesn't change at all what the singer feels.

"We Belong," by Pat Benatar
I was eleven when this song came out, less than a year after "Love Is a Battlefield." Pat Benatar seemed like she knew what she was talking about when it came to love. This song, along with "Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler, can still conjure for me a feeling that romantic longing is at the very center of life. That was helpful for a book about two people desperately missing each other.

"Challengers," by the New Pornographers
I love Neko Case. My goal is to write like she sings, and I could have included any number of her songs on this list. I chose this song because it's a conversation in male and female voices and seems to me to describe my characters' condition of loving someone despite their best efforts to stop.

"Go Your Own Way," by Fleetwood Mac
Angry love. Vocals that alternate between a snarl and a cri de coeur. Propulsive drumbeat of intense conviction. Fuck-you guitars. This song is perfect for the suppression of tender feelings.

"L.E.S. Artistes," by Santigold
I associate this album with defiance, a mood that becomes increasingly important as my book goes on. The chorus of this song—"I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up"—manages to be both resigned and determined, both grim and hopeful.

"Now We Can See," by The Thermals
This song distills everything you're feeling into a roar of frustration. If you need to write a scene in which a character charges into the fray, this is a good one to have on.

"My Body," by Young the Giant
Another battle-cry of a song, with martial drums. A song to kick ass to.

"Rivers and Roads," The Head and the Heart
A far sweeter, more earnest type of romantic longing than in some of these other songs. I love the female vocalist's voice, which comes in strong at the end to bring this song home.

Leah Stewart and What You Don't Know About Charlie Outlaw links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

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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