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April 19, 2018

Malinda McCollum's Playlist for Her Short Story Collection "The Surprising Place"

The Surprising Place

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.

Awarded the 2017 Juniper Prize for Fiction, Malinda McCollum's The Surprising Place is an impressive debut story collection.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"The 12 loosely linked tales in McCollum's prize-winning, virtuosic debut are as funny and vivid as the characters are lonely and desperate . . . Darkly comic and brimming with conviction, McCollum's taut collection is an inverted portrait of the American dream."

In her own words, here is Malinda McCollum's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection The Surprising Place:

Most of the stories in The Surprising Place are set in Des Moines, Iowa, where I grew up. I haven't lived in Des Moines for a while, but I still visit Iowa every summer, and the moment I get off the plane, there's something about the light and landscape that stirs me. The expansiveness of the horizon makes me think of an empty movie screen, and I can remember the restless anticipation I felt when I lived there, like, When's this movie going to start? What you eventually realize, as a Midwesterner, is that if you want a movie, you have to make it yourself. And, of course, an essential part of any movie is its soundtrack. Since many of the stories in The Surprising Place unfold in the 1990's, music from that decade features prominently in my playlist. The Quiet-Loud-Quiet scheme you hear in a lot of 90's songs also lines up with my book's characters, who often struggle to articulate what they most long for––and then suddenly explode.

"Violet," Hole

Different stories spring from different sources, and "Kicks," the first piece I wrote in The Surprising Place, came from a specific action: punching out a window. I'd heard the act of punching through a window doesn't hurt you, and that the injury actually comes afterwards, when you try to retract your arm through broken glass. This struck me an amazing metaphor––for something?––so I started thinking about a person who might punch a window, which led to Severa, a raging, grieving teenage girl. I went on to write two more stories about Severa, and while writing them, I had Live Through This and Celebrity Skin on repeat. In "Violet," I love the odd images in the opening lines: And the sky was made of amethyst/And all the stars were just like little fish. Then there's the chorus, which moves from a lilting singsong––When they get what they want, and they never want it again––to a full-blown scream: Go on, take everything, take everything, I want you to! For me, Courtney Love's singing is the vocal equivalent of smashing a window with your fist.

"Blister in the Sun," Violent Femmes

To the surprise of almost everyone who knows me now, I used to be a synchronized swimmer. In my story "Sharks," a high school synchronized swimming team performs (badly) to Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," but the routine that sticks with me from my own adolescence was set to "Blister in the Sun." It sticks with me because before we started practicing in the pool, we spent six weeks walking through our routines on land, using our arms to mimic what our legs would do in the water. That felt weird, and it felt even weirder to pair precise, regimented synchro moves (barracudas, oysters, flamingo turns) with "Blister's" jittery beats and Gordon Gano's dynamic–-first punchy, then languid––delivery.

"Numb," Portishead

An element that pops up throughout The Surprising Place is the emergence of 17-year cicadas in the trees around Des Moines. The cicadas' incessant keening––and their shed skins littering the ground––transform the town and evoke anxiety and awe. This mix of uneasiness and wonder is something my stories aim for, and I think "Numb" embodies that unsettling, mesmerizing feel. Hearing "Numb" creeps me out, but I can't stop listening to it. I'm compelled by its discordant moments and by its spooky voices that seem to be calling from very far away.

"6'1"," Liz Phair

When writing, I usually listen to the same music over and over again, and Exile In Guyville fueled a lot of The Surprising Place (along with every other Liz Phair album.) "6'1" is the first track on Exile In Guyville, and as soon as I'd hear the intro––even before Phair starts singing––I'd know it was time to get to work. Once Phair is singing, she somehow manages to sound cool, but not cold, and eerily distant, even as she's right up in your face. That tension is irresistible to me, and I hoped it would infuse my collection.

"Everything is Everything," Lauryn Hill

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is another album I listened to again and again while writing The Surprising Place. I'm drawn to authors and artists with strong, singular voices that instantly immerse you in their distinctive vision. That's Lauryn Hill, for sure, and while this whole album kills me, "Everything is Everything" is one of my favorites, especially the way she sings, After winter, must come spring. Her rendition of this line comes into my mind a lot, like a mantra.

"California," Joni Mitchell

I couldn't love Joni Mitchell more, and "California" appears in "The Fifth Wall," during a scene in which a young girl is abandoned on a cross-country road trip. I love everything Joni Mitchell's ever done––did I already mention that?––but this particular song resonates because many of the people in The Surprising Place are lured by the image of California as radically different from Iowa in terms of landscape and vibe. They imagine a change in location will ease their burdens and transform their lives, but discover they can't outrun who they are. "California" ends with Mitchell's repeated, escalating pleas for acceptance: Oh will you take me as I am? Will you take me as I am? Will you? Will you take me as I am? It's such a scary question to put out into the world, and her voice strains when she asks it, but never breaks.

Malinda McCollum and The Surprising Place links:

the author's website

Booklist review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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