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August 20, 2018

Peter Anderson's Playlist for His Story Collection "Where The Marshland Came To Flower"

Where The Marshland Came To Flower

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

Each story in Peter Anderson's impressive collection Where The Marshland Came To Flower is inspired by a song on Lou Reed's New York album.

In his own words, here is Peter Anderson's Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Where The Marshland Came To Flower:

I’ve been a fan of Largehearted Boy, and especially Book Notes, for a long time now. As my short story collection Where The Marshland Came To Flower approached publication, I realized the book would be a perfect fit for Book Notes: each of the fourteen stories was inspired by a song on Lou Reed’s great album New York. But my stories aren’t at all a continuation or response to Reed’s songs—besides being set in Chicago, the stories don’t explicitly share Reed’s narratives or themes. Instead, I riffed off of one or two lines from each song and created something new. Here is each story, and how it echoes each song (story title first, corresponding song in parentheses).

“Prime Time” (“Romeo Had Juliette”)

Reed’s Romeo and Juliette aren’t star-crossed Italian nobles, but Puerto Rican teenagers in New York City. I’ve always thought of this Romeo’s stance as mere posturing, pretend defiance, a young man asserting himself in an adult world by blaspheming the faith of his elders. My protagonist, Mario, is a teenager in Humboldt Park who longs to defy his overbearing mother, and is considering a similar blasphemy—wanting to change from Catholic high school to public, and sending her a message with the haircut she insists on. But he can’t quite escape her grip, for now—though maybe that will come later.

“Disappearing Into the Night” (“Halloween Parade”)

In the early years of the AIDS crisis, Reed reflects on the many friends and faces he has already lost. The entire book started from this song. One day, riding my Metra train to work, I heard the intercom voice announce the 103rd Street stop in Washington Heights on the South Side, and thought immediately of Reed’s elegiac song. A white suburban commuter has a brief encounter with a forlorn black man as the latter exits the train at the Washington Heights stop, and spends the following weeks obsessing over what became of him. It’s not Reed’s reflections on the fates of dozens, but one man worrying over another.

“Valentino’s Return” (“Dirty Blvd.”)

Reed’s Pedro lives in a crowded—“nine brothers and sisters”—and fragile household, and dreams of getting out, beyond not just the house but the rough streets that surround it, to something better. In my story, the widow Giovanna frets about her teenaged son Valentino—her only child—as she feels him growing up and drifting away from her. She secludes herself in their tiny house on a busy stretch of Archer Avenue, worrying about him every moment he’s away, facing the temptations of the same streets that Reed’s teenager strove to move beyond.

“Here the Elms Stood Tall” (“Endless Cycle”)

Reed writes about addiction, and how parents pass their habits on to their children, if not genetically then by example. My story isn’t as severe—there’s no chemical addiction in this three-generation household, but instead nostalgia, and how endlessly reflecting on the past can stop you from moving forward. The grandfather, once an active man but now semi-disabled and retired, watches countless hours of The History Channel, and his example is emulated by his teenaged granddaughter, who compulsively reads her history textbook, at the expense of all other homework, and fantasizes herself into historical events.

“Hope and Change” (“There Is No Time”)

Reed issues an angry call to arms—to not be complacent, to not accept the unfair world as it is, to fight for change. The song is Reed at his most political. And although at the time I wrote “Hope and Change”—near the end of Bush’s second term—I was avidly, almost obsessively political, this is probably the only overtly political story in the book. A retired electrical worker—a devoted union man who has voted Republican for most of his life—is confronted by an idealistic campaign worker, and is driven to reassess what he truly believes.

“Sous” (“The Last Great American Whale”)

This song is a strange metaphor about environmental degradation, which despite hundreds of listenings I’ve never been able to fully comprehend. So in writing my story I took away just one line, about a man without an enemy, which is of course unrealistic. Instead I thought of a man from the past who was revered, so much that those who remember him imagine that he didn’t have an enemy. And of his grandson Louis, who has dreams of becoming a gourmet chef, defying his father’s wishes. Louis rightly sees his grandfather as never having achieved his dreams, and strives to achieve his own, even if they’re not what his family wants for him.

“Regular” (“Beginning of a Great Adventure”)

Reed’s narrator—an expectant father—looks ahead, with excitement and fear, to what kind of father he’ll become. An interesting perspective, given that Reed never had any children of his own. My protagonist, Tommy Bohan, is a regular guy from the Southwest Side who spends too much time in bars, and too much time alone with his thoughts. Most of his thoughts are about what kind of father he might be, and memories of his own father and the example he set. The example that Tommy might never be able to follow.

“Nobody Else” (“Busload of Faith”)

Reed’s view of the world here is negative—it’s cold and indifferent, you can’t depend on anyone else, and all you have is faith. But to him that faith isn’t religious, in a benevolent higher power, but instead the thinnest of hopes. In my story, single mother Violet lives in public housing on the far Southwest Side, and believes much the same—she’s tried to have faith in the world but it’s been indifferent to her, she has hopes and dreams but doesn’t quite believe they will ever come true. Then, from out of nowhere, comes a potential benefactor, a graying guardian angel.

“Constant Volume” (“Sick of You”)

Reed’s narrator recites a familiar litany of society’s outrages—yes, another rant—but personalizes it, questioning how his significant other, with all that’s wrong with the world, can make his own world even worse by leaving him. But he feigns indifference, saying he was sick of her/him anyway. In my story, the unwilling building superintendent George Borowski—laid off from his taxi mechanic job with the sharp drop in tourism after 9/11—endures a similarly senseless breakup. He buries his grief and regret with busywork—fastidiously cleaning his tiny basement apartment, obsessively shoveling snow from the sidewalks outside the building—and watching CNN at deafening volumes. He tells himself he’ll bounce back, daydreaming about his revival but never quite believing it, until one snowy day when salvation unexpectedly comes from the scruffy college student who lives at the end of the hall.

“Eyewitness” (“Hold On”)

Reed’s angry State of the City diatribe was so timely and spot-on that the New York Times published it verbatim as an op-ed piece. His specifics have faded somewhat from the collective consciousness—though Bernhard Goetz and Howard Beach are still at least vaguely familiar—which is one of the risks of being “timely.” The real-life inspiration for my story, Derrion Albert—a Chicago teenager who was the victim of senseless street violence—might also, sadly and unjustly, be fading from public memory. Though I know that his family, and hopefully many of his Roseland neighbors, still remember. This story is my small effort to stoke his memory, through the character Mrs. Winters, an old woman who insists she witnessed a murder, and wants to help the police in any way she can.

“Singing for the Here and Now” (“Good Evening Mr. Waldheim”)

Reed plays free association, somehow linking Jesse Jackson, Pope John Paul II, Louis Farrakhan and Karl Waldheim, the UN Secretary-General who was accused of having been a Nazi collaborator during World War II. I steered clear of the topical (and now somewhat dated) references, and focused on the line about the words falling and dancing from Jesse Jackson’s lips. This made me imagine a small storefront gospel church and its charismatic preacher, to which I added the pragmatic Tonya, a character whom I rescued from an unpublished story I wrote years earlier. The story balances (not heavy-handedly, I hope) the sacred versus the secular, worship and prayer versus action. I do know that the story must have worked for at least one person—it’s the only one in the collection to have been previously published, in the journal Anthology of Chicago.

“Bullets and Steel” (“Xmas in February”)

Reed writes a moving narrative about Sam, a war veteran who leaves his dead-end steel mill town, only to lose his arm in combat in Vietnam, after which he returns home only to lose his wife, children and job. (It’s not clear how he’s connected to New York City, unless maybe he drifted to the city, hoping the begging there would be more lucrative than back home.) With such a vivid image of Sam in mind, it was inevitable that I would also write about a disabled homeless veteran. But my vet is mostly non-communicative, leaving it to the young professional who finds him to figure out the details of the vet’s past and present. Sam sounds like he’ll never find the help he needs to survive, but my vet just might.

“Sixty Thousand Dollar Car” (“Strawman”)

Reed rails again, this time specifically against inequality and injustice, racism and corruption. Sometime in the early 1990s, after twenty or thirty listenings of New York imprinted “Strawman” on my brain, I happened to see a homeless man begging next to an expressway ramp. Towering over him was a billboard advertising a gleaming new BMW, and my mind immediately framed a photograph—homeless man in the lower left corner, billboard in the upper right—that I would have taken had I had my camera with me. This story—about a hustling young used car salesman who moonlights as a repo man, and who senses the same injustice and self-indulgence that Reed decried—is the closest I’ll ever come to capturing that missed photograph.

“The Bells Will Ring for You” (“Dime Store Mystery”)

The song is Reed’s elegy to his good friend and mentor Andy Warhol, who died two years before the album was released. “The bells will ring for you” is one of the few lines from New York that I lifted verbatim, and the only one used prominently enough to be a story title. Reed was referring to Warhol’s memorial service in Manhattan, but my story refers to Old St. Patrick’s, the ancient Irish Catholic church on Chicago’s Near West Side, where my protagonist, the devout retiree Ed Cullen, made confession every workday morning. The line is spoken by his childhood friend Frank, as the two commiserate over breakfast about their old neighborhood of Austin, where Ed moved away from during the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s, but never quite left behind in his heart. In a way, the story is Ed’s elegy for the Austin that he remembers, but also offers hope for its future.

Peter Anderson and Where The Marshland Came To Flower links:

the author's website

Largehearted Boy playlist for Wheatyards by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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