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October 23, 2018

Michelle Bailat-Jones's Playlist for Her Novel "Unfurled"


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.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Bailat-Jones creates a complex and nuanced portrait of a family torn apart by mental illness and of the rebuilding process, making this novel both fascinating and stirring."

In her own words, here is Michelle Bailat-Jones's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Unfurled:

Unfurled is a novel of the ocean, specifically of Seattle’s Puget Sound. It’s a novel of a family broken apart by mental illness, and of a woman trying her hardest to use anger to beat back her sorrow. While it was really tempting to put together a list of the grunge songs that make me nostalgic for Seattle of the '80s and '90s, I’ve made an eclectic tribute playlist to Unfurled's characters instead with a not-so-subtle nautical theme.

For Ella: Nirvana – Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle
For a book written about Seattle and in many ways for the Seattle of my childhood, this song is a must. And it fits the main character of Unfurled, Ella, who is so angry at what has happened and what is happening in her life that she’s making a series of increasingly bad decisions.

For John: Into the Mystic – Van Morrison
In the novel, Ella’s father John is a captain for the Washington State Ferry Service and he raises Ella mostly on his own. His entire life revolves around taking care of his young daughter and being out on the water, fishing or piloting his boat. John’s presence is one of two shadows cast across the novel, and it is mostly a benevolent one. This is a song I imagine he would have played for Ella when she was a child, out on their boat somewhere or in the wheelhouse on his last run across the water while Ella worked quietly on her homework.

For Maggie: Sophie Hunger – Shape
Most of Unfurled was written in Switzerland and I wanted to include a song from a Swiss artist. With its dark tone, eerie underlying vocals and cryptic lyrics, this song is very Maggie to me – Maggie who is the hardest character to know in the novel, a woman struggling with her mental health, whose decisions are unfathomable and often hurtful to those around her.

For Ella: Muppet Show Theme Song by OK GO
This is a very dark and almost spooky version of a childhood classic. Ella’s life until her mother left when she was ten was an unsettling place as she coped with her mother’s increasing instability. I like how this song conjures up a very different feeling from the original even if the words remain playful – Ella’s childhood was this confusing mix of silly and disturbing.

For Neil: Ayron Jones – Take Your Time
Ella’s husband Neil is a biologist and teacher, and, unlike Ella, he’s someone who lives almost completely in the present tense. He’s a man who has naively taken on Ella’s past, unaware that it may end up hurting him as well. He would love Seattle artist Ayron Jones’s music with its particular blend mix of rock and hip-hop.

For George: Butterfield Blues Band – Walkin’ Blues
One secret about Unfurled is that George, John’s lifelong best friend, is my favorite character. There are several short stories that never made it into the novel about the friendship between John and George, which is more like a brotherhood. George is very present for Ella throughout her childhood and when John dies, George takes right over in his gruff and beautiful way despite his own troubles and his own deep grief.

For Lisa: Dar Williams – The Christians and the Pagans
A secondary character who deserves a song of her own is Lisa, George’s partner. Lisa is an old northwest hippie, who wafts around in a cloud of patchouli and marijuana. Her personality takes up space, but she is the soft to George’s curmudgeon, and she is a wide-open person completely unafraid to push emotions onto a center stage. She has her own difficult situation with her daughter, but she handles it openly and is never ashamed. This song is both silly and beautiful, and although I fear my playlist has now gone from eclectic to incoherent, it had to go on the list.

For Ella: Sleater Kinney – Modern Girl
As a teenager and young woman in Seattle in the 90s and the 00s, Ella would have listened for hours and hours to Seattle band Sleater Kinney. The anger and irony in “Modern Girl” is also just perfect for Ella’s tightly controlled interior life.

For John: Eric Clapton – How Deep is the Ocean
An old standard and Clapton’s version is just very smooth, very contained. I wanted there to be a happy song on this playlist because although the book deals with grief and family tragedy, it’s still a story about love.

For Maggie: Meg Hutchinson – Home
Mental illness is so often hidden away or kept silent behind veils of shame. I really admire Hutchinson whose lyrics include complex and honest discussions of her own mental health experiences, and who also works as a mental health advocate. I don’t want to include any spoilers in these song notes but this song speaks to a hope I held out for Maggie while writing the novel.

For Neil: Blind Pilot – The Story I Heard
Despite the larger story occurring to Ella throughout the novel, I often feel that Neil bears the brunt of her mistakes – and is thus the one confronted with the hardest choices. This song from Blind Pilot, a northwest band with intricate, often poetic lyrics and a bittersweet vibe, is one for Neil.

For Ella: Queens of the Stone Age – Smooth Sailing
A last song for Ella, and it’s rowdy and noisy and a little ironic. There’s a singed-at-the-edges-while-escaping-from-fire feel to this song which I think fits Ella quite well. Also, yes, smooth sailing.

Michelle Bailat-Jones and Unfurled links:

the author's website

Ploughshares review
Publishers Weekly review

Literary Hub essay by the author

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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