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November 13, 2018

Jaclyn Gilbert's Playlist for Her Novel "Late Air"

Late Air

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.

Jaclyn Gilbert's novel Late Air is a mesmerizing debut about marriage and loss.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Debuting author Gilbert’s heart-wrenching character study of the aftermath of two life-altering events shows the different ways adults cope with grief. Emotional but never melodramatic, Gilbert’s novel is difficult to put down, despite the heartbreaking subject matter, and readers will be drawn into Murray and Nancy’s story."

In her own words, here is Jaclyn Gilbert's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Late Air:

When I first began writing fiction, I firmly believed I needed music in the background—through my earphones when working on my computer, while running through Manhattan, letting new ideas sift through me, searching for the first sentence capable of breathing a whole story into being, or inside a coffee shop, every day a new playlist, unpredictable rhythms and words dancing around my own on the page.

After a while, I feared that the songs of others were steering my work down paths it might not have taken otherwise. I feared, too, that music inflated my ideas about the work. I discovered that certain pages required music to seem exciting, that I was projecting that emotional energy from the outside rather than summoning it from within the work itself—pages revised while listening to music sounded infinitely better than those read in silence. And the question itself, of whether my work was any good without special effects, was distracting enough to make me decide to finish the first draft of my novel without music to accompany my trek.

Though, it wouldn’t be long until I realized that even ascetism had its limits. When I worked into the second and third drafts, especially in rewriting the novels beginning dozens of times over, I felt unable to access the deeper imaginations of my characters, the textures of thought and feeling necessary for bringing them alive. The opening scene of my novel takes a dramatic turn a few pages in and without a firm grounding into the detached state of my protagonist Coach Murray, I knew I couldn’t prepare him for the degree of wreckage destined to transform him over the course of the story. Music would be my way out of that impasse.

I listened to songs reminiscent of Murray’s youth in the sixties and seventies to connect to him more fully. I changed the first scene to open in his car, while he’s listening to the radio on the way to the Yale golf course for his star runner Becky’s routine morning practice. The music, then, became crucial to setting the tone for his consciousness, particularly in a way that would contrast with the tragedy to come. So much of Late Air is about letting go of the impossible ideals that want to run our lives--and the music had to allude to that quest. It had to create a large enough canvas for both of the novel’s characters—Murray and Nancy—to gain perspective around their shared loss, along different time frames, present and past. Much in the same way certain songs send us on a journey through time, marking love and loss like a map we feel shifting over the years, each time we hear the song, our relationship to our memories change; we realize what we’ve held onto and what we’ve had to let go, all the shapes our dreams have taken, reimagined and transformed—revised.

“Summer’s Almost Gone” by the Doors

The Doors are mentioned in the first paragraph of the novel as a source of tension in Coach Murray’s character. For as fixated as he is on running stats—on control—he is blind to the underlying chaos that pervades his life. The Doors’ “Summer’s Almost Gone” alludes to this contrast between order and disorder. The novel opens in late August, and so, just as summer is about to pass into fall, so is Murray forced to confront the horrors of an accident that echo an unnamable trauma from his past, the one he can no longer quiet, as the rest of the novel unfolds.

“In My Solitude” by Billie Holiday

Murray and Nancy are loners at heart; they met solely by chance in in the nineties—in Paris when Murray was training for the marathon, and Nancy deep into her dissertation on James Baldwin’s post-colonial writings. I listened to Billie Holiday obsessively as a college runner at Yale, on the road or in the library, usually working out my ideas for a French or English essay, desperate to fulfill the requirements of a dual humanities major. I often felt alone in my struggle to feel like I belonged in an Ivy League program, and I think Nancy and Murray’s characters came out of that internal conflict: the silence and solitude of trying to reconcile my literary and athletic selves into one body.

“La Vie en Rose” by Edith Piaf

I spent the summer after my sophomore year studying in Paris. In between classes, I liked to do my homework while listening to Edith Piaf frequently in my dormitory—"La Maison des Femmes”—located in the Latin Quarter, not far from the café into which Murray stumbles on a rainy day, Nancy pouring over a photocopy of one of Baldwin’s original manuscripts. They marry out of that romance, seduced by the ideals of their love—this idea of a perfect other half—but these rose-colored glassed are shattered by the loss of their first child. In writing this story, I realized that loss teaches that our ideals are inherently broken—that life is not so much about accepting what happened, but shedding the illusion that life can be predicted or perfected by that ordering. Looking back, I can see why I needed to start Late Air in the aftermath of that fundamental trauma—the story is born out of the inevitable shattering of a dream.

“Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie

I used to listen to this song on repeat—especially in graduate school, when I was trying finish up my MFA thesis, the novella that would eventually become Late Air. The beginning of this song reminds me of an ocean, or more like two souls wandering its depths, unsure of how or when they will unite into a single, shared body. This feeling is what drove my decision to structure the novel around two disparate perspectives circling the same oceanic trauma, and crossing that divide requires letting go of their denial—or the stories they needed to tell each other separately, silently, in order to grieve. Crossing these borders of time and memory demands shedding ideas about the past in order to make space for the body to heal.

“Ellen David” by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden

I first discovered this track when I was shopping for a birthday gift for my sister in a record store in Burlington. I was haunted by the deepness of the bass in the background, and then the light piano music that would trickle in, countering somber tones with its more hopeful melodies. There’s a sense of sadness and dread and despair balanced by a persistent forward movement, timid at first, but which gains in confidence and resolve as the song progresses. Call it love, or the newness of the moment, this sense of a second story trying to rewrite itself on the page. When I was trying to finish a final draft, I listened to “Ellen David” as often as I could. It’s nearly ten minutes long, just enough time to ease into the writing process, no matter how uncomfortable or frustrating or out of sync a particular section might have felt on a given day. If I wrote for as long as the song ran, I might just ease into a rhythm and forget any old or stubborn sentences that weren’t working in service of a finished piece. I like to think of this song as a symbol of Nancy and Murray’s emotional arcs working in opposition to one another, melody and countermelody, two paths journeying toward the same whole.

“Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison

For me, this song will always carry the spirit of my father: the hope I think some part of me will always be grieving for the hero he can never be. As a sophomore in graduate school, when Late Air was still a short story, my dad’s younger brother died of drug addiction. A snow storm delayed my travel by train, and I arrived to my uncle’s funeral late, but still in time to hear the pastor’s closing words and watch her light a candle for him while this song played. After the service, hugging my father was one of the last times I would hold him. Writing my first novel has proven that my journey to accept the loss of my relationship is unending, but in continuing to write, I know I am at least allowing myself the space to observe, process, and eventually let go of my pain. I wanted Late Air to end in that spirit, too, as a testament to an ongoing search for breath, not in search of the dreams that might have been, but in embracing the present we are living still. It is what lets Nancy make room for Murray’s grief by the end of the book, the homecoming Morrison sings of in ”When that fog horn blows/ you know I will be coming home/And when the fog horn whistle blows/I gotta hear it/I don’t have to fear it.” In choosing to live on, in forgiving ourselves of the losses that undeniably mark us, we are also choosing a way back to ourselves, the loving ocean out of which our spirits first began.

Jaclyn Gilbert and Late Air links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Kirkus review

Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
Tin House essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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