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February 6, 2019

Amy Feltman's Playlist for Her Novel "Willa & Hesper"

Willa & Hesper

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.

Amy Feltman's novel Willa & Hesper is an auspicious debut, a complex and delicate portrayal of love and its effects on our lives.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Feltman slices directly to the core of heartbreak's ugliest moments: the temptation to fall back into patterns, to keep running from intimacy and risks. She evocatively captures the tension between aching to move on and not give up, and how the shattering of one relationship fractures others. Feltman stays away from happy ending conventions and skillfully weaves glimmers of hope and healing throughout, making for a keenly perceptive novel."

In her own words, here is Amy Feltman's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Willa & Hesper:

My debut novel Willa & Hesper follows the course of the two titular characters as they fall in love, fall apart, and find themselves on parallel journeys in discovery. Willa’s path leads her to join a group of young Jewish adults as they tour sites of post-WWII Germany, while Hesper takes a trip with her immediate family to Tbilisi, Georgia, where her ailing grandfather grew up. This is a book containing a lot of feelings, and for capturing the emotional temperature in each chapter, I’d have to find “the song”-- the one I’d listen to on repeat for hours while writing the section. (Noted exception would be Daughter’s 2013 album If You Leave and 2016’s Not to Disappear, which are my all-time favorite writing albums for any mood at all.) Without the right music, I would never be able to write anything.

“Cecilia,” Simon and Garfunkel

Once, late at night, I was waiting for a bus with a friend of mine who was really, spectacularly drunk, and he was making up disturbing and violent lyrics to the tune of “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel. It stayed with me and cast a shadow over a song that I’d always heard as jovial and jaunty. “I’m down on my knees/I’m begging you please to come home” sounds very different when you’re writing about someone who’s died. I had this image of a repressed woman walking through a supermarket, feeling queasy thinking about her dead relative Cecilia as this song played. I listened to it as I worked on the character of Willa’s mother, who is really in a denial-cruise-control mode throughout the entire book.

“Jumpers,” Sleater Kinney

Throughout the book, Hesper’s family uses the nickname Lemon for her, which is a loving nod to The National’s song “Lemonworld” and this song by Sleater Kinney, which describes lemons as “tiny suns infused with sour.” Hesper dazzles Willa from their very first meeting, but with Hesper’s commitment issues and emotional avoidance, the sourness is never far from the surface. I also love the yelp-y vocals; busy, layered guitars; and different movements in this song-- qualities I was really drawn to for the music that accompanied Hesper’s section.

“Ada,” The National

Besides being super obsessive about what song(s) I listen to as I’m writing a scene, I also have really strong feelings about characters’ names-- as in, I can’t begin working on a book until I’ve got all the names of the characters nailed down. I named Hesper’s sister and best friend after the song “Ada” by The National, and listened to it often as I was writing their interactions. The line “Ada, I can hear the sound of your laugh through the wall” was such a strong image for me-- the loneliness of being just outside that happiness. The lyric “Ada don’t talk about/ reasons why you don’t want to/ talk about reasons why you don’t want to talk” also seemed really fitting for two sisters who tend to clash over communication.

“Dirtywhirl,” TV on the Radio

This song takes so many turns sonically-- from the gentle beginnings of a keyboard and tambourine building into a layered whirl (if you will) of vocals and drums. Willa and Hesper’s relationship, too, begins with small quiet gestures before it spirals out into heartbreak. Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals really captured the foreboding romance, and so many of the lyrics echo the beauty of being in love (“she’s gleaming/ like mother of pearl”; “all caught up in the flesh of a girl”) and the wreckage of a breakup (“burn me up inside you”).

“Tiniest Seed,” Angel Olsen

Early on in their conversations, Willa and Hesper discover they have the same taste in music, the peak queer lady singer-songwriter type (“Cat Power with a side of Laura Marling,” as Hesper puts it). In a flashback, Willa remembers an Angel Olsen concert they attended together, and this song in particular. “I wish that somehow you knew/ just how much you mean/ that I could be for you/ what you are for me,” Angel Olsen sings, which pretty perfectly encapsulates the unevenness of their fragile relationship.

“Take the Night Off/ I was an Eagle/ You Know/ Breathe” (Suite), Laura Marling

No better album to have as a breakup anthem. “I will not be a victim of romance/ I will not be a victim of circumstance,” Laura sings, and later: “When we were in love, if we were… I was an eagle, and you were a dove.” I listened to this to write about Willa and Hesper’s breakup and the fallout for both women: Willa’s subsequent wandering the city in panic and Hesper’s dependence on her sister Ada. The songs on this album swell with hope and confidence and then, in the next track, return to sounding low, forlorn, and ruminative. It’s an emotional journey that doesn’t move in a straight line, but lands in confident movement into the future.

“Song & Dance,” Peggy Sue, and “House on a Hill,” Wilsen

These are two songs I leaned on heavily to write the post-breakup scenes from Willa’s perspective. Wilsen’s “House on a Hill” starts out spare and fragile, with a surprisingly dramatic whistling section that evocates a desolate, snowy landscape to me. “I have spent the last year/echoing your moves,” Wilsen sings, really hitting the repetitive nature of missing someone day after day. In Peggy Sue’s “Song & Dance,” the layered vocals here sound almost like they’re pushing against each other-- I love how the singers don’t align perfectly, so it gives the words a real urgency: “When will you learn?/ you will never be first.” Willa wakes herself up paraphrasing that line aloud, her dreams bleeding into reality. Never have I heard an ending sting quite like that.

“My Song 5,” Haim

Willa’s roommate and friend Chloe sings this to her after a party where the two women both get too stoned and end up at a frozen yogurt store with too many choices. This song is a perfect background for writing a party: smooth, bass-heavy, and defiant (“honey I’m not/ your honey pie”). Most of the other songs I listened to working on this book don’t have the anger that this one did, which helped me write Chloe differently than the other people in Willa’s life. She’s the person in Willa’s court the whole time, advocating for her to move on from the breakup with Hesper.

“In an Aeroplane over the Sea,” Neutral Milk Hotel

If ever there were a song made for writing about going to travel to Holocaust sites while you’re worried you might die in a plane crash on the way there, it’s this song.

“Genie in a Bottle,” Christina Aguilera

It took me awhile to pinpoint what the soundtrack would be for Willa having a panic attack doing karaoke in Germany. Logistically, I wanted to pick a song that a bunch of mid- to older millennials would all be able to belt out, and that was a big enough hit in its time that it would be on a karaoke machine in Germany today. Right off the bat, the theme of a genie in a bottle seemed right to me since a lot in the book is about the unlocking of demons (the inverse of a magic genie) and collisions of traumatic memories in quotidian moments. Although the lyrics are definitely about a sexual awakening, there’s a darker way to interpret these lines: “come on in/ let me out.” Willa is totally trapped; no Christina Aguilera-genie to save her from herself.

“Grown Unknown,” Lia Ices

This is the song for Willa in the latter half of the book. It starts out with a percussive beat that gets stuck in my head all the time-- something between a tap dance routine and frantic pounding on a typewriter. and then the lyrics come in: “I can’t live on a solitary stem.” Her voice has a tender, scattered quality that can sound sweet and steady, then like a disastrous shipwreck, in a matter of seconds. It really captured the isolation and instability of this period for Willa. And, this line: “Is this what we’re living for/ to be known a little more?”

“Carbon Monoxide”/ “Prisoners,” Regina Spektor

A good deal of Willa’s half of the book is based on my own experiences. In real life, I visited a former concentration camp in Germany with a group in 2008; I was studying abroad in Copenhagen and my German Culture and Society class spent a week in Dresden, Weimar, and Berlin. Like Willa in the book, I had a deep emotional unraveling as we visited the sites of such atrocity and bolted from the people I was near so I could be alone in the forest. Regina Spektor’s “Prisoners” was the song that went through my head that day, but I haven’t been able to listen to it since then. “Carbon Monoxide” was the song that ended up in the book; there’s something off-kilter about Regina’s beautiful voice belting out the individual sounds of the word “dead” as if it’s multi-syllabic and repeating it until it barely means anything at all.

“Wouldn’t it be Nice,” The Beach Boys

This is the song that Hesper and Ada listen to with their grandfather, whose lost in the throes of dementia, as the storm in Tbilisi escalates into a full-blown flood. The family’s trip to Georgia has been saturated with distractions for Hesper, and this is one of the first times that she’s left to sit with her feelings. It’s a painful scene for Hesper, listening to the hopeful optimism of the Beach Boys’ envisioning a beautiful future (“we could be married/ and then we’d be happy/ oh, wouldn’t it be nice”) juxtaposed with her grandfather’s cognitive decline, her parents’ messy divorce, and her own romantic failings.

“100 Years,” Florence + the Machine

This song was my anthem for working on the post-election sections. Although the song wasn’t released until 2018, I kept it close when I edited. The lyrics convey a really strong sense of history and a plea to change the way you’ve been living for something more (“give me arms to pray with/ instead of ones that hold too tightly”). By the end of the book, both Willa has thought a lot about where she fits into a larger narrative of history and oppression, and Hesper has ruminated on her family history in a way that she never did before, but they both know nothing is neatly solved, just as Florence sings: “the streets, they still run with blood/ a hundred arms, a hundred years/ you can always find me here.”

Amy Feltman and Willa & Hesper links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly review

Refinery29 essay by the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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