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February 4, 2019

Michael Downing's Playlist for His Novel "Still in Love"

Still in Love

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.

Michael Downing's novel Still in Love is an unforgettable glimpse of a semester in a creative writing class.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Downing’s witty follow-up to Perfect Agreement satisfyingly transports readers to college as teacher Mark Sternum begins winter term at Hellman College in New England . . . In depicting Mark’s ordinary semester, Downing poignantly illustrates the dynamics of the college classroom as well as its potential for lasting lessons, making for a resonant campus novel."

In his own words, here is Michael Downing's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Still in Love:

Still in Love is the story of one semester in a creative-writing classroom. My aim was to write a love story, a story about how we learn to love our lives in classrooms.

I listened to a lot of Chopin as I wrote the book—the études, mostly, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it. But when I think of the book now, I hear the other music that was in my head and heart as I wrote. Of course, a semester is brief, a fleeting few months. So, an EP seems just right to represent it—five timeless classics.

1. Mark doesn’t sing, but if he did, he would be singing this when the novel opens. He is alone. It’s the first day of the spring semester—which means it is mid-January, and snow is falling all over New England. Mark’s longtime lover has just left for a job posting in Rome. His longtime colleague, the Professor, has yet to contact him about the plan for the first day of the creative-writing workshop they teach together. (Of course, maybe this is every teacher’s anthem at the start of every new semester?)

Help!—The Beatles

2. Mark and the Professor have different styles in the classroom—to say the very least. At the first class meeting, the Professor welcomes the students by warning them that instead of creative freedom, they’re in for detailed assignments and non-negotiable deadlines, that the course is not designed to make them feel good. This isn’t yoga, he tells them, and it isn’t psychotherapy. If he were a little less committed to conventional syntax, he could just quote Aretha: “I ain’t no psychiatrist, ain’t no doctor with degrees.”

Think – Aretha Franklin

3. Unlike the Professor, Mark spends as much time with students in his office as he does in the classroom. This gives him the distinct advantage of getting to know them, and the distinct disadvantage of getting to know them. Often, he can see not only who they are but who they will never be, as he does one day mid-semester after a long session with two young men. “He watched them amble down the hall, one too short and one too sick. He followed them to the classroom, where he would not heal them or even console them but only close the door, shut out the world in which they found themselves wanting.” And there is only one singer and one song that matches Mark’s mood in this moment.

Ballad of the Sad Young Men—Rickie Lee Jones

4. But there is more to that moment of seeing those two young men. Mark wants those two and everyone in the class to reckon with the limits—their own, as well as the limits that define and give shape to every single story, the limits that frame every work of art, every life. And that’s really why he closes the classroom door and shuts out “the world in which they found themselves wanting, not to help them escape it but to give them a chance to understand all it meant to have limits, to choose our limits, to be defined by those limits, and to learn to love them.” And if anyone needs to know what this feels like, here’s the bittersweet truth of it:

Take it to the Limit—Etta James

5. By the semester’s end, Mark recognizes his own limits. He can’t do it alone. So, he decides to skip commencement and head to Rome—knowing he’s got a lot to learn. (I did say it was a love story.)

Teach Me Tonight—Phoebe Snow

Michael Downing and Still in Love links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
New York Journal of Books review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Largehearted Boy List of Online "Best Books of 2018" Lists

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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