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March 29, 2019

Josh Denslow's Playlist for His Story Collection "Not Everyone Is Special"

Not Everyone Is Special

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.

Josh Denslow's short story collection Not Everyone Is Specialis funny, profound, and utterly relatable.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Denslow opens his debut collection by quoting a Tom Waits song, so it’s no surprise the characters within resemble the kinds of affable, sometimes-laughable sad sacks and beautiful losers you find in American fiction from Steinbeck to Bukowski."

In his own words, here is Josh Denslow's Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Not Everyone Is Special:

Confession: Sometimes I spend more time deciding what to listen to than I actually do writing. I soundtrack my life. I'm always on the search for the perfect album for my commute, for my day at the office, and even for when I'm vacuuming or scooping a litter box. But the most important choice I make is what to listen to when I'm writing. I need that to set the tone. And on some days, the struggle to find that perfect album is real.

I do play music as well. I'm a drummer and I play in the band Borrisokane here in Austin, but more than anything, I'm a music listener. At the height of my addiction (and yes, I do mean addiction), I had over 3000 CDs. At the beginning of each week I would fill shoe boxes with jewel cases to take in the car with me. My lunch break every Tuesday was spent at Amoeba Records looking at the new releases. This is not an exaggeration. I never missed New Release Tuesdays. These days, I've given up the CD buying habit and gone all streaming for the most part, but nothing on Spotify can replicate the sheer joy of digging through racks of CDs looking for gems. But Spotify playlists do send me hurtling toward new music every single day.

But get this: As important as music is to me, I never seem to write about music or musicians. It's not a conscious thing. It just happens that way. So instead, my collection Not Everyone Is Special is filled with lovable losers who never seem to come into their own. They struggle to be understood, to be taken seriously, to be loved. Oh, and some of them have superpowers. Leland at 7.13 Books calls them slacker fabulist stories, and I love that description. So while there isn't a musician in the bunch, for me the music comes out in the dialogue. I love to hear my characters talk.

When I was assembling Not Everyone Is Special, I treated each story like a song and I sequenced the collection like an album. It was ridiculously fun to come up with a song that I thought fit each story and then watch it come together as an actual music playlist. It reminded me of the hours I spent agonizing over mix CDs for my friends and my wife. I miss those days.

This is the Not Everyone Is Special playlist:

Bed for the Scraping - Fugazi (Story 1: Too Late for a Lot of Things)
The collection kicks off with a pretty angry guy of diminutive stature who is stuck working as an elf at year-round Christmas-themed amusement park. His crush runs the Reindeer Roundup carnival game and his nemesis is a condescending Santa. After a particularly embarrassing moment, our hero the elf begins having some murderous thoughts. This Fugazi track seemed like the perfect theme song for him, complete with the repeated mantra of "I don't want to be defeated" and the repetitive guitar lead that straddles the line between catchy and grating.

The Place was a Shelter - Olafur Arnalds (Story 2: My Particular Tumor)
My Particular Tumor is one of the shortest pieces in the collection and also one of the quietest. There's all this tension under the surface as the main character contemplates the tumor that grew along with him in his mother's womb. Olafur Arnalds is one of my favorite recent composers and even though this song takes longer to listen to than reading the story itself, I love the staccato strings and the gurgling electronics that add a layer of menace to the proceedings.

Look No Further - Suuns (Story 3: Punch)
Punch is the first story in the collection that launches us fully into an alternate universe. Here everyone is given two Punch Vouchers that allow them to punch anyone they want twice each year with no repercussions. I wanted to find a song that sounded like it would be a hit in the future. Future pop music! This song by Suuns also has this herky jerky drum beat that sounds like it's going to fall off track at any moment. The mood also manages to match the characters' laconic nature and lack of ambition.

I Started a Joke - Faith No More (Story 4: Bio)
Full disclosure: Faith No More is my favorite rock band ever. Sorry if you think that's lame. This cover of the Bee Gees is phenomenal. The story Bio follows the disintegration of a relationship in the form of author bios, and there is no song in the world that fits it better. Literally. No song.

Afrika - Russian Circles (Story 5: Proximity)
Proximity is about this dude Neil who lives over the garage at his mom's house. Then his mom starts dating the much younger bartender at the bar Neil frequents. And he decides to sabotage the relationship. It's a big help that he has the ability to teleport. I really understand Neil, and even though he never mentions it in the story, I'm just positive that he likes heavy instrumental music, and it's even better if the songs are over six minutes long. Russian Circles are one of the best examples of this and I have listened to this song hundreds of times while I write.

Bird Brains - Holy Fuck (Story 6: Hope She Doesn't Notice)
Hope She Doesn't Notice is about young love and discovering that the girl you like maybe noticed you too. It's also about stumbling on a guy who has been shot but isn't quite dead yet, and how that might really ruin a make-out session. Holy Fuck are the masters of dance tracks that are smudged with distortion, and they match the tone of this story perfectly.

In My View - Young Fathers (Story 7: Mousetrap)
The hero of Mousetrap is Mark who has the very specific job of picking up dead bodies and bringing them to the funeral home. He's also deciding on the most appropriate way to tell his sister he's contemplating suicide. By the end, he finds a unique way to play the old game Mousetrap that may or may not include a gun. Plus it's a comedy! I know for a fact that Mark likes contemplative electronic music with lyrics like "I wanna be king until I am." In My View is that song.

Folks Trotte - Rene Aubry (Story 8: Everyone Continued to Sing)
I have always pictured Everyone Continued to Sing as a short film. Squid's co-worker is killed in a mugging on his way home after a shift, and at his funeral, Squid discovers he might have a chance with the cashier at the parking garage where they all work. Rene Aubry is the master of mood, and Folks Trotte plays like a short film itself. It's a lovely noodly song that is enhanced by the chanted vocals that appear partway through.

Where There's a Will, There's a Whalebone - Islands (Story 9: Sonny Boy)
Islands is a great pop band, always surprising by never doing what you would think they'd do. Or what they should do. Which also describes this group of kids working at a grocery store in Sonny Boy. Known only by their nicknames, Meat Locker has no idea what he's supposed to do with himself after high school. On this particular day, he's struggling with a bad case of carpal tunnel from bagging groceries and a sense of remorse at a cruel trick being played on an overweight customer. These kids are a mess, just like this song, which somehow finds room to wedge in a few rappers it the middle and then kind of get back on track. We all hope Meat Locker gets back on track as well.

How's it Gonna End - Tom Waits (Story 10: Crossing Guard)
Tom Waits's voice is the personification of regret. Crossing Guard is the story of a man looking back on a disastrous youthful prank whose full ramifications can only be viewed from afar. The chorus of this song also serves as the epigraph for the whole collection. Tom Waits is my spirit animal.

Daredevil - Fiona Apple (Story 11: Dorian Vandercleef)
This story was tricky because I wanted to find a song that didn't necessarily lean into the fact that the main character is a bit self-absorbed, but instead find a way to aurally convey how insane it must be to find that the main character in your book is a real person and he's also writing the same book. And you get to meet him. Daredevil is full of skittery drums that never quite make a beat and a throat-shredding middle section where Fiona Apple barks "Look at, look at, look at, look at me."

Rome - Yeasayer (Story 12: Blake Bishop Believes in True Love)
Our hapless hero Blake Bishop adores 80s romantic comedies and dreams of true love. Unfortunately his uncle is a low-rent hoodlum who has been hiding drugs and contraband in the house Blake inherited after his mom died. Cue one stripper named Poppy and a meathead named Smartguy Gentleman, and suddenly Blake sees a way forward. But some people might have to die first. Yeasayer always has a distinctly 80s sound and this song Rome also has a chase vibe to it that I think works perfectly.

The Hand that Holds the Truth - Mono (Story 13: Extra Ticket)
When the teenaged narrator's best friend Lin dies, he doesn't know how to process the grief. He ditches a concert they were supposed to go to and instead rides over to Lin's house where he comes face-to-face with his mom. I can picture the narrator and Lin lying on the floor listening to Mono, one of the best purveyors of orchestral instrumental metal compositions. The song takes a breath in the middle, just like this story, and then comes back with what I call the "ugly beautiful." Sometimes the things that are the harshest can be the most beautiful if you let them.

Track 08 from Fields of Innards - Thor Harris (Story 14: Consumption)
Consumption is the shortest story in the book and it teases the buried violence conjured by the words we use to describe love. I wanted a song that was easy to listen to but subtly sinister. Thor Harris is a drummer and percussionist and also one of the most fascinating people I have ever met. This song is full of vibes and bells and it sounds so pretty at first and then it gets a little unsettling as it goes on. Just like this story.

The Falls - The Octopus Project (Story 15: Not Everyone is Special)
The title story is about a man with no special power in a world where everyone has a unique special power. He enrolls in a class to help him discover his buried power in the hopes that it might save his marriage and his relationship with his two young daughters. The Octopus Project write music that fits perfectly with so many of my stories. Fractured and deconstructed pop songs, largely instrumental, but catchy as hell. I like this one because it starts a little somber, but as it goes on, it becomes more and more hopeful. And after a collection of people never doing the right thing, I wanted to end on a hopeful note. There is always hope for everyone. Even if they aren't special.

Josh Denslow and Not Everyone Is Special links:

the author's website

Cultured Vultures review
Kirkus review

LitReactor interview with the author
The Rumpus interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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