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August 21, 2019

Silas House's Playlist for His Novel "Southernmost"


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.

Silas House's novel Southernmost is thoughtful, moving, and necessary.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"His storytelling is rich, but also spare, with descriptive passages that engage all five senses without overstating the profundity. And his characters are so complicated and real that it’s a shame to have to put the book down. References to indie music, viral videos, and antigay county clerk Kim Davis place the book in context and may grease the wheels of some good book-group discussion. Most of all, Southermost is a reminder that life is hard, and it is beautiful"

In his own words, here is Silas House's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Southernmost:

I’ve always use extensive soundtracks for every novel I’ve ever written but my latest, Southernmost, was more influenced by music than any other. Each main character in the book has a specific musical artist with whom they identify and that artist’s music has profoundly changed each of the main characters. A large part of my process is choosing one song for each character and listening to that song before I write a song centering on the particular character. Similarly, I often use specific songs for scenes I am writing. If it takes me six hours to write that scene then I’m listening to that song on repeat the whole time and ultimately the tone and tempo of the song may show up in the writing itself. I never just randomly pick a song. It really has to mean something to the scene, lyrically and musically. Either the lyrics are commentary on what’s happening to the character or in the scene or the music is setting the tone I want for that particular character or scene. There were about 75 songs that I listened to constantly while writing this novel but for this I’ll focus on the twelve most essential tracks.

1. Rain - Patty Griffin. Southernmost's main character, Asher Sharp, is a 35 year-old preacher questioning his faith and everything he’s ever been taught about it. When he begins to listen to secular music for the first time, he finds Patty Griffin, and her music really speaks to him with her melancholy and searching themes. The whole impetus for the novel is a devastating flood, so the song set the gray sky tone for that as well, even though Griffin’s rain is more metaphorical.

2. I’m Amazed - My Morning Jacket. Asher’s nine year-old son, Justin, is obsessed with this band throughout the book. Even as a little boy he is able to identify the themes of spirituality that thread through MMJ’s work. A few of their songs show up in the novel. This is especially effective because while many of MMJ’s songs sound like hard-driving rock n roll they are often spiritual at their core. Justin has decided that he is not cut out for organized religion but can relate to the transcendence that he feels when listening to this music. He also imagines that God would possess the voice of MMJ’s lead singer, Jim James. Jim very kindly allowed me to use the entire lyrics for another of their songs, “Honest Man”, as an epigraph for the book.

3. Oh Happy Day - The Edwin Hawkins Singers. I think this is one of the best recordings ever made. When the lead singer’s voice ascends over the rising choir at the 1:22 mark, I lose it every time. I must have heard this song hundreds of times and I never fail to get cold chills. This is how I imagined Asher feeling when he was driving away from Tennessee, knowing that he had stood up for what he believed in. To me, the happiest days of all are when you know you’ve been honest with yourself and/or made a difference. In his case he did both.

4. Southern Accents - Tom Petty. One thing I really wanted to do in this book is look at the New South, a changing South. I wanted to home in on the Southerners who are really striving to evolve and change in a place where we’re all stereotyped to be alike in thought and ways of being. My whole life I’ve been judged on my accent, and I love the way Petty looks at the many layers of cultural heritage—how it damages us and buoys us—so I think this is a pretty perfect song. Petty is another favorite of Justin’s, who has the best taste of any nine year-old you’d ever want to meet.

5. We Two - Daniel Martin Moore and Joan Shelley. The heart and soul of this novel is the love this father has for his son, and how much he wants to protect him and show him that he is loved. Anytime Justin and Asher are together in a scene, I was usually listening to this song. I love that refrain: “We two have known/these endless hills to roam”. Moore and Shelley’s vocals are so ethereal and understated—everything they sing is beautiful but this one is transporting.

6. All I Want - Joni Mitchell. The character Bell is one of those people who takes in strays. Her sole purpose is to take care of others. Bell loves Joni Mitchell so much that she has even named her complex of rental cottages after one of her songs (“Song to a Seagull”). But this song is the soundtrack of how it feels to be around someone as loving as Bell (“I wanna talk to you/I wanna shampoo you”, but also someone like Bell who has had it rough and done her best her whole life (“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling”). Mitchell’s “Blue” also plays a pivotal role in the book.

7. Tamboliero - Celia Cruz. In the novel, a preacher from rural Tennessee kidnaps his son and runs off to Key West, where he thinks his brother is living. I love the tension between places in the novel because they’re opposites. This rural Tennessee community and Key West are different in every way, not only in that one is a place of repression while the other is a place of openness, but also in that one is a river culture and one an island culture, in the quality of light, in the food, in the music. So I listened to a lot of Cuban music to help put me back on the island when I wasn’t writing there.

8. A Good Heart - Maria McKee. The main theme of this novel is empathy and Justin is representative of those special people who just seem to possess more of it than others, who seem to care deeply for everyone and everything. Although Justin identifies strongly with My Morning Jacket and Tom Petty, this is the way I thought about him, and I often listened to it while writing him. And really, every soundtrack needs a Maria McKee song.

9. Shadow on the Wall - Brandi Carlile. I listened to Brandi Carlile constantly while working on this novel because the themes of her music—empathy, forgiveness, feeling othered, etc.—show up so much in this book. Although LGBTQ issues are at the center of the book, I also wanted to populate the book with characters who had been othered in a variety of ways and I think this song really captures how that feels. Plus Brandi is one of my favorite artists ever so I couldn’t imagine a contemporary novel without her informing it.

10. Albatross - Fleetwood Mac. Maybe my favorite non-classical instrumental song. Listening to it makes me feel like a sandpiper gliding just above the surface of the ocean. It sounds like total Zen, which is often how I feel about being by water of any kind, so to capture the freedom my characters felt at the beach or riding their bicycles, or just the feeling of a Key West evening, I listened to this and it always helped to put me there.

11. This is to Mother You - Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Sinead O’Connor wrote this incredible song and I listened to it every time I sat down to write this book as a sort of ceremony to put me in its thematic world. To me the whole book is about this, about how I believe that we all need to try our best to be good to one another and always be aware that we don’t know what troubles people are going through. Usually LGBTQ people are rejected the worst by the people meant to love them the most, and this is certainly true of Luke in the book. And I think so many LGBTQ people can relate to this line: “I will do what your own mother didn’t do, which is to mother you”. While I love the original by O’Connor, I think the version by Harris and Ronstadt fits the Southern tone of the book better.

12. Oh Cumberland - Matraca Berg. Water is really important in the book. There’s the flood flood. Justin believes that God is the ocean, then he believes God is the river. I have always loved this song—Berg, best known for “Strawberry Wine”, is one of our best songwriters—and I listened to it over and over while writing Southernmost. To me it’s about the hold places can have on us, the way that places become a part of us. In the case of this song, and in my book, the place happens to be the South. And if you’re from the South often a pivotal place for you is a body of water. Bodies of water can be sources of great joy (swimming, being quiet) and great sorrow (floods). In this case, it’s the Cumberland River, which wends its way through the entire novel.

Silas House and Southernmost links:

the author's playlist
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
BookPage review
Foreword Reviews review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Image interview with the author
LEO Weekly interview with the author
Lexington Herald-Leader profile of the author
Salon profile of the author
WFPL interview with the author
WLRN interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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