Author Playlists

Ciera Horton McElroy’s Playlist for Her Novel “Atomic Family”

“I wanted my book to be atmospheric—the Cold War is as much a mood as anything else. The tracks below are connected to Atomic Family in terms of both theme and ambiance. Some more overtly than others.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Ciera Horton McElroy’s novel Atomic Family is a powerful and impressive debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

“Powerful debut…McElroy writes with veracity about the effects of nuclear waste on the land and water, and brings to life the strange mix of terror and naivete of the era.”

In her own words, here is Ciera Horton McElroy’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Atomic Family:

I am one of those writers who must absolutely, positively, obsessively listen to music while writing.

So long as there are no lyrics.

Believe me; I’ve tried. One second, I’m writing a scene set in 1961, and the next I’m accidentally typing the word blasting in my ear drums. But the right music helps with mood and atmosphere more than anything else, which is why I love listening to cinematic film scores while writing. I like to identify a soundtrack that has the tone and pulse for the story. For Atomic Family, I pretty much listened to the soundtrack for The Theory of Everything over 5,000 times on repeat.

But for this list, that would be quite boring.

Atomic Family is (shocker) a book about a family in the atomic age. A nuclear scientist uncovers damning secrets—with huge environmental consequences—at the bomb plant where he works. And his wife covertly joins up with other angry housewives to protest nuclear war. The themes are visceral: how do we grapple with the ethics of the atomic bomb? Is it even possible to contain nuclear waste? What does the constant threat of death do to the psyche of a child? (Just trade duck and cover drills for active shooter drills and this historical fiction doesn’t seem so historical.)

I wanted my book to be atmospheric—the Cold War is as much a mood as anything else. The tracks below are connected to Atomic Family in terms of both theme and ambiance. Some more overtly than others.

1) War by Edwin Starr

This song pulls no punches. “War…what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.” With the news coming out of Ukraine getting worse every day, this song feels as much an anthem for today as when it was first released. The nuclear arms race—and the Cold War that followed—was a byproduct of global war. It was important to me to explore some of the big questions in Atomic Family. And I think there’s a lot to be learned from the songwriters of the era who said it first.

2) Radioactive by Imagine Dragons

This song came out when I was still in high school. And I was very much obsessed. It was probably the most played song on my iPod shuffle. (Remember when those were a thing?)

I love that this feels like apocalyptic horror…like Cormac McCarthy meets indie rock. Waking up to ash and dust? This song is visceral and vivid, both lyrically and instrumentally.

3) A Woman Left Lonely by Janis Joplin

I went through a hippie phase. A tame one. Mostly characterized by wearing bell bottoms and tie-dye in 8th grade, but still.

Janis Joplin’s haunting vocals always get me in this song. It starts slow and builds masterfully into her characteristic throaty alto. Lyrically, it’s also pretty much a summation of one of the main characters in Atomic Family: “A woman left lonely will soon grow tired of waiting /

She’ll do crazy things, yeah, on lonely occasions.”

To me, this is Joplin at her best.

4) First by Cold War Kids

Warning: this song is very catchy and likely to get stuck in your head.

What I love about it, besides the melody, is that it’s a love song that’s also not a love song. The relationship appears to be fraught: should the speaker stay with their “first” love or not?

I love this verse in particular: “There comes a time, in a short life / Turn it around, get a re-write / Call it a dark night of the soul / Ticking of clocks, gravity’s pull.”

Historically, “the dark night of the soul” is about more than just surface-level difficulties. The phrase dates to 16th century poet John of the Cross, known for his La noche oscura del alma—a phrase that was mystic in meaning, describing a darkness that refines and leads to light, the divine. In other words, this is not your ordinary bad day.

5) Nuclear by Mike Oldfield

I listened to this song when developing mood boards for Atomic Family. And I did not know until just now, as I write this article, that Mike Oldfield wrote “Nuclear” after researching his grandfather, who was drafted into World War I. “I never knew him,” he said to the Daily Telegraph, “So I hired a company to find out about him. It turned out he was a great character before the war but came home a very different man.”

Atomic Family is also inspired by my grandfather. He served in World War II and later became a leading soil scientist at the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, South Carolina. I love when artists use their mediums to explore family stories…especially when it’s a way to connect with people and a past we never knew.

6) The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan

One of the highlights of my high school years was seeing Bob Dylan live in concert. Compared to other concerts I’d attended (example: T. Swift) this was no “show.” In a packed auditorium, there was nothing on stage but a guitar and wooden stool. Dylan walked out. He sat down. He started to play. If I recall correctly, he said nothing. He came, he played, he left. The music was the event—ahh, how refreshing that was.

So yes, like so many others in my generation, I was one of those who “re-discovered” vinyl and loved all the oldies. But how can you not love Dylan? Especially this song, which is, in my personal opinion, his best.

7) Don’t Go Near the Water by The Beach Boys

There’s not much to add to this song. It’s got the classic California style and beat—but listen to the lyrics. It’s on the sinister side for The Beach Boys.

“Don’t go near the water

Ain’t it sad

What’s happened to the water”

I mean…The Beach Boys were warning us about an environmental catastrophe in 1971. We should have listened, folks.

8) Breathing by Kate Bush

Now this song is interesting: it’s about nuclear war as seen from the perspective of an unborn baby, who’s been exposed to fallout through the mother. In other words, it takes the themes of the atomic age very literally.

I’m including it here because of the maternal perspective of protesting war. Much of the anti-nuclear movement was led by women, and I wanted to convey this in Atomic Family by illustrating the early days of Women Strike for Peace.

9) Politik by Coldplay

This evocative song was written on September 13, 2001. With this information in mind, the song feels different to me—pleading.

“Look at earth from outer space

Everyone must find a place”

In classic Coldplay fashion, the song relies heavily on instrumentation—but in perhaps a more aggressive way. It’s almost theatrical, but also deeply personal. Whenever national tragedy happens, there’s both the public grief and the private grief, and I feel like this song encompasses both.

10) The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel

I love what Art Garfunkel once said about this song: “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly intentionally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”

This pretty much sums up the central theme of Atomic Family. It’s the story of a Cold War between a husband and a wife, between parents and their child. So I can think of no better song to end with than this folk rock classic from 1964.

Ciera Horton McElroy (b. 1995) was raised in Orlando, Florida. She holds a BA from Wheaton College and an MFA from the University of Central Florida. ATOMIC FAMILY is her first novel. She currently lives in St. Louis with her husband and son.

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