Sarah Layden’s collection Imagine Your Life Like This is filled with powerful and surprising stories of everyday people at the crossroads of their lives.
Marian Crotty wrote of the book:
Sarah Layden writes about loneliness and disconnection with authority and beauty. Her characters are often flawed people in the midst of difficult circumstances whose stories unravel in surprising ways. She is a writer to watch.
The characters in my story collection, Imagine Your Life Like This, are on the verge of change, if only they could see themselves and their situations with greater clarity. The stories are mostly set in the Midwest and Upstate New York. A Book Notes feature for Largehearted Boy is one of my favorite things to contemplate, both as a reader and a maker of playlists. Music influences my daily life, and songs and lyrics work their way into my writing in ways I don’t always plan. Some of those surprises follow in this track list for the eleven short stories in the collection.
SOS by Rihanna
With a great hook and a sample from Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” this song is catchy and energizing. I wrote it into a scene set at a strip club, where the narrator is searching for her missing fiancé a few weeks before the wedding. The mood is very much help plus tainted love. The pairing appears in “I’m Not Who You Think I Am,” a story about duplicity and hidden selves.
(Don’t Fear) The Reaper by Blue Öyster Cult
Derry, the missing fiancé in the aforementioned story, allegedly can’t keep his guitar in tune when covering the music of Blue Öyster Cult. The song isn’t named, but this is the one I imagine is being referenced. It fits him.
Your Love by The Outfield
Coincidentally, two stories in the collection feature cover bands. One is in the story “Paternity Test,” a short and tangled piece about how interwoven people in small communities can be. The bar setting came first, followed by a list of songs these particular musicians would play. “Your Love” might’ve been first on that list, in fact. There’s a certain hour deep in the evening when a bar crowd really appreciates this song.
Photograph by Def Leppard
The opening guitar riff of this song reminds me of being a kid in the summertime, and later a teenager on the reservoir with friends, and then an adult listening to classic rock radio. It’s a song that conjures a lifetime of memories, which feels like a magic trick. Kind of like photographs themselves. Not until very late in writing the stories in Imagine Your Life Like This did I realize how often I include photography. (This was also important to my first novel, Trip Through Your Wires, which I started writing around the same time.) The photograph that was used on the book cover is one I took and printed. It’s of a mannequin in the window at Boom Babies, a shop on Westcott Street in Syracuse, N.Y. Trudi Gershinov designed this incredible cover, with its broken glass and blurred effects.
Baby Got Back by Sir Mix-a-Lot
If you write a story (“Nothing and Nobody”) that involves the ten-year high school reunion of the Class of 1993, and there is a DJ at said fictional reunion, then Sir Mix-a-Lot better be playing in the background. It’s the law.
For Nancy (‘Cos It Already Is) by Pete Yorn
Because some of the stories are set in Syracuse and near Syracuse University, Pete Yorn is a playlist staple. Pete was a year or two ahead of me at SU, and while I didn’t know him, I’ve been a huge fan of his music and live shows for twenty years. This song makes me think of that time and place: moody and brooding, with an undercurrent of unpredictable voltage and possibility.
Not Gonna by Lily and Madeleine
I love Lily and Madeleine’s music, and saw the sister duo perform in our shared hometown of Indianapolis several years ago. I also love how unapologetic the narrator of this song is, with a stubbornness set against beautiful harmonies. This feels very midwestern to me: I may not give you what you want, but I’ll still make it seem nice. In my Midwestern stories, some of the characters share a similar attitude.
Speak Slow by Tegan and Sara
Another pair of sisters! Their lyrics declare the wisdom of the ages: “When your love lets you go you only want love more, even when love wasn’t what you were looking for.” Some of my characters need to hear this song on repeat. I know that I wore out my CD of “So Jealous,” the album this song is on, in the mid-2000s.
Dear Life by Beck
This song shares the title with an Alice Munro book, and I have so much admiration for Munro’s writing in general and this book in particular. Beck’s song scratches a similar itch for contemplating life. That, to me, is the heart of most fiction, whether it’s overtly stated or not.
Oh Marie by Louis Prima
One of my favorite movies, Big Night, plays a role in the book, and the movie soundtrack is wonderful. It includes songs by Rosemary Clooney, Claudio Villa, and others. This Louis Prima song is used to serenade a character in one story—but her name isn’t Marie.
Only the Lonely by The Motels
A memory: When I was a child, I bought this 45 single from the record bin at Kmart. When I put it on the turntable at home, it skipped at the line “We lied.” If you know the song, you’ll recall that the “lied” part is sung very emphatically. So if I wasn’t quick to lift the needle, I’d hear: “We LIED, we LIED, we LIED, we LIED, we LIED.” I have to think it’s worn into the grooves of my brain. It also kicked my curious mind into gear: Who lied, and why? Why are lonely people the only ones who get to play, according to the lyrics? Who are the lonely? Loneliness and disconnection are major parts of American life, and I wrote that into these stories. I believe many can empathize with the characters in Imagine Your Life Like This, who want things to be different but don’t know how to change.
Sarah Layden is the author of Imagine Your Life Like This, The Story I Tell Myself About Myself, and Trip Through Your Wires. She is co-author with Bryan Furuness of The Invisible Art of Literary Editing. Her short fiction can be found in Boston Review, Blackbird, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the anthology Sudden Flash Youth, and elsewhere, with recent essays, interviews and articles in Salon, Washington Post, Newsweek, and The Millions. She earned a B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and an MFA in fiction writing from Purdue University. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.