Jacqueline Vogtman’s Girl Country, winner of the 2021 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, shares the stories of women with intelligence and wisdom.
Anne Valente wrote of the book:
“Each story in Jacqueline Vogtman’s Girl Country is absolutely luminous, the gorgeous writing and fantastical premises lingering with the reader for days after. Across eleven stories—and eleven sharp, individual worlds—Vogtman illuminates both the pain and wonder of women’s lives through the magic of mermaids, monsters and outer space. This is an essential, urgent and awe-inspiring collection.”
After reading so many Largehearted Boy’s playlists, I’ve realized there are two camps: writers who must listen to music while they write, and writers who need dead silence. I’m the latter version. I’ve been writing since I was very young and only briefly experimented with listening to music while I wrote, sometimes music like the examples on this list (Nick Drake comes to mind, shortly after I discovered him in high school and brought a CD to our creative writing club meeting so we could all listen to him as we wrote), sometimes various classical pieces. Classical, I suppose, is a type of music I could potentially write to—but even that at times is too distracting. Sometimes I even wear ear plugs to block out any type of outside noise. Yes, I’m a weirdo.
Still, as I’m sure is true of most writers, music is hugely inspiring to me. At times, it even directly inspires a story, as in the case of “When the Tree Grows This High.” So the songs on this list serve mainly as inspirations, either directly or indirectly, for my writing, influencing my worldview, my emotional state, my understanding of art. Those who know me will probably not be surprised by this playlist; I’m predictable, and have been listening to most of these songs on repeat for decades (just not while writing). But they are connected so deeply to my collection, and I hope anyone who listens is as moved as I am by these songs.
“Side of the Road” by Lucinda Williams
In the title story of my book, the protagonist finds a mysterious girl on the side of the road, so this song feels appropriate. Also, I just love this song and pretty much everything Lucinda Williams does. While the narrative of this song doesn’t reflect the plot of my story, the landscape is similar. My favorite moment in the song is when she walks out into a field of high grass and looks at a farmhouse in the distance: “And I wondered about the people who lived in it. / And I wondered if they were happy and content. / Were there children and a man and a wife? / Did she love him and take her hair down at night?” I, too, often find myself looking at farmhouses and wondering about the lives of the people living inside—that wonder giving rise to stories. The Midwestern farmhouse setting of Williams’s song is like Noah’s farmhouse in the story, and while it looks idyllic from the outside, the truth is Noah’s world (and much of the world in the near future) has fallen apart.
“The River” by Bruce Springsteen
I’m a Jersey girl, and some of my stories are set in New Jersey, so the Boss had to be on this list, right? This song is referenced in the second story of my collection, “Once Bound for Earth,” which follows a tough old New Jersey schoolbus driver named Janet in her attempt to save a busload of schoolchildren from an impending apocalypse (or is it just bad weather?). She lives in a run-down section of town by the river, and at one point in the story she vaguely remembers the lyrics of Springsteen’s “The River” and thinks that her life has been like a Springsteen song. His songs frequently feature working-class people who’ve grown older, whose dreams have mostly died, whose relationships have fallen apart, who are just looking for redemption and trying to find “magic in the night” (as he sings in “Thunder Road”). That description fits Janet, as well as some of the other characters in my book.
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
This is another song that feels appropriate for my story “Once Bound for Earth” (even though Janet drives a bus). I’ve loved this song since I first heard it as a kid, and I still cry every time I hear it. (I’m a soft touch.) The down-on-their luck working-poor characters of the song are similar to Janet and some of the other characters in this story (and throughout my book), but what really moves me about this song is the sense of striving, against all odds, to transcend one’s background. Her soaring chorus is full of wind-in-your face joy despite the hardships surrounding them; I’d like to think my stories show unexpected moments of beauty in spite of some of my character’s tragic backstories.
“Hands of Time” by Margo Price
I feel a connection to this song by Margo Price, her desire to make up for her family’s losses, her hardscrabble striving that’s beautifully rendered as well in her recent memoir Maybe We’ll Make It. Those aspects relate to many of the stories in my book, but in this case, it’s really the idea of turning back time that makes me think of my story “Children and Other Artifacts.” In it, a wife keeps giving birth to children from different historical time periods, starting with a WWII soldier-baby, and then moving backward in time from there through a Victorian child, a medieval knight-baby, an ancient Greek child, and eventually a Neanderthal baby.
“I Wish I Was the Moon” by Neko Case
I’m embarrassed to admit I first heard this song at the end of an episode of True Blood years ago. I immediately fell in love. To me, it’s a song about loneliness, longing, and distance—the distance between us and other people (even those we love), the distance between who we are now and who we used to be, a distance created by both space and time. In this way, it evokes my story “A Love Letter From Very Far Away,” about a woman, lonely in her marriage, grappling with it falling apart in the wake of political and social turmoil following the appearance of otherworldly obelisks in her community and around the world. The celestial imagery in the song works well for this story too.
“Young but Daily Growing” by Bob Dylan and The Band
When I first heard this bootleg Bob Dylan cover of the old British folk song otherwise known as “The Trees They Do Grow High,” I was so moved by the narrative that I knew, one day, I’d write a story based on it. It took years, but eventually I wrote my story “When the Tree Grows This High” based loosely on the song (which is itself based loosely on Robert Burns’s poem “Lady Mary Ann” from the late 1700s). In Dylan’s version of the song, the first verse begins with the father’s response to perceived complaints from his daughter about her being married off to a younger man, and in the remaining three verses we see years pass from his daughter’s perspective: she begins to see the young man’s beauty, they are married and have a son, and then he dies at eighteen. In the final verse, springtime has given way to summer and the singer watches other women pass by, and there’s a sense that these women are happy and in love, which intensifies the singer’s bittersweet loss: “Oh once I had a true love, but now I have none.” Like most folk songs, the words are simple, but there’s something about the way Dylan sings it—the rises and dips, the grainy honey of his voice—that makes me feel the woman’s pain. My story attempts to follow this narrative arc and preserve the feeling of the song, while transporting it to a small Scottish village during WWI.
“A Pair of Brown Eyes” by The Pogues
This is another song that pairs well with my story “When the Tree Grows This High.” Like my story, it centers on the pain and losses suffered during a war. Also like my story, the image of brown eyes is important. And I love the drunk, sad, far-off longing of Shane McGowan’s voice.
“Way to Blue” by Nick Drake
In my story “BI6FOOT,” the narrator mentions her college boyfriend playing Nick Drake in his dorm room as a way to romance her, and this song in particular feels appropriate for my story because, like the lyrics of the song, the narrator of my story is full of questions: about the nature of a traumatic event that happened to her in the past, about God and faith, and, yes, about Bigfoot.
“Purple Rain” by Prince
This song is also featured in my story “BI6FOOT.” The narrator’s college boyfriend sings this song while standing on a picnic table in the quad during a thunderstorm. Come to think of it, storms feature pretty heavily in my collection—from the mysterious hail in “Once Bound for Earth,” to the thunderstorm mentioned in this story, to the field-scorching lightning in “Jubilee Year,” to the hurricane in my final story, “The Preservation of Objects Lost at Sea.”
“Bird on a Wire” by k.d. lang
Initially there was one line from this song that made me think of my story, “The Hall of Human Origins”: “And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door / She cried to me, ‘Hey, why not ask for more?’”. For some reason, whenever I hear that, I see an image of a sex worker in an alleyway wearing a dirty cotton dress, and that image is very similar to how I imagine the “Slats” in my story. But I realize now the line “I have tried in my way to be free” is even more emblematic of my story—the women and girls in this story’s world are confined to certain predetermined roles that are almost impossible to free themselves from, even though the narrator tries. While I love Cohen’s original version of this song too, k.d. lang’s sweeping, emotional interpretation is more fitting for my story.
“The Mother” by Brandi Carlile
Many of my stories are stories of mothers, childbirth and the aftermath of childbirth, and other mother-adjacent things (like breastmilk, etc.). So this song is a good fit, in particular for my story “Wilder Family.” The unnamed mother in my story has a surprise pregnancy and goes through all the worries and ups and downs and deep joys as expressed in the song, but is in for a stranger surprise as her child grows up into something wild.
“Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley
This song seems a natural fit for my story “Jubilee Year,” which follows a group of medieval nuns navigating plague deaths and contagious religious hallucinations while struggling to keep their faith. I chose the Jeff Buckley version of this song for his vulnerable, long-held hallelujahs.
“Anthem” by Leonard Cohen
Lots of Leonard Cohen on this list—I like him, can you tell?—though this is the only one where he’s actually singing his own song. The moment in this song that feels emblematic not only for my story “Jubilee Year” but for my whole collection is his famous line, “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” I would hope that my stories show the magic peeking through the broken parts of our lives.
“California Stars” by Billy Bragg and Wilco
I love the whole Mermaid Avenue album and have listened to it often for decades now. (Am I that old?) This song has always been a favorite, and feels appropriate for my story “The Mermaid and the Pornographer.” In it, an aging pornographer living in the LA area stumbles upon a beached mermaid and tries to use her to rejuvenate his career.
“Atlantic City” by The Band
The final story in my collection, “The Preservation of Objects Lost at Sea,” takes place in a seaside town in Maine, not New Jersey, but the chorus of this song reflects one of the story’s main themes: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” In the story, a woman returns to the seaside town where her little sister was murdered and struggles with reliving that trauma; in a parallel storyline, the man who discovered the girl’s body struggles with the aftermath of his trauma as well. Though I love Springsteen’s version of this song too, I chose The Band’s version because I can never forget hearing Levon Helm’s gritty, post-throat cancer voice belting out this hope-in-the-face-of-hopelessness anthem of resurrection at a concert in Philly just a few years before he died. What I felt in that moment was something that I tried to convey in my story—that there is something beyond our margins that lives on, preserved and persevering.
Jacqueline Vogtman won the 2021 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize for her book Girl Country. Her fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Permafrost, The Literary Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Third Coast, and other journals. A graduate of the MFA program at Bowling Green State University, she is currently Associate Professor of English at Mercer County Community College. She has lived in New Jersey most of her life and resides in a small town surrounded by nature, which she explores with her husband, daughter, and dog. Girl Country is her first book. Find her on Instagram @jacquelinevogtman and online at jacquelinevogtman.com.