Author Playlists

Katherine Lin’s Playlist for Her Novel “You Can’t Stay Here Forever”

“I write best when listening to music.”

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.

Katherine Lin’s novel You Can’t Stay Here Forever is a propulsive and thought-provoking debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“Lin’s treatment of the glamorous, decadent setting, with its stream of gourmet meals and artisanal cocktails, is far from escapist . . . .she has complicated things to say about privilege and its intersection with race, ambition, and identity. A probing, astute portrayal of a fraught and late-blooming coming-of-age.”

In her own words, here is Katherine Lin’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel You Can’t Stay Here Forever:

I write best when listening to music. Perfect conditions would be listening to music on noise-cancelling headphones, ideally at dawn, and most ideally looking out onto an empty white-sands beach in a vacation house all to myself (this last scenario has never happened). I find that writing comes easier to me when I am feeling the same emotion as the characters in the scene I am working on–and nothing is more efficient and effective in transporting me to specific moods than music. When I wrote the first draft of You Can’t Stay Here Forever I listened to albums and songs that mirrored the tone of the scenes I was creating, which also meant I walked around the rest of the day heavy in the same mood, whether it be gripping sadness, wildly playful, or incandescently angry. I was also twenty-nine years old then, petrified that the best parts of my life had passed me by (in the way you only can be at twenty-nine), anxious I wasn’t capable of creating art, yearning for the outlines of a life I could only then imagine. In all these ways, I felt closer to my characters Ellie and Mable, two Asian American best friends in their late twenties who run away to the South of France in the hopes of leaving their demons behind in San Francisco. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work that well).

You Can’t Stay Here Forever is about the slippery nature of monogamy and marriage; the way we honor and betray our closest friends; and the few inflection points in life in which we, with terrifying intention, forge a brave new path ahead. Below are just a few of the songs I listened to while drafting or revising my debut novel (if I included them all, this playlist would be days long), and that I imagine is also a soundtrack to some of the scenes of the book.

Sam Smith’s “How Will I Know”

The first time I listened to Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” I was in elementary school and dancing to the song with my brother in the back of my parent’s car. As I got older I began to turn the lyrics over in my mind, stuck with how intensely sad they were. How will I know if you really love me? Sam Smith’s cover is an exquisite version of the record that zeros in on the undercurrent of fear and longing in Houston’s lyrics–resulting in a wretchedly melancholy song that I listened to when working on the scene in which Ellie, the protagonist, finds out with her best friend Mable that her late husband had never been faithful in their marriage. He was brazen too, cheating on Ellie with one of Ellie’s colleagues at her law firm. I always imagine that this song is what Ellie listens to after finding out the news, her life wrecked with the knowledge that perhaps he never loved her the way she loved him.

Phoebe Bridger’s “Funeral

A few days before the friends abscond for France, and moments before Ellie finds out the news that will devastate her life, they sit in Mable’s car while stalking who they suspect is Ellie’s late husband’s mistress (this is what best friends are for!). Music plays while they wait, and I like to imagine that they might be listening to “Funeral.” The song is about profound grief and a harbinger of the loneliness that Ellie will experience on vacation, the equivalent of a black cat crossing the road. Ellie is in mourning in the book–not just for her husband’s death, but for her life as she knew it. She’s grappling with the shattering revelation that much of her life has been an allusion of happiness, and Bridgers perfectly captures the piercing sadness that will follow Ellie around in France.

Desaparecidos’ Mañana

Mable, Ellie’s best friend who is along for the ride, is funny and charming, strident and irreverent, a live wire that enjoys its sparks. When I wanted to channel Mable, wanted to get onto the page her electric way of living, I listened to music like Desaparecidos’ “Mañana” which is angry, opinionated, so obviously alive.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms” (2015 Remaster)

I adore Fleetwood Mac and “Storms” is one of my tried and true favorites. Listening to this song makes me think of Ellie, who, as the book progresses, realizes that her late husband’s infidelity caused a reckoning that shed a blazing life on all her most important relationships, including with her mother and Mable. For years, Ellie has betrayed herself for the sake of other people, or as Nicks puts it ‘But in those years and the lifetimes past/I did not deal with the road/And I did not deal with you, I know/ Though the love as always been.’ This song also resonates for Mable, who isn’t running away from a bad relationship–because Mable doesn’t have much to run away from. She has never figured out compromise and loyalty; Mable is lonely, not that she would ever admit it. I think she understands when Nicks sings ‘I’d like to leave you with something warm/But never have I been a blue calm sea/ I have always been a storm.’

Frank Ocean’s “Nikes”

More than any other album, I listened to Frank Ocean’s Blond while writing. It’s a masterpiece, and I can usually find an emotion to match the tone of almost any scene I am crafting. “Nikes” is the opening song and just the first few seconds can launch me into my imagination, which usually means next to Ellie and Mable on the plane moments before it’s about to land in France, the shade on the window seat pulled up, sunlight streaming warm onto my face.

HAIM’s “Gasoline”

Ellie uses her late husband’s life insurance to book an extended stay at the obscenely luxurious Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, so when she arrives in France with Mable, they are gleeful; running away has lots of upsides. I think “Gasoline” captures where Ellie and Mable are emotionally as their time in France begins. “I wanna get off/But you’re such a tease/ Throw the key back to me/ Go on and kick off your boots/ in the passenger seat.’ The friends are ready to fall in love with new versions of themselves–glamorous, luxurious versions–and a five star hotel in France is as tantalizing of a setting to reinvent yourself as it gets. Later, when Ellie starts to lust after a man she meets at the hotel, just weeks after her husband has died, she understands ‘When you’re lyin’ between my legs it doesn’t matter/You say you wanna go slower but I wanna go faster/ Faster and Faster.’

Drake’s “Marvins Room”

Now on vacation, Mable and Ellie are ready to bury their heads in five-star-hotel-South-of-France-sand. But there’s a whiplash when it comes to euphoria–you have to come back down to earth at some point and sometimes it can be a straight nosedive. Or, like Drake tells us in “Marvins Room,” you can attend a Baz Luhrmann-worthy party only to spend the rest of the night on the phone with an old lover, telling her how much you yearn for her. ‘Talk to me please don’t have much to believe in/I need you right now, are you down to listen to me?’ Happiness is weird, ephemeral, always a little elusive. For bonus points: Drake has been to Le Club 55, one of the restaurants Ellie and Mable hit up in France.

Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own”

If you haven’t ever drunk on vacation to keep the grief hounds at bay, have you really drunk on vacation? Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” embodies the high wire act of acting blissfully free on the dance floor while feeling painfully, dangerously, cut up about a betrayal. It’s swallowing a shard of glass while you put in drink orders at the club. During the scenes in which Ellie and Mable are tumbling around France, drinks in hand but nonetheless dogged by the shadow of their lives back in San Francisco, I listened to music like this.

Labrinth’s “Still Don’t Know My Name

A few days into France, Ellie finds a new emotion to grapple with: heart-pumping desire for Robbie, a man she meets on vacation. It’s both startling and exhilarating to spend the mornings thinking about your late husband only to find yourself later that afternoon obsessively thinking about the time Robbie touched your bare shoulder. Why did it feel so good? And did it feel good for him, too? This song conjured up those thrilling, confusing emotions.

Grizzly Bear’s “Knife”

Ellie and her mother have a damaged but loving relationship. They’re always facing each other, arms outstretched, but not close enough to touch. When I wanted to conjure those thorny feelings I listened to songs like “Knife.” It’s a haunting, beautiful song doused in throbbing, repetitive lyrics. ‘You think it’s all right/Can’t you feel the knife’?

Fiona Apple’s “Criminal

I used to listen to this song obsessively in high school. And like all good friends, “Criminal” has served me well through the years. When I wrote scenes between Ellie and Mable and Fauna, a charismatic, aloof woman they meet on vacation, I listened to music like this. “Criminal” is a smirk, an enticing look over the shoulder. You want to follow the song into the next room, but maybe it’s not a great idea? But also, perhaps, it’ll be the most fun we’ll have. Whatever, let’s just go.

Joni Mitchell’s “California

Like the title of my novel implies, every vacation has to end eventually. No song embodies the yearn to go back to where you came from–all the while knowing you’ve changed too much for home to ever really be the same–more than Joni Mitchell’s “California.” You can’t step off the same plane twice kind of thing. I think Ellie understands Joni when she sings ‘California, I’m coming home/Oh, will you take me as I am?/ Strung out on another man.’ Ellie is trying to find her way back to herself, whoever that may be now.

Katherine Lin is an attorney and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of Northwestern University and Stanford Law School.

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