Author Playlists

Christine Sneed’s Playlist for Her Story Collection “Direct Sunlight”

“The best short stories deliver to their readers the complexity and emotional depth of a novel, a feature film, a month by the seaside or in the mountains spent in contemplation.”

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.

Christine Sneed’s Direct Sunlight is in many ways a textbook of masterfully written stories. Fully formed characters, a wide range of topics, haunting insights into the human condition. Sneed once again proves herself as one of our most talented storytellers with this brilliant collection.

Booklist wrote of the book:

“Hot on the heels of her excellent novel-in-memos, Please Be Advised (2022), this hugely impressive collection shows Sneed’s range, humor, and mastery of her craft—this should be required reading for aspiring writers…Sneed’s worlds may vary in form and style but never in quality and are always a joy to inhabit.”

In her own words, here is Christine Sneed’s Book Notes music playlist for her story collection Direct Sunlight:

Publishing a new story collection is an occasion I approach with less anxiety than publishing a novel—perhaps it’s foolish to admit as much, but today, a Sunday in late May, I am underslept and doing a little more compulsive thought-broadcasting than usual.

Including Direct Sunlight, I’ve published three story collections and three novels. One of the reasons I feel less anxious about releasing a story collection is that almost no one has high commercial expectations for it. It seems both a gift and a medium-sized miracle that anyone publishes them now at all. There might be a couple of exceptions each year to this quasi-exile to the hinterlands of the publishing landscape, but generally when a Big Five press publishes a book of short stories, the author is expected to produce a novel next. (Direct Sunlight’s publisher is a university press—my first collection’s publisher was too; my second’s Bloomsbury.)

The best short stories deliver to their readers the complexity and emotional depth of a novel, a feature film, a month by the seaside or in the mountains spent in contemplation. I’m thinking particularly of the stories of Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones, of John Updike and Mavis Gallant. I hope presses large and small will continue publishing them and readers seeking them out.

Here is my playlist for Direct Sunlight:

1. “The Swami Buchu Trungpa”: “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf

Nora, the main character in this story, goes to Paris with her much-older boyfriend for whom she also works. One of her motives for moving with him from New York was her desire to put distance between herself and a mother in recovery from alcoholism. Her mother soon appears (uninvited) for a visit of indeterminate length, the boundaries of this uneasy triangle decisively tested.

2. “Where Do You Last Remember Holding It?” – “How My Heart Behaves” by Feist

I love this song more than almost any other. It’s atmospheric and full of longing, and it’s the song this story’s POV character, Erica, would unequivocally play on repeat as she tries to figure out how to make it through another day as the lonely and love-starved 24-hour caretaker of her still-youngish mother, who is descending into dementia, while Erica’s older sister Marianne, newly in love, goes unapologetically about her business in the city, only ever lending a hand under duress.

3. “The Monkey’s Uncle Louis” – “The Path of Thorns (Terms)” by Sarah McLachlan

Louis’s younger sister Anne and her husband Bill adopt a capuchin monkey after they are unable to conceive a human baby, and as any informed outsider would have predicted, the monkey soon brings them to their proverbial knees. Louis and his wife Sandra are happily childless, and on a weekend visit to Anne and Bill’s home to meet their monkey-niece Molly, they witness with increasing concern how Molly’s needs have subsumed those of her adult caretakers’. This moving early song by Sarah McLachlan probably speaks for itself. 

4. “Direct Sunlight” – “Missed the Boat” by Modest Mouse

There’s a striving quality to this song’s beat that I love, and this story is about, in part, moving on and figuring out how to live with an egregious and confusing paternal betrayal tied to 9/11 and this father’s second, secret family. (This story was inspired by an interview I heard with Kenneth Feinberg on the Without Fail podcast in 2019. Feinberg is attorney who oversaw the disbursements to families of 9/11 victims).

5. “In the Park” –  “Wild Horses” by the Sundays (their cover of the Rolling Stones’ song)

In the Sundays’ version of “Wild Horses,” Harriet Wheeler’s voice is as silvery as a bell ringing in the middle distance. This epistolary story is almost entirely about yearning, its POV character writing letters, some of them unsent, to the husband she still loves desperately and has since they were kids. He is not in full charge of his faculties and in addition to leaving her, he has left his medical practice, inconclusively and mysteriously.

6. “House of Paine” – “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band

The “squirrel whisperer” in this story is hired to humanely clear Jim and Kathryn’s new house of its uninvited fur-bearing occupants and plays this fiddle-centric song from the 1970s to coax the squirrels out of the walls and into the Havahart trap she’s installed next to the hole she’s sawed into the drywall. Jim isn’t thrilled by the squirrel whisperer’s tactics, but after weeks of sleepless nights spent listening to the squirrels’ footraces in the walls, he’s ready to try anything to rid his house of these unruly creatures.

7. “The Petting Zoo” – “All I Want” by Toad the Wet Sprocket

Dana is happily married, but when a friend asks her if she’s still in touch with a French ex-boyfriend she used to be crazy about, Dana soon finds herself looking him up online and messaging him, knowing she might be opening a Pandora’s Box. As it turns out, he’s passing through Chicago in a few days, and they meet for a drink, Dana’s trusting husband having no reason to doubt her intentions. She isn’t sure what they are, however. This Toad the Wet Sprocket song expresses her wistfulness and nostalgia—twenty years have passed as if they were little more than a long, vivid dream. 

8. “Mega Millions” – “Take It Easy” by the Eagles

This story is set in Ripon, Wisconsin, a town close to where I lived for the first few years of my life. Most my mother’s large family still resides in this part of central Wisconsin, and I remember hearing “Take It Easy” on the radio when I was a kid and feeling a strong sense of well-being. In “Mega Millions,” the main character literally hits the jackpot, and must figure out how to handle his unexpected good fortune and keep his generous wife from giving away every cent within the first few months of their lottery disbursement.

9. “Ma’am?” – “Wild World” by Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam)

Tess is summoned from her home in northern Illinois to Indianapolis after her widower father buys a decommissioned school bus and adopts a tiny horse named Peanut Sundae Pie he’s sheltering in his garage. Fearing he’s lost his mind, Tess and her brother David try to confront him, but he’s inveterately…mulish. When she arrives, her father is in the garage singing this Cat Stevens song to his new equine friend.

10. “Dear Kelly Bloom” – “Under Pressure” – David Bowie and Queen

Colin is an uneasy recruit to an advice columnist position at the Chicago newspaper that recently hired him as an editorial assistant. He very much feels under pressure to meet the nebulous expectations of the colleague who coerced him into this advice-dispensing role. To his surprise and relief, he finds he’s good at it, but when his mother, who doesn’t know he’s Kelly, sends in a letter which mentions Colin and his sister in less than glowing terms, he isn’t sure he can offer her the same sympathetic and tactful counsel he’s given to other advice-seekers.

11. “Wedding Party” – “If I Had a Boat” by Lyle Lovett

The titular wedding in this story features a Lyle Lovett cover band at the reception. I hadn’t realized until I started putting this playlist together that pop songs are a part of several of these stories’ landscapes. It’s anyone’s guess if Emily Ann and Ryan’s marriage will last longer than Lyle Lovett and Julia Roberts’.

12. “The Common Cold” – “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C + C Music Factory

Among one or two other subjects, this story is about nostalgia for one’s younger self, and I wrote it while remembering some of the milestones I’ve experienced with my oldest and dearest friend, along with the fun we had in our early twenties, unencumbered by home-ownership, spouses, children. We used to go dancing on Friday or Saturday nights at Whiskey River on Clybourn Avenue in Chicago, and whenever the deejay played this song, we’d join the lines of other red-faced, smiling fools dancing with abandon and rivulets of beery sweat.

Christine Sneed is the author of three novels, Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos, Paris, He Said, and Little Known Facts. She is also author of Direct Sunlight, Stories, and two previous story collections are Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. She also edited and contributed to the anthology, Love in the Time of Time’s Up, which was released last fall. Sneed is  the recipient of the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s 21st Century Award, the Society of Midland Authors Award, and she was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous others. She is the faculty director of Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies’ graduate creative writing program and teaches for a variety of other writing programs. She lives in Pasadena, California.rt Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Pasadena, California.

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