Author Playlists

Alissa Hattman’s Playlist for Her Novel “Sift”

“My novel Sift follows two women who are trying to survive social and environmental collapse. As they travel through deserts, burned-over forests, and lightless mountain caverns, they learn to navigate the terrain of their evolving connection.”

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.

Alissa Hattman’s novel Sift is a lyrical and unforgettable dystopian fable of love and grief.

Matt Bell wrote of the book:

“Alissa Hattman’s Sift is an extraordinarily palpable rendition of how love and grief might be reshaped by our still-unfolding climate crisis. If there is great loss here, there is also great beauty—in the natural world, in the language that evokes it, and in the better relationships we might choose with the nonhuman and with each other.”

In her own words, here is Alissa Hattman’s Book Notes music playlist for her novel Sift:

My novel Sift follows two women who are trying to survive social and environmental collapse. As they travel through deserts, burned-over forests, and lightless mountain caverns, they learn to navigate the terrain of their evolving connection. This playlist consists of songs that reflect the emotional tenor of the women’s journey: on the road, in the air, through a mountain, and in the forest on the other side of the mountain. And because their journey was also my journey, I include some notes about the challenge of steering my creative process early on in the pandemic.


“zombie girl,” Adrianne Lenker, songs/instrumentals (2020)

Let’s start with emptiness. It’s March 2020, and I can’t write. I can’t think or feel. I’m utterly drained. I can’t even listen to music. Music plays in our house, sure, but I am not really listening. I’m shocked into a type of numbness. Feelings far away, hard to access. October comes around and a record arrives in the mail. My partner and I sit on the couch in our living room with a bottle of wine, the cats curled up on the tattered slipper chairs across from us. We listen to the record, the both of us choking back tears. I’d had this longing, I remember, for a particular sound. Something soft, stripped down. Gentle and strong. Adrianne Lenker’s songs/instrumentals was the sound that my heart needed. “zombie girl” is a song I could imagine The Narrator of Sift singing to herself.

“Fire,” Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud (2020)

Sometimes, in order to be brave, you have to invent a new version of yourself. I decided that the characters I wrote were going to have to be more courageous than I could be. My days might be full of fear and uncertainty, but at least I would have these characters who could help teach me how to push through. Writing helped. Listening to music helped. Saint Cloud really, really helped. It was the album that I listened to most in 2021. I remember replaying songs as I drove by empty pastures and moss-covered trees in rural Oregon—visiting a friend for our weekly writer’s date to exchange work, at a safe distance, on her porch—and then on my way back home, ready to return to my desk. I listened to it after long writing sessions where I wrote myself into scary corners, exhausted and afraid. “Fire” helped me locate that feeling of bravery in my body and, once I felt it, it helped me believe that I, too, could be brave. This album was a balm, a comfort, a reminder to keep going. To push through.

“Green Garden,” Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon (2013)

I think we all need a sanctuary, a place to escape to when things are hard. Maybe that place is a garden, a church, a bed, an attic, a pond, the mind. Laura Mvula, in the Birmingham Post, says that “Green Garden” was an elegy for her old home in Kings Heath, where she and her family had moved when she was a child: “For us kids it was a huge huge big deal to have trees in the back garden. Where we had lived in Selly Park, the back garden was more concrete than grass, so it felt like we were in a forest.” The song is upbeat, so you feel the joy, but not without the loss embedded in the lyrics: dance in my garden like we used to. When I think about this line, it makes me think about gardens in general, and, even more broadly, the irreversible damage we’ve done to the planet. I think about the homes people can’t return to, species that are gone. In Sift, there is a moment, in the desert, when The Narrator discovers a greenhouse. It is her sanctuary, and like the Mvula song, it’s tinged with sadness for a gone world that only exists in the mind. 

“Road to Nowhere,” Talking Heads, Little Creatures (1985)

When I was in high school, I had a fondness for wanderlust literature—On the Road, Travels with Charley, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I couldn’t get enough. If it was a white man discovering the “freedom” of the open road, I’d read it. When I left the Midwest at age 18 to find my own sense of adventure, I realized that life on the road for a young woman in the late 1990s was a very different story than what I’d read in these books. Though Sift is not about that time in my life, it is a travel narrative. “I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom,” David Byrne recalls in the liner notes of Once in a Lifetime: The Best of Talking Heads. In writing Sift, I was also looking for a sound that expresses—well, if not joy, then love, even in the wake of destruction. It is not like the wanderlust literature I grew up reading, but it is my version of a road narrative. A short, contemporary, ecofeminist road narrative.

“Kiddo Caterpillar,” Salamanda, Ashbalkum (2022)

I love the playful oneiric quality of this album. “Kiddo Caterpillar” feels surreal in the way that the greenhouse scene in Sift feels surreal: “The air inside is warm and gravid and clean. The rooms are lush with plant life that spirals from the ceilings, blooms from rocks, burrows deep into the ground. Globules of light slip down the surface of glass.” The scene has a drifty dreaminess that echoes reviewer Philip Sherburne’s description of Ashbalkum as being “like a bubble floating in negative space.”


“Afternoon with the Axolotls,” Hum, Downward is Heavenward (1997)

I chose this song because the helicopter blades at the end reminded me of a part in Sift when the characters are in a helicopter. During this time, they are both stuck inside their own heads, inside their own traumas, and it’s all-encompassing and messy and cloudy. Neither one of them can see past themselves to the other person. “Afternoon with the Axolotls” is also a song about going to a scary place with a partner, without any assurances that you or your relationship will survive. It’s about risk in the same way that this part of Sift is about risk. I love the immersive quality of the song, like being plunged inside a river of sound. All sand and water. It’s disorienting, scary, but there’s something about the rhythm that makes me feel held.

“Where Does A Body End?,” Swans, The Great Annihilator (1995)

A playlist for Sift wouldn’t be complete without some dark, post-apocalyptic songs. Listening to this track makes me think about the body as organic matter. How there is no real separation between a body and the wind, a stream, the stars, a field. It also makes me feel great shame and regret for what humans have done to the planet. The way that body and environment bleed together in this song is both beautiful and horrifying. The questions that end each verse in the song are in the same spirit of inquiry as Sift: What does a body mean? What does your body feel now? Where does your body begin? How will your body escape? Now is your body you?

“The Field,” Ragana, Wash Away (2015)

In 2017, some dear friends bought me a session with a Seattle vocal coach so that I could learn how to scream. I had just listened to Oathbreaker’s new album and desperately wanted to open my throat and scream like how Caro Tanghe screams. The lesson was humbling and cathartic. I learned how to release a sustained scream without hurting myself, but I also learned how difficult it is to scream melodically. Maria from Ragana knows how to scream. InRevolver, she talked about her experience of screaming: “Maybe others think of it as something really tough and hard. It feels like a waterfall to me, like crying.” I haven’t mastered the art of scream singing (yet), but just listening to Maria’s wraithlike wailing is cathartic. This is the type of music that teaches me how to be angry and sad at the same time. It’s scary, and a deeply healing experience. One of Sift’s memory sequences takes place in a field, during an all-day concert. Here’s how the music is described in that chapter: “It was quiet at first, the song. Harmonies, bitter and pure. Then, drums. Guitar. Cymbals. Screaming.” I had Ragana in mind when I wrote this scene. I’ve never seen them live, but this is how I imagine them. The line “bitter and pure” is borrowed as a type of homage to “The Field.”

“Ghostly,” Bartees Strange, Live Forever (2020)

“Ghostly” feels like several songs organically morphing and evolving, yet the song never loses its center. I think Sift feels fluid in the same way this song feels fluid. It’s a song about vulnerability, with love and with friendships, but it strikes me that Strange’s playfulness of form is also a type of vulnerability. There is a risk of rejection when you stray from the safe models. It’s hard to categorize this album, but the clarity of vision is there. To me, it’s brave, novel.


“I Guess,” Mitski, Laurel Hell (2022)

There is a rupture between the two characters in Sift that happens halfway through the book which leads to a transformation of each of them individually and a transformation of their relationship as well. Maybe, in “I Guess,” Mitski is singing about the end of a romantic relationship, but I was drawn to this song because it’s unclear—it could just as well be a friend, a family member, an idea, a dream. Ruptures like these can be devastating, they tear us open, lay us bare. Who am I now? What do I do? What’s left except to reflect, regenerate, and repair?

“also also also and and and,” Moses Sumney, græ (2020)

I chose this track because of the vocal sample from Nigerian-Ghanaian author Taiye Selasi where she says: I am aware of my inherent multiplicity. And anyone wishing to meaningfully engage with me or my work, must be, too. I found Selasi’s statement on the multiplicity of identity deeply profound and moving, not just in the recognition of multiplicity (though that’s a major part), but also in her refusal to explain or defend her identity, and in her insistence that people accept her on her terms. It’s the clarity of this that I find so wise and affecting. She knows who she is—as a person and as an artist—and sets clear boundaries to protect that. Selasi’s statement is something I could imagine Lamellae saying. Lamellae is The Driver and also many others as well.

“A Piece of the Map,” Flight Call, Homeworld (2022)

I think sometimes people forget how vulnerable it is to express hope, genuine hope, for individuals and for humanity. For me, over the last few years, it has been very hard to access hope, but albums like Homeworld have helped coax me out of the endless news reels and gloomy puddles of consciousness enough so that I can function again. Flight Call’s debut avant-pop album (the conceptual project of writer and musician Tai Woodville) came at just the right time. It’s a gorgeous, shimmery, uplifting ray of hope, and one I return to now whenever I’m feeling low. This particular song makes me think of the best parts of community—being there for each other, desiring the best for one another, helping, celebrating. I love how expansive it feels, like the song itself is reaching out, drawing us all together. “The song is about our interconnectivity and the interdependence of all life,” says Woodville, in her interview with Andrea Janda for Vortex. In writing Sift, I was also thinking about hope in terms of interconnectivity. The community that the characters find is not one that was expected, but one they are grateful for nonetheless.


“All I Want,” Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)

The album I listened to the most in 2021 was Saint Cloud, but 2020 was all about Joni. I couldn’t stop listening to Blue. I would listen to it in the morning before setting up my remote teaching station at my desk, I’d listen to it while making vegetable soup in the kitchen, listen to it on drives through back roads in Oregon, or before bed at night. It soothed me. It helped me cry. I always liked Joni Mitchell, but it took me needing this particular album, at this particular time, to truly appreciate her. I think “All I Want” says so much about intimacy, how the boundaries between self and other become blurred, and how that’s good and bad, all at once. This, too, is the world of Sift. The journey for the characters is one that exists in the mixed-up space of self and relationship, wants and fears, loving and hurting. And in the somewhere space where we help each other feel free.

“Feathers,” Florist, Florist (2022)

I could imagine Lamellae singing these lines to Tortula: So what do you think, should we just be here on the land? Listening to the sounds of life around us pass. Careful not to tread on anything needing rest. What a beautiful passage. There is so much poetry in this album. Quiet, haunting, tender. The bittersweetness in Emily Sprague’s voice rhymes nicely with the narrative voice of Sift, I think. Maybe, say, this passage: “L shows me the secret lifebreath of water and wind. For them, I make inner landscapes, caverns of thoughts within feelings. I wanted to share it all with you, Mother. I apologize for the blur. It is all I could recover—a postcard watercolor, a whisper.”

“Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie,” Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)

Is it too late to say there is another character besides the two women in the book? One to whom the The Narrator is speaking? I wanted to end this playlist with the lullaby “Slumber Boat,” a song that appears in Sift, but no rendition will ever compare to my mother singing it at my bedside. One that came close was “Slumber Boat (Sail, Baby, Sail),” Prudence Johnson, Little Dreamer (1991), but still not quite right. Instead, I will offer this mournful and lovely song by Joanna Newsome, which feels like the right kind of lullaby to end on. Newsome is a wonderful storyteller, meandering and fantastical. Listening to her feels like entering someone else’s dream. If Sift is a dream, then it is a mournful dream, full of love. It is a dream and also a goodbye letter and also a feeling, a hope.

For book & music links, themed playlists, a wrap-up of Largehearted Boy feature posts, and more, check out Largehearted Boy’s weekly newsletter.

In addition to her debut novel Sift, Alissa Hattman is author of the zine POST (zines + things, 2021). Her writing has appeared in Carve, The Rumpus, The Gravity of the Thing, Shirley Magazine, Big Other, MAYDAY, and elsewhere. Alissa holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University and MA in Literature from Portland State University. She has worked as a fiction editor, book reviewer, zine librarian, writing group facilitator, and has been an artist-in-residence at several arts centers, most recently Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Iceland. Originally from North Dakota, she now lives in Oregon where she teaches creative writing workshops and college composition. More at

If you appreciate the work that goes into Largehearted Boy, please consider supporting the site to keep it strong.