Author Playlists

Janice Deal’s playlist for her story collection “Strange Attractors”

“…I am struck once again by how music so beautifully, and evocatively, captures the emotions of fiction—and life.”

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.

Janice Deal’s story collection Strange Attractors brings to life a small Illinois town empathetically and intimately.

Marjorie Sandor wrote of the book:

“Ephrem, Illinois, IS America, with its winking welcome lights that don’t stay on all night, its jaunty, sinister mall, and its legendary lake-fish, “Jingles.” The characters in these linked stories will unsettle you, and break your heart―some by the depths of their courage, and others by the moments they break, becoming unwitting agents of change. Hope and fear will grip you in equal measure. Flannery O’Connor would recognize and applaud the vivid, muscular prose and powerful vision of Janice Deal.”

In her own words, here is Janice Deal’s Book Notes music playlist for her story collection Strange Attractors:

The linked short stories in Strange Attractors: the Ephrem stories all take place in the fictional Midwestern town of Ephrem, Illinois. The residents of Ephrem long to find meaning in a world where change, while a given, is inevitably experienced as sudden, even capricious. This longing informs the playlist I created, one song for each story in the collection; I am struck once again by how music so beautifully, and evocatively, captures the emotions of fiction—and life.

1. “This One Is Okay”—“Comfortably Numb” (Pink Floyd)

David Gilmour and Roger Waters explore loneliness and the very human desire to create meaning in the epic “Comfortably Numb”; that profound combination of themes really tracks with the journey the character of Looie is on in the Ephrem story “This One Is Okay.” A recent widow trying to make sense of the complicated nature of the relationship she shared with her husband when he was alive, Looie is lonely even as a part of her understands she might be grieving something that never actually existed. How does one parse that? What can we learn from that breed of grief, and how do we apply what we learn to life moving forward? It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Looie both seeking a way to dull the pain of this journey and understanding the appeal of a state that’s “comfortably numb.” But is that condition—dislocated, out of touch with reality—a place one should (or even want to) remain?

Looie is close to a grandson, Donnie, with his own troubles. And she’s found, as many do, solace in connection with an animal. In Looie’s case that animal is a squirrel, living in her home—not exactly a human/animal connection society might understand or support. In Looie’s desire to help the grandson she secretly loves best, and her maintenance of a relationship—and a situation—many wouldn’t understand, lies the secret to her breaking free of the constraints society imposes, and perhaps eventually a way out of the grief and longing she’s experiencing. But we don’t know where Looie ends up—we meet her in the thick of her loneliness—and “Comfortably Numb” perfectly describes where she’s at (disoriented, seeking a way to express herself with words that can be defined) when the story takes place.

2. “String Theory and Other Animals”—“Diving Woman” (Japanese Breakfast)

In “Diving Woman,” Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner explores the Korean tradition of the Haenyeo, or sea women, who dive underwater with no breathing equipment—just their own lungs and a sharp tool—in search of bounty. “Diving Woman” opens Zauner’s album Soft Sounds from Another Planet, which has been described as an album about the search for healing. In an interview with Noisey, Zauner said, “[o]ur new religion is science and technology, and those things can be very cold to have to turn to when you’re trying to explain something very mysterious and sad.”

It is this quote that made me think of “Diving Woman” for Sandrine, the protagonist in “String Theory and Other Animals.” When Zauner sings, with a haunting, almost inchoate longing, that she longs to be one of the diving women, I think of Sandrine, who briefly reaches out to science as a way to make sense of her feelings. When science fails her we see her left flat-footed, wanting it all—or at least wanting to connect with others during a chapter that finds her increasingly separated from those she cares about most.

I gave “Diving Woman” to Sandrine as a sort of gift: a suggestion of another path to healing—one perhaps even more mysterious than string theory itself!

3. “Muskellunge”—“Dog Days Are Over” (Florence + The Machine)

According to RadioX, “Dog Days Are Over” began with another work of art. Florence Welch, lead vocalist of Florence + The Machine, was on her way to Central London when she saw a work by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone: big, rainbow-colored letters spelling out DOG DAYS ARE OVER. In fact, Welch saw the artwork every day, riding past on her bike. As she has explained, “It’s a reference to the dog star, Sirius. When it was closest to the Earth, all the animals would get languid and sleepy. When it moved away, they’d wake up.”

The song that resulted, with its lyrics about happiness, unbidden, just striking out of the blue, made me think about Ned in “Muskellunge.” He’s that rarity: an adult human possessing not only the power of joy, but a childlike way of seeing the world. In Ned’s eyes, “all creatures sang.” Welch’s song not only captures the exuberance of Rondinone’s artwork, it also captures the lens through which Ned views the world. When the lyrics ask us if we can hear the horses, I hear Ned shouting, Yes! For me, “Dog Days Are Over” channels Ned’s purity and joy. 

4. “Lost City”—“O Children” (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds)

The ambiguous, haunting lyrics of Nick Cave’s “O Children” put me in mind of hapless Rex in the Ephrem story “Lost City.” Still a child, Rex tries to control his world even as authority figures and forces beyond his control shape who he eventually becomes (hint: the results aren’t necessarily good). A song about the mess one generation leaves for the next, “O Children” speaks to that tension.

In the lyrics for “O Children” are appeals for forgiveness: it’s not that the older generation doesn’t care, exactly. In fact, the song communicates a palpable sense of sorrow that vulnerable beings haven’t been protected as they might have been. Not many of the adults in Rex’s world possess the self-awareness or compassion to acknowledge that brand of sorrow, or accept any responsibility; Rex’s sister and granny are probably the exceptions. And if so, good for Rex. Someone has his back, even if they can’t clearly articulate their love or make things right, and in that dynamic, as in the song, lies a sliver of hope.

5. “Antimatter”—“People You Know” (Selena Gomez)

In the Ephrem story “Antimatter,” Micky looks back on her friendship with the voluble and earthy Jilly. Friends at a time when Micky especially needed one, the two women were close. Until they weren’t. The straightforward themes of Selena Gomez’s “People You Know” capture that conundrum: what it means when a close, deeply sustaining relationship devolves to the point where . . . the parties don’t even really know one another anymore. The factors that contribute to such a dissolve are as unique as the individuals involved, but the end result—two humans, once inseparable, gone on to their own lives—never fails to surprise.

6. “Family of Two”—“Save Me” (Aimee Mann)

I am gifting Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” to the lonesome, misunderstood, and ultimately fearsome Teddy from “Family of Two.” Teddy understands what it feels like to be considered a freak. Her friendships are hard-won and to lose a friend, as she does in “Family of Two,” is nothing short of cataclysmic. Casting about for that peer who will save her from life as a misfit, Teddy is bereft. While she possesses both keen intelligence and a capacity for great loyalty to those in her corner (e.g., her mother Flo), the ultimate expression of that loyalty is horrifying. Mann’s lyrics detailing the need for a metaphorical tourniquet—and someone to save her—might have come straight from Teddy’s mouth. 

7. “Strange Attractor”—“Kim’s Caravan” (Courtney Barnett)

The disappointment and despair evident in Courtney Barnett’s “Kim’s Caravan” seemed an apt way to express the state of mind in which the protagonist of “Strange Attractor,” Flo, finds herself during the story. Taking place after the catastrophic events of “Family of Two,” “Strange Attractor” explores the aftermath of violence and its effects on Flo, who is left to deal with the consequences of her daughter Teddy’s actions.

I was intrigued by the theme of place and longing in both the Barnett song and Flo’s story. Barnett has said that she wrote “Kim’s Caravan” when she returned to a childhood holiday haunt. It didn’t quite live up to her memories—it was pretty depressing, actually—and that understanding gave me access to Flo’s journey. Flo, who used to visit family in the Ephrem area, returned there, her daughter in tow, when life in Florida simply didn’t work out for Teddy. And so Flo moved them both, hopeful. As she learns, Ephrem is a different place now—she can’t even locate the farm she once visited as a child—and ultimately the exact wrong place for her troubled daughter.

The vibe of “Kim’s Caravan” really spoke to what I envisioned as Flo’s journey. I spied a parallel between the sea change of the song—in the lyrics, Christ eventually changes from a frowning He to a smiling She—and Flo’s ultimate decision to reframe her situation and leave Ephrem behind. We don’t learn in this story exactly how Flo fares in her next chapter, but her friend Sunby has hope for her. I’d like to think that Barnett and I possess that hope, too!

8. “Spinning Song”—“Spinning Song” (Albert Ellmenreich)

When Tim in “Spinning Song” plays the title song for his childlike wife Cynthia, they are both delighted. A fun piano piece with a syncopated melody, the song is an earworm that I remember from my own childhood music lessons—it’s the only song I can still play by heart. I gave it to Tim to play in Ephrem’s strange, cavernous piano store because of its carefree vibe, and the way it evokes the rhythms of a spinning wheel. Tim and Cynthia are facing some Big Questions in their marriage, and the song’s evocation of a different time, a different place, is perhaps a comfort to them both—and a shout-out to the parallel universes Cynthia ponders in the story.

When I found out that Ellmenreich (1816-1905) was a “one-hit wonder” of sorts—although he was an actor, singer, and writer, it is “Spinning Song” alone that has endured from his work—using the song seemed all the more apt for this particular story. Tim isn’t an accomplished player by any stretch—I think “Spinning Song” may be the only piece he knows—but the joy he experiences, and shares, playing it, while fleeting, is real and ultimately a touchstone for his wife when things go south.

9. “Funster”—“Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Lauryn Hill)

The protagonist in “Funster” might appreciate “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Lauryn Hill’s cautionary tale about guys more interested in things than the people in their lives. As “Funster’s” narrator ruefully notes, “I wouldn’t have laughed if anyone had ever warned me to notice how men talk about their mothers.”

Bottom line: People show us who they are through words and actions. And human nature is an education, for sure. Hill, it seems, is keenly aware of that fact. According to, she wrote, arranged, and produced the album on which “Doo Wop (That Thing)” appears with a singular vision: to explore the education one experiences after leaving school. The School of Hard Knocks? Yes. “Funster’s” protagonist, whacking away at an associate degree, learns a profound thing or two about life outside the classroom. We intuit that in the past she’s learned some hard lessons from her mother; during the story, she learns them from Dan, her erstwhile boyfriend.

As Hill warns, girls had better watch out. Interestingly, as the song continues she is fully egalitarian in her admonitions: in fact she warns guys to watch out, as well. Her clear-eyed view of both parties certainly tracks; while “Funster’s” narrator may be disappointed about Dan, not to mention her own mother, she also learns, to her chagrin, a few less-than-noble things about herself.

10. “The Hotbed of Whatever”—“Let Down” (Radiohead)

The longing inherent in Radiohead’s “Let Down” really spoke to me about Tiga’s predicament in the Ephrem story “The Hotbed of Whatever.” Visiting her mom Sandrine, a free spirit Tiga simultaneously loves and is frustrated by, Tiga struggles to reconcile the way things are with the way she might like them to be. Disillusionment and disappointment characterize her visit, especially when she learns something about Sandrine that completely turns Tiga’s world on its ear (she thought she knew everything about her mother, after all). The feelings of detachment I sense in Tiga, her disappointment in, first, thinking she knew everything and then, realizing she only sees part of who her mother is, is beautifully communicated for me in the organic interplay of instrumental and vocal melodies in “Let Down.”

Tiga battles with a certain emptiness, even as she fulfills what she thinks of as her adult daughterly duties. At the end of the story, relieved to be leaving a situation she can’t quite get her head around, Tiga might appreciate “Let Down’s” lyrics about growing wings.

Does freedom lie just ahead? While writing “The Hotbed of Whatever,” I asked Tiga that question. “Let Down” asks the same thing, to devastating effect.

11. “Sick Beasts”—“Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone)” (Kurt Vile)

Harlon, the protagonist of the story “Sick Beasts,” shares a laconic sensibility with Kurt Vile and the vibe of Vile’s “Mount Airy Hill (Way Gone).” In the official music video accompanying the song, we see Vile returning to familiar haunts, much as Harlon does when he returns to Ephrem to seek veterinary care for his cat Glen. “Mount Airy Hill’s” relaxed grooves and sense of wonder channel Harlon’s journey for me, and when Vile hits a surprising falsetto note in the chorus, I’m reminded of the surprising resources Harlon himself possesses when facing mortality: his beloved cat’s, not to mention his own.

also at Largehearted Boy:

Janice Deal’s playlist for her novel The Sound of Rabbits

Janice Deal’s playlist for her story collection The Decline of Pigeons

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

Janice Deal is the author of a novel, The Sound of Rabbits (Regal House, 2023), and the story collection The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry, 2013), which was a Flannery O’Connor Award finalist. The Sound of Rabbits was a finalist for both the Many Voices Project annual competition and the Black Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize. Stories from her new collection, Strange Attractors, won The Moth Short Story Prize and the Cagibi Macaron Prize. Janice has also received an Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship Award for prose. She lives with her husband in the Chicago area. Visit

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