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October 8, 2010

Book Notes - Susan Henderson ("Up from the Blue")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Up from the Blue is Susan Henderson's haunting debut novel, a complex and surprising family drama set in the turbulent 1970s. Filled with unforgettable characters and Henderson's elegant, gorgeous prose, the book is fast-paced and impossible to put down.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Henderson's fascinating novel fearlessly examines the complexities of depression, romantic and filial love, and motherhood. Beautiful, funny, sad, and complicated, Tillie's quest to understand her complex, troubled family is filled with lush descriptions of painfully emotional moments."

In her own words, here is Susan Henderson's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Up from the Blue:

I think I learned to do book playlists from your blog, and I had one for this as well as the two other novels I’ve drafted.

"Up-Up and Away" by The 5th Dimension 

Every morning before I worked on Up from the Blue, I listened to a playlist of 1975 pop music. I wanted the feel of riding in a station wagon through town with the radio on, and I wanted the songs to remind me of what the social pressure of the times felt like. “Up-Up and Away” is so wonderfully, ridiculously cheerful and apolitical it gives me that Blue Velvet experience. If everything is so cheery, harmonious, and ordered, what must it be like for the family that’s privately struggling?

There were a number of other songs on my playlist that captured this same vibe—"Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band; "Windy" by The Association; “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder—but the goal I had in listening to these songs was to build a tension between the outside world and a family that’s not meeting that world’s expectations.

"We All Belong" by Dr. Dog

Sometimes, when I couldn't take any more of my 70s soundtrack, I searched for modern music with that same feel to it—stripped down instruments, Hammond organs, attention to harmonies. This is one of my favorite groups from that list. I absolutely love Dr. Dog—it’s like the Beatles meets Jane's Addiction—and this song, for me, is the sound of the world my main character longs to be a part of. (I will probably stress for hours about ending that sentence on a preposition, but I’m trying hard to let the little things go these days.)

"Maggie May" by Rod Stewart

When you turn the dial from the 70’s pop radio station, you might run into some very different songs from that time period. There’s an honesty to this one. It’s not one of those simple I-love-you-so-much songs—it’s describing a relationship that’s filled with tension, frustration and regret, and yet it’s still compelling this man. There’s a push and pull. I liked to jar myself from the “sunshine pop” tunes to this one when I imagined opening the door and walking into the Harris’s home.

"Hey Jupiter" by Tori Amos

Tillie Harris, the narrator of my book, is an eight-year-old who pines for her bi-polar mother who has mysteriously disappeared. I wanted to capture an affair-like obsession to her grief and to the empty spot she believes her mother will fill for her. This is a little girl who’s not always in the here-and-now. She's putting her hope outside of the present, and I wanted a song that reminded me of the self-destructive quality of wishes.

I used a number of songs to find this emotion—"The Ruse" by Judah Johnson; "Lover I Don't Have to Love" by Bright Eyes; "The Sweetest Decline" (one of many working titles) by Beth Orton; "Lose You" by Pete Yorn; "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" by Jeff Buckley; "For All We Know" by Donny Hathaway; "I Do Believe" by Cat Power—but this one captures it the best for me, the sense of being doubled over with the pain of longing.

"The Electric Slide" by The Narrator

Not to be confused with that other electric slide song that you see at too many weddings, I like how this one battles back and forth between a regimented, stripped down beat and an all-out thrash. It feels like the battle Tillie's brother experiences. Phil Harris is my book's good soldier—someone who takes it for the team, who keeps his mouth shut, who does what he's told. He's been stuffing, stuffing, stuffing it. And the more I wrote about him, I realized that when he figures out he’s been betrayed, there’s going to be a lot of rage there.

"Love Rollercoaster" by The Ohio Players

There's a little girl named Shirley Chisholm Brooks who ended up having a larger role in the book than I'd originally intended. I named her after the first black congresswoman because I wanted her to carry the weight that parents can place on their kids to become someone important. And you first meet her as she's walking down the hallway at school with these bells tied to her shoelaces, but if she catches you looking at the bells, she'll turn around and ask what your problem is, like she didn't want you to look. Shirl has a different vibe—she's a little edgier than the other characters, which makes her a better match for Tillie, who's got a bite to her as well. This song has that same quality to it. Though it’s still 70s pop, the strumming isn’t calm or clean, like the sunshine-pop songs. The percussions are wild and layered, the front man is bold, playful, and not tying himself to the background harmonies.

When I was a kid, there was a rumor that someone was murdered during the recording of "Love Rollercoaster," and that you could hear the woman's screams if you listened carefully. I bought right into this and never considered that scream to be related to being on an amusement park ride. For me, this rumor embodies the thrill of childhood—these dark what-if's. What if I stare into the mirror at midnight, what if I walk through the woods alone, what if I run away and smoke cigarette butts down at the school? This is the child’s world I like to write about.

"Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

I used this song to feel my way into the mother's head when she is dissociating from the real world. It's almost like there’s a track of dialogue or white noise that runs through her head and keeps her from being fully connected with others. And this song feels like the static and the repetitive thoughts that might be in there, keeping her separate from what’s really happening outside of her.

"Chop Suey" by System of a Down

This is one of the most satisfying songs I know because it's such a total unleashing of rage and frustration. It's the sound of wanting to break a store window or crash a car and then going ahead and doing it. This is an emotion one of my character reaches later in the book, and I played this song a lot to remind me to do justice to the scene.

"Go-Go Gadget Gospel" by Gnarls Barkley

Young Tillie's final scene in the book is this explosion of bumbling and frantic energy that is both liberating and embarrassing, and I think this song captures just that. The words are "I'm free, look at me!" but there’s something awkward and jerky to the rhythm that, for me, reflects the self-consciousness I wanted in the scene. This is the ending eight-year-old Tillie gives to her story.

"All Alright" by Sigur Rós

Older Tillie, who narrates the frame story, gives a very different ending to the book by sharing what young Tillie won't tell. Sigur Rós helped me find the emotion for the final chapter—it's spare and real. I have no idea what he's saying in the song or even if he’s singing in English, but to me it's the sound of heartbreaking acceptance. There is great sorrow but without any bitterness, just simply accepting and feeling the end of something you wanted badly to turn out differently than it did.

Susan Henderson and Up from the Blue links:

the author's blog
video trailer for the book

As I Turn the Pages review
The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog review
The Bibliophilic Book Blog review
The Book Pirate review review
Books Like Breathing review
Dan's Journal review
Fizzy Thoughts review
In the Next Room review
Killin' Time Reading review
Literary Kicks review
A Musing Reviews
Musings of a Bookish Kitty review
Reviews from the Heart review
Robin Antalek review
Rundpinne review
Wandering Librarians review
The Zen Leaf review

The Bird Sisters guest post by the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author
Guide to Literary Agents guest post by the author
Hybrid Mom interview with the author
The Nervous Breakdown interview with the author
One True Thing interview with the author
The Tartan profile of the author
The Writer's [Inner] Journey interview with the author
Writers on Process interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists