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March 11, 2011

Book Notes - Alan Heathcock ("Volt")

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

Alan Heathcock's short fiction collection Volt is filled with desperate characters and their heartbreaking, interconnected stories. Heathcock expertly draws a raw, intimate portrait of an American small town, character by character, and weaves their desperation and hope into one of the year's most striking short story collections.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Raw and rugged, the stories in Heathcock's collection push up against the sharp edge of a world where people live and die, and find any redemption hard-won and sometimes bittersweet."

In his own words, here is Alan Heathcock's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Volt:

Volt is a collection of eight stories all set in a small American town named Krafton. The stories, in one way or another, deal with the tenuous nature of peace. The characters is these stories—the town Sheriff, Helen Faralley, and the town pastor, Vernon Hamby, to name a couple--are trapped in dire circumstances and doing their best to survive and/or escape. They're tough people in a tough place in tough times. The stories were difficult to write, both in that inhabiting the characters was intense and melancholic and only occasionally hopeful, and also in that finding the words to properly capture and express such intensity was a long and tedious process. I don't generally listen to music while writing, because it tends to distract me—I'm a guy who needs quiet. But music is a constant in my life, and is a big part of the life of my family. Growing up, my grandfather played guitar, my father played piano, and we all played instruments and sang along. We had "culture night" every Friday night, when my father would play us records and tell us about the artist (Lightning Slim Hopkins and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to name a couple of his favorites). Now, my son is an incredibly talented jazz singer, and attends a fine arts school where he gets five hours of musical training every day. That I chose to be an author as opposed to a musician confused more than a few of my relatives (though now they're my biggest fans). This is all to say that I feel music is a part of the fabric of who I am, and most memories I have are associated with songs and/or the artists who sang/played them. I feel I often take songs into the process with me. The exercise of making this list was thrilling because I remembered, and reconnected, with many of the songs that were on my mind while writing the stories. Because the book has eight stories, I felt the easiest way to dole out a playlist was to choose a song for each.

"Isolation" by Joy Division for "The Staying Freight"

This story is about a man, Winslow Nettles, who accidentally kills his son and then walks off into the woods to be alone, steeped in his guilt and grief, eventually to find his way back to some semblance of peace. I think the obvious choices for song selections here would lean toward the Hank Williams/Johnny Cash end of the spectrum, songs about lonesomeness and trains and soul searching. But I try, have staked my career on, never being obvious. I remember watching a video of Joy Division performing live, and being hypnotized by the lead singer, Ian Curtis; his tortured voice, his awkward burning-skin writhing on stage. If Ian Curtis were an emotion, that's exactly what my Winslow would feel on his long walk into surreal shadows of himself.

"Dusty Skies" by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys for "Smoke"

The song "Dusty Skies" is one of the most touching, tender, heartbreaking, songs I've ever heard. It was one of my father's favorite songs, was part of the soundtrack of my youth. The song is about the Oklahoma dust-bowl era, about a land stripped bare and skies clouded with dust. It fits well with my story, "Smoke", where a father and son work together to get rid of the corpse of a man the father killed in a fight. I'm sure that this song being a bond between my father and I, and the story being so much about fathers and sons, made it feel perfect, in my mind, for "Smoke".

"Different Trains" by Steve Reich, performed by Kronos Quartet, for "Peacekeeper"

There are three sections in "Peacekeeper", cut up into several dozen pieces, reassembled out of chronological order to enact a kind of tension, a kind of suspense, the same kind of urgency Reich imbues in the stops and starts and drones and shrieks of the strings on "Different Trains". The music, like the story, I hope, gives the feeling of locomotion, of moving toward something, though that something isn't as clear or easy as a listener/reader might hope, making them lean in a bit harder, peering a bit deeper, than they would had things been simple and direct.

"A Forest" by The Cure for "Furlough"

As a younger man, I was at a party where a bunch of guys convinced me to lead another guy, who they didn't like, out to an old rec. center where they'd be waiting for him. I was to tell the guy I was taking him to another party when, in fact, I was taking him to a terrible beating. Later that night, once the deed was done, I was driving home, the streets still, a fog over the homes and parks, blearing the stoplights, and I listened to this song by The Cure. The song was forever ruined, the way something can only be ruined by guilt and shame. It was that same guilt and shame that made me write the story "Furlough".

"The Thrill is Gone" by Chet Baker for "Fort Apache"

My 14-year old son is a very talented jazz singer, and since he more often than not controls the music in the house, we listen to a lot of jazz. I've always been taken by things tinged with melancholy, and though Chet Baker is the reigning King of Melancholia I find this song especially touching because of the sweetness, the innocence, of his voice. "Fort Apache", at its heart, is about a young man, an innocent, finding out the world is not what he thought it was, and that the thrill of destruction is far from thrilling. The innocence, the ache—it could be Chet Baker up in the belfry, looking out over the silver moonlit roofs, wishing he could go back to not knowing instead of knowing.

"This Haunted House" by Loretta Lynn for "The Daughter"

"I watched you leave, that's how I know you're done. But this heart of mine keeps telling me that I am wrong." Loretta was singing about a man leaving her to an empty house, though she perfectly captures the feeling and longing in Miriam, the mother in "The Daughter" who's mourning the death of her own mother, and who watches her own daughter leave off into the mysterious nether-region of loyalty and survival. All who enter "The Daughter" are haunted. I wish I could say more, but I just can't. Really. I just can't. It wouldn't be fair.

"Intervention" by Arcade Fire for "Lazarus"

I love Arcade Fire because a lot of their songs feel BIG, say BIG things, while never losing intimacy, like I'd hoped to accomplish with "Lazarus", about Vernon Hamby, a father and pastor, who is trying to repair his relationship with his ex-wife after the death of their son in the Iraq war. There's even a pipe organ playing in the end of the story, and in my mind the organ sounded not dissimilar to the one played in "Intervention". And when Win Butler of Arcade Fire sings, pleading, "Every spark of friendship and love will die without hope," he's singing the insight of Vernon Hamby, who in the end says, "Every day is a new batch of crosses. All of us taking our turn. Christ didn't just die for our sins, son. He taught us how to be crucified. Taught us how to go off into that tomb. But then, after a while, the rocks rolls away and the sun shines in and you get to go live some more."

"Sauget Wind" by Uncle Tupelo for the story "Volt"

The song that represents the heart of this book the best, in style, in temperament, in lyric, is this powerful song from my all-time favorite band, Uncle Tupelo. Sung tenderly by Jay Farrar: "…Painkillers won't help. In a way it's not yourself. It's a long way to Heaven, a short way to Hell. I don't know what I'm breathing for, ‘cause the air around here ain't no good anymore. The weatherman says fair, but he looks like a liar. Nothing free in this country. There's no place to hide…" (Apocalyptic wall of sound crushes the quietude).

Alan Heathcock and Volt links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book ("The Foundling" at Five Chapters)

Bookmarks review
Bookslut review
Boston Globe review
Kansas City Star review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Journal of Books review
NewWest review
The Rumpus review
TNBBC's The Next Big Book Blog review

Boise Weekly profile of the author
Craig Lancaster interview with the author
The Quivering Pen review
The Writers' Block 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