October 31, 2014
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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Amy Jo Burns's Cinderland is a brilliantly told memoir that exposes the power of secrets and small town life.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"The toll that Burns's silence took manifested in several forms, and she details them here in a thoughtfully written examination of what motivated her to keep silent while other victims spoke out."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
I never thought my first book would be a memoir, mostly because for a long time I felt my past was filled with things I could not say—or, if I did say them, they’d come at the cost of everything precious to me. But the truth is that for a very long time, I kept a secret for the sake of an important man in my small community in western Pennsylvania, and the lie I’d told to protect him—however invisible—had come to define how I viewed myself throughout my adolescence, how I treated my closest friends, and how much I wanted to leave the only place I felt I belonged.
This lie and the thrall it held me in for so long eventually became the story I told in Cinderland, which is set in a town full of fascinating people who take pride in the roots beneath their feet, the iron in the water, the coal in the ground. I created this playlist for the book, for the town I loved and left, and for the young girl I used to be.
"Mercury" by The Clarks
I chose the name "Mercury" for my hometown in Cinderland because I wanted something almost cosmic in scope, and yet something small enough to feel intimate. Mercury is the solar system’s smallest planet, and it also happens to be the title of a song written by The Clarks, one of western Pennsylvania’s most beloved bands. The lyrics perfectly capture what it was like to live in Mercury. They talk of country roads you can’t travel by car, mason jars, original sin, and walking in the moonlight. My hometown is all romance and back roads and stillness and secrets, and this song makes me feel close to it when I’m far away.
"Hands on Fire" by The Stills
One of my favorite parts of Cinderland is the very first scene I wrote, which took place at church camp on the edge of Lake Erie. When we were teenagers, some of my guy friends used to douse their hands in bug spray and set them on fire. It still remains one of the most bizarrely beautiful sights I’ve seen—their hands bright orange against a midnight sky, their laughs and screams echoing in an empty night. The opening lyrics to the song, "it starts with a match / and the wind that blows" remind me of the countless nights I spent with these young men, never feeling safer than when we slept outside and watched the campfire burn.
"Closer" by Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor is the local hero where I grew up, and when I was young my friends and I considered him a mysterious prince among men. He’d made it past Mercury’s borders, he’d made art that took risks, he’d made something of himself. "Closer" was the first song of his I’d ever heard, fresh off the Downward Spiral album, which was meant to depict a kind of psychological devolution. The song scared me the first time I listened to it. It’s full of sexual aggression and taboo and darkness. What I found myself drawn toward, I think, was the honesty, however disturbing it was. The song was full of things I dared not think, say, or feel, and it mystified me. It still does.
"Centerfold" by The J. Geils Band
The high school pep band played "Centerfold" before every varsity basketball game, and it quickly became the soundtrack to every Friday night in winter throughout my adolescence. During my short stint as a cheerleader, I couldn’t help but get excited when this song started to play. The squad had a dance we’d done for years—long before I’d been old enough to join—called the "s" dance, and the "s" was short for "slut." As you might expect, the dance was full of gyrating and bending over. Only when I was older and heard the lyrics to the song did I wonder about the intended purpose of such a dance, performed for a crowd full of fathers, mothers, and young children. It’s one of those memories I so enjoyed at the time I lived it, and yet to remember it gives me such a haunting feeling.
"Stand Still, Look Pretty" by The Wreckers
If I had to choose one song to represent the scandal that happened in my town when I was ten, this song by The Wreckers would be it. When Mr. Howard Lotte, the town’s revered piano teacher, was accused of touching his female students, many insisted he was too "good" a person to commit such a heinous crime, and that the girls themselves had conspired against him. There were seven girls brave enough to tell the truth, and then a host of others—like me—who decided to stay silent. Spoken and unspoken, we all had to accept the hard truth that so many in Mercury had chosen to support this man instead of us. At the time, the message we received sounded a lot like the title of this song: stand still, look pretty, don’t cause trouble. The newspapers focused on how divided our town was, and the court transcripts, at times, read like an intervention on Lotte’s behalf. I like to imagine this song finally giving a voice to all of Howard Lotte’s victims—those who spoke out, and those of us who did not.
"The Devil We Know" by Lily & Madeleine
I love the melancholy mood of this ballad, the sense of seductive resignation that pulls us homeward because home is a place we know so well. It’s a perfect fit for the somber atmosphere that settled over Mercury once the trial was over and Mr. Lotte headed to jail. There was a sense that we all had to move on (though few—if any—apologies were offered), and that the past had to become the past, mostly because we had no choice but to continue to live together. But the silence that replaced the strife felt ghostly and unfinished, an apparition that washed over us and left behind a cold chill.
"Pretty Dress" by Rosie Thomas
Though I might not have been innocent, I did manage to remain anonymous through all of Mr. Lotte’s rumors and legal proceedings. This was what I thought I wanted: to be seen as a nice girl, a good girl, a popular girl. But it’s a dirty business, getting everything you want. The lyrics "the nice little girl who’s grown up / to become homecoming queen" are the perfect accompaniment to the night I rode around in a convertible for the homecoming game, my "pure" image on public display, just seventeen and wondering how I’d become an impostor in my own life.
"I Don’t Feel It Anymore" by William Fitzsimmons
I like to imagine this duet as a conversation I’m having with my younger self. In order to face the lie that had become such a big part of me, I had to tell the truth first to myself. Inner-honesty can be so searing, yet so powerful. When I picture my older self saying, "hold on, this will hurt more than anything else has before," and the younger responds, "I want back the years you took when I was young," I feel like the girl I was and the woman I am are finally meeting each other in a truthful way.
"I’ve Told You Now" by Sam Smith
I listened to this song on repeat right before my book came out, when I was panicking about what would happen when people who used to know me found out the truth about the secret I’d kept hidden for years. "I’ve Told You Now" reminded me that there’s such strength in the telling, regardless of the response. There’s a certain release that comes with saying was has gone unsaid for too long.
"For the Summer" by Ray LaMontagne
I pull out this tune every year when the weather grows warmer and I find myself jonesing for a swim, some hometown fireworks, and a bonfire. The lines "can I come home for the summer / I could slow down for a little while" pretty much sum up that annual longing. It’s the closeness I miss, the feeling that you can pass an entire night in the company of friends who’ve known you your entire life, and no one needs to say a word because you know each other so well. I love the feeling of cool grass on my feet and the way my family makes me laugh. It’s worth every minute of that long drive homeward, headed west on I-80, one mile at a time.
Amy Jo Burns and Cinderland links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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