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June 6, 2017

Book Notes - Jill Eisenstadt "Swell"


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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jill Eisenstadt's novel Swell is moving, dark, and funny.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"In this touching portrait of ordinary people grappling with the aftershocks of 9/11—memorials, uncertainty, death, and a new life—the emotional upheaval of a national tragedy leaves no one unaffected."

In her own words, here is Jill Eisenstadt's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Swell:

Swell is a novel about yearning to feel safe. To that end, Sue has moved from post-9/11 Manhattan to Rockaway Beach, NY. She's converting to Judaism, living with her nasty father-in-law and parsing every word exchanged with her teenage daughter. But only music gives her a true sense of security. The bulk of the book is set in 2002, not long after the first iPod appeared. Sue is immediately attached to the device. Before that (and like me,) I imagine she went through dozens of Walkmen and before that a cassette player with jacks for earphones and before that, well… she just lay on her bedroom floor staring at album covers while listening to the corresponding records. Back in the day, Sue's fictional band, Visitation had a regular gig at the real and popular Tribeca club, Wetlands. Now she's quit her job as a middle school music teacher with plans to write an opera. By the book's end she has written only half of one aria. But there's hope.

1.) "Graceful Ghost Rag" by William Bolcom

Once you listen to "Ghost Rag" a few times, you can hear it in your head at will and when writing Swell, I often did. To my mind, it has the perfect echoey good-times-gone mood to evoke a big, crumbling rumored-to-be haunted house on the sea. I've loved the piece from the snowy morning at Bennington College when I walked into my music tutorial to find my teacher, Lou Calabro playing it with his eyes closed. Afterwards, we analyzed Bolcom's score. Of the notation — ("Don't drag") — Lou wagged his cigar and said, "A ghost that drags would be a drag. But a ghost in drag…?"

2.) "I Need A Girl (Part 1)" by Sean Combs

As research, I re-listened to all the pop songs from 2002, choosing this mega-hit to be playing on the radio at a beach party. The book, like the song has marriage as one of it's subjects. "First we were friends then become lovers/You was more than my girl, we was like brothers" also reminds me of the romance between Tim and Sue, two characters who were childhood friends in my first novel, From Rockaway. In Swell we see them again, approaching middle age and just now, falling in love.

3.) "Oh, What A Dream" by Johnny Cash

Four year old daughter, Sage comforts Sue, saying, "Don't worry mommy, it's just a dream," a line spoken by one of my own kids at the same age. Though it's hard to use dreams in fiction, writing is often like dreaming as our unconscious minds connect seemingly disparate things. The song was in the original draft of the book but to be honest, I was too cheap to pay for the permissions. I picked it in honor of the spooky moment, a few days after 9/11 when I first heard (or listened to) the lyrics:

I dreamed I walked in a field of flowers
Oh, what a dream
The houses all were silver towers
Oh, what a dream…

4.) "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" by Charles Warfield/ Clarence Williams

Since Sue was a child (trying to drown out the sound of her fighting parents) she's sung to herself as a way to cope, escape, remain or communicate calm. "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" was the song she used to soothe baby June but now that her daughter's a teen, the blues tune quells her own anxieties. I wanted to show the way a melody can travel like a yawn. Only half-hearing her mother, June, (tripping on a morning glory/gin concoction) picks up the song and sings it too. In the book, I reference the original 1923 Bessie Smith version but there are dozens of great recordings by everyone from Leon Redbone to Billie Holiday to Django Reinhardt. Since I only listen to instrumental music while writing, I actually prefer the rendition by Miles Davis.

5.) "Going Home" (taken from Dvorak's 9th symphony in E minor) is often played on the bagpipes as a dirge for fallen firefighters. Tim hears it in his head at random moments, traumatized as he is from the dozens of funerals he attended after 9/11. I've read (but not verified) that Dvorak was inspired by both black spirituals and native American Indian music.

6.) "What is and What Should Never Be" by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

The first concert I ever went to was Led Zeppelin (1977 North American Tour). I was fourteen and literally up in the last row of Madison Square Garden but I don't think I sat down once. "What is and What Should Never Be" wasn't on that night's play list but it made it on to pregnant Sue's iPod. "It went perfectly with the hot, gray day and the baby's heavy-metal kick."

7.) "If You Don't Know Me By Now" by Simply Red (Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes)

As in the novel, I came across an old bible while bagging things for Goodwill. The book had been given to my brother at his bar-mitzvah and then used as scrap paper to scrawl the P.O box and address to send away for Golden Hits of the Seventies. Immediately, I recalled the whole eight-track. "If You Don't Know Me By Now" wasn't even on my favorites. That would have been 8.) Stories' "Brother Louie (especially titillating in segregated 1970's Rockaway) or 9.) Glady Knight and the Pips, "Midnight Train to Georgia". But listening to all those songs again, it was Harold Melvin's croon which called up long forgotten images: My friend's red platform shoes with the tiny door (we later realized, for stashing drugs). The miniature varnished bagels we wore on leather cords around our necks (WTF?). In the manuscript, I kept adding the word "forever" at the end of the lyric: If you don't know me by know you will never never never know me …forever) and my editor kept removing it. On the third or fourth pass he finally queried: "You know there is no `forever,' right?"

10.) "Intermezzo" from Cavalleria rusticana (1889 Pietro Mascagni)

Opera figures in Swell in a variety of ways. Along with Sue's ambition to write one, it's the lens through which she sees the house:

"…An opera of a house is how Sue regards the heavy, dark, Old World mustiness. Fat, ornate furniture legs plot to trip you; worn velvet cushions sigh out clouds of melodramatic dust; drafty old windows turn ordinary sea breezes into hysterical arias." pg. 35

Cavalleria rusticana is set in Sicily where my character, old Rose has her roots. Intermezzo means intermission. In the opera, the orchestra plays the tune to an empty town square.

My intense fear of being heavy handed in my work sometimes backfires, leading me to squash emotion and drama. Purposely conceiving of a novel as operatic freed me to try on big subjects - murder and séances, ghosts, grief, religion, improbable love.

11.) "Get the Party Started" by Pink

In case this list is getting too highbrow, here's Pink with the song that was never not playing in the spring/summer of 2002. In the book, the characters in the driver's ed car are singing along to the song on FM radio. The relentless chorus and shallow cheerfulness do a good job of capturing the motion sick feeling of driving around in circles in a vehicle with teenagers. And the video is full of cars too.

Bonus List

All the songs and/or artists mentioned in From Rockaway

"I Want a New Drug" Huey Lewis and the News
Iron Maiden
Quiet Riot
"Flesh for Fantasy" Billy Idol
"Girl, I Want Your Body" The Jackson 5
"Muscles" by Diana Ross
"Surfin' Safari" The Beach Boys
"I'm on Fire" Bruce Springsteen
"What's Love Got to Do With It" Tina Turner
"Lets Get Physical"
"I Honestly Love You" Olivia Newton John
"Dare to be Stupid" Weird Al Yankovic
"Rockaway Beach" The Ramones
"Miss Me Blind" Boy George
"If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would Your Hold It Against Me" Bellamy Brothers
"When Irish Eyes are Smiling" Bing Crosby
"Yankee Doody Dandy"
"New York, New York" Frank Sinatra
Elvis Costello
Sex Pistols
Dead Kennedys
"Glamorous Life" Sheila E
"Cruel Summer" Bananarama
"Nowhere Man" Beatles

Jill Eisenstadt and Swell links:

the author's website

Kirkus Reviews review
New York Times review
Newsday review
Publishers Weekly review

Literary Bennington interview

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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