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May 24, 2018

Katie Rogin's Playlist for Her Novel "Life During Wartime"

Life During Wartime

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, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Katie Rogin's novel Life During Wartime is an impressive debut.

John Reed wrote of the work:

"Life During Wartime is a novel of enormous breadth and humanity. Rogin writes with a cool grace, of a world that is as limitless as it is pitiless, and her characters, individual masterpieces, seduce readers with nihilistic allure."

In her own words, here is Katie Rogin's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Life During Wartime:

While I write I often hear an imaginary soundtrack for the pages I'm working on. I'm also very interested in the interplay of mood and music in daily life and I often include in-scene music that characters interact with. Music also fuels the physical act of writing. I usually have a set list of background music for each writing project. It gets created in a haphazard way and it evolves over the course of the work.

Life During Wartime takes place in September 2008, at the worst of the financial crisis when Wall Street melts down. The plot is anchored in the aftermath of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are songs on this playlist that function as commentary and soundtrack for this moment in America. There are also songs for each character or for key moments—some of these I heard as I wrote, others came to me while I was editing or much later. Finally, there are the songs of my writing soundtrack that I played over and over, sometimes hearing the lyrics, sometimes not, but always writing to their rhythms.

1. "World Without Tears"
Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears

21-year-old Nina Wicklow is an Iraq war veteran who goes missing outside Los Angeles in a mountain town called Sierra Madre and a cast of misfits comes together to search for her. This is Nina's song. For a long time it was the title of the novel, but the lyrics seem exceptionally flexible and fragile to me. The song offers a big tent of significance and yet when I try to land specific meanings, the whole thing slips away. I suppose that's why it's such amazing poetry—it's deeply experienced and completely ineffable. The song, like the character of Nina, is both a wish and warning.

2. "Hotel California"
The Eagles, Hotel California and Eagles Live

There's very little in-scene music within the action of Life During Wartime. I think this is because the novel takes place before characters have found ways to heal so they can't connect to music (and its healing attributes) quite yet. "Hotel California" occurs in-scene for the character of Lise, but the song functions as a metaphor for ending up trapped in the damage of the worst impulses of American society, of living after trauma "where you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave." The song is, in many ways, a commenting soundtrack for the entire novel.

Captain Lise Sheridan, an army nurse who worked in the combat hospital in the Green Zone in Baghdad during the war, is the first character who realizes Nina is missing. "Hotel California" has complex meaning for Lise—it's the song she's almost sure was playing when she first meets and falls for Danny, and it's a song that haunts her, casting a shadow in the weird Southern California light. Lise's dad, a disillusioned Baby Boomer, identifies the song as the real end of the 1960s when everything went to shit. And the partial line of "the warm smell of colitas" recurs to Lise as a kind of bad mantra. Songwriter Don Henley has said "it's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American Dream."

And then there's the penetrating lilt of those guitars! The live version from the Eagles' break-up tour works better for me for Life During Wartime. It's much darker sounding than the studio version and contains this deep relentlessness throughout as well as guitar solos that feel like personal demons doing battle.

3. "Life During Wartime"
Talking Heads, Fear of Music

A dance song for the apocalypse. The gunfire, furtive movement, passports, visas, assumed names, checkpoints, working at night, maybe never getting home. The song describes, quite literally, what life is like in a war zone. I remember in the first days after 9/11 in New York when we had to show ID if we went south of 14th Street, in order to prove that you lived or worked in the now-militarized zone. I lived on 12th Street and my folks lived on 23rd, and there were no food deliveries to stores downtown at all, so I was going back and forth across the zones and that checkpoint quite a bit, showing my driver's license each time I wanted to see my mom or buy food.

4. "Welcome to the Boomtown"
David & David, Boomtown

Also pulled into the search for Nina is her uncle Jim Wicklow. Jim is a Wall Street dude who survived the World Trade Center attack, but his brother, Ryan, Nina's father, did not. Jim has been hiding out in Cape Cod, but he senses something is coming that will pull him from exile and take him back to the world. This song is definitely playing on the soundtrack when Jim flies into Burbank Airport to help look for Nina. He doesn't hear the deeper meanings of the song though. This is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite albums. It's essentially a "Hotel California" for the 1980s. Same themes—particularly the cost of excess, the loss of innocence.

5. "Winter In America"
Gil Scott-Heron, The First Minute of a New Day

This song is about worlds adjacent to the world of Life During Wartime. It's about life in cities, about people who are the collateral damage of the money and power systems. This song is in the deep background when Jim finally gets back to New York. He doesn't hear—is never able to hear—this song, but it was essential that I heard this track as a counterpoint as I wrote those scenes of Jim at the ATM, amazed that he could still get money.

6. "Jesus Walks"
Kanye West, The College Dropout

This song is in the trailer for the movie Jarhead based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's memoir of the first Gulf War. "Order, huh / Yo, we at war / We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves."

7. "Look at Miss Ohio"
Gillian Welch, Soul Journey

This song is used in Liza Johnson's film Return from 2011 starring Linda Cardellini as a soldier who returns from Iraq and struggles to find her place back home in everyday life. The movie was part of my research.

8. "Down to You"
Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark

I listened to a ton of Joni Mitchell—Court & Spark, Blue, Ladies of the Canyon—while I wrote Life During Wartime. Her music just flooded through me and is on every page of the novel.

9. "California"
The Pretenders, ¡Viva El Amor!

This is Lise's song. California is her escape plan, but there's a darkness she can't run from because it's inside her. Chrissie Hynde's lullaby mode always has a sharp knife at the ready. "Oh California, maybe you'll be the final resting place. I'll finally be free."

10. "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of"
U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind

This is Jim's 9/11 song. He hears it on continuous repeat. He sings it to himself, but he never hears the last line that "this time will pass" because he's in a never-ending loop of the day his brother died. I always think of this as U2's 9/11 album even though it was released almost a year before in October 2000.

11. "Bury Me on the Battery"
Joan Osborne, Little Wild One

This is Jim having his heart attack. As he's going down, losing consciousness, this is his fantasy of himself as an old time financial hustler just riding the market and being a true New Yorker. The song was released in 2008 so it feels right on the moment.

12. "Mae"
13. "Get Hurt"
The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten and Get Hurt

Lise and Nina have been telling war stories to a screenwriter for research named Danny, who used to work in advertising in New York. Danny is kind of a douche so of course Lise is sleeping with him. I listened to a lot of music from The Gaslight Anthem while working on this project. Their songs have an operatic quality and the melodies are fuel for good writing. These two songs are relevant to Danny's story. He's trying to re-work real life hassles into elegant cinema. These songs are part of what Danny wants—the healing artifice of cinematic moments, conjured to correct real life.

14. "Just Dance"
Lady Gaga, The Fame

Also part of the search posse is Nina's landlady, Jen. This is Jen's song. It describes the delirium of her drinking in the old days back in New York. Now, it's the song she thinks a neighbor is blasting down the street during her dark night of the soul. The song is also from 2008 so it is probably the song the neighbor is playing.

15. "Medicine Wheel"
Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers

This is a song for Jen's husband, Marco, the tech guy. He observes trends and events and sees the inner workings before others do. He can see the programming code even if he can't quite articulate it as poetically as Aimee Mann. She sings/speaks for Marco in yet another song from 2008.

16. "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlife"
Alabama 3, La Peste

This song is another all-time fave for me. I write to it, work out to it, and sometimes just wallow in it. It also happens to describe Jim and Jen in their post-9/11 nightmare, drunk out of their minds, trying to fuck away the fear—whether or not they ever actually met each other (undetermined in Life During Wartime). Let's burn it down. Let's burn ourselves down.

17. "Sympathy for the Devil"
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet

Nik is a Vietnam veteran who leads the support group that both Nina and Lise belong to. He's both priest and devil in his guidance for living post-war. He offers both a nostalgia for and a dread of the 1960s.

18. "Gimme Shelter"
The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed / Patti Smith, Twelve

I used the first few lines of this song in the epigraph of the novel and I think the lines speak for themselves. The song's urgent warning of imminent danger and chaos has started to feel a bit like it just applies to the past, to the late 1960s specifically. The song works well in this way when Nik and his war intersect with Nina, Lise and the other Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, but it can also feel a little old fashioned. I've become quite attached to Patti Smith's 2007 cover version which has a more polished, churning-yearning, contemporary feel. Her punk-prophet vocals keep the song grounded in peril, but the re-make creates a half-promise of soaring free from the menace—and updates the song for Lise, Jim, Jen and Danny. All four main characters in Nina's search party are survivors just trying to stay alive and outrun a terrible thing that is always only just a shot away.

Katie Rogin and Life During Wartime links:

the author's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

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