June 8, 2018
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Debra Jo Immergut's debut novel The Captives is an impressive literary psychological thriller.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"With its see-saw of quixotic emotions, Immergut’s stunning debut is a taut psychological drama that explores [her characters’] nuanced contemplation of an unimaginable future and an unspeakable past."
In the first few pages of my new novel, The Captives, Frank, a prison psychologist, reveals a memory of Miranda, an inmate and his long-ago high-school crush, that plays like "a sticky school-era radio hook," on eternal rotation in some deep crevice of his mind. It's no coincidence that the story begins with the notion that a person can linger in your brain like an unforgettable pop song. I am a chronic earworm sufferer myself, always spinning music in my head, and it often spills into my writing.
The Captives is a literary thriller that traces a twisty path over a dark terrain of gender power struggles, criminal justice and injustice, corrupt politicians, and everlasting young love. When Frank and Miranda, the story's star-crossed classmates, reunite in their 30s in the highly charged setting of prison, both are haunted by their pasts--and by the music of their youth. Frank soothes his frazzled nerves with large doses of classic-rock radio, while Miranda hears old songs echoing through her memories during long lonely nights in lock-up. Their shared adolescence leads them to a dangerous fate as adults; their soundtrack, as represented by the playlist here, combines equal parts teenage sentimentality and very grown-up lust and foreboding.
The list starts with four slices of quintessential 1970s cheese. These songs, plus the Stevie Wonder track, are quoted in the novel's pages-- pop hits simply so sticky that they brazenly imposed themselves, as such tunes will do, while I was typing along. The other songs are the ones I replayed most often as I wrote and revised. I drew from their deep wells of emotion for my tale of two hungry-for-love humans struggling to free themselves from real and imagined bonds.
Playground In My Mind - Clint Holmes
Earworm number 1. Listen with caution. The Captives mostly takes place in a New York State prison, where Miranda is incarcerated and also a prisoner to the constant din of other people in close quarters. She overhears someone singing the refrain--"My name is Michael, I've got a nickel." With its faint undertone of creepiness, this utterly insane tune has been tattooed on my brain since I first heard it in elementary school.
If You Leave Me Now - Chicago
Chicago's radio fodder was inescapable during my growing up years--and I disdained it. But when I was writing about Miranda's tween years and the tragic death of her 16-year-old sister Amy, this wistful, gorgeously saccharine melody flooded my mind, and so it floods Miranda's mind too, when she thinks of Amy. I have to admit, I've become a bit obsessed with this song now--as redolent of my girlhood as a roll-on tube of Dr. Pepper-flavored lip gloss.
Take It Easy - The Eagles
I prefer the Jackson Browne original, but this cover version is definitely the one playing on oldies radio in the basement of the Nove Skopje restaurant in Queens, owned by Jimmy, the main heavy of my story. I think his henchman, a Macedonian cook who doubles as a forger of counterfeit passports, would definitely be a fan of classic California album-oriented rock.
Love the One You're With - Isley Brothers
The original version by Stephen Stills was the big radio hit, but wow, this cover by the Isleys is so much better, so let's go with it. This anthem of the sexual revolution is playing in Frank's car as he and his junkie little brother Clyde are zooming through a rainy December night on an urgent mission that cannot here be revealed.
I Was Made to Love Her - Stevie Wonder
If my novels were songs, I'd want them to be exactly like Stevie Wonder tunes--simple on the surface but deeply evocative, precise but lush, idiosyncratic but universal. Again, this one is playing in Frank's car radio--and this eternally fresh ode to young romance would make him think of his then-and-now object of adoration, Miranda.
Shotgun Down the Avalanche - Shawn Colvin
The Captives is set in the 1990s, and I first dreamed up the idea for the novel then. I listened to this 1989 song constantly during the time I was writing the first drafts--the idea of "riding shotgun down the avalanche" is a neat encapsulation of a dangerous love, two people on a perilous ride together.
Barely Breathing - Duncan Sheik
Here's another 1990s song that I dove into again and again--a genius take on obsessive, not-really-requited love. Thank you, Duncan Sheik, wherever you are, for writing the this one line that sums ups my two main characters--and pretty much all the fiction I've ever written and ever will write: "I don't suppose it's worth the price that I would pay...but I'm thinking it over anyway."
Sullen Girl - Fiona Apple
I was blown away by Tidal, the album of Apple's adolescence, when it came out, and I still marvel at the shocking honesty of the lyrics and the ravishing, bold music. This track--an oceanic epic of loneliness and passion--is such a pure distillation of the unsettling experience of being a young woman--and it could be Miranda's theme song.
Ship to Wreck - Florence and the Machine
I have a weakness for watery metaphors, and like "Sullen Girl," this powerful song instantly summons Miranda for me---first, the mention of sleeping pills, which play a key role in her narrative, but even more the regrets and the voyaging toward self-determination, even if it means leaving a trail of wreckage in her wake.
The River - Son Little
Yet another water-soaked song. It's urgent, sexy, dark. What's not to love? I saw the charismatic Son Little play in a tiny place in my hometown of Northampton, and when I heard this, I could picture it in the film version of my story--the perfect soundtrack to Frank's longing for Miranda, Miranda's enthrallment with the elusive Duncan. It's a song about the kind of desire that make consequences seem inconsequential.
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror - Elvis Costello
Like so many writers, I'm a huge fan of the man, one of the great wordsmiths of our time. In his vast catalogue, there's a tune to fit any story or mood. I'll choose this one to include for its all-purpose inspiration--because what is fiction but a deep, dark truthful mirror?
Debra Jo Immergut and The Captives links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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weekly music release lists