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September 10, 2018

Melanie Hobson's Playlist for Her Novel "Summer Cannibals"

Summer Cannibals

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

Melanie Hobson's novel Summer Cannibals is a mesmerizing debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"A tale of scorching family dysfunction that ranges among the gothic, domestic, and carnal, snagging the reader's attention with its odd, unpredictable vision."

In her own words, here is Melanie Hobson's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Summer Cannibals:

Some of these songs, I listened to relentlessly while holed up in my trailer writing my novel Summer Cannibals. I work in a 1954 aluminum Spartan trailer that’s parked in my back yard – a sort of faraday cage that makes music streaming a little challenging -- but I figure it out, because music is an essential part of my process. I listen for various reasons – to make the words come more easily, to give me a break from the words, to drown out the barking of my dogs or the pneumatic wheeze of neighborhood blowers. And music highlights and reminds me how important breath is in the composition of a line. How reading is tuned to the way we breathe – and how a writer can finesse that to make her work take a stronger hold on us.

“Summer Cannibals” by Patti Smith
The title of my novel, of course, is from Patti Smith whose song of the same name underpins the entire book. Her lyrics are a distilled and potent warning cry for the destructiveness of greed. When I was younger and flicking through albums at the record store, her image was a confusion of androgyny to me at a time – early teens – when our tribe was separating so firmly into girl vs. boy. She was, deliciously, all about her art. I suppose she scared us a little in the way she didn’t dress and didn’t style her hair and didn’t conform to the accepted version of feminine. But, mostly, she excited us, my girlfriends and me. We recognized a woman who’d found her place, and it wasn’t anywhere that any other adult had shown us was a possibility before.

“Oh Bondage! Up yours!” by X-Ray Spex
The female-led band X-Ray Spex was an early influence on my book. The first drafts of the novel included lyrics from their songs as epigrams. “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” is a must on this playlist, delivered in the peculiar and arresting voice of lead singer Poly Styrene who defied the typical look and sound of a punk band. She was mixed race and wore braces on her teeth, and inserted a squealing voice into a genre stuffed with rat-a-tat growls and yells – and I love the bad-assery of that. Its brio. Its fearlessness. “Summer Cannibals” began as my own scream against critics who’d tried to re-shape my work to fit a more saleable mold. I’d spent years re-working a different manuscript, following the edits sent back with each rejection, but no matter how hard I tried to twist it into something acceptable, it never worked. Screw it. I’ll write exactly what I want, I scowled. Dental braces and all.

“Heroes” by David Bowie
David Bowie died while I was working on this book, and I was surprised by how deeply it affected me. I’d always been a fan, but it took his death for me to really get what a committed artist he was – creating until the very end. I found that to be profoundly moving. There were many days that I listened to his song “Heroes” on continuous replay, internalizing that velvety voice with its message of hope. That there’s victory, at some point, even if just for one day. Keep going keep going keep going.

“My Neck, My Back” by Elle King
This song is a sultry, perfectly raunchy ode to female desire. There are a few scenes where I can imagine it, like a naughty greeting card, playing at full volume when a reader opens the book to those places. And why not? Isn’t that life too? This song is permission.

“Katmandu” by Bob Seger
When I found my energy flagging, Bob Seger’s “Katmandu” went on at maximum to bring back that twenty-one year old who listened to it on her Walkman, on the plane, all the way to the real Katmandu by myself. It was a gift from my parents: a round-the-world airline ticket where I chose the stops. Years later, when I dropped out of grad school to be a writer, and hopped a Greyhound bus from Canada to my boyfriend in the States – no green card, no prospects, no plan – my stunned parents didn’t connect the two, and neither did I. But now I look back and the connection is obvious. ‘…I’m leaving and I can’t be late, and to myself be true …. I’m going to Katmandu.’

“Hold On” by Alabama Shakes
This song contains all the pain and ache of having come through adolescence, and not being sure how you survived it. And of wanting to attribute it to something meaningful, rather than just dumb luck. We all strive to be special, and that’s the trick of writing fiction – finding what’s unique about your characters and rendering it in a believable way. And sometimes, yes, you have to hold on and wait because it takes time, and that’s a hard thing to reconcile as your mind – and the story – gallop ahead.

“FourFiveSeconds” by Rihanna
It has a pure stripped-down groove that I would sometimes hook onto to help my own flow and composition. It’s meditative in the best way, and so perfectly wrought – even down to the juxtaposition of the voices – that it reminds me art is built one chord at a time, and it’s okay to start simple and then build up and layer on top of that. It also reminds me that – always, always, always – we work from the shoulders of those who’ve come before us. Paul McCartney, Rihanna, Kanye West ….. that’s a trio grounded in musical history.

“Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf
It’s the soundtrack for the novel’s remembered party scene. It is possibility and freedom and experimentation, and allowing passion to rule. It’s the fun and intoxicating side of that, when your whole world is held within the trajectory of a single night. A golden time. I recall one evening in my teens, the pub’s house band was playing a frenzied version of this song and everyone in that second-floor space was dancing to make the building fall down ….. except my friend Angus, asleep with his head against the throbbing speaker, a beatific smile on his face. Legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles, totally at peace, carried off by that song to what I can only guess was a paradise. What we were all searching for.

“The Letter” by Macy Gray
If Goldi had a song, it would be Macy Gray’s “The Letter”. It’s buoyant and resilient and without pretension, with an underlying sadness built from the struggle of living. Of longing to be free. Goldi, of all the characters in my novel, is the one who’s most sure of herself, and who’s interesting blend of naiveté and experience is embodied in the raspy girl-voice of Macy Gray.

“Add it Up” by The Violent Femmes
This is pent-up desire and rage, full volume and unrepentant. No other explanation necessary.

“I’m On My Way” by The Proclaimers
This particular song could be David’s delusional beat at the end of the novel. It has a sort of self confidence that seems to have more to do with the imposed rhythm, rather than with reality. And there’s something about the singer’s pronounced Scottish accent that makes me – a child of Commonwealth – feel instantly at home and relaxed. Comfort food. It has cultural echoes from that time before the boyfriend and the Greyhound bus, when home was a different (now foreign) place. Being a fiction writer is an odd existence. You inhabit multiple worlds, real and imagined, but there’s nothing quite like that early world you first spoke into as a young child. Nothing quite as real.

“S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
Because, often, writing is either an all-night bender or a parched throat. This song captures that dichotomy. And its knee-slapping, foot-stomping, hand-clapping a cappella performance is a comforting reminder to a solitary writer that we’re part of a chorus, even as we labor alone. That the voices we’re making might actually have an audience. ‘Sonofabitch, give me a drink…..’ Just maybe, someone is listening, and they’ll hand you one.

“Go Home” by Summer Cannibals
It wasn’t until I’d sold the book and come up for air that I came across a band who, like me, had borrowed from Patti Smith. I include them on this playlist because they’re fiercely awesome and because I hear, in the timbre of the lead singer’s voice and in her lyrics, a progression from Poly Styrene and my novel’s beginnings. There’s an easy confidence, a solidity, an unapologetic sneer at any naysayers who may still foolishly question her right to belong.

Melanie Hobson and Summer Cannibals links:

the author's website

Kirkus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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