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December 4, 2019

Kate Wisel's Playlist for Her Short Story Collection "Driving in Cars with Homeless Men"

Driving in Cars with Homeless Men

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.

Winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, Kate Wisel's linked story collection Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is filled with haunting and poignant portrayals of women and violence.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote of the book:

"Unflinching in its portrayal of the violence visited upon her protagonists, Ms. Wisel’s stories move back and forth in time to examine the difficulty of transcending one’s history, while reminding readers that the work of becoming one’s best self can only be achieved with love and support — not just from others, but from oneself."

In her own words, here is Kate Wisel's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection Driving in Cars with Homeless Men:

“Oh Yeah” Foxy Brown

It’s interesting that Boston is a majority-minority city yet the minorities are made to feel like the misfits. White girls listening to black music is nothing new, but the girls, as outsiders to Boston, to their families and society, who have also been violated in different ways, feel a connection to black culture and to the black community, who have had the most difficult history of violence in the city. Rap speaks to that, while also taking back control by means of storytelling. Just like Foxy Brown takes back control as a female by declaring what’s hers. The whole song is this retaliation against shutting up and looking pretty. I like the movie Thirteen because it paints this picture of white girls being hyper-drawn to black culture. Of course it’s problematic. That’s why it’s interesting. You have to think, what’s the connection?

“Cape Canaveral” Conor Oberst

I wonder why certain people in our lives become so monumental in our minds, so glorified, that they take on all these different prodigious roles, like the roles in this song. Serena thinks and talks a lot about God, though her cadence is deadpan. If Emerson were right, Serena would either be godless or God. In Serena’s experience, both are terrifying, as an omniscient God would have cosigned serious harm, and to a child. The nothing or everything dilemma is too stark. Like in many of the stories, there’s an inherent religious quality to love, a promise of transformation, being delivered from evil. Part of this story and this song is accepting the fact that the savior you believe in is mortal and can’t free you.

“She Says She Wants One Thing”
“Ball and Chain” Janis Joplin

There’s so little hope in Janis Joplin’s agonized voice, that strangely, the overwhelming hope that resonates in this song is the fact that she’s singing at all. I realized that this story in the courtroom was hopeless…Serena will drop the charges, she’ll be back in court when things get even worse. The hope is that, in the courtroom, she’s paying attention with everything she has and is writing a story anyway, in the present, from the scraps that she’s seeing. Hope is not a one-off prayer or even a resolution, it’s the endlessness of imagination. It’s the ability to tangibly make something other than what is there.

“Wake Up” Paolo Nutini

There are almost no men in this story. The contained feeling of the apartments that the girls bounce from, one to the next, becomes increasingly threatened by outside elements. The assumption that people have to get married when they’re older is absurd, a looming threat in the book. I like the part in “Wake Up” about having no choice but to adjust, to bigger bodies, broken hearts, rusted cities. Why can’t they live like this forever, with each other, as a family?

“Stage Four”
“Start Wearing Purple” Gogol Bordello

It’s easy for me to picture Villy eating up this whole cabaret punk thing. Frankie welcomes Villy’s exploitation. She’s not being coerced. I don’t exactly know what wearing purple means, but it sounds like a great way of avoiding reality. Coming from someone who only nicknames the ones I truly love, I do alternately think nicknames can be used to manipulate a situation, a special form of abuse. Frankie, degraded, is a Frankie that’s living outside the bounds of what’s real. If she’s Ray Charles, if she’s wearing purple, how could her mom be dying?

“Good Job”
“Sweet Side” Lucinda Williams

This song could be the anthem to the whole book. The toughest girls are the sweetest girls who can’t afford to show their sweet side.

“Benny’s Bed”
“Renee” Lost Boys

This song portrays all the excruciatingly tender and tiny details of young love so well. There’s no fear, Mister Cheeks just goes after this girl on the street. And he notices everything, a chain that her moms gave her and her “hairdo of pain,” which is such an amazing line. My friend Aria Aber said, on a road-trip, that first love is like learning to swim, first you have to drown in it to know how to survive. This song and this story are both about teenage love and drowning.

“When I Call, You Answer”
“What Is It About Men” Amy Winehouse

How convenient. A question all my characters are striving to answer.

“English High”
“Eva” Bumboks

My friend and I used to read her father’s love letters from Moscow, an aspect of what this story was inspired by. I think of love in general, love that’s forbidden or unable to survive, and we just walk around loving people we can’t be with. The combination of love and estrangement is baffling. Both the love and the estrangement are epic, meaning the lover lives an epic life of absence. How do you portray a life of absence? I think the most damaging element that emerges is the disconnect, the struggle to express love that can’t be, through language. We could only listen to this song on YouTube and then spent months trying to get it on our iPods. I’m mesmerized by this song because the Ukrainian speaker is fumbling desperately through the English language to reach his love interest across a continent. “The only chance to be a star, so you could hear me,” is the most desperate, heartbreaking line.

“Stop It”
“No Pigeons” Sporty Thieves

“Your pussy ain’t worth the Ramada.” Now that’s something Seamus would say to Nat. If I had the chance, I’d go back in to write more lines like that. If you zoomed in on Nat’s facial expression, there would be a smirk where a scowl was. The story, like all the stories, takes place within the trenches of a gender war, and there’s something Nat enjoys about that, being thoroughly degraded. Why? Because it’s funny. Until it’s not.

“I See the Light/What’s His Name” Scott Birum

I didn’t realize this song had the word trouble in it until I listened again after choosing it for this story. When I think of domestic violence, I think of someone who is seeking enlightenment, on both ends. It’s borderline vigilant, this search for glory, salvation, God, words you could put in place for God. When the speaker holds the woman down under water, the notion that the action could be baptism or murder, but either way, they’ll see the light, is such an astute way to render violence. Just like in a story, I see so many aspects of the song, beyond Scott Birum’s rowdy lawless ethos, that coincide with the story at second and twentieth glance. Like how the narrator in “Trouble” wakes up on a Sunday with a black eye and starts drinking. The choice of day, Sunday, was subconscious. Sunday is the day of reckoning. The sun is out, the dogs are barking, and the narrator’s neighbor is receiving the sun’s conspicuous signals and Serena wants but can’t see the light, or herself.

“Tell Us Things”
“Sara” Bob Dylan

Rarely in music do you get this view of early family life, childhood through a father’s eyes. I like to think Serena’s father is like Bob Dylan, intentionally misunderstood. There’s a guard up, he’s evasive through his evolution, you won’t ever truly know him. I like to think that over time, he will regret the family’s course, like the speaker in this song. I think his fear is the reason he cheats and leaves. He’s afraid of what he has, almost as if it’s too close to the womb, a perfect state, true love. I think of the scene in “Tell Us Things” when the snow is piling up outside the car as they wait for their father to come inside, and Serena’s mother is telling her about the day she was born. Love and estrangement. What does it do to you? That’s what I was thinking throughout this collection. How hard it is to articulate experience when there are pieces missing. “Sara, Sara, so easy to look at, so hard to define,” is a testament to how estrangement can occur in the first place. It begins with the loss of language.

“Sadie Escobar”
“Ultraviolence” Lana Del Rey

“Sadie Escobar” is more about the aftermath of violence and the people we’re drawn to. Mariah is this tragic figure who, if you’re living in a world of violence, you might feel decent next to. Everyone discounts Lana Del Ray but she’s only blowing up concepts that are already true, and while I don’t think violence is glamourous or simple, there’s an aspect of it that feels larger than life, a dramatic dynamic that keeps women hooked on that energy. I don’t think this song is super complicated and I like it for that. Mariah and Serena are both women who have mistaken violence for love. Violence for enlightenment, like the baptism or murder reference. What’s complicated is the scope of their before and after, what’s happened and what will happen to them, which inevitably is tangled, but the present moment of getting hit or beaten up, that one second or four-hour feeling of the monstrosity of violence being presented as a horrible gift, is captured in this song.

“I’m Exaggerating”
“Changed the Locks” Lucinda Williams

Williams could be talking to a lover or an abuser or both, and the indistinct nature of the lyrics, “so you can’t touch me anymore,” can refer to violence or love or both but either way, it’s now unwanted, or beyond unwanted, the speaker is leaving out of need. I think becoming a flight attendant to escape a man is something Lucinda would have gotten to if the song went on for three more minutes.

“What Counts”
“Romeo and Juliet” Mickey Avalon

Obviously these two are not meant to be together. Case closed.

“Mick’s Street”
“Pills I Took” Hank Williams III

I like the images of damage occurring all around the speaker as the speaker simply feels good. Getting high, in Raffa’s experience, is the false sensation of being held by a man who loves her. She feels it when she’s high in Benny’s bed, when she asks his father to kiss her, when the sunlight is raining down on her at the rental house, and all she wants is to climb inside the sun’s mouth. These are all attempts towards an embrace that feels all-encompassing.

“Run for Your Life”
“Jigsaw Falling into Place” Radiohead

This song feels like it’s being told backwards, which is how “Run for Your Life” unfolds. Though the chase is all forward momentum, the emotional backstory is unraveling. It’s all about urge and muscle memory and fighting against instincts and time. The song then becomes a loop, like Raffa’s life, as she tries to hold onto what’s already lost.

Kate Wisel is author of the linked story collection Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Originally from Boston, Wisel received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and was most recently a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught fiction. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Gulf Coast, Tin House online, Redivider as winner of the Beacon Street Prize, and others. She currently lives in Chicago, where she has been a long-time assistant to WBEZ music journalist and author Jim DeRegotis, The Case Against R. Kelly. She currently teaches in the English Department of Columbia College Chicago. Visit

Kate Wisel and Driving in Cars with Homeless Men links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
Chicago Tribune review
Foreword review
Library Journal review

The Rumpus interview

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