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March 4, 2020

Julian K Jarboe's Playlist for Their Story Collection "Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel"

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Julian K Jarboe's Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel is an impressive debut collection.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Throughout, Jarboe melds tenderness, humor, and righteous anger into insightful tales of characters navigating the margins of society. Readers are sure to be blown away."

In their own words, here is Julian K Jarboe's Book Notes music playlist for their story collection Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel:

Music plays an enormous role in my writing process, including every piece of my story collection. Part of my research and development for any idea, before it fills out a story shape, is to collect images and sounds that feel related. This helps me make sure I'm asking myself the right questions and focusing on the right details when I get to drafting, and I do listen to these playlists while I'm working, though not exclusively. The catch is, I've found that once a song becomes associated with my own writing, I can't just listen to it casually or take it on its own terms for a while. It's not that I'm tired of it the way retail work anesthetized me to any possible enjoyment of Christmas music (or how nightclub work did the same to me for disco, which is the more tragic of those losses). It's more that the fugue state required to inhabit a story and see it to completion has a necessary cooling off and letting go period.

I've been calling the book a collection of "body horror fairy tales and queer Catholic cyberpunk". There's as much about monsters and witches and climate change as there is internet culture and nostalgia and terrible gig economy work, and I've tried to cherry pick something from all of those for this. Some of the playlists involved in writing and compiling Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel as a collection have names like "Softcore Apocalypse", "Virtual Occultist", and "Expired Percocet". They don't correspond with specific stories or scenes, usually, but rather recurring moods and references.

A few highlights:

"Finale" by Mary Bichner and the Planetary Quartet

This might have been the singular most influential song on the novella-length title story, in particular the final chapter where Sebastian is disassociating from his own immediate experience aboard a rocket ship by imagining a rosy, noble, empowered version of what his abusive mother is doing at the same moment. I was at the concert where this video was recorded, in a planetarium dome theater where the seats reclined almost horizontally, feeling not unlike someone strapped in for takeoff. The composer, Mary, told the audience in the most light and cheerful way how "Finale" was a song about a Sailor Moon villain taking all the evil in the world into her body, and then she launched right into this heart-wrenching and gorgeous song. Something clicked for me. The strangeness, seriousness, and silliness all coexisting in this track captured the way I wanted the climax of the story to feel, and I listened to it on repeat during revision.

"Dirty Computer" by Janelle Monáe

Oops, I couldn't pick just one Janelle Monáe track, so I linked to an entire album and Emotion Picture. Hers is the kind of "science fiction" that motivates and re-motivates me to explore ideas through the genre in the first place (IMHO she is overdue for a Hugo award). Big queer cyberpunk funk future, yes please.

"Maria Bethânia" by Caetano Veloso

A classic. The orchestral build, the suggestive but ultimately evasive lyrics. It's unhinged and airtight at the same time. When I was working on the descriptions of the fictional city of Stella Maris, which is a character in its own right, I sought out a bunch of music with "city" or "cities" in the title and lyrics to set the tone, and this was one of the only ones that felt both menacing and magical enough to fit what I was trying to go for.

"Main Man (Acoustic Session)" by Marc Bolan

An ex-girlfriend got me into T. Rex and Marc Bolan, and she used to say that this song was about someone at the very end of a big party wondering who there, if anyone, was going to stick by them when things stopped being fun, who would leave the party with them and be there in the hard light of day, who would appreciate them for the full depth of their personality. We were also both pretty unhappy people at the time, so I tend to go towards stuff like this when I'm trying to retrieve those "alone together" distorted and alienated perceptions. This acoustic session feels extra, extra lonely to me, for the alternate lyrics as much as the unplugged arrangement, plus knowing the tragedy that would surround Marc Bolan's death. A lot of my characters are looking for their people, and often struggle in different ways-- fawning denial, disaffected withdrawal, furious resentment-- when the people they find don't magically present solutions to their life's problems but a different set of circumstances, since intimacy and understanding is hard and sometimes impossible no matter the crowd.

"Ballad of Accounting" by Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger

"Did they teach you how to question when you were at the school? Did the factory help you grow? Were you the maker or the tool?" Work and labor-- its comedies, tragedies, and infinite frustrations-- are a recurring focus in a lot of my writing, and central to the majority of the short stories in this collection. I would say the book is about terrible jobs (dangerous, underpaid, unstable, etc) as much as anything else. I made a deliberate choice in several pieces to leave anyone with power nameless and to focus on the thoughts and feelings of the people cleaning, serving, and left behind by the science fiction futures, so of course there's angry leftist folk music in my writing mixes.

"Blue Crystal Fire" by Robbie Basho

The first time I heard this song, it sent actual shivers down my spine. Absolutely haunting, some kind of pastoral Gothic folk lament, to have visions and hallucinations to, in the wilderness somewhere. The woods and the soul might be pretty closely linked for me, and stories like "The Seed and The Stone," "Estranged Children of Storybook Houses", and "We Did Not Know We Were Giants" from this book are heavy on the spooky mystical trees. Lyrics like, "Deer with silver antlers / Come and dance with me / With me my love / Sweet smiling moonbeams / Be my rhapsody / So deep my love" more or less conjured the devotional voice of "We Did Not Know We Were Giants."

"White Cedar" by The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats have a significant catalog of songs from the perspective of someone dealing with serious mental health challenges, and in the case of this song, someone who is institutionalized, but I feel like their narratives are at their most tender when they touch on the inherent worth and dignity of those perspectives. "You can't tell me what my spirit tells me isn't true, can you?" The inalienable value of the lives of those on the margins shows up a whole lot more in my collection as God, or something like God, than I was expecting. Also, the singer-songwriter of The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, wrote a 33 1/3 book about Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality" that's an epistolary novella from the perspective of a teenager who is institutionalized against his will. It's one of my favorite approaches to music criticism, and one of my favorite novellas, so it also feels worth mentioning as an aside to this entry.

"It's The End Of The World As We Know It (REM Cover)" by Julee Cruise

If you don't know Julee Cruise by name you might know her from her work with David Lynch on Twin Peaks. I have issues with the show, but gently cross-dissolving regional Gothic and blue collar domestic horror has played a big part in my fascination with how inner and outer landscapes can resonate and shape each other. I don't write to the Twin Peaks soundtrack, though, because it makes me space out and get angry about season two, but I love Julee so I write to her other stuff. This is such a weird cover, and when I invent terms like "softcore apocalypse", this is what I mean by that. She took a really punchy, punctuated, topical pop hit and turned it into a slow-motion nightmare at a nightclub at the edge of a cosmic void. This is how, I've been told, several of my short stories feel to some readers, which is a kind of artistic success for me.

"Always On My Mind" by Nivla & The Sludgemunks

This is basically just a slowed down Alvin & The Chipmunks cover of a '70s country song that the Pet Shop Boys also covered famously. It's absurd and I love it. I could have picked a lot of things for this entry but this one kind of cracks me up especially and, in my head, it's playing in the background during an early scene in "Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel," at a bar called Omens and Pour Tends. Internet music genres like vaporwave (and it's oh-so-many variants and subgenres) are the defining concern of the character Kero, an experimental game developer and DJ with a Furby for a hand, but '90s and 2000s pop cultural nostalgia is a major theme in the story in general. I decided to end with this song because, to be honest, I think one of my next projects will be either a ghost story involving Craigslist, or an ekphrastic essay about GeoCities, so digital hauntology is (always) on my mind.

Julian K. Jarboe is a writer and sound designer from Massachusetts. Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel is their first book. More of their work can be found at or on Twitter @JulianKJarboe.

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