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March 6, 2020

Sue William Silverman's Playlist for Her Memoir "How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences"

How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences

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.

Sue William Silverman's How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences is poignant and unforgettable.

Bitch Media wrote of the book:

"Silverman's fourth memoir is really about coming to terms with physical death while seeking to create immortal work."

In her own words, here is Sue William Silverman's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences:

Is it possible for a book titled How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences to actually have a soundtrack? Yes!

For while this memoir-in-essays explores my death-phobia, it’s also about preserving memories, language, and sensory experiences to achieve a form of immortality—if not surviving physical death itself. As my fear of death is life-long, so, too, is my soundtrack. My carefully curated musical memories include the Calypso songs of my Caribbean childhood, dancing at a Ronettes’ concert at Fairleigh Dickinson University, watching the Beatles at DC Stadium, and my current obsession with Adam Lambert. Additionally, throughout childhood, I played the piano, plunking out favorite tunes. Sadly, that pleasure was ultimately killed by a music teacher who refused to nurture my innate ability to play by ear.

My musical selections also convey darker memories. As a teenager, I emotionally and physically fled an encounter of sexual violence with a dangerous man: Run for your life if you can, little girl!

I'm drawn to songs that embody my quest to survive not only death but inconveniences such as heartbreak, fear of aging, soul-numbing loneliness. I don’t just want to whistle past the graveyard; I want to sing past it in full voice. But not dirge-like. Many songs are upbeat and up-tempo. The narrator in my book also loves to dance.

I could put together a dusk-to-dawn playlist—my own aural Proustian experience—but here are my Top Ten Greatest Hits.

“Runaround Sue,” Dion

This song encapsulates better than any other the themes I explore in writing. In earlier books I wrote about sexual addiction: running around with men. Here, in How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, I trace the origin of my fear of death in part to an encounter of sexual violence, and show how I try to outrun and outdistance this fear both figuratively and literally. For example, in high school, I bombed up and down New Jersey’s industry-blighted Route 17 in my parents’ gold Plymouth. Did I understand my purpose at the time? No. Only looking back do I see how sex, violence, and death can be entwined. Also, my real-life restlessness resulted in the structure of the book: It’s designed as a road trip through my life, albeit one thematically congruent. A great thing about pop songs is that they’re often open-ended enough for listeners to project their own layers of meaning onto them. For me, “Runaround Sue” is one of those songs.

“Theme from A Summer Place,” Percy Faith

Years after I graduated high school, I planned a reunion with my teenage boyfriend, Jamie, my first love. We reminisced about dancing to this song during summer block parties in suburban New Jersey. This instrumental captures my now-adult reflections about young love, nostalgia, and hiraeth—a longing for a place or a feeling that no longer exists, or perhaps never existed at all. The book seeks this illusive hiraeth, trying to hold on to something sweet, quicksilver, and fleeting—teenage skin scented with honeysuckle and stars, transistor radio music, suntanned arms, and a craving for something that may be unobtainable. This song makes yearning and heartbreak palpable. Art takes amorphous and ghostly emotions and gives them flesh. This instrumental accomplishes without words what I try to do with them.

“Blue Velvet,” Bobby Vinton

Vinton’s 1963 love song, which I mention in the section “13 Ways of Surviving New Jersey,” has since been re-contextualized in David Lynch’s movie of the same name. Both versions echo my book. When Isabella Rossellini sings “Blue Velvet” in the film, I sense a haunting and frightening world below a placid everyday surface. Ultimately the movie casts light on those dark, submerged forces. That’s what I try to do in How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences: I unearth painful memories and diminish their power by revealing them. In this act of creation, or re-creation, I also seek the innocence of love portrayed in the original song.

“Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” Harry Belafonte

As a child I lived on the island of St. Thomas, and, because I was at a young, suggestible age, my time there was rhythmic and impressionistic. The lush notes of “Day-O,” a song I also played on the piano, represented the Caribbean’s fecundity: the scent of mangoes; the rustle of royal palm fronds. The beat remains a sound of how to survive death.

“Eleanor Rigby,” The Beatles

In this book, I write about staying in Maclean Gardens in DC one summer. Then, it was a residence complex for single women, an odd mélange of spinsters, widows, and college co-eds, such as I, who sought a safe, if temporary, haven. In a section entitled “The Janet Leigh Variations,” writing as my younger self, I note how “Eleanor Rigby” is “such a perfect song for this place that I wonder what lonely people hummed before it existed.” I still wonder. That loneliness—its own form of death—makes it powerful background music for that time of my life.

“Islands in the Stream,” Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers

Although written by The Bee Gees, the Parton/Rogers’ version defines this song for me: love on the cusp of heartbreak; after all, love, country-western style, never lasts. I was living in Galveston at the time, and the lyrics reflected a period when I was having an adulterous affair with a doctor. A bad decision, but in my state of magical thinking, I wanted to believe we’d love each other forever. While it’s a song about relying on each other, I realized, through writing, I was drawn to its imagery of isolation. Also, while my lover was an emergency room doctor, I was the emergency, I later understood. At the time I lived the experience, I was too busy drowning.

“Galveston,” Glen Campbell

“Galveston,” a country-western song about love, fear of death, the desire to survive and return home, suggests the main themes of the book. The ache of the song’s soldier gives the lyrics emotional heft, a heft present in my own love of Galveston. In the book I recount a cross-country trip (still running around), driving back to Galveston, years after I moved away, and during a time of upheaval in my life. In that sense, I replicated the desire of the soldier in “Galveston” to reclaim this island home. Home, as metaphor or reality, offers the comfort of life. Whenever I hear the song, I’m immediately back there…with the scent of saltwater-tinged magnolias, the shush of waves, the waxy Gulf Coast night.

“Whole Lotta Love,” Adam Lambert

I attended one of Adam Lambert’s 2010 “Glam Nation” tour stops. During the concert, while singing his version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (which I first heard Adam sing on television during his stint on American Idol), he looked straight at me. I’m not kidding. I was mesmerized and—in that glance, in that song—my psychic furniture was rearranged. His music, his flamboyant costumes, revived the vitality and possibility I felt in the ‘70s. In the “Miss Route 17 Refuses to Grow Old” section of my memoir, Adam becomes a metaphor for my lost hippie years. Listening to him, my flower-child self is energized with life. His music is more than mere nostalgia. It resurrects a time that’s hauntingly real—just as his fronting the band Queen resurrects that music. As long as I listen to Adam, maybe I can survive death! At a later concert I met Adam backstage. I’ve also met Pat Boone in person. This probably puts me in the running for most-eclectic groupie, ever.

“Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse

In a section of my book entitled “Until My Number Comes Up,” I quote Amy Winehouse: “Every bad situation is a blues song waiting to happen.” Sadly, Winehouse’s number came up way too soon. I love her music, but she is a cautionary figure of what can happen if you don’t trust and nurture your gifts. The song’s recurring refrain, “I go back to black,” can be heard as a desire for oblivion: exactly what the narrator in How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences wants to avoid. I wish Winehouse had survived, was still singing her soul full of blues. Her music also resonates with me because her authentic narratives replicate, in many ways, the genre of creative nonfiction.

“If I Could Turn Back Time,” Cher

How could I not include the immortal Cher? The song laments how in real life you can’t turn back time; however, you can when writing memoir. In fact, it’s a necessity. In memoir, you’re looking both at the past and the present, experiencing a sense of overlapping time. True, writing can’t change the facts, but it can, and does, change what they mean. I understand past events more metaphorically, more fully. “Words are like weapons, they wound sometimes,” Cher sings, as she mourns what can’t be altered, as if the song itself is her own mini-memoir. But words are also medicine: They can heal. They can help you live forever.

Bonus Track: “Who Wants to Live Forever,” Queen

I do!

Sue William Silverman is an award-winning essayist and memoirist of five books of nonfiction including The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, which was made into a Lifetime TV movie. How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences is her most recent. She’s also published two poetry collections and teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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