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April 22, 2020

Christina Dalcher's Playlist for Her Novel "Master Class"

Master Class by Christina Dalcher

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Christina Dalcher's Master Class is a brilliant dsytopian novel with its roots in eugenics.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The book's examination of the way people will accept more and more small social changes until the system becomes something unrecognizable and horrific feels timely and notch and keeps the reader guessing. An engaging parable of dangerous social change."

In her own words, here is Christina Dalcher's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Master Class:

It’s no secret I write stories that most people wouldn’t consider feel-good reads. Master Class is not an exception. This is a frightening tale made more frightening when you realize so much of it happened in the United States—and not all that long ago. Is there love in the novel? Sure. There’s also hope, although it may come at a cost to a few of my characters.

If I were creating this playlist last month—maybe even last week—it would be a very different list. I’d planned to go in a much darker direction, kicking off things with Billy Joel’s “Pressure” from 1982 (also known as the Late Discoassic Age), and following up with similarly angst-inducing titles. But things change. The world is changing. We need more light and less dark. We need music that lifts us up and makes us want to sing along or dance around the house. Now more than ever.

I offer you music that, while inspired by the settings and circumstances in my new book Master Class, might inspire you to tap your feet or do a little jig. Towards the end, we might get a bit more serious.

“Nashville Skyline Rag” - Bob Dylan

I love writing southern characters. I love their no-nonsense dialogue and their “y’alls” and their recipes for sweet potato pie. One of the good guys (gal, actually) in Master Class is fabulously sassy. Having her in my head while writing put a smile on my face in the same way Dylan’s instrumental rag-timey song does. And a bonus: when you write a book talking about how we don’t all need to be the same, why not start its playlist with a cool mix of harmonica, banjo, dobro, and piano? The licks in this rag are iconic, but the variety really makes it work.

“Frankly Mr Shankly” - The Smiths

No one combines melodic joy with absurd lyrics quite the way The Smiths and Morrissey combine them. I mean, how many times have you bopped around singing “Girlfriend in a Coma” or “Hairdressers on Fire?” Okay, maybe I’m the only one. But still. This track from The Queen is Dead album speaks to talking back, even if the person you’re talking back to happens to be a teacher or another authority figure. Not that I’m advocating giving your teachers lip—unless they’re like Mr. Shankly. He deserves it. As do a few people in MASTER CLASS.

“Mother and Child Reunion” - Paul Simon

One of the (many) tag lines for Master Class is “What would you do if your child was taken from you?” You’ll have to read the book to find out what Elena Fairchild does when she loses her daughter, but I can tell you there’s a reunion in there. And if you look into the background of Simon’s song, you’ll see there’s a bittersweet story that fits well with the theme of my novel. Plus, it’s got a reggae beat pulled off expertly by a white guy, proving again that amazing capacity of human beings to exit the box and create anything they want.

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” - Tears for Fears

Yes, folks, we’re back in the 1980s again. For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to be there, let me tell you we had some rockin’ times in our jukebox-equipped* high school cafeteria. The music might sound dated, but it’s my music, and this is my playlist, and I gotta stick in some Tears for Fears, dammit! With opening lines like ‘Welcome to your life; there’s no turning back,’ I can imagine my main character Elena listening to this and cringing when she realizes she’s the one who created the system she now lives in. And the only way out is forward.

*A jukebox is a large and heavy non-portable music delivery system prevalent during the Pre and Late Discoassic Periods.

“867-5309/Jenny” - Tommy Tutone

I can hear you saying, “No, Dalcher! Don’t do it! Don’t add that Jenny song with the unforgettable phone number to your playlist!” But here’s a thing: if you were around in 1981, you heard this and you still remember the number. Yes, you’ve carried a made-up phone number in your head for almost four decades. You can’t name the artist, and you might want to stuff your ears with cotton on those rare occasions this song comes on the radio, but let’s make one thing absolutely clear: You. Remember. The. Number.

One of the later additions to Master Class was a new first chapter where Elena does a bit self-introspecting. She thinks about numbers and how they define us, how we allow them to attach themselves to various aspects of our lives—from BMI to PINs to our old SAT scores and GPAs. She also thinks about numbers that are so much a part of our world experience, that we can’t get them out of our heads.

“‘39” Queen

I confess: I had no idea one of my all-time favorite Queen tunes was about space exploration and time dilation and Einstein’s special theory of relativity. What I’m saying is, I picked a song that has absolutely nothing to do with anything with respect to my latest book (which is not about space exploration or the special theory of relativity or Einstein). But there’s that number thing again, people: ’39. Mercury and May probably weren’t talking bout 1939, but that’s a relevant year for the theme and plot of Master Class, as readers will see. 1939 was smack in the middle of the Nazi Party’s reign in Germany, and I don’t think anyone needs reminding as to just how nasty those Nazis were. What readers might find surprising is that the Nasty Nazis had a little help getting their eugenics program running. From right here in the USA.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” Israel Kamakawiwoʻole

Above all, this song is pure joy. Pure, pure joy. I chose it because part of my book is set in Kansas, and Kansas reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, and you can figure out the rest. Also, though, there’s a hint of the bittersweet to these lyrics, and I think readers may experience some mixed emotions as the story unfolds. I know my main character does, and I know I did when I wrote her later scenes.

Bonus info: When I was living in Sri Lanka, the girls at the school behind my house sang this every day. For about three months. It took a while before I was able to listen to it again!

“Five Hundred Miles” The Journeymen (and everyone else)

I dare you to listen to this and not feel some kind of longing—for a person, a place, a memory. You won’t be the only one. After The Journeymen released this ballad in 1961, the rest of the world joined in. Peter, Paul, & Mary; Sonny & Cher; The Seekers; Elvis; Joan Baez; The Kingston Trio; and—wait for it—Justin Timberlake. That’s only a fraction of the covers.

So why did I pick it for the Master Class playlist? Well, there’s a journey in this book, both a physical one and a metaphorical one. And I thought hard about home and what home means while I was writing.

“She’s Got Her Ticket” Tracy Chapman

What a song. What a voice. Chapman does what 10,000 Maniacs are also good at—setting lyrics about social issues to boppy melodies. Sometimes I find it a struggle to listen because the music evokes one emotion while the words have an opposite effect. There’s a sense in which we have to choose which to focus on. This piece is about choice, and so is my book. But choices are complicated little things; they always come with a price tag.

“Pressure” - Billy Joel

I said I was going to lead with this, then decided to leave it out, then changed my mind. It’s got a beat that makes your heart pound, a few melodic surprises, and I don’t think you can write a book about relentless academic pressure without having at least one song with that word in the title. Also, this takes me back to when I was an undergraduate on the brink of failing a Pascal programming course. That memory alone is enough to make everything in today’s world look a little brighter.

Christina Dalcher earned her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from Georgetown University. She specializes in the phonetics of sound change in Italian and British dialects and has taught at several universities.

Her short stories and flash fiction appear in more than one hundred journals worldwide. Recognition includes first place for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, nominations for the Pushcart Prize, and multiple other awards. She lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband.

Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Vox

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