May 28, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Margo Orlando Littell's The Distance From Four Points is a novel
Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:
"A quiet, compelling novel ... Robin carries the novel with her melancholy confusion, grit, and wry perception. ... The novel is rich with details about the southwest corner of Pennsylvania: its haunting natural beauty and economic blight, the colloquial use of yinz instead of you, Sheetz convenience stores, gun racks on trucks, and an underlying sense of community."
When I was a teenager, living in the Appalachian region of southwestern Pennsylvania, I listened to country music without qualm or irony. Not today’s hybrid, hip, Taylor Swift version of country—but the real deal, the best of the nineties and early aughts, songs about hometown girls and open roads and tearing off your rearview mirror as you make your getaway. This was pre-9/11, pre-Trump. The patriotic songs were sung with full-throated American gusto, but not necessarily malice. You could change the station casually; you didn’t have to be filled with overwhelming rage. What I’m saying is that it was okay to listen to country music back then, even for a liberal person. It wasn’t a political statement, at least not as much as it is today.
I’ve always set my work in fictionalized versions of my hometown, which means country music often rears its heavily symbolic head in my stories, and it’s what I find myself listening to when I need to sink into my imagined worlds. It’s not always easy to find that access point since I haven’t lived in Appalachia for twenty years, and the familiar songs are a way back in.
The weird juxtaposition of listening to nineties country, the same songs I loved in high school, when I explored back roads with friends in broken-down cars, as I drive around my New York City suburb in a luxury SUV isn’t lost on me. In fact, I rely on this disjunct when I’m working through plot lines and character development. Songs about homecomings and country-fried foods and life paths determined by the flip of a coin paint a picture of a simple, good, easy existence, which is total baloney. It’s American pablum. Things are so much more complicated. That hometown being yearned for? The local economy imploded decades ago. The buddies at the bar are out of work or working minimum wage, and despite what the songs suggest, there’s no romance in that. Most small towns—the kind of towns these songs glorify—are the polar opposite of the snowy, twinkle-light-wrapped small towns where Hallmark holiday heroines find their life’s purpose in bakeries and bookstores.
Go home, the country songs say. Find a good partner; don’t wander far; live in your mama’s old house and spend your weekends with a beer and a fishing rod. In my novel, The Distance From Four Points, my protagonist does go home, against her will, and all manner of too-familiar hellscapes are waiting for her. The songs on this playlist reflect her choices and highlight her struggles.
“Fancy” by Reba McIntyre
Oh, how I wish Robin’s unfortunate teenage years could be represented by the strangely triumphant “Fancy,” where the eighteen-year-old in the song is directed to “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy / And they’ll be nice to you”—a life lesson Fancy follows to great success. Robin’s own teenage sex work, though it pays the rent, doesn’t exactly lead her “uptown,” but it’s a means to an end just as Fancy’s is. I wish Robin could feel a little less shame about the desperate measures she had little choice but to embrace.
“That Summer” by Garth Brooks
Robin, my landlord protagonist, listens to this song after one of her tenants trashes an apartment, while she struggles to pry up some ruined linoleum. She doesn’t remark on it, but it hints at pieces of her story—a love affair that no one understands, a connection that lasts across the years, questionable judgments that lead to permanent, private transformation instead of regret. Four Points isn’t a love story, but there is a relationship that shades all the relationships and experiences that come after it, for better or worse. That’s the gist of “That Summer.”
“The House that Built Me” by Miranda Lambert
A woman returns to her hometown and finds the house where she grew up. She knocks on the door and is invited in to look around, prompting her to remember living in the much-changed rooms. This song really speaks to my book. The entire novel is centered around a particular house in Four Points, the town where Robin grew up, and, like the singer, Robin will both return to her hometown and find reason to enter and engage with a house that meant a lot to her. A house that built her, to use the song’s lyrics, and a house that Robin herself will ultimately contribute to re-building.
“Home” by Sheryl Crow
There’s a danger, in creating this playlist, that it will be made up entirely of songs from Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club. But I’ll select this song as representative, since The Distance From Four Points is essentially a search for, and a re-definition of, home. Robin doesn’t lack for love or stability, but her conquests are hollow. Only when she returns to her hometown can she admit this to herself.
“Heads Carolina, Tails California” by Jo Dee Messina
Open roads! Freedom! Throwing cares to the wind! There’s none of this energy in The Distance from Four Points, but I like the disjunct between this song’s exuberance and Robin’s exhausted submission. Heads, tails, it doesn’t matter for my poor protagonist. She’s got troubles on all sides of every coin, and definitely not enough coins to go around.
“Bye, Bye” by Jo Dee Messina
There are a few themes in nineties and early-aughts country that strike an emotional chord, and this song is a crystalline example of one of them: defiant escape. I mean, the woman in this song is so hell-bent on getting gone that she’s torn off her rearview mirror. Never looking back, get it? Though Robin’s escape from her hometown wasn’t celebratory, it was triumphant in its own way, which means her eventual return is even more defeating. She left, but it didn’t stick.
“Wide Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks
Wide open spaces, room to make a big mistake. This song about heading West in a reckless, youthful, headlong fashion is another excellent escape anthem, and it underscores the chance Robin never had to truly make a new beginning. She left home, but only went ninety miles further into Pennsylvania, already burdened with enough regrets to last a lifetime. It’s unfair, really, but Robin is a protagonist who was never meant to be truly free.
“He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” by Mary Chapin Carpenter
This song could be Robin’s theme. It’s about a woman who’s done every single thing she could to build a respectable life: she got married in her mother’s wedding gown, popped out three kids, makes her husband’s coffee every day and does all the laundry and errands. She does it well, too, because as the refrain keeps affirming, “He thinks he’ll keep her.” What an awesome wife. Indeed: “Everything is so benign / Safest place you’ll ever find / God forbid you change your mind.” Robin consciously builds herself into a top-notch wife, too, and spends her entire adult life squashing any inkling of dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans for her. “Safest place you’ll ever find / At least until you change your mind.” Losing her painstakingly wrought safety net is what launches Robin’s journey back to Four Points, and what sets my novel in motion.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania and received an MFA from Columbia. After spending many years in New York City, Barcelona, and Northern California, she now lives in New Jersey with her family.
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2018 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2015 - 2017) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Flash Dancers (authors pair original flash fiction with a song
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists