June 26, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ellen Birkett Morris's story collection Lost Girls is filled with acutely drawn women's lives.
Jenny Offill wrote of the book:
"A dazzling collection of stories that showcases Morris' impressive ability to hide devastating truths within seemingly small moments."
I was that kid who walked down the street and watched families through their windows, gathered around tables eating dinner or scattered across furniture in the living room as they argued and laughed. I imagined their lives, dreams, problems and passions. Then I discovered writing and I wasn’t standing on the outside anymore.
The greatest complement I’ve ever received about my writing was that it is intimate. The stories in my debut collection Lost Girls take a deep dive into the lives of women and girls as they grieve, find love, face uncertainty, take a stand, find their future and say goodbye to the past.
The characters are just like you and me; that is to say they are complicated. The virgin who visits a breast feeder's group and stays, the girl who finds herself both envying and mourning the life of a kidnapped girl, the grown woman who is haunted by not speaking up when her childhood friend was abused. The stories are about women being seen, acknowledged, remembered, and celebrated. This soundtrack honors the lived experiences of women everywhere.
This Perfect World by Freedy Johnston
In this time of Covid, one of the things I miss most is going to small concerts in small bars that feature some of the best singer/songwriters nobody knows about. Freedy Johnston should be famous for his stark, tender songs.
“This Perfect World” hints at tragedy with lines like “You oughta lock that door/Somebody might get in/Didn’t I teach you that/this perfect world so blue I can’t begin to say.” and “last time I was here they found her in the lake.” The dirge like cello that opens the tune and lines like “these pills don’t even let me cry” will haunt you.
It has something complicated in common in with the title story “Lost Girls.” Both narrators are finding ways to mourn the loss of an innocent girl and to cope with the feelings that come from being a survivor.
To sit in a darkened bar with friends and cry silently as Freedy drew me into his stories is the best way I can describe what I hope the title story “Lost Girls”, with its abandoned gifts of tampons, an old set of car keys, a graduation cap and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels, does for readers, providing a quiet moment of catharsis, empathy and recognition.
Hard Way Home by Brandi Carlile
This song about a rebel girl seeking escape from her hometown matched perfectly with the plight on the girl in “Inheritance,” whose parents have prostituted her so they don’t starve and who has taken up her grandmother’s mantle as the town “sin eater.” In the act of sin eating, she symbolically takes on the sins of the dead, and nobody in her town has more sins than the wealthy Cabots.
Faced with an unwanted pregnancy and tired of being oppressed, she jumps on the train out of town. Like Carlile’s protagonist, she wants “to leave this town, fake my death and never be found.” Will she find the freedom she seeks or will she take the hard way home?
Baby Can I Hold You Tonight by Tracy Chapman
Loneliness and longing are at the heart of “Religion,” the story of Sandy, a lonely virgin who ends up in breast feeder’s group and stays in a quest to belong and find some of the magic she sees between the mothers and children. The story brought to mind Tracy Chapman’s ballad about love and regret Baby Can I Hold You Tonight.
I saw Chapman open for Neil Young when she was just starting out. She barely spoke between the tunes, letting her lovely, sad songs speak for themselves. When she sang her voice was filled with want. Desire is at the heart of every story and “Religion” is no different. Sandy goes to great lengths to feel a connection that is taboo and readers find themselves unexpectedly cheering her on as she crosses boundaries.
Our Town by Iris Dement
Several of the stories in Lost Girls are loosely linked, and take place in the fictional small town of Slocum, Kentucky. “Harvest” is the story of Abby, an aging beauty queen who laments her lost youth and her change in status in the town she has lived in forever.
Her plight is shared with the woman in “Our Town”:
“Up the street beside that red neon light/
that's where I met my baby on one hot summer night/ He was the tender and I ordered a beer/
it's been forty years and I'm still sitting here.”
As Dement sings. “And you know the sun's settin' fast/ and just like they say nothing good ever lasts.” This is a lament that Abby knows well. Unnoticed by men, Abby lusts after the young man who paints a mural in her shop. An accidental fall reminds her of just how much she has changed. Still, she feels vibrant inside and as her old friend’s memories fade she tries to help him remember what it felt like to be young.
We all have to say goodbye to the past eventually and “Our Town” offers some parting advice: “Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye/ but hold on to your lover 'cause your heart's bound to die.”
All I Need is Everything by Over the Rhine
Sometimes you come across a song that seems sexy and spiritual at the same time like “All I Need is Everything” by Over the Rhine. It opens with the lines” “Slow down. Hold still/It's not as if it's a matter of will/ Someone's circling. Someone's moving/a little lower than the angels.” That quest to sit with what is and find grace is most apparent when we lose someone we love, and are faced with never seeing them again.
In “Life After” Beth loses her son Jacob to an accident and looks for comfort from her husband, who pulls away in his grief. When Jacob’s best friend Ethan comes around, Beth finds solace in the video games they play together. She’s tempted to fill those empty places with a complicated liaison with her son’s best friend. This longing is reflected in the song’s lines:
“All I need is everything/Inside, outside, feel new skin/All I need is everything/Feel the slip and the grip of grace again.” Grace. Escape. Comfort. Rebirth. What do we need and what are we willing to do to get it?
Bad Reputation by Joan Jett
After her boyfriend Adam fails an intelligence quiz, Charlotte Grisham changes her name to Eve and sets out for Oregon. Eve lands at an apple orchard and befriends some migrant workers. She’s out to have fun and make friends. As Joan Jett sang: “Never said I wanted to improve my station/An' I'm only doin' good when I'm havin' fun/An' I don't have to please no one.”
But there is a price to pay for freedom, the orchard owner, blinded by anger at lost love, targets Eve for his rage. Who hasn’t been there—faulty assumptions, false rumors, shaming.
It’s a story as old as the story of Adam and Eve. “An' I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation/
The world's in trouble/there's no communication/An' everyone can say what they wanna say/It never gets better, anyway.”
I Need to Know by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
In “A Rumor of Fire” two girls stake out the laundry room to try to discover who set the fire that everyone said was caused by a faulty dryer. I remember being a kid and looking for drama everywhere. What if the fruit delivery guy was dropping off something illegal? Is the head life guard involved with the woman in her thirties who spends all day at the pool? There is a driving desire to get at a truth that would make everyday life less boring.
Back then, I’d sneak into my sister’s room, try on her clothes, go through her drawers and play her records, clandestine delights on their own. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers You’re Gonna Get It was a favorite album. The driving guitars and Pretty’s nasal drone, culminating in a scream perfectly matched my mood, whether I was snooping in my sister’s room or out with my friends amateur sleuthing.
Wildwood Flower by the Carter Family
When Kelly falls in love with Silas in “Bottle Tree Blues” as they dance on the bar. She loves him without reservation, even though she’s been betrayed before, when her parents left her with her grandmother and never returned.
Silas also loves the bottle and that gets him in trouble. Kelly’s disillusionment brings to mind the lyrics of Wildwood Flower by the Carter family: “I will dance, I will sing and my laugh shall be gay/I will charm every heart, in his crown I will sway/I woke from my dreaming, my idol was clay/All portions of loving had all flown away.” Their plainspoken love might still be redeemable if Silas learns how to show his commitment.
Get Off of My Cloud by The Rolling Stones
Beer bottles. Secret places. Condoms in the dirt. A mother who died under mysterious circumstances. In “Helter Skelter,” Sarah knows that her big sister Amber knows things, scary things like that a Beatle’s song made some guy go crazy. That’s why she likes the Rolling Stones, except for Paint It Back, which is depressing.
In her quest to discover her big sister’s secrets, Sarah puts herself and her sister in danger. But little sisters can’t help themselves even when they’re told “Don't hang around 'cause two's a crowd on my cloud.”
Luca by Suzanne Vega
Is it possible to be both innocent and complicit? In “Neverland” Angi runs into a childhood friend Eileen and recalls the bruises on friend’s her arms. She regrets never having spoken up. Suzanne Vega’s Luca shows the isolation of a child who fears they are doing something to spark the violence. “If you hear something late at night/Some kind of trouble, some kind of fight/Just don't ask me what it was.”
When they are together as adults, Angi tries to understand what her friend has dealt with and see if they retain any of their past connection. The melancholy tone of Vega’s song perfectly matches the feeling of seeing an old friend and realizing the distance wrought by time and circumstance.
Today’s the Day by Pink
In the story “Like I Miss Not Being a Ballerina” Charlotte loves television, hates mandatory physical education and adores her best friend Sheila. Her own mother died when she was four and Sheila’s mother has been a surrogate mom. The girls are focused on what candy to buy and watching Sony and Cher as they dream about their futures.
Since Charlotte loves television so much it is only fitting that I pick Today’s the Day by Pink, which talks about wanting to grow up, but needing to savor the present. When Shelia’s mom gets a scary diagnosis the girls wonder how they’ll make it through, but know they have each other. As Pink wrote: “I just need a friend/So much to carry/These days are kinda scary I don't want the fun to end.”
She Used to Be Mine by Sara Bareilles
Most women can identify a moment in their girlhood when they were made fun of, judged or touched the wrong way by the wrong person. Those moments can color everything that comes after, introducing fear, shame and lack of confidence. In “Skipping Stones,” an assault leaves Terri unable to express herself and filled with pain.
When I first heard Sara Bareillis’s She Used to Be Mine I was flooded with memories of the enthusiasm and joy of my childhood girlfriends before they experienced that kind of pain. As she sings “If I'm honest, I know I would give it all back/For a chance to start over and rewrite an ending or two/For the girl that I knew/Who'll be reckless, just enough/Who'll get hurt, but who learns how to toughen up/When she's bruised and gets used by a man who can't love/And then she'll get stuck/And be scared of the life that's inside her.”
Yellow Ledbetter by Pearl Jam
I’ve always been drawn to songs with heavy guitar and drums. I love the bluesy rock mumble of Pearl Jam’s Yellow Ledbetter. It captures the slow drag of being depressed when "I don't know whether I'm the boxer or the bag.”
Grief is physical. It can leave your body weighed down and doing the smallest things can be a challenge. When Laura loses her son to Jason to cancer, a chance encounter with a classmate of her son helps her find a physical outlet. She follows Pearl Jam’s advice: “Make me cry/I see oh, I don't know why there's something else/I want to, wanna drum it all away.”
Constant Craving by K.D. Lang
That itch that won’t let us go, that unnamed need that finds voice in our actions, that constant craving that K.D. Lang sings about is the subject of “Fear of Heights.” The story of two women, Allison and Lydia, in the 1970s who fall in love and find themselves drawn together in a way that will change both their lives forever.
Still they make the hard choices that will lead them to happiness. As Lang sung: Even through the darkest phase/Be it thick or thin/Always someone marches brave/Here beneath my skin.”
The return to the scene of their romance for the funeral of Allison’s ex-husband. The story culminates as they look back on the choices they made and at the nature of love.
Good as Hell by Lizzo
We were standing outside the stage door of the Letterman Show hoping to meet him when Lizzo came out the door brimming with energy at her first national television appearance. She radiated beauty, confidence and pure joy. When I congratulated her, she threw her arms around me.
Lizzo was fully awake to life. I was thrilled years later when she became a star. Her video for Good as Hell where women strike a confident pose as they look at their reflections never fails to pick me up when I’m down.
Sure they’ve known each other forever, but Nick’s addiction to technology has his girlfriend feeling invisible in “Emoticon.” His eyes are on his screen as they tour Europe, but she’s got her eyes open for all the possibilities. When the time comes, she follows Lizzo’s advice: “If he don’t love you anymore, walk your fine ass out the door.”
And She Was by Talking Heads
When Hannah finds her father’s adult magazine it isn’t the nudity that strikes her but the colors (all that pink). She is determined to have her own colors captured in a photograph and recruits a traveling photographer to take her picture.
Talking Heads’ And She Was has the same sort of dreamy, floaty quality that matches Hannah’s abstract approach to being seen. Like Hannah, the girl in the song takes off her dress without fear of consequence. “No time to think about what to tell him/No time to think about what she's done and she was”
Century Plant by Victoria Williams
Huck Starnes and Annette Allen’s lives intersect at the moment he was a boy wandering in the woods and saw her bathing through a gauzy curtain. “Swimming.” follows them through the years, their loves and losses. Older now, their story isn’t over yet, which reminds me of the lovely wavery ballad Century Plant by Victoria Williams, a consummate storyteller. As Williams says, no matter what happens we can always “come out and play the game. It’s never too late.”
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning, multi-genre writer, teacher and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. Morris is the author of LOST GIRLS, a short story collection (TouchPoint Press), and SURRENDER (Finishing Line Press). Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, Fiction Southeast, Santa Fe Literary Review, and Upstreet, among other journals. She is the 2015 winner of the Bevel Summers Prize for her story “May Apples" and the Betty Gabehart Prize for Fiction. Her story “Like I Miss Being a Ballerina” was selected as an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Press Family Matters short story competition. “Lincoln, Maw and Shorty” received an honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post fiction contest. Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice. Her poetry has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, The Clackamas Literary Review, Juked, Alimentum, Gastronomica, 3Elements Review and Inscape, among other journals. Morris won top prize in the Binnacle Ultra-Short Edition and was a finalist for the Rita Dove Poetry Prize. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Morris’s plays have appeared in Mud City Journal, Monologue Bank, and Plays, The Drama Magazine for Young People. Her ten-minute play, "Lost Girls," was a finalist for the 2008 Heideman Award given by Actors Theatre. "Lost Girls" received a staged reading at Cincinnati’s Arnoff Center. Morris teaches creative writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky. She has contributed articles to national publications including Cooking Light, www.DrKoop.com, and www.womensenews.org. Her essays can be found in trade paperback books including NESTING: IT'S A CHICK THING, THE WRITING GROUP BOOK, THE GIRLS’ BOOK OF LOVE, and THE GIRLS’ BOOK OF FRIENDSHIP, in journals including Brevity blog,The Common, The Butter, The Fem and South Loop Review, and on National Public Radio. Her interviews and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, New Orleans Review, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Reading Ireland, (Louisville) Courier Journal, Best New Fiction and Authorlink.com. Morris has an MFA from the Queens University-Charlotte low residency program. She has received grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Kentucky Arts Council, and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is the recipient of a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship for her fiction, given by the Kentucky Arts Council.