July 13, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Debra Jo Immergut's You Again is a brilliantly suspenseful literary thriller.
The New York Times wrote of the book:
"Stunning . . . feels eerily relevant, perfect for this time of deep uncertainty and rapidly shifting news. It is dreamlike and immersive, like falling into someone else’s alternative reality."
I have fairly poor recall, which probably means I shouldn’t be a writer. But sometimes I think it works to my advantage. My blurry, half-obscured memories are the raw crude of my fiction. To make something intelligible out of this oozy material requires many hours at the keyboard, refining it into character and incident, channelling it into language. Slowly, a novel emerges. That permian layer, extracted from the deep well, is where it all begins.
Music is like that too--it starts with raw emotion, feelings beyond words. Notes and then lyrics are layered over this malleable substance.The end product is a song.
Maybe this shifting, unstable underpinning is what gives an artistic creation whatever sense of magic, movement, and aliveness it has. Without it, the work feels inert.
You Again emerged over a long period of time. I walked away for a while, picked it back up, tossed out a mostly finished draft, and started over. All through that time music helped me stay connected to the raw material deep inside of me--vague recollections, sidetracked ambitions, loves and fears. Here are a few of the songs that resonated with my story of Abigail Willard, a 46-year-old woman haunted by her 22-year-old self. Abigail’s tale is set in the New York City of 2015 and the early 1990s--two phases of the city’s life that are already fading into distant memory as we move into a strange and unpredictable new era. I’m so glad we get to carry this music with us as we drift into the future.
Mariner’s Apartment Complex -- Lana Del Rey
This astounding piece of songwriting was released while I was locked in an apartment in Berlin, trying to write the last third of the book. It instantly inspired me. “The darkness, the deepness, all the things that make me who I am”--the line reminds me of Abigail, and of two other brilliances who capture what it’s like to be a woman of daunting intelligence and brooding introspection--Joni Mitchell and Fiona Apple. I love Del Rey’s fierce, idiosyncratic feminism. When she declares, “Baby, I’m your man,” she nonchalantly commandeers a central, unquestioned spot in our consciousness.
I’m Looking Through You -- The Beatles
This happens to be my fave Beatles song of all, but more than any song, it also captures the feelings between the two Abigails, the forty-something and the twenty-something.The tone is a bit bitter, kind of hurt and wary--and underneath you sense strong and complicated love. And of course, “I’m looking through you” captures the unsettling feeling as the two of them try to grapple with their uncanny relationship -- am I really seeing you, or not? Key line: “I thought I knew you. What did I know?”
The Tigers Have Spoken -- Neko Case
If my writing voice could be transmuted into a singing voice I hope mine would sound just like Case’s—it’s so soulful and beautiful and singular, instantly recognizable. Opening with the heartbreaking line, “They shot the tiger on his chain,” this song reminded me of Abby’s mindset in her office cubicle. She’s devoted to her family, needs the money and security of her job as a graphic designer at a pharmaceutical firm, but feels trapped by the grind, by the responsibilities and constraints. Abby longs to break the chain, just like the pacing tiger in Case’s song. Also “The Tiger” is the title of the middle part of my three-part book, so it's a perfect fit.
Next Lifetime -- Erykah Badu
Abby is in a long, loving, and somewhat difficult marriage with Dennis, and she finds herself pursued by a rather attractive detective and by memories of a formative early passion. She struggles to resist temptation, and that’s what this song is all about. Plus, it addresses that idea of alternative timelines, which is the backbone of the story. If we could live many lives, we could fit in a lot more true loves. “I guess I’ll see you next lifetime…”
Mesmerizing -- Liz Phair
In the early 1990s, the era of younger Abigail, Liz Phair grabbed my attention with her album Exile in Guyville. This is her fearless reinterpretation of Exile on Main Street, a Rolling Stones record I’d played nonstop in high school. She claimed the Stones’ musical turf as if she’d always owned it and they were just renters. In this song, she declares: “Wild and unwise, I want to be mesmerizing too.” It’s a line that neatly sums up younger Abigail, so determined to leave her mark on the world.
Blue -- Aaron Taylor
This gorgeous slow groove is centered on a big question. “If you love me like you say you do, why do I feel so blue?” Sometimes we get a bit numb to the love that surrounds us, even as that love sustains us and gives meaning to our lives. It’s a strange phenomenon, pretty universal, and Abigail's story gave me an opportunity to try to understand it.
Cranes in the Sky -- Solange
Here is a song that mentions reading as a form of escape. I have to love it for that. But it’s also a song about trying to leave the past behind, or more, accurately, trying to outrun it, as a thing to be feared. And that’s what we see Abigail trying to do, as increasingly strange memories come back to her via her encounters with her younger self. I also love the image of a skyline choked by construction cranes, which were so characteristic of New York in the past decade. As Solange sings, “Sometimes I don’t want to feel those metal clouds.”
Mexican Chef -- Xenia Rubinos
Abigail's teenage son Pete explores radical politics, and his adventures shake the foundations of the Willard household. While his more doctrinaire friend Dmitri might listen to Ministry or other protest metal, Pete would probably have more nuanced taste in political music. He’d like this biting, brilliant anthem on racial and social inequity by Xenia Rubinos, a young artist introduced to me by my son Joe, who is 21 and has an incredible ear for new sounds.
I Need a Dollar -- Aloe Blac
Financial strains are real in Abigail’s life. She is one of many artists forced to sideline creative work in order to put food on her family’s table. It’s a choice she’s proud to make, but it costs her, because a powerful drive to create, when thwarted, can turn to a kind of rage. This is a great song about how our need for money rules our lives. Plus it has a line that could be every author’s motto: “If I share with you my story, will you share your dollar with me?”
Revelator -- Gillian Welch
Time is the central theme of You Again--and an obsession I return to in all of my work. What are the hidden truths that only the passage of years will reveal? This is the question that makes me write at this point in my life. More than any song I know, Welch’s gorgeous ballad captures time’s relentless, frightening, but also beautiful power to erode the superficial and allow us to see ourselves more clearly. Or, as Welch puts it, “Who could know if I’m a traitor? Time’s the revelator.” Yes, indeed.
Debra Jo Immergut is the author of the Edgar-nominated novel The Captives and the story collection Private Property. She has been awarded a MacDowell fellowship and a Michener fellowship. Her literary work has been published in American Short Fiction and Narrative. As a journalist, she has been a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe. She has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop