September 2, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Gwen Goodkin’s story collection A Place Remote is an impressive debut that brings to life the people of rural Ohio.
Rex Pickett wrote of the collection:
"Gwen Goodkin’s debut short story collection follows in the tradition of other meteoric writers like Jayne Anne Phillips, Mary Gaitskill, Lauren Groff, and so many before them, heralding a new, sui generis voice that promises so much to come."
My grandpa passed away at the age of 99 last year, but up until a few years prior, he still played piano in a jazz band. I think he was 96 when he officially retired from the Al Best Band and had been in the band for over 40 years. My dad played a variety of instruments: piano, saxophone and clarinet – maybe others. I can’t recall. My dad’s brother played the drums, and my dad’s sister Sue can play pretty much any instrument, from the French horn to the bass guitar. She’s in a few bands, one of which is a Journey cover band. I’ve seen them live and they rock.
My dad’s brother was killed in a car accident when he was 21. My dad died in 1983. I think music was a solace for my grandpa and my aunt. For my siblings and me, however, music didn’t have the same effect. I joke that musical ability skipped a generation in our family. I played my dad’s clarinet in school, but it never really stuck. It wasn’t my preferred mode of expression. My sister and I have always been readers. We lose ourselves in books.
One aspect of playing music did stick with me, however. I do think I have a musical ear. I listen closely when someone speaks for the ‘music’ of their voice. I focus on the rhythm of speech, the tone, the rise and fall, specific word choices or phrases. What I think that translates to is solid dialogue in my writing.
I’m always listening to music when I write. Sometimes what I listen to depends on the mood of the story. Sometimes I use music to motivate and unstall me, rev up my brain. I am the youngest of three kids, so my musical influences come from my older siblings. My sister listened to Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna growing up. My brother was into Ozzy Ozborne and 80s rock. My mom liked Aretha and Anita Baker. Have you seen the video of the Anita Baker concert where the audience sang “Sweet Love” and she went with it? I wish I’d been there.
Catch Hell Blues, White Stripes
The first story of the collection, “Winnie,” references a Springsteen song – “Cadillac Ranch.” It would be natural to assume I’d choose that song for the playlist, but Springsteen wouldn’t give me permission to reprint a line of his lyrics, so forget it. I thought about what other song would fit with this story and realized that “Catch Hell Blues” is much more representative of the heat this story generates.
Ain’t No Sunshine, Bill Withers
The protagonist of “A Boy with Sense” is a sensitive boy, so I wondered who might be his musical match and Bill Withers immediately came to mind. Since this story is set on a farm, sunshine is integral to the family’s work. When you read the story, it will be obvious who “she” is.
The first version of “How to Hold it All in” was titled “Twelve Grand Pianos” and written from the perspective of a woman experiencing the early stages of dementia. She believed she’d won a contest and, when the company sent the prize – a grand piano – they made a mistake and kept sending her grand pianos, twelve in all. It wasn’t far from reality, as this did happen to my great aunt Margaret. Not that she’d received the pianos, but that she believed she had. As I started attending writing workshops, I realized a lot of people were writing stories from the perspective of a character with dementia. So I changed the main character to a man coping (or rather, refusing to cope) with his past. But while this story was still “Twelve Grand Pianos,” I listened to “Angelica” many, many times. Even though there are no words, I think the song is structured like a story: happiness, then a dark force disrupts, until the climax, which causes a new kind of peace.
I Am The Antichrist to You, Kishi Bashi
I almost chose the Piña Colada song because I think its unofficial subtitle should be “These Two Assholes Right Here,” which is fitting for “Just Les is Fine”; however, choosing that song would be downplaying the story, which wouldn’t be fair to it (or me). I wrote a whole essay on the evolution of this story, which was a journey, and for that, I think it deserves to be matched with a complex, detailed musician like Kishi Bashi.
Deadbeat Summer, Neon Indian
I listened to a lot of Neon Indian while writing these stories. This particular song gives me a desert feel – I can’t explain why – and since “The Widow Complex” is set in an unnamed town near the desert, I thought it fitting. This story is told from the perspective of a dad who’s anything but deadbeat. He could use a fun, upbeat song like this while he’s in the kitchen cooking up dinner.
Isn’t She Lovely, Stevie Wonder
Since I didn’t go for the Piña Colada song earlier, I did need one song on the list that makes me laugh. “Isn’t She Lovely” is an excellent song, but definitely ironic in light of “Last Chance” and the two main characters’ behavior toward each other.
Hold On, Alabama Shakes
This song is a message I wish I could give to Dawn, the protagonist of “The Key.” I wish I could take her to an Alabama Shakes concert, buy her a lemonade, give her a squeeze, tell her it will be okay. But then again, sometimes everything won’t be okay. All you can do in the meantime is hold on.
Forty Six and 2, Tool
I went to a Tool concert a few years ago. The concert was inside, which intensified a sound that already hit hard. I can’t say I was into every song they played, but what I can say is that “Forty Six and 2” is the best song I’ve ever heard live. It was an almost out-of-body experience, which is why I chose this song. “Waiver” is essentially the protagonist Jimmy attempting to reconcile himself during a dissociative event.
Last year my husband and I were out with another couple and I mentioned that Tool was touring again and that we should all go. The wife of the couple, my friend, said something along the lines of “No thanks” and I responded “You obviously had a happy childhood” which caused the two guys to look at me and nod in silence.
Not Gon’ Cry, Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige is one of my all-time favorite singers. Her voice gives us a glimpse into the pain she’s experienced in her life. Yet it feels as if she sings with restraint, that there’s even more to her story than what she’s allowing herself to show. Even in this song, she’s refusing to allow herself to cry – instead, her voice does it for her.
Wo Do Wandelst, Atme Dir
“A Month of Summer” is about a man who dreamt of becoming an opera singer, but was unable to fulfill his dream because life threw him a few roadblocks. Now he’s about to go on stage, not as part of the chorus, but as one of the main roles and he’s reflecting on the family back in Germany who changed his life. The opera he’s performing in is called Sakontala and “Wo Du Wandelst, Atme Dir” is one of the choral sections. I have been working on adapting “A Month of Summer” for stage and reached out to the composer, Karl Aage Rasmussen, to ask for permission to use his music and he was very happy at the possibility of hearing his music again on stage. Sakontala is a fragment of an opera that Schubert began but never finished, so Rasmussen accepted the commission to finish it. “Wo Du Wandelst, Atme Dir” translates to “Where you walk, breathe,” which is a reminder we could all use right now.
Gwen Goodkin's stories and essays have been published in literary magazines throughout the United States and beyond. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and is the recipient of the Folio Editor's Prize and the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. Born and raised in Ohio, she now lives in Encinitas, California. Learn more at gwengoodkin.com.