October 1, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rachel Swearingen's story collection How to Walk on Water is a stunning debut that haunts long after the last page is turned.
Publishes Weekly wrote of the book:
"The nine stories in Swearingen’s auspicious debut showcase a gift for well-placed, revealing details.... Each of the intriguing entries builds suspense before a gratifying or lingering payoff. This crafty collection is worth a look."
Assembling a playlist for How to Walk on Water and Other Stories was an illuminating experience. I didn’t realize just how much my taste in music matches the kinds of narratives I’m drawn to as a reader, and tend to write. How to Walk on Water contains nine stories that shift in mood and energy from dark and unspooling, to more syncopated and playful. If I could transform this book into an album, it would be a mix of grunge, new wave, country blues, gothic rock, chill, and soul. This makes sense to me. While the stories are literary, they borrow from other genres, including mystery and suspense, crime fiction, romantic comedy, and ghost stories, as well as other art forms. For the playlist, I chose a soundtrack for each of the stories.
1. “Enjoy Yourself,” The Specials
“Felina” is a love story, but it’s also a story about work and ambition. Arthur meets Felina in a club and falls for her. He’s an investment banker, and she’s an eccentric unknown artist. The story takes place shortly before the Great Recession of 2008, and Arthur can see the downturn coming. He feels like a fraud, investing other people’s money into a smoke-and-mirrors market. He’s questioning the value of everything, including the weird installations Felina builds for him in her shabby apartment. I imagine “Enjoy Yourself” as a song Arthur heard as a kid, and maybe danced to in his room. The song was once a popular show tune, but The Specials transformed it in 1980, injecting it with bawdy irreverence and pure joy. “The years go by, as quickly as you wink / enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think” is the subconscious message running through Arthur’s brain for years, the message he only begins to hear by watching Felina obsess over her creations.
2. “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You, Baby,” Cara Salimando
“Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You, Baby” is such a sultry, otherworldly song, perfect for the noir atmosphere of “Notes to a Shadowy Man.” In the story, Vera, a young British nanny, cares for the baby of a couple in Minneapolis. She spends her free time at a vintage theater and café, watching black-and-white movies at night, and reading during the day. She is so lovesick and daydreamy that when she finally meets the handsome stranger of her fantasies, she endangers the baby she is supposed to protect. Several artists have covered this Cigarettes After Sex ballad, but Cara Salimando’s velvety vocals lend the song an ethereal longing for the kind of agency Vera cultivates too late. The slow, simple drum beat and the sudden interruptions of the tambourine add tension and danger to the track that remind me of both the world in Vera’s imagination, as well as the world within the movie theater.
3. “This Sweet Old World,” Lucinda Williams
There’s a reason so many artists have covered “This Sweet Old World,” especially as they grow older and suffer loss, and as their voices change and become less perfect and more interesting. Lucinda Williams’s ragged, soulful voice is like a fist around the heart, especially when she lists with such tenderness the things the dead leave behind: “The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips / A sweet and tender kiss / The sound of a midnight train.” During the years I worked on How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, I dealt with so many losses that grief became a bassline running through the book. “Boys on a Veranda” is one of a set of three stories that emerged from a conversation with poet Beth Marzoni. We were admiring the Mary Ruefle poem, “Like a Daffodil,” and she challenged me to write a story using the line “I had the sudden urge to eat postcards of famous paintings.” In “Boys on a Veranda,” a retired, grieving psychiatrist watches a woman set her table and nibble at picture postcards. Because he has just lost his wife and daughter and is now alone, he understands the woman’s strange ritual in a way he wouldn’t have before. “This Sweet Old World” captures not just his experience of grief, but also his astonishment at how lucky we are to be alive, and how much the wider world has to offer.
4. “I Will Survive,” Cake
Cake’s rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s feminist ballad “I Will Survive” is perfect for “Edith Under the Streetlight,” a revenge story that is all about survival. I had so much fun writing the story, poking at stereotypes of women, especially those found in detective and crime shows. In the story, Sandra, a failed entomologist, has lost her funding for her research on the survival mechanisms of a common grasshopper. She borrows rent from Edith, an elderly woman who lives down the hall. Like many young women, Sandra underestimates older women, that is until Edith becomes the unintended victim of a prank gone awry. Cake’s ironic vocals and delightfully energetic opening guitar lines capture the mischief of the story. A funky bass rhythm supports the entire number, while a long guitar solo erupts from the middle, and at the end, the surprise of several horns, perfectly demonstrating the “melody of the swarm” central to the story.
5. “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Gotye
Gotye and Kimbra’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” is such a catchy song. The first time I heard it, I was driving and had to pull over to listen. Soon it was being played everywhere. I couldn’t get the song out of my head, and I thought I’d go mad if I heard it one more time. The idea of “catchiness” is central to “Mitz’s Theory of Everything Series.” The story follows two college girls at a private school in the Midwest. Ona is working-class and on scholarship, and she’s infatuated with Mitz, her wealthy, but unwell, East Coast roommate. The piece is structured through a series of surreal drawings that Ona makes to piece together their strange, symbiotic relationship. The lyrics of the song capture Ona’s sense of relief at the end of this friendship, as well as her shock at being “cut out.” Gotye’s vocals are so affective that it’s easy to forget the song is actually a duet, with Kimbra’s vocals filling out the song. In the story, Mitz is ever-present, but we never hear her side.
6. Black River,” Amos Lee
In “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of Wolves,” Harlan, a troubled veteran, reluctantly helps his recovering addict sister Lynette kidnap her grandson to baptize him. They drive to Northern Michigan to a questionable chapel in the North Woods. Harlan isn’t a believer, but he’s looking for redemption. When I was working on the story, I was also traveling back and forth a lot from Michigan to Wisconsin, and I’d often listen to Amos Lee on those long drives. I grew up on vintage country and blues, but also on a kind of longing, regret, and rural wisdom that I hear in both Lee’s voice, and in Harlan’s. When I was a kid, my father owned thousands of albums and would play them in the dark while smoking cigars in a room he built himself in the basement. Like Harlan, he would have loved and understood “Black River.” The metaphorical river in the song that will “take my troubles away” is how Harlan sees the preacher’s river when he helps his sister baptize his nephew, despite the insanity of her plan.
7. “Into the Open,” Heartless Bastards
A “Habit of Seeing” reconstructs the friendship of two former waitresses in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Julia is a failed actress from New York, who now teaches at an alternative high school, and her friend, Sharon, is from a nearby small town and has just arrived back from living abroad. The story moves back and forth in time, as Julia traces her shifting perception of herself, through her relationship with Sharon. As Sharon becomes more worldly, Julia becomes more provincial and rooted. Heartless Bastard’s “Into the Open” is all about perspective shift. “Things are coming into focus” is a repeating refrain in the song. The instrumentals open this track up and suggest expansiveness while the lyrics describe a centeredness. “And I discovered / home is where I am” is the feeling Julia reaches for throughout much of the story.
8. “It’s a Man’s World,” Etta James
“How to Walk on Water” is one the creepiest stories I’ve ever written. It’s about Nolan, the adult son of a woman who survived a brutal attack by a serial killer named Arvel Wilkes. Nolan is a bit of a grifter. At the start of the story, he has moved in with his mother, has been rifling through her things, and has found the original police report for the attack. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s haunted by the violence men like Arvel Wilkes do to women, and the potential for violence he senses in himself and in other men. Etta James transforms the lyrics of the original James Brown version through her voice alone. “He's lost, lost in the world of a man, oh yeah/ And he's lost, lost in bitterness/ This is a man, this is a man's world, oh yeah.” Listening, I can almost feel those words rising from her throat. James channels the trials of loving and raising children in such a world. She also invokes the strength and power that comes from the kind of survival that Nolan recognizes in his mother. Nolan’s mother has moved on despite what she endured, and Nolan is almost incapacitated with awe for her.
9. Apocalypse, Cigarettes After Sex
The last story in the collection, “Advice for the Haunted,” is a ghost story set in Chicago. The narrator and her boyfriend Nick have bought a run-down apartment with all the former owner’s things still inside. They meet there for trysts, roleplaying sexy, end-of-the-world scenarios. They’re in love, they’re young, and at first they have a blast. But the outside world keeps pressing in. As they learn more about the former owner, Natalia, they become convinced she is haunting them. Natalia was a shut-in, afraid to leave the apartment. Cigarettes After Sex’s song “Apocalypse” evokes the hold the apartment had on her, and now on the couple, as well as their mutual fixation on apocalypse. The lyrics are as sultry and seductive as they are dark: “You leapt from crumbling bridges watching cityscapes turn to dust / Filming helicopters crashing in the ocean from way above.” The song is low-lit, steady as a heartbeat, while the refrains are fairly simple, and echo the simpler desires in the story itself, to be haunted, and to be free.
Rachel Swearingen is the author of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, winner of the 2018 New American Press Fiction Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. Swearingen holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a PhD from Western Michigan University, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. www.rachelswearingen.com