May 5, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Winner of the Lee Smith Novel Prize, Heather Frese's The Baddest Girl on the Planet is a brilliant debut.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Frese debuts with an impressive examination of small-town island life in coastal North Carolina...dynamic structure and strong voice...Readers will find lots to love."
This is my debut novel. It follows Evie Austin, native of Hatteras Island, North Carolina, and, ostensibly, the baddest girl on the planet, as she weaves in and out of time, untangling the threads of her bad reputation. (My one rule while compiling this playlist was to avoid Joan Jett.) I decided to go chapter by chapter and try to capture the mood of Evie’s evolution as she navigates the shifting shoals of her relationships – familial, platonic, romantic, and communal.
I loved going through and feeling out songs. Each chapter has a pretty distinct vibe and time frame, as I wanted to look at the small, seemingly insignificant moments or turning points that end up building into the transformation of someone’s character, the way we come of age into our adulthood. The book seemed particularly ripe for a soundtrack; here’s Evie’s.
So What by Pink
Evie Austin opens the book by dealing her no-good husband a sucker punch (by sleeping with Royce, the guy she works with at the real estate office). Things are bad at home but she’s not going to sit around waiting for things to implode; she’s going to torch the marriage herself. She’s gonna start a fight. I also chose this song to play off the appearance of Mike Tyson in the book, a theme that ended up carrying more metaphorical heft than I initially imagined. The brashness and bravado and fury in this song were the same things that drew me to Evie’s voice and made me want to keep writing about her.
I’m Just a Girl by No Doubt
This is a tiny little chapter, but it encapsulates the way Evie internalizes the bad girl reputation that dogs her throughout her childhood and teens, and how pissed that makes her as she grows up to realize what was going on all along; the way girls are dealt a raw deal when it comes to the formation of a “reputation” that wouldn’t happen if they were male. She’s just a girl in the world.
Beautiful Stranger by Madonna
In chapter three, nine-year-old Evie narrates the summer of 1999, when the Cape Hatteras lighthouse was being plucked up and moved inland to save it from erosion. This song would’ve been playing on the radio while her Aunt Fay drove Evie and her brother, Nate, up the beach; they lived with her this summer while their mom was busy having an affair with a lighthouse-mover and their dad worked and drank through his broken heart. Through the tumult of her summer, Evie meets Charlotte, a little girl from Ohio camping in Hatteras on vacation, and they become BFFs.
Muchachita Linda by Juan Luis Guerra
Flash forward fifteen years and Evie’s a single mom while Charlotte teaches poetry in Boston. They’ve grown apart over the years, but they take a vacation together to the Dominican Republic, thanks to Evie winning a contest sponsored by Dominican Al’s Rum and Fine Spirits. They do a lot of bachata dancing on this trip, and a lot of disconnecting and coming back together(-ish).
Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers
Evie’s Aunt Fay dies in this chapter. Aunt Fay has been Evie’s consistent source of support and understanding, so her loss has Evie feeling like she’s veiled in a film of grief, her life gone overcast.
Bad to the Bone by George Thorogood and the Destroyers
For a spot of comic relief after a sad chapter and the one time I’m going to let myself use a song with “bad” in the title, this song is for Aunt Fay’s Very Bad Dog, Walter, who’s adopted by Evie.
Phantom Limb by The Shins
This chapter falls back in time to the period immediately after Evie’s son’s birth, when Evie’s whole self feels like a phantom limb. “A phantom and a fly/Follow the lines and wonder why/There's no connection” speaks to the way Evie doesn’t feel an instant, maternal bond with her baby and how she’s living in a marriage that’s already beginning to fracture.
Simple Song by The Shins
Another Shins song for the Austin siblings—this one for Evie’s brother as he searches for lasting love. “And it feels like the ocean, being warmed by the sun,” is a lyric I can’t live without. And this one: “My life in an upturned boat, marooned on a cliff/You brought me a great big flood/And you gave me a lift/To care, what a gift.” While the upper arc of the section is Evie’s vicarious observation of Nate’s love life, the underlying love story is that of siblings who go from bickering kids to adults who care for, understand, and support one another.
Good as Hell by Lizzo
Evie goes on a truly ill-fated trip to Las Vegas with a former pen-pal in this chapter. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but let’s just say Evie ends up feeling real Lizzo-ish.
Look What You Made Me Do by Taylor Swift
Bad reputations don’t just come out of nowhere, and good girls don’t turn “bad” all on their own. The frustration in this song mirrors how Evie feels in this chapter, which is framed as a letter from Evie to the woman who made her son break up with Evie in high school. Evie’s trying to show how she was pigeonholed into this bad reputation, identifying the role people in her community shoved her into. She’s also thinking about how those people are going to regret it because she’s going to rise above.
Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard by Paul Simon
When I was drafting this chapter where Evie is falling in love, I initially had her love interest’s name as Julio, and lyrics from “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” incorporated into the chapter when Evie is singing in the car. I really loved “I’m on my way/I don’t know where I’m going/I’m on my way/I’m taking my time but I don’t know where” for falling in love, or lust, or what may be something amazing or may be another failed affair. I ended up realizing that I’d never be able to get the rights to publish those lyrics and then also changed the name of Evie’s new guy, but whenever I think of this chapter those lyrics still run through my head.
Simple Gifts by Joseph Brackett
It’s a little odd to choose an old Shaker hymn for a chapter where Evie’s drunkenly wandering the Las Vegas strip searching for Mike Tyson, but there you go. Evie loves the Bellagio fountains, and this is one of the songs they play. By the end of the chapter, Evie’s search for Mike Tyson results in working toward some self-acceptance. “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free.”
Home is Wherever I’m with You by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Throughout the book, Evie has a complicated relationship with her island community. She’s searching for home, really, for a place that doesn’t change, for something steadfast and true. A nostalgia for a time she can’t get back. But she finally feels like she belongs, you know? She’s at home with her spirit, secure in herself and her place in the community. And then she has to decide if she’ll leave.
Heather Frese's fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, the Los Angeles Review, Front Porch, the Barely South Review, Switchback, and elsewhere, earning notable mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. She received her master's degree from Ohio University and her M.F.A. from West Virginia University. Coastal North Carolina is her longtime love and source of inspiration, her writing deeply influenced by the wild magic and history of the Outer Banks. She currently writes, edits, and wrangles three small children in Raleigh, North Carolina.