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July 6, 2022

Morgan Talty's Playlist for His Story Collection "Night of the Living Rez"

Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Morgan Talty's collection Night of the Living Rez features empathetic and unforgettable stories about Native American life. Filled with skillfully drawn portraits of individuals, friendships, love, family, and community, this is easily my favorite book of the year.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Talty is adept at unearthing his characters’ emotions. . . . these stories reveal the hardships facing a young Native American in contemporary America."

In his own words, here is Morgan Talty's Book Notes music playlist for his story collection Night of the Living Rez:

While I’m a writer who can write anywhere, my ideal situation would be one where everything is quiet except for the white noise of a tumbling dryer—a blank canvas against which I can project a story.

Still, music played a large role in writing the stories in Night of the Living Rez. Before I could sit down to write, I had to take my wife to work and the ride was a half hour there and a half hour back. On the return trip, I listened to music that helped me get in the mood—when writing from the main character David’s perspective, I listened to songs my mom would played on the stereo when I was young: Elton John, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Marvin Gaye, and The Rolling Stones. When it came to the character of Dee, the music I listened to before writing was typically more contemporary, like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and whatever Spotify told me was a top song.

I won’t be surprised if readers don’t quite make the connection between the music and the story to which it corresponds—I just let the music move me in the most subjective way possible, building an emotion of what the character might be feeling and let it guide me as I wrote.

Here are some of the songs that stayed with me, even at the quiet of my desk:

Sublime: “I’ve Seen Better Days”

One time, I read this story at the University of Maine, and when I finished and people asked questions or shared comments, someone said, “I had read this before, but hearing you read it now I’m realizing how humorous this piece is.” “Burn” is definitely really heavy, and you have to have some irreverence to find this story and its striking scene with Fellis funny. “I’ve Seen Better Days” was important in writing this story because it lightened the mood a little bit, but the song still had that “aren’t we in a rough spot” type of mood. In some way, the song allowed me to take the content seriously but also not as seriously as it could have been.

Elton John: “Tiny Dancer”

This was just one of those songs my mom always listened to and loved, and so when it came time to really draw out David’s family, I found it important to listen to this song and get in the feeling I had as a boy when my mother would have it playing at night while she did dishes or cooked or had friends over. It really just evoked a sense of family for me: when this song played—or when mom had music on—she really was at her happiest. And happiness is such an important and even fleeting feeling in “In a Jar.”

Eminem: “Sing for the Moment”

Something about the anger and violence in Eminem’s “Sing for the Moment” got me fired up in a way no other song could. “Get Me Some Medicine” has some brutal scenes in it, and to get there, I really had to “feel” that violence, had to embody it as the characters Dee and Fellis do. And, the song is partially about transgressing, which is something important to the story: Fellis, in Dee’s eyes, is going against what is right.

Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”

Again, another song my mom listened to a lot, and again it was another song that really helped me create that sense of family in all its complicated ways. The song brought back memories, and when writing “Food for the Common Cold,” it reminded me that each of the characters had their own answer to that question: Have you ever seen the rain? And most of those answers, I think, found the characters in a sunny rainstorm—that complicated duality of joy and sadness.

Dot Rotten: “Overload ft. TMS”

This story really sees Dee struggling with human connection, and I remember listening to this song over and over again when I was driving home until I just got lost in a feeling that I can’t quite articulate, but that feeling nonetheless fueled my attempt to draw out Dee’s exhaustion.

Elton John: “Rocket Man”

I’ve heard that this song was inspired by Ray Bradbury’s story “The Rocket Man” from his collection The Illustrated Man, a collection in which Bradbury depicted relationships between technology and psychology. When writing this story, I found it so important to keep listening to the music my mom always played, and this song just so happened to also be very inspirational for the story itself. I was so interested in exploring Grammy’s cognitive decline along with space and its vast unknowingness. While the story is much more than this, the song helped me draw out my favorite scene in the story, where David is watching the news coverage of Pioneer 10 while Grammy sleeps.

Hozier: “Arsonist’s Lullabye”

I don’t know what it is, but this song just makes me terribly sad—this feeling of intense darkness. And it’s that intense darkness, in the human spirit, that is at the heart of this story. This story is partially about Dee’s self-destruction—or his continued self-destruction—the visuals in the song along with the instrumentals helped me feel that sadness, that intense darkness that Dee is lost in.

Bob Seger: “Against the Wind”

“Smokes Last” was so much fun to write because it really brought me back to my childhood/teen years, being outside with friends and literally playing “battle.” “Against the Wind”—another song my mom listened to—created that sense of complex family but also helped me bring out that feeling I used to feel when I was young.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Snow (Hey Oh)”

Dee isn’t in the greatest shape in this story, but I didn’t want to evoke a feeling of pure dread. “Snow (Hey Oh)” is about addiction, sure, but it has this super soft tone to it. It’s like gentle warm rain. That’s what I wanted to capture in this story, and this song offered me a feeling that helped create a nice balance between heavy and light.

Michael Kiwanuka: “Cold Little Heart”

This song really mirrors, for me anyway, Dee’s transformation. The song itself wasn’t quite inspiration for the story, but rather the emotion it evoked in me. Like the character in the song, Dee really is “bleeding,” and it’s about his attempt to heal—to come back to who he once was or who he could be.

The Cranberries: “Zombie”

While the title story “Night of the Living Rez” is not directly about protest, it is nonetheless about victims and perpetrators. “Zombie” evinced this feeling in me, but it also cast this image of a “zombie,” helping me to elevate that in the work and play with it as pop culture.

Imagine Dragons: “Thunder”

I have no idea why this song was so important to writing this story. I wish I could tell you. I remember listening to it over and over and over again, just getting lost in thought about “thunder,” or the child who is named that in Penobscot. Something about hearing the word “thunder” again and again opened something up in me—like repeating, like a prayer, the name of someone who is gone, how it can open that wound up again. The story, while about loss and tragedy, is equally about love and the importance of family.

Morgan Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. Named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30,” Talty’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, LitHub, and elsewhere. Night of the Living Rez is his first book. He lives in Levant, Maine.

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