January 31, 2023
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Kerri Schlottman's novel Tell Me One Thing is an impressive debut both vividly told and filled with empathetically drawn characters.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"[A] dynamic, character-driven debut... Schlottman acutely nails the misty, gold-hued atmosphere of the 1980s, and deeply explores themes of class and privilege...This thought-provoking work will put readers on the lookout for what the author does next."
Music and art have always influenced my writing. My novel, Tell Me One Thing, was inspired by a photograph taken in 1990 by artist Mary Ellen Mark, which is titled Amanda and Her Cousin Amy and depicts nine-year-old Amanda in a kiddie pool in a bikini smoking a cigarette. In Tell Me One Thing, recent art grad Quinn captures a photo of nine-year-old Lulu smoking a cigarette while sitting on the lap of a trucker outside a motel. The photograph launches Quinn’s career, escalating her from a starving artist to a renowned photographer, while in a parallel life Lulu fights to survive in a volatile home. Traveling through the 1980s to present, the book goes deep into New York City's free-for-all grittiness while exposing a neglected slice of the rural rust belt.
With its 1980s setting, the book allowed me to revisit some of my favorite music from my youth. Music was incredibly formative for me as a young person. Every weekend, my best friend and I would go to the Skate Loft and roller skate to Madonna, Gap Band, Cyndi Lauper, and Blondie. At home, we’d host dance contests to our favorite songs. We listened to music when we were happy and sad, when we felt alone and misunderstood. Throughout the novel, I use music as both a way to deepen particular scenes and also to add another dimension to the storytelling. Below are some of the songs you’ll find in the book. I hope you’ll listen along.
“More Than This” by Roxy Music
This song is the quintessential '80s pop song. All I need is those first few notes and I’m instantly transported back to school dances, roller skating, big hair, and so much angst. But really, it’s the ultimate love song. Without being overwrought or too direct, it perfectly captures what it feels like to long for someone. This song is playing during a fairly heartbreaking scene in the novel that takes place between Quinn and the love of her life Billy. It also inspired the book’s title. I really wanted to include specific lyrics in the book, but, wow, it’s expensive to license song lyrics!
“Sweet Avenue” by Jets to Brazil
A line from “Sweet Avenue” goes – “This cigarette it could seduce a nation with its smoke” – and that fully inspired Lulu, the young character in my novel. I must have listened to this song at least a hundred times while I was writing her scenes. It’s a gritty song but also there’s something glowy about it. There’s so much optimism in the lyrics, but the song also feels broken and aching. Every time I dream of a film version of the book, I imagine this song playing in the very last scene of the novel. It has a redemptive quality to it that I hope mirrors what readers feel at that point in the book.
“Going Underground” by the Jam
“Going Underground” plays in the dive bar where Quinn and Billy celebrate that she’s having her first solo photography show. This song fully captures the cultural and social climate of the early 80’s. I chose it for that scene because of the tensions in the lyrics between being happy with what you have and being challenged by what society is telling you to have. In the course of one song, the Jam manages to evoke the global discontent of that specific era. My characters are feeling it, but don’t yet have the words for it, which makes it a great subtle message.
“Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by X-Ray Specs
There’s a moment in the novel where Quinn’s friends Liv and Micky put the X-Ray Specs on the stereo during the after party of Quinn’s first solo show. Liv and Micky are both female artists as well, and while I don’t specify that this is the song they’re listening to, it’s classic X-Ray Specs with a gritty punk sound mixed with a huge dose of female empowerment. I made a choice for the women to play X-Ray Specs as a shout out to the challenges of being a female artist at that time and vying for attention when the arts were already so male dominated.
“I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
This was my favorite song when I was a kid and still holds a huge place in my heart. It reminds me so much of growing up in the '80s. “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” is sultry and scratchy and dark and rough. Joan Jett was such a powerhouse with her gravelly voice. You just knew she didn’t give a shit about anything. I loved her black leather clothes and her feathered hair. I had to include this song in the book, and in fact, it features in one of the opening scenes.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” by Willie Nelson
There’s a scene in the novel that’s particularly painful because it’s an example of what a challenging life Lulu has. Maureen, her mom, is fighting with her boyfriend Hank and things have become very violent. Lulu is caught in the middle and, like most kids who have endured that kind of trauma, she is trying to be the smallest version of herself possible to not attract their anger. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is playing in the scene from a radio that has been overturned in the fight. I chose the song to connect thematically back to the idea that inspired the novel, that maybe someone would see Quinn’s photos of Lulu and come and help her. The song is also a reflection of the neglect Lulu endures. Willie is lamenting in his soulful voice about a lost love, yet it still resonates achingly well in that moment of the story.
“Material Girl” by Madonna
Lulu listens to Madonna on the Walkman Hank has given her for her fourteenth birthday in a scene where she’s about to make a very bad decision to earn money. She fast forwards the cassette tape from “Like a Virgin” to “Material Girl,” which is a choice I made to depict the upcoming loss of innocence, particularly in the name of money. Also, you can’t have a book set in the '80s and '90s without having some Madonna in it! Growing up, I loved Madonna. She was from Michigan, like me, which made it seem possible to do anything.
“Heart of Glass” by Blondie
“Heart of Glass” is not in the book, but a reference to Debbie Harry is. Debbie Harry is the epitome of 1980’s New York City, and I listened to “Heart of Glass” constantly while writing the book. Much like Quinn, Debbie is sexy but also punky. She embodies so much of that era with her experimentations in music and her gritty, downtown look. I drew hugely from her to envision Quinn’s character.
“Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac
In “Rhiannon,” Fleetwood Mac asks “Will you ever win?” which felt so appropriate to include in Lulu’s story. I chose the song to play in a scene where Lulu is about to be arrested for the first time as a young adult. At this point in the novel, she has already endured a load of challenges and the song is a harbinger of what more is to come. It’s a subtle suggestion in the book, a nod to other Fleetwood Mac fans who are familiar with the lyrics. Similar to other ways I use music in the novel, I hope the specific songs and the moments when they appear will invite readers to listen and connect the lyrics to deepen the themes of the book.
Kerri Schlottman is the author of Tell Me One Thing (Regal House Publishing, January 31, 2023). Her writing has placed second in the Dillydoun International Fiction Prize, been longlisted for the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, and was a 2021 University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize semifinalist. For the past 20 years, Kerri has worked to support artists, performers, and writers in creating new projects, most recently at Creative Capital in New York City where she helped fund projects by authors Paul Beatty, Maggie Nelson, Percival Everett, and Jesse Ball.
Kerri is a Detroit native who has lived in the New York City area since 2005. Previously, she’s been a massage therapist, a factory worker, and taught art to incarcerated youth. She holds a Creative Master’s degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit.