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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s story collection What You Are Now Enjoying is dark and surreal but suffused with humor, a promising debut that showcases her unique voice.
Stewart O’Nan wrote of the book:
“The smart, funky, well-turned stories in What You Are Now Enjoying keep the reader not just guessing and leaning forward but in a perpetual state of wonder. Sarah Gerkensmeyer is an original, a sneaky sorceress of a storyteller.”
I’ve always had trouble with song lyrics. I’m not a good listener. When I was a kid, I loved the song “Careless Whisper” by George Michael. I didn’t know all the words, but I didn’t care. When I belted out the refrain, I sang: “I’m never gonna dance again. Alvin, Simon, Theodooore!” I’m jealous of writers who listen to music while they work. But I need quiet. I’d get too distracted by the music and my messed up attempts to make sense of the lyrics.
Music didn’t become a big part of my life as an adult until after my first son was born five years ago. Simon fell in love with Vampire Weekend before he turned one. My husband and I discovered Pandora and suddenly our house was filled with a collage of music that all of us loved. We have two sons now, and amid the chaos of parenting (and writing and teaching and everything else) we’ve got music playing all the time. Simon’s favorite band is still Vampire Weekend. His younger brother Charlie, who is louder and wilder, is in love with The Fratellis.
Somehow, my writing life has started to solidify and take off in exciting directions amid the wonderful disorder and commotion of raising young kids. I think my appreciation for music has also grown. I still don’t have enough focus—amid the wrestling matches of diaper changes and the execution of tickle fights—to pay close attention to the lyrics. But our family time is infused with a soundtrack. And I like to think that the songs that we love together somehow linger in my writing, too. Who cares if I don’t know all the words.
I’ve included a video of my son Simon when he was a baby listening to a Vampire Weekend song that is still one of his all-time favorites—”A-Punk.” And so that’s the song for my entire story collection. I like to think that I get as sucked into and carried away by my stories as this little guy dancing here.
Below are the stories from my collection, paired with some of the songs we listen to at my house. And a huge thank you to my husband Andy for making a couple cocktails after the boys were in bed and sitting down with me to listen to good music and talk about weird stories.
“What You Are Now Enjoying”: “Heart It Races,” Dr. Dog
This song throws the listener directly into the strange. And I like to think that the first story in my collection does this, as well. The lyrics are crazy weird—”legs like little splinters” and “legs like little spiders.” But the sound is wonderful. It pushes us forward.
“Dear John”: “Back in Your Head,” Tegan and Sara
Here’s a story where a husband begins to gradually disappear. He becomes both a new person and a ghost of his former self. To me, this is a story about longing. And in this song, the plaintive punch of the piano as well as the wailing of the refrain echo a similar longing to return to a place and a person and a time that has become unreachable.
“Careless Daughters”: “Hard to Love,” The Drums
Like so many of the other pieces in my book, this story has characters who are forced into an odd and stiff kind of intimacy (in this case, a guy places ads on the internet for women interested in secular polygamy). This song seems to encompass the strange sense of strained yet dynamic intimacy that some of us discover ourselves wrapped up in from time to time.
“Produce”: “Trust,” The Generationals
I think the funky beat of this song matches the sense of obsession and fetish in my story. We see a character who finds herself attracted to a stranger’s outward display of mysterious grief. And I love the huge question in the lyrics: “Carry the weight, carry the wound / Is it everything you want and more?”
“My Husband’s House”: “In the Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Harry McClintock
I’m not sure how this song ended up on one of our Pandora radio stations, but my sons and I love it. There is such a poignant mix of sweetness and eeriness and sadness in this song when you start to tap into the sense of yearning for an escape that seems impossible. The husband in my story also yearns for an escape that feels impossible and magical and wondrous and sad.
“Monster Drinks Chocolate Milk”: “Creep,” Radiohead
In this story, the monster who has been haunting the narrator’s nightmares since childhood wants to hang out in the narrator’s kitchen in the middle of the night and drink chocolate milk and discuss his anxiety and depression and lack of direction. So I most definitely have to go with “Creep.”
“Vanishing Point”: “Sleeping In,” The Postal Service
“Slightly bored and severely confused.” This lyric perfectly describes the people in this story who attend a remote, falling apart, overpriced camp in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Wilderness in order to reconnect with the twins they think they might have lost while in their mothers’ wombs. And: “Last week I had the strangest dream”—apply this to any story I have ever written (or even thought about writing).
“The Shopkeeper’s Tale”: “When They Fight They Fight,” The Generationals
In this story, a bunch of babies and toddlers gather outside a tiny baby boutique in a Brooklyn neighborhood and start banging on the windows and the locked door, because they know that the shop owner secretly hates babies. They are there for a good, old fashioned brawl.
“Hank”: “We’re Going to Be Friends,” The White Stripes
In this sweet song, the singer declares friendship, inviting us into the simple wonder of playtime and bugs. Hank is a three-month-old who begins talking to his nanny, pointing out the simple wonder of plants growing on the windowsill as well as the heavy-hearted weight of his parents’ failing marriage. He claims a friendship with his nanny, because he desperately needs it.
“The Rockport Falls Retirement Village Rescuers”: “First Day of My Life,” Bright Eyes
This song is beautiful. There’s such a hopeful sense that our lives can begin any day—that any day can be the first one. That’s the kind of hope I tried to discover in a story about a retirement village where everyone is reaching the end. I wanted there to be a sense of beginning, too.
“Wonder Woman Grew Up In Nebraska”: “5 Years Time,” Noah and the Whale
Welcome to a story in which the cartoon-colored, comic book version of Wonder Woman is an angsty teenager growing up in the middle of nowhere Nebraska, killing time with her girlfriends each weekend at a dingy airport bar. These young women don’t know, yet, the bite of nostalgia. They don’t know how much they will miss each other and how much they will miss the yawning stretch of boredom that they share, in five years time.
“Edith and the Ocean Dome”: “Where is My Mind,” The Pixies
This song is about disorientation. And Edith may be one of my most disorientated characters. She distances herself from both her personal life and her professional work. The people and things that attract her also repulse her. She’s an oceanographer, and the sea opens up before her as both a comforting and a frightening presence. And so I have to love the lyrics, “I was swimmin’ in the Caribbean / Animals were hiding behind the rocks.”
“The Cellar”: “The Pact (I’ll Be Your Fever),” The Villagers
This song pushes us into our past and into our future all at once. And so my husband and I can’t help but be blown away by it each time it plays—and especially now, sitting together on the couch with our boys asleep just upstairs. We know it’s cheesy, but we don’t care. I wanted to end my collection full-circle. With “The Cellar,” I wanted to show how to be lost and how to be found, how to try to make sense of it all—that roving stretch of our lives. And when I listen to music and dance with my family, these are always the things that I search for in the melody and the beat and the rhythm and the refrain and the words that I sometimes don’t know—something to push us forward and pull us back all at once, beautifully.
Sarah Gerkensmeyer and What You Are Now Enjoying links:
the author’s website
excerpt from the book (“Dear John” at Guernica)
Fiction Writers Review interview with the author
The Observer profile of the author
The Quivering Pen guest post by the author
TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog review
Writer Unboxed guest post by the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week’s CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists