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, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
With her new novel Inside, Alix Ohlin yet again proves herself as one of our most talented young literary fiction writers. A beautiful and crisply written story of four interconnected lives showcases Ohlin’s skill at creating complex yet relatable characters.
Book Page wrote of the novel:
“Consistently surprising, often devastating as the protagonists find themselves unable to achieve closeness with others—to share what’s on the inside—it’s a memorable read.”
“Bird on the Wire” — Leonard Cohen
Since most of Inside is set in Montreal, I really can’t not start with Leonard Cohen, hometown poet and personal hero. (And as a heads up, this whole playlist will be Canadian-dominated, like Hollywood and the Winter Olympics.) My novel follows three people whose paths keep crossing over the course of a decade. Each of them reaches out to help someone—and winds up being the one who needs help. Sometimes, they confuse independence with freedom and attachment with love. To struggle through mistakes and nonetheless believe in love, however flawed—hopefully that’s in my book, and certainly it’s in “Bird on the Wire,” as it is in pretty much every Leonard Cohen song.
“Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” – Camera Obscura
Sometimes (actually a lot of the time) a bouncy, catchy song about heartbreak is just what you need. This one is written in response to Lloyd Cole, and another song from the same album was featured in an episode of Friday Night Lights, thus creating a perfect storm of things I adore. When Tracyanne Campbell sings the chorus (“I’m ready to be heartbroken/can’t see further than my own nose at the moment”) she captures some of the narcissism of love. All three main characters in my book fall precipitously in love and get their hearts broken—and part of what I wanted to write about is what happens after that, as they start to see further than their own noses, and put themselves back together.
“Four Strong Winds” – Neil Young
This is the song I listened to more than any other while I was writing the novel. It’s the best Canadian song, ever. There are a lot of different versions but Neil Young’s is the one I always return to, because I can’t get enough of how his voice squeaks and trembles on “The good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on.” Also, the song’s melancholy weather (“by then it would be winter, not too much for you to do, and the winds sure can blow cold way out there”) definitely snuck into the book, as I found myself writing scenes not just in Montreal but northern Canada and Scotland.
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” – The Beach Boys
I love this plaintive, perfectly harmonized song from Pet Sounds. My most resolutely flawed character, Anne, takes off for L.A., where to her great surprise she finds success and love, only to worry that she doesn’t deserve either one. She doesn’t think she fits in anywhere or that she has earned the ordinary pleasures that other people enjoy. This is what I picture her listening to as she drives on the California freeways.
“Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl
It probably says something disturbing about me that this is my favorite Christmas song (first lines: “It was Christmas eve/in the drunk tank”). The counterpoint of Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan—her voice is lilting and lovely, his is slurred and growly—makes for a strong cocktail of tragic Celtic gorgeousness. My book spans several continents and ten years but it purposefully begins in January and ends at Christmas, and I imagine all the characters, like the drunk Irishman in this song, crossing their fingers for happiness at the end of the story, thinking, “So happy Christmas, I love you baby, I can see a better time, when all our dreams come true.”
“This Year” – The Mountain Goats
This is one of John Darnielle’s many rousing songs about despair. A lot of his songs are very narrative and he creates little scenes—like the angry teenager in this one, drinking with his friend Cathy—that effectively stand in for larger emotions, which I admire. As someone who often tries to combine humor and sadness in her work, I’m especially drawn to the black joke of the chorus: “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.”
“Magpie to the Morning” – Neko Case
This is another song I listened to roughly a million times while writing Inside. Often while struggling with an ugly, ungainly draft I just want to be reassured that perfect beauty exists somewhere in the world. You know where it is? Neko Case’s voice. This is a sweet lullaby of a song, and hearing her belt out “Come on sorrow, take your own advice, hide under your bed, turn out the light” gave me enough strength to keep on going through my own mess.
“Northwest Passage” – Stan Rogers
A few years ago, I was back in Montreal visiting my family. I was filling up the car at a gas station when this song came on the radio. All of a sudden, I started crying—because it’s so beautiful and also, I guess, because I was back but knew I’d be leaving soon. I felt homesick even though I was still home. This song is another unofficial Canadian anthem and Stan Rogers sings it a cappella in his rich, rolling voice. The lyrics describe exploring the expanse of Canada, then and now, which I really like; but it’s the final lines that always get to me: “I left a settled life, I threw it all away/To see a Northwest Passage at the call of many men/To find there but the road back home again.” I’m pretty sure it was hearing this song at the gas station that made me decide to write a novel set in Canada.
“Ma jeunesse” – Carla Bruni
Forget Sarkozy, forget her modeling career; Carla Bruni’s music is lovely, and her voice is homespun and sweet. I like how it cracks a little when she sings about her youth, as she does here, with the gentle sorrow of someone who’s beyond it. Part of what I tried to do in my book was to write about what love is like when people aren’t experiencing it for the first time—when they encounter each other in middle age, with the knowledge of years and of their own frailties.
“For Once in My Life” – Stevie Wonder
This song always cheers me up, no matter what. I think it’s a great love song because it’s not about a crush or a longing for some idealized person but about true reciprocity: “For once in my life I have someone who needs me/Someone I’ve needed so long.” The characters in my book, slowly and painfully, figure out that they need to inhabit both sides of this equation. It’s easier said than done.
Alix Ohlin and Inside links:
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Babylon
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Missing Person
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
Three Guys One Book essay 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