In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Ashleigh Bell Pedersen’s debut novel The Crocodile Bride is an enveloping and thrilling coming-of-age story.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“Pedersen’s expert character development and winding plot are aided by short, clipped chapters that bounce back and forth in time, showing the differing perspectives of women in Sunshine’s family. Pedersen skillfully crafts a slow burn of a novel that eventually opens up to expose generations of family secrets, and more importantly, the value of unearthing truth.”
Southern imagery has long inspired my creative life. As a kid, creativity wasn’t so much about concrete forms of expression so much as it was simply getting lost in my own imagination. Floating on a raft in the ocean off the coast of South Carolina, I imagined I was a shipwreck victim barely clinging to life (to be honest, I still do this*). Climbing a pine tree in the woods in Virginia, I pretended the tree was my home and the collections of rocks and leaves that I lined up on the branches were bits of foraged food (I also still climb trees, when the moment presents).
I have always connected with books from the South. Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will forever haunt me (was there ever a more gut wrenching ending to a novel? Have you ever loved any character more than Mick Kelly?). Each spring season, when the gray of an overcast sky contrasts with the bright green of new grass and unfolding leaves, I revisit the final section from The Sound and the Fury, in which Dilsey steps outside to the “day dawn[ing] bleak and chill,” the nearby “fledged” leaves quivering on the mulberry tree. My own novel, The Crocodile Bride, is set in the Deep South—specifically, in the fictional village of Fingertip, Louisiana. Fingertip is a community of outsiders, transplants from all over the country, and so my research for this novel focused not on the rich and longstanding cultures within Louisiana (about which I felt I would need an entire lifetime to begin to understand, much less write about), but on the atmosphere of my imaginary Fingertip.
This playlist, “For Sunshine”—dedicated to the eleven-year-old protagonist of my novel, Sunshine Turner—attempts to create something of that atmosphere. Many of its songs are ones I know and love already, but I also had an unwitting co-creator in actress and all around wonderful human Gail Shalan, who reads the audiobook version of The Crocodile Bride and with whom I struck up a friendship upon learning we both live in Brooklyn. Gail created her own “Croc Bride” playlist to help her drop into the mood of the book as she recorded its audio. After she kindly sent it to me, I borrowed some of those songs. I’m especially grateful she introduced me to Allen Toussaint’s moody “Southern Nights,” which makes me feel I’ve been transported through time and space to the red dirt Only Road in Fingertip.
I hope you discover your own reasons for connecting with these songs, and I hope this playlist provides you with just the right atmosphere at the moment when you most need it—whether you’re listening from inside a cabin during a snowstorm in Minnesota, in a New York City apartment with traffic blaring out the window (as I am while writing this introduction), or on a porch in the middle of a sweltering Louisiana summer.
*I am thirty-nine.
“Southern Nights” by Allen Toussaint
I’m in love with this bluesy jazz piano piece, which captures something of the lush, lazy “June mood” nights that Sunshine loves. The song comes from the album American Nights—the last Toussaint recorded before he died, which adds to the poignancy of an already brilliant, emotive song.
“Motherless Children” by Lucinda Williams
Oof. This song reminds me of our motherless Sunshine Turner, yes, but it’s Lucinda Williams’ title that especially gets me: “Motherless Children.” It’s rhythmic and evocative, its poignancy apparent before we even get to the melody or other lyrics.
“Buckets of Rain” by Bob Dylan
Early in the novel, the troubled Billy Turner pulls up to the yellow house in his pick-up truck and Sunshine hears “Tangled Up in Blue” playing from the truck’s open windows. That song didn’t feel quite right for the vibe of this playlist, however, so I chose “Buckets of Rain” instead. (I confess this is a longtime favorite of mine after a good friend in Austin, Texas put it on a mix CD for me back when mix CDs were still a thing.)
“Dream A Little Dream of Me” by Louis Armstrong
I have always loved this song, but Louis Armstrong’s version in particular felt right for “For Sunshine.” Armstrong’s heartbreaker of a voice captures a unique mix of nostalgia and romance. I learned from this informative NPR piece that the song was written during the Great Depression—which makes me think with fondness of Sunshine’s grandmother, Catherine Turner.
“There Goes that Song Again” by Kay Kyser & His Orchestra
I know of Kay Kyser—an actor, radio personality, and big band leader—because his granddaughter happens to be one of my longstanding close friends. On this track, the actress and model Georgia Carroll—Kay Kyser’s wife and my friend’s grandmother—sings the sultry vocals. (This tenuous connection to old Hollywood glamor never fails to delight me, a longtime lover of old movies and music.) In my novel, big band leaders like Kay Kyser and Glenn Miller play a role in creating atmosphere for the Turner family—sometimes in ways that divide, or bond, or a strange mix of both.
“On Heaven’s Bright Shore” by Alison Krauss & Union Station
I have always loved this song, which feels like something written during the Great Depression but was in fact debuted on Alison Krauss & Union Station’s 1989 album, Two Highways. While this song is hopeful, I think there’s an implied darker edge: in hoping for this promised land, we hope to transcend the starker reality of our lives.
“Water Boy” by Don Shirley Trio
I played the stand-up bass all throughout middle and high school, and while I was never really all that great at it, I love a good bass line. Knowing this about me, a good friend’s music-loving mom introduced me to “Water Boy.” And like “Southern Nights,” this song creates something of that Deep South, bluesy summer atmosphere—but with a bit of an edge. I love the way it plays with dynamics, tempo, and melodic disruptions.
“Matchbox Blues” by Lead Belly
Discovering Lead Belly’s music was a fun aspect of writing this novel. I’m not sure which I enjoy saying more: “Lead Belly” (the musician’s stage name) or “Huddie William Ledbetter” (his actual name). I learned from a musician friend, and then a rabbit hole of internet research, that Lead Belly was known for his skill with the twelve-string guitar—which, to someone who can barely play a single chord on a six-string guitar, blows my mind. “Matchbox Blues” was originally written by Blind Lemon Jefferson (another incredible stage name!), but since we know Billy Turner plays Lead Belly in the yellow house on Only Road, I’ve included his recording on this playlist.
“Louisiana Man” by Lucinda Williams
Lucinda Williams is from Lake Charles, Louisiana, which I passed through on my drive from Austin, Texas during a research trip to Breaux Bridge (specifically, I was taking note of the land and animals, drawing information and inspiration for Fingertip and the nearby woods). I listened to Williams a lot on that trip and this song in particular. My feeling was that in some strange way, she helped usher me closer to my characters and their world.
“Come On In My Kitchen” by Robert Johnson
As with Lead Belly, Robert Johnson is among the many aspects of Sunshine’s father’s world that have seeped into her own. I like the mention of the kitchen and of rain here; it reminds me of the yellow house, and the scenes that unfold (some comic, some tragic) in the little kitchen with its stained linoleum. The tone and pacing of “Come On In My Kitchen” feels somehow resigned and longing at once—like pining for lost love from the darkness of a dive bar.
“You Are My Sunshine” by Johnny Cash”
Is there anything more touching than the gruff-voiced Johnny Cash singing such a tender tune? (I feel the same about his duet of “Girl from the North Country” with Bob Dylan.) Also, something weird and joyful happens in the course of spending years on a novel: the characters, at some point, begin to feel like real people. It’s difficult for me to listen to this song without thinking about Sunshine Turner and the losses in her life. As I write this, and listen to Johnny Cash’s voice, and think about the very real Sunshine Turner, I’m crying…but don’t mind me!
Ashleigh Bell Pedersen’s fiction has been featured in New Stories from the South, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, Design Observer, The Silent History, A Strange Object, and the New York Public Library’s Library Simplified app. Her story “Small and Heavy World” was a finalist for both Best American Short Stories and a Pushcart Prize, and her story Crocodile won The Masters Review 2020 Flash Fiction Contest. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the recipient of a teaching fellowship and Turow-Kinder Award. She currently resides in Austin, Texas.