In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Christopher Evans’ engaging debut story collection Nothing Could Be Further From the Truth is filled with everyday people in their most vulnerable states.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
“Evans excels at succinct portraiture, saying a lot with a little in brief, intriguingly premised stories … A refreshingly different debut collection from a writer to watch.”
I don’t listen to music when I write. Maybe something ambient if I’m doing administrative or mechanical work, but if I’m going to actually try to create something new, I do so in near monastic silence. However, music has always been a major source of inspiration for me, maybe moreso than writing itself. One of the things I’ve been striving for—and failing at, mostly—is not only how to translate the emotional kick I get from listening to music into my work, but also how to incorporate musical elements in a way that doesn’t come off as overtly experimental. What does reverb or an unusual time signature look like when turned into prose? I don’t know! These ideas seem to work better in poetry, but I don’t write poetry. So, in the meantime, while I’m trying to figure this out, I use songs as a way to express something about my characters.
Once I’d collected all the stories in Nothing Could Be Further From the Truth and started sequencing them, I was a little surprised at some of the songs or artists that appear. While my own musical preferences run towards post-punk or electronic, the characters are often attached to more popular sounds that I either have no particular affinity for (Van Morrison) or even actively dislike (Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”). Tempting as it was to fill the collection with songs that I personally enjoy (earlier versions of some of the stories gave nods to great BC bands Nomeansno and Apollo Ghosts), it seemed kind of smug and ultimately served me more than the writing. Also, because I like writing deeply flawed characters, it made sense that their musical tastes would sometimes be questionable as well.
“You Better Run” by Pat Benatar, for “You Better Run”
“You Better Run” sets a personal record for most Pat Benatar songs referenced in a single story. The narrator’s girlfriend Julie is minorly obsessed with Benatar, I think because she likes to see a bit of herself in Pat’s persona—cool and sexy, sensitive but fierce. Benatar’s version of this Young Rascal’s song is notable for being the second video ever played on MTV, right after The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The time period of the story is not clearly established, but to me it’s about a decade after Benatar’s high-charting years, during MTV’s decline, long enough ago to carry a whiff of nostalgia for Julie, who definitely wore leg warmers as a teen.
“Teenage Riot” by Sonic Youth, for “I Don’t Think So”
Although it’s SY’s “Kool Thing” that this story takes its title from, “Teenage Riot” captures the move out of adolescence better, in all its propulsive, discordant, shining glory.
“Bees” by Caribou, for “Nora, at the Cinema”
In preparation to make this playlist, I came across the term anemoia, defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” I’m not particularly nostalgia driven myself, but I do remember the 90s fascination with the 60s and having friends who felt like they truly belonged to an era they’d never experienced. The title character in “Nora, at the Cinema” feels like she’s perpetually missing out on a time and an aesthetic that’s somehow better than now, always just out of her reach, the kind of pastel-coloured not-quite-past that Wes Anderson trades in. And this song, with its childish recorder and human voice reduced to a tone rather than potentially obtrusive lyrics, fits her perfectly, right up to when it clatters off the rails into something realer or even less real.
“Whatta Man” by Salt N’Pepa with En Vogue, for “Cakewalk”
Richard, the main character, returns to his old stomping ground to prove himself an adult. This is the song that plays at the apex of his failure to do so.
“Don’t You Want Me” by Human League, for “The Passion and the Fugue of Edward Frank”
There’s a surprising number of fun songs about stalking, but I like this one because it’s driven by the bitterness of rejection and the insinuation that you’d-be-nothing-without-me. The story is less overtly menacing than the song, but “Don’t You Want Me” does have a threatening personal connection: I have a crystal-clear memory of being coerced into jumping off the high dive at the cavernous Juan de Fuca Rec Centre pool in Colwood, British Columbia, aged 8 or so, while disco lights flashed and this song absolutely BLASTED on the overhead sound system. I belly-flopped, but survived.
“Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo, for “Registry”
I had a friend who once told me a story about a woman he liked. They’d been friends for a while and he’d had a crush on her the entire time, and just when he’d nearly willed himself to ask her out, she said something like, “You’re a real Autumn Sweater type, hey?” Which he’d taken as cozy, melancholy, maybe a bit twee—friend, but not boyfriend material. The main character in “Registry” is an Autumn Sweater type, too.
“Life’s What You Make It” by Talk Talk, for “Always Hungry, Always Poor”
The year is 1986. I am ten or eleven years old, sitting on the floor of my parents’ wood-paneled TV room, probably wearing clothes the colour of wood panelling, in front of the world’s smallest colour TV, watching MuchMusic (Canada’s offbrand version of MTV), hoping to see “Life’s What You Make It.” I didn’t care much for the song at the time, but loved the video, which is filled with nightime creatures scurrying away from the light. It’s a nocturnal video, fitting for “Always Hungry, Always Poor,” a nocturnal story, in which the narrator does not know what to make of his life. Plus, the plodding piano line that anchors the song mirrors how life can be so inescapably mundane at times that it becomes strangely hypnotic.
“All My Friends” by John Cale, for “Soundtracker”
There’s just something about John Cale’s voice here that really tugs at the heartstrings. He would have been well into his 60s when he recorded this LCD Soundsystem cover, so maybe it’s knowing that he would have lost many friends of his own that makes the weariness in his vocals pack some extra punch. Or maybe I’m just projecting. Either way, “Soundtracker” is a musically indebted story, but at its core its about severing relationships and the euphoria of making new connections.
“Barracuda” by Heart, for “Aunts and Uncles”
Even though I don’t drive, I love driving songs. The narrator’s Aunt Cindy puts on “Barracuda” to psych herself up in the car on the way over to confront someone, but it’s not the lyrics she identifies with, its the urgency of the rhythm. And I think the music is a little like Aunt Cindy herself: tough, strident, but maybe still a little vulnerable at its, uh, heart.
“My Sharona” by The Knack, for “Do the Donna”
“Do the Donna,” by The Governors General, is my first (and likely only) attempt at writing lyrics, an imagined slice of hooky skinny-tie rock—my take on the Knack’s “My Sharona.” The real Sharona, Sharona Alperin, was a teenager working in a clothing store when she met The Knack’s Doug Fieger. Apparently, he kept writing songs about her, including the icky “That’s What Little Girls Do,” until she broke up with her boyfriend. The two of them dated for a while and, although the relationship didn’t last, they became lifelong friends, and she was with him when he died in 2010. I’ve always been sceptical of Sharona’s acceptance of the song and its omnipresence, so “Do the Donna” is for all the people unwillingly named in songs.
“Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, for “A Species of Setback”
The other motif, besides music, that figures prominently in Nothing Could Be Further From the Truth is animal life and the natural world. I’ve always been fascinated with zoology and, increasingly, with the tension between humans and nature, and “A Species of Setback” is very much about that. I chose “Lovely Day” for this story because of its warm, organic quality and because I could picture the character Charlotte dancing to it in her kitchen. Also, I like the irony when it turns out not to be a very lovely day. Also, double bonus, its from Withers’ album Menagerie, so there’s animals there, too.
“Under the Sun” by DIIV, for “Over the Coffee Table and Down the Hall”
Who hasn’t been entered the grindiest part of a day—having your bag of recycling split open at the top of the stairs or returned from an overlong trip to the grocery store to realize you forgot to buy the one thing your meal hinges on—and thought about how nice it would be to ascend, shimmering into the clouds instead?
Christopher Evans (he) is a writer, editor, and teacher whose work has appeared in EVENT, the Literary Review, and Best Canadian Poetry and has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He lives in Vancouver, B.C., with his partner and daughter. Nothing Could Be Further from the Truth is his debut collection.